The Fourth Sunday in Lent


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Grant, we beseech thee, almighty God, that we, for our evil deeds…
Galatians 4:21-31
John 6:1-14

One of the central problems of our existence is understanding continuity and change. What makes the senior citizen the same person as the baby born 70 years before? We see the problem in a different guise when a political party in Government changes its leader (John Major for Margaret Thatcher, Gordon Brown for Tony Blair) when it wants to appear both new and yet continuous. Paul spent a good deal of his time (cf The Circumcision) wrestling with this problem. To what extent was Christianity different from and yet continuous with Judaism? The argument for difference in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus was easy enough but the continuity problem was more problematic because not only had the Jews, directly or indirectly, been responsible for the death of Jesus, Paul himself, as a Jew, had persecuted his followers. The Rabbi in Paul needed to find the clinching argument in detailed Scriptural exegesis, not in a generalisation. The key for Paul was Abraham who had been in a relationship with God before he was made the father of the Chosen People through the birth of Isaac. His point is that Isaac was born as part of the “promise” whereas Ishmael was only born “of the flesh” (Genesis 16:1-16). This idea sits uneasily with Paul’s view that Christianity is the heir of Abraham by virtue of the fact that he was chosen by God before he acknowledged the Covenant through the act of circumcision. If we value consistency this is a serious disjuncture but in truth Paul was forging Christian theology throughout his mission in a blacksmith sort of way; the gilding came later. It would be too much to expect otherwise and so we should, having noted the problem, hang on to the main point that he is making: no matter what continuity there may be, the New Covenant is a radical break with the old that has transformed us from slaves into free people. There could be nothing more radical and yet familiar to Jews than a New Covenant; Paul had cracked the continuity/change dilemma; same thing, new version.

There still remains the vexed question in all three Readings of who’s in and who’s out of this New Covenant. In hindsight John could look back on the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 as a sign of this New Covenant. What started as a spectacular manifestation of God’s power became iconic, first when seen through the prism of the Maundy Thursday institution of the Eucharist, then in the appearance of the Risen Lord at Emmaus and later in countless gatherings for the breaking of bread. The fish was not forgotten; it became one of the earliest Christian symbols (Ichthus) and became a counterweight to the meat dominated Jewish tradition.

What matters about the great feast is that there were no entry checks or tickets. Jesus fed those who turned up. No matter there were mockers and pick pockets as well as the devout and the curious, from which we ought to take comfort for, in the words of the Collect, we will be “mercifully relieved” in spite of our “evil deeds”. Here is another dilemma that never quite goes away and to which we have referred previously (cf Second, Third Sundays in Lent). In this wondrous scene and in many others Jesus shows no sign of being selective but is open. If anything, he has a preference for the poor and weak, the wicked and the marginal but, to use an unbiblical, contemporary word, he is relaxed. If what he does at this feast prefigures the Eucharist, then what are we to make of the preconditions for accessing the Eucharist? What kinds of rules are we entitled to make about children, sinners, or even unbaptised people? Does the Eucharist belong to the Church or does it belong to the human race? After all, John reports that people did not follow Jesus because he was a wonderful theologian or a priestly figure but because he worked miracles, notably curing disease.

Another way in which the feeding of the 5,000 might resemble the Eucharist is in the bewilderment of the Disciples. Jesus asked Philip a simple question to which he did not receive the reply: “It doesn’t matter how many there are, Lord, you can feed them,” but, rather, he was very matter of fact, estimating the minimum cost of supply; but Andrew, Peter’s brother, did have an inkling of what might be in Jesus’ mind when he mentioned the five loaves and two fishes. What happened when Jesus gave thanks? We don’t know; we only see the result. What happens when the Priest consecrates the elements? It is all too easy to recite a theological formula exclusive to a Christian denomination. Arguing about the Eucharist has been a futile and often harmful theological pastime for the past 500 years.

The reaction of the crowd, as articulated by John, is enigmatic. Is the prophet that is supposed to come into the world the Messiah, or just another prophet? In terms of adulation the response is pretty mild in comparison with the spectacular act which Jesus has just performed. Are we not, too, in danger of taking God’s love for granted and are we not, too, in danger of down-grading the magnificence of the deeds of Jesus because we cannot explain them in a way that contemporary atheists would understand. We tend to be somewhat sheepish about miracles; but whatever our view, it is remarkable in the jig-saw that makes up the Gospels that this piece is so prominent in all four.

A final note. The Disciples collected the fragments.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Consider Paul’s struggle with the Abraham legacy
  2. If Jesus was open to all, why have we made entrance rules?
  3. Consider the problem of miracles and science
  4. How does John use miracles differently from the other Evangelists?
  5. Do we pick up the fragments?

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