John 6:1-21 Turning up and being willing to share, that’s how miracles happen.
Reflection by Mart the Rev
This year we are walking through most of the parables of Jesus and thinking about what they might have to say about how to do and be church. Of course, the two stories we have heard are not parables as such – they are stories framed by the gospel writer as things that happened in real time. However, I’ve included these and a few other real time stories in the parable sequence under the heading of ‘acted parables’ because I think they are laced with the kind of nuances that all the parables of Jesus have. They provide a window into another way of understanding reality and the way the kingdom of God unfolds among us. Also, why should we presume that the stories Jesus told were all invented in the imagination? Can’t you picture an actual man standing on a hill seeing his returning son on the horizon and his body rising up on his toes in excitement? He has lived so vividly in our minds for most of our lives that he is as real as some of the people we have met in life. Can’t you also see a man robbed and beaten on the side of a road and someone stopping to care for him? The line between story and reality can become so blurred that it would have been quite fine if Jesus had said ‘I saw a man robbed and beaten on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.’ And a number of his listeners would have said, yes, I too have seen such a thing. If you travel to the north of Israel you will come to a large lake. The Sea of Tiberias or Sea of Galilee is approximately 53 km in circumference, about 21 km long, and 13 km wide. In modern Israel across on the other side of the lake are the Golan Heights – a disputed territory illegally occupied by Israel for most of my lifetime. There’s been a long history of people staring across that lake and feeling uncomfortable with what is going on across the other side, and into that story of a troubled place a reminder of God’s abundance unfolds. We walk through the story in stages:
1After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.
I would argue that all of the parables of Jesus offer us a glimpse of ‘the other side’. With God there’s always more than meets the eye. We’re invited across the lines and divides we so carefully construct. The enemy becomes friend, the lost gets found, the blind see, the discarded one finds a place at the centre. It should not surprise us that Jesus goes to the other side, because that is what he does. It’s his thing. Thank God it’s his thing because that means there’s a place for us – our whole selves… the good and the not so good, the visible and the hidden. Jesus doesn’t make a home in only the good bits!
In this case, the other side of the Sea of Galilee is the Roman and Greek part – a collection of ten cities known as The Decapolis where loyal Greek and Roman citizens have long been rewarded with land and lake views. Jews don’t go there – they stare across with hostile eyes at the enemy. The lake has a line across it. A Jew/Gentile line. On ‘the other side’ they farm and eat pigs and worship other gods! But Jesus goes to the other side quite a few times.
2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’
For all the time I have been involved in the church and conscious of the dynamics of it, there has been trouble balancing the budget. In most places, most years, the treasurer has had the burden of conveying to the monthly meeting or the congregation a variation on the question Philip asks: ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’
There is no doubt that it costs a lot to run a church, and, given that most of the budget in The Village is utterly dependent on the $170,000 a year of congregational freewill giving that is never guaranteed, I quite understand that treasurers and finance committees can get anxious! I understand why some leaders shrink in the face of the challenge before them and hit the panic button, and why when facing an unbalanced budget they make cuts on maintenance, community outreach, and ministry. The problem of shrinking before the challenge is that all possibility of imaginative thinking gets nipped in the bud, and the decline in the church is hastened once such cuts get made. I struggle to think of any church that has grown after they have made cuts in outreach and ministry. Their fate is sealed.
I’ve heard many church people utter a variation on the saying ‘we must cut our coat according to our cloth’ as if that proverb has biblical authority. I know there are real challenges to be faced by the church, but I believe that the biblical authority we should be fastening on is the abundance of God that Jesus constantly bears witness to. Alpine Presbytery – our upper South Island collective of Presbyterian churches, had in 2017, a combined income of $9.5million, net assets worth $125 million of which $35million was in cash and investments. We pray to God, ‘give us this day our daily bread’ and we have bread in abundance yet we behave as if the food is scarce and God hasn’t provided! I don’t believe we have a cash crisis in our church – I think we have an imagination crisis! Just saying!
8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 10 Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.
How do you feed 5000 people? I’m thinking of the imaginative challenge required in the face of that many hungry people. It is not dissimilar to doing church really…our two church bases in The Village are each among communities of 5000 or so people. How do we feed them? The last place we are going to look is in the lunchbox of a kid. But the things of God usually begin in the little things – a small act of kindness leading to a community of people becoming kinder – a small act of generosity inspiring others to also lend a hand (look at the success of the ‘give a little’ pages on the web!) – a small act of resistance inspiring a nation’s attendance to their racist attitudes. How do you feed 5000? You turn up. That’s how it starts and gets worked out. Turning up and being willing to share. Isn’t that the greatest part of the miracle? Isn’t that something we all can do? A boy turns up with five loaves and two fish and look at what Jesus does with it!
