Saturday, July 25, 2009
Children in the 5000
Not been feeling well off and on over the last few days. That's nothing compared to Peter, our youngest son, who has been suffering with Swine flu. He has had an awful time of it - high temperatures, lack of appetite, a terrible cough. He's been on Tamiflu and to make matters worse hw now has a chest infection.
That said we have felt very supported by people all over the world praying for him and us. He is, thanks be to God, on the mend.
That has been the back drop to a fantastic week so far, especially including the joint holiday club with Adeyfeild Free Church. It's been well attended and lots and lots of fun. Well over 130 children each day - amazing.
Against this backdrop comes this Sunday's Gospel reading which eventually asks us some hard questions about the place of children within the life and worship of the church... Below is a version of what I suspect I will say (if my voice holds up) tomorrow.
At the heart of this morning’s gospel stands a boy. He seems to be on his own in the crowd - there is no mention of parents or extended family. John has been careful to record so much, almost excessive detail, that if the boy’s parents were there too, they would have got a mention. The reason I dwell on this boy is because John does. When this child left home with is packed lunch or, bearing in mind the amount of food that he has, was returning home with the shopping, he never expected the bread and fish that he was carrying to be taken from him and used by Jesus in this way.
John tries really hard to help the reader/hearer of this part of his Gospel place this story with real people in a real place. He names the sea of Galilee, the Sea of Tiberius (the contemporary Roman name.) John locates this story in time too - it was near to passover. The purpose, it seems to me of these 2 stories in the Gospel are to help us as readers and hearers to consider who Jesus really is.
At the outset, John reminds us that many people at this stage in Jesus’ ministry had already made up their minds as to who he is. We know this because John tells us that a crowd gathers where Jesus is because of the miraculous healings that he has been exercising. People assumed that Jesus is a healer and nothing more - wherever he is, there is a growing expectation that Jesus will heal people.
The crowd gathers near to Jesus. John says that it is near Passover - one question I wondered to myself was - how near? Is Jesus’ question to Philip about needing to feed the crowd, alluding to Jesus making assumptions that he would share a form of passover with this crowd there and then?
Then there is the sheer number of people - at least 5000 people John records. There is some discrepancy in the numbers present. The miracle is recorded in all 4 gospels. John says that there are about 5000 people in that crowd, but in the other Gospels there is talk of 5000 men not including women and children. Either way this is a large gathering of people - people who have come expecting something to happen; for Jesus to ‘perform.’ They are not disappointed - notice what happens to the crowd after the miracle has happened. They came expecting to see a miraculous healer at work, instead they become convinced that Jesus is far more - he is the prophet, the Messiah,that God would send as King of the Jews, to lead them into a new relationship with God and to free their land from foreign occupation. They rise up to lead a coup, placing Jesus on the throne as King. Jesus flees for his life - the crowd have
completely misunderstood what who and what Jesus is.
We should return to look at the miracle itself. 5 loaves and 2 fish brought by the boy are not going to go far, except in Jesus’ hands. He takes them, blesses God and them, he breaks them (must have even though it is not mentioned here) and they are shared. Those actions were all consistent with Grace at meal times, but especially at Passover. In doing this, and eating together in this fashion, will have taken the Jewish minds in the crowd back to the story of Moses sharing manna with the people of Israel in the wilderness, but also forwards looking toward the Messiah’s great banquet at the end of time. As contemporary witness to this miracle, our minds are taken, with his disciples at a later date to the Last Supper and later to the Eucharist. As all 5000+ eat enough to be filled and the equivalent of 12 baskets of scraps are left over, Jesus is clearly distancing himself from the image of being healer, to being the provider for basic needs like food - which is of course God’s job. This is man is no healer...
Later, the disciples take the boat back over the other side of the lake. Half way across a storm builds. In the midst of this, Jesus come to them, walking on he water. John is quite clear that it is no the intensity of the storm that frightens the disciples - many of whom were seasoned fishermen - it was the sight of their teacher and friend defying the laws of nature. This man is no miracle worker, rather there is something of God about him. Jesus tells them that though - as he nears the boat he says, ‘Do not be afraid, it is I’ which is the Greek translation of what God said to Moses at the burning bush - it is I or I am that I am... God is present with this man Jesus of Nazareth.
The action in this morning’s Gospel story begins with a child. In a society very concerned about the safety of our children, this morning we hear of a crowd of adults ensuring, indirectly the safety and wellbeing of this child. In return, it is through this child that Jesus ensures their wellbing. As a large crowd, our society is not good at looking after it’s children - their welfare seems to fall exclusively to their parents, rather than the large crowd of the community around them taking some responsibility. If children become antisocial, we are with the tabloids, all too quick to blame the parents and wash our hands of them, rather than as the offended party playing some pro-active part. This concern though it seems to me must go further than walking our kids to school, out as far as taking some responsibility and some action against what the global crowd does to children in Israel and Lebanon at the moment, or in the Sudan, or in the sweatshops in Thailand.
This Gospel also asks us to take a long hard look at the place of children in relation to our shared relationship with Jesus. Jesus the healer, the miracle worker respects and accepts this child as they are, and through them as bread and fish are shared, he blesses the crowd - not just with a future generation - but with food now. We too need to try to see all that we do as a church as if there was a child in our midst - asking us to think hard about what we do and say, how we live and worship with children in churches - for it speaks volumes of whether we try to follow Jesus. That may require a huge culture change for all of us.
Friends, let us not allow children to be the sole responsibility of their parents, but ensure that we a crowd, a community both here in church and outside are a safe place for children to live, learn and grow, but not leaving that as a vague hope, but actively taking action, because not only does the kingdom belong to such as these, but with their help, like the crowd, we can see Jesus for who he is.