The Seventh Sunday after Trinity


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Lord of all power and might,…
Romans 6:19-23

Jesus could never have written Romans. This is not an intellectual—as Peter and James are ample testimony of how people of humble origin, moved by the events they have seen and prompted by the Holy Spirit, can write formative theology—but a psychological observation. Where Jesus is gentle, Paul can be brutal. In this extract he is telling his readers—whom, remember, he has never met—that they have been slaves to wickedness and that they are still so corrupt that he has to condescend to them. Somewhat confusingly he then says that, because they are reformed, they can expect everlasting life and not the death which is the wage of sin. Regardless of the not unusual muddle Paul gets into when he tries to use metaphors, the message is clear enough; faith in Jesus is the source of everlasting life.

The Collect reflects Paul’s message but it its judicious choice of words is significant; it calls for an increase in us of “true religion” and for nourishment with “all goodness” but it pointedly does not mention the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist which is often said to be the motif behind the Gospel which is the slightest of the six accounts in the Gospels of Jesus’ miracles of feeding: 5,000 Matthew 14:15-20; Mark 6:34-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:5-15 (cf The Fourth Sunday in Lent; The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Trinity); 4,000 Matthew 15:32-38 and today’s account in Mark. There are two curiosities in the Lectionary: first, as there are so many accounts, why is John used twice; secondly, the ranking in this case of Mark over Matthew who was foremost in the 16th Century and regarded as the origin of Mark rather than vice versa.

Rather than think of the feeding miracles simply as Eucharistic harbingers—a hotly contested thesis—the logical starting point might be the feeding of the Jews in the wilderness with manna from above. The Chosen People had been liberated but were hardly grateful, goading Moses at every turn because of their perceived grievances to one of which manna was the response, so it was not food for the righteous but for everyone, regardless of their conduct. Likewise, Jesus did not organise a venting system before feeding people. The divine food, therefore, whether it came from Yahweh or the hands of Jesus, was not distributed in relation to moral merit; neither could it be if we accept that we do nothing meritorious of ourselves. In that sense, Christianity has been equivocal, the Eucharist being so important in its life and to its people that withholding it has been used as a weapon. The Medieval Church habitually used denial of the sacraments as a spiritual/political weapon and today there are those who wish to use the same weapon to deny the Eucharist to gay people on the grounds that they are unrepentant sinners. The contemporary variant is for people to withhold themselves from the Fellowship of the Eucharist on the ground that they are pure and the remaining participants are sinners. These thoughts may seem far away from the central point but they are not. Fitness for Eucharist is a matter of conscience and it is not for anyone to question that fitness. What is remarkable about all six accounts of mass feeding is that they took place because the compassion of Jesus was aroused.

Returning, then, to the initial question, these six accounts can only be taken as a pre-figurement of the Eucharist if we accept it as a gift freely given to those who humbly believe that they are worthy of it. Christ, from the Jewish perspective, was re-living the wandering in the wilderness; Christ, from the Christian perspective, was anticipating the gift of Himself in sacrifice for sin. In either case, the primary motive is generosity not judgment.

The idea of literal pre-figurement is much more difficult to sustain. Did Jesus know, when he was distributing the bread and fish, that He would later offer Himself at the Last Supper? We will never know but the fact that six similar accounts occur in the Gospels means that the Evangelists counted it as a singularly important story which in turn underlines the importance they place on the Institution of the Eucharist, an importance which some 16th Century, Zwingli inspired, English reformers denied. Perhaps they mistook the late Medieval ritualism for the essence, a mistake which other reformers who followed Luther and Calvin, did not make. Instead, they clung to the centrality of Eucharist but radically simplified the ritual and made the text accessible in the BCP. Yet it was to take 400 years for the Eucharist to regain its centrality in the Church of England although that reality is still not beyond controversy.

Having courted controversy, we might best return to the beginning. Jesus could never have written Romans but that is to affirm rather than to deny the importance of theological diversity; and the importance of respecting it. Current theological controversies, like all their major predecessors, are attempts to de-construct mystery and, therefore, to put less stress on the idea of faith, a proceeding which Paul would have found dangerous and which we might regard as a fatal crossing of the boundary from theology into the philosophy of religion. The paradox of the 16th Century was that it restored the Pauline concept of faith while down-playing the centrality of mystery.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. How would you react to a stranger writing to you as Paul did to the Romans?
  2. Are there any significant differences in the six accounts of mass feeding by Jesus?
  3. What are the arguments for and against using the withholding of Sacraments; and what is the theological basis for withholding oneself from sharing Sacramental Fellowship with others?
  4. Discuss the continuities and discontinuities between Manna, the mass feedings of Jesus and the Institution of the Eucharist
  5. Tell the story of a mass feeding as if you had been there.

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