I understand that soon after Brian and Sylvia Hardie began their ministry at St Stephen’s in Bryndwr there was a major cash crisis in the parish. What all that was about is something I don’t really know. In other churches I’ve known of, the response to a cash crisis has been to plead for more money or to make cuts. The imaginative challenge that the Hardies offered was based on their observations of a church in Auckland that had embarked on a major initiative of connecting with and hosting their community. The Community Centre started. This was over 20 years ago. I understand that it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I have heard that there was some solid resistance that went along the lines ‘don’t think for a minute that there will be any church money available for this venture!’ From what I have gleaned, some individuals donated extra money to get the centre on its way. What happened is that the Community Centre did find its way – it remained solvent, and before too long, it began to contribute money for management, administration, power, telephones, rates and insurance. But crucially, the reach of the church that was at a point of crisis extended, rather than atrophied. It’s the mustard seed parable – a small seed planted and in time birds coming and nesting in the branches of the tree. I mentioned a few weeks ago that in the last week in June we had over 550 people taking part in some expression of the community life we host in our two buildings. A significant proportion of that was activity that people from within our church community either hosted or participated in. I don’t have trouble in believing the miracle of the feeding of the 5000!
I have encouraged those in the clothing shop at Bryndwr to see that they are a weekly expression of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Ever since they started ten years ago with the idea that they would open on a few Saturdays after a garage sale in order to sell off the leftover clothing, without ever asking, the community has kept dropping in bags of clothing for them to sell on. Week by week, month by month, year by year, the community has provided, and we in turn have been able to provide for the community. In the last financial year over $4000 has come into our life because we offer a Saturday clothing shop. We are going to tag onto this a monthly market and see if we can encourage more of the same. It is the church being the conduit for the shifting of resources from those who have abundance to those who have scarcity. I call it the church playing Robin Hood but without the violence! And, along the way, slowly but surely, the church is recovering its sense of what its place is in the community. I don’t have trouble in believing the miracle of the feeding of the 5000! So we are going on the same journey at Papanui building on what has already been there.
12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’
Oh, and I forgot to say, every year the clothing shop gathers up bags of clothing that it doesn’t sell and takes it across town to where the miracle is able to continue. Is it twelve bags, or twenty? And with the market, eventually, if it gains a foothold, we hope to make community grants out of the surplus – maybe twelve baskets of grants, or twenty. The parable is being lived out in our midst. I don’t have trouble in believing the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, do you!
Now we come to the next part – the walking on water. I’m guessing that you really struggle with that idea!
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’
Sometimes as we are doing and being church it feels like it has been a long time since we walked on water. I don’t think we are in an especially easy season. We’re aging, we’re struggling to generate, we’re torn a bit in trying to find a foothold of faith when it feels like the idea of God is being held up as quaint and foolish by our community, and sometimes our peers, and sometimes our families.
Jesus walked on water just after the feeding of the 5000. Why wouldn’t you! If it was me being part of that miracle I think I would be walking on air! Actually I’ve walked on air quite often in life – there have been plenty of times when I’ve felt washed in euphoria, in a heightened state of joy, exhilarated, jubilant, or elated. Just put the parents of a new baby in the room, with all their love and hope and expectation, and aren’t we all halfway out on the lake in our excitement for them without realising how deep the water has got?
I’ve been wondering about whether walking on water is an attitude thing. There are plenty of times I encounter people who are down to it, negative, dismissive, pessimistic, despairing… I’ve sometimes met one of those people walking in the street of me! It usually takes simple things to get me back to my natural buoyancy. To be honest, I meet as many of these despairing people in the church as anywhere else.
But I think we are meant to walk on water. The human capacity to rise above the quagmires of life is evident all around us. Haven’t we all got stories of feeling overwhelmed and in despair? Yet, within a day or two we see the sun rising again, we find that a way has emerged around or over the brick wall that seemed to have blocked every path, and all that we worried about hasn’t materialised.
If walking on water is an attitude thing for the church then in the face of our many challenges is this our motto – ‘I’m not sinking. We’re not sinking.’ The Village Church – we’re not sinking. Things that don’t sink are floating. Village Church we are floating.
Every week through the clothing shop and much more God brings about the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Nau te rourou, naku te rourou, ka ora te manuhiri (With your food basket and my food basket the visitors will be fed).