Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Gospel = Food

A large crowd has gathered in recent days to watch the sporting spectacle of spectacles. Some 27 million in the UK but around 1 Billion of us worldwide tuned in to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Over a few weeks some 10,000 athletes, representing 204 nations will compete for sporting greatness. Years of training and self denial will boil down to simple questions such as: who will be the fastest, most agile, the strongest, the most accurate... The olympic spirit is about competing fairly and equally, but it is ultimately about who is the best in each respective event. It is about defining one person or one nation as better than all others.

The remarkable opening ceremony itself was about defining what it means to be British. Moving across the grand sweep of history from agricultural to industrial, to technological. From being white caucasian immigrants to becoming a nation that thrives on a diversity that makes our communities and feeds our culture. Britishness, like the winners of the soon to be awarded gold medals, is constantly defined and redefined through changing circumstances and the roll of the years.

This morning we meet a man from  a nation now more known for it’s political and conservative Islam, who instead of defining His people God’s people, as somehow better, more religiously worthy, just somehow more because they are precious to God, redraws the map, casts the net wide, replants the family tree and welcomes all of us.

I love the story in this morning’s Gospel. People are gathering because Jesus is becoming a spectacle - not meant negatively. His ministry was just that - a visually striking public show of the life and presence of God in the world which was available to all people - not just to those who thought they deserved or earned it. This crowd, like so many others, has seen Jesus heal the sick and other miracles. There is a buzz about the man.  They gather expectantly to see for themselves the spectacle of God in Jesus.

They also come with more pressing practical needs - food. They came hungry, but there’s an obvious problem - how to feed so many, because not even 6 months wages could give each a little morsel?  Yet there’s a poor boy with his rolls and pickled fish...

Jesus takes something very ordinary and does something extraordinary. Yes he feeds a large crowd with so little food, but as importantly, in his hands, what is freely offered by the poor, the outsider, the excluded is made the vehicle to demonstrate the grace of God to all: rich or poor...

The crowd come expecting a sign from God in Jesus and they get one, but they misunderstand it and see it as conclusive proof that Jesus is who they have been waiting for, the Messiah King of God, who liberate them from Roman rule, and return things to a place where they were once before between them and God.

The disciples are not in a much better place. They leave Jesus to have some time on his own and make their way to Capernaum across the lake. A storm builds far from the shore, and they see Jesus walking on the water towards the boat and they are terrified - of the storm? Of Jesus defying the laws of nature?? The disciples’ pressing practical need is for safety and reassurance. Jesus takes an ordinary situation and does something extraordinary - yes he walks on water, but more remarkably His words, His presence, provide the peace they need. The disciples misunderstand Jesus’ actions and want to take him on board for his own safety or to try to contain this encounter with God.

Friends it seems to me that there is a very real risk that we over spiritualize these stories - yes they are demonstrations of the extravagant grace of God in the feeding of so many with so little. Yes they are about reminding us that this Jesus has something of the Living God about Him. Yes there may even be hints at the life sustaining importance of the Eucharist as Jesus takes, gives thanks, breaks and shares the loaves and fish.  But aren’t they a little simpler to understand? There are some very real and practical needs here - for food, for reassurance, but there is more. As the crowd is physically fed, spiritual questions are raised - who is this man? Is He the prophet? Is He the Messiah? As the disciples cry out in fear for their lives, they are reassured by the presence of Jesus Himself.

Over the next few weeks certain people will define and redefine themselves as the fastest, the most agile, the fittest, strongest, most accurate in our world. But we each constantly define and redefine what it means to be British, to be a good parent, to be an Anglican, how to sort our country/society/world out, over against our past and over and against others.

At the heart of this story stands a poor boy, surrounded by a crowd from the largely Gentile communities around Capernaum and all are fed. No one is excluded, no one group is defined by Jesus in this crowd. There’s no ‘you can because you’re poor’ or you can’t because you’ve misunderstood God.’ All are fed by God - physically, but their spiritual appetite is whetted too.

There are some hungry people within our communities, there are lonely people, the depressed, the sick, the sad, the bereaved, the frightened who long to have very practical needs met. Jesus uses what a poor boy has to do that with the crowd. Do you not think that He can use what we as generally speaking, well adjusted, middle class, adults have to do the same? There are people in our communities who need safety, who need reassurance, a kind word, a little simple human compassion and support. Jesus speaks these words of peace that reshape the disciples’ world, and we try to keep him in the boat, in Church...?  If Jesus can use the gift of a poor boy to feed a community and the doubt of His closest companions to build a church - he can use you to meet some very practical needs in our communities with actions that define and redefine what it means to be human, to be cared for, to be respected, to be loved by God - and it is these sorts of broken fragments of lives, of our community that Jesus gathers to himself so none are lost. I don’t have the time? I don’t have the money? Neither did that boy but he gave what he could.  I am frightened what might happen? So were the disciples.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was once accused on underspiritualizing the Gospel - reducing the Good News of God to glorified social work. he said: ‘...I don't preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn't say, "Now is that political or social?" He said, "I feed you." Because the good news to a hungry person is bread...’

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