Sunday, 29 July 2018

Receiving life in our fragile bodies

This is a sermon preached at the Cathedral on Sunday 29 July. The texts were 2 Kings 4:42-44, Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-21. 

The two things which underpinned it's inspiration: the headlines about stockpiling food; a poem by Malcolm Guite called "Love's Choice". Particularly the line about the lightness of bread 'a wafer-thin sensation'; yet in this sensation we encounter the fullness of Christ. 

I was also struck by a comment made on Twitter by Dr Ayla Lepine about a painting by Eularia Clarke called "The Five Thousand", she described it as 'holiness in the everyday everywhere". 

John's Gospel tells of an episode which is more than simply a miraculous feeding - and we hear it in a context where there is ongoing anxiety about our ability to feed our nation. 

Aunty Credwyn’s afternoon tea is one of the legendary memories of my childhood: the table seemed to heave under the weight of cakes and sandwiches. Plates were emptied and replenished; our eyes boggled at the plenty. 

Elijah’s words could have been her motto: They shall eat and have some left.

If you were to venture Credwyn’s larder, you’d have found an abundance of a different sort: boxes and boxes of washing powder, bags and bags of flour, tins and tins of fruit.

Her capacity for hospitality may well have been shaped by the experience of wartime rationing.

It seems inconceivable that today we read newspaper headlines such as “Hoarding food now seems the only sensible thing to do”.

The Swedish government has issued advice to households on how to cope in situations of ‘major strain’; when services are disrupted by crises from a cyber attack to terrorism. The leaflet suggested stocking up on non-perishables.

Jean Vanier, in his commentary on John’s Gospel, writes: We human beings do not possess life; we receive life in our fragile bodies.

We receive life via a food supply chain reliant on imports and structured on a system of “just in time” deliveries.  All of us depend on physical nourishment; for some that dependence is more precarious than others. 

Social media responded to Dominic Raab’s assurances about ‘adequate food’ with pictures of Spam; but it was the food writer Jack Monroe who pointed out that mass panic and stockpiling hurts those least able to buy: ‘those living hand to mouth, paycheque to paycheque, food bank trip to food bank trip’.

Today’s readings weave together very real physical concerns with deeper questions about the kind of community God calls us to be.  Jesus himself is concerned for life in our fragile bodies:  Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?

Those of us who’ve enjoyed the excitement of going along to a festival or carnival, might conjure up a vivid image of a crowd caught up in an event. There’s a momentum all of its own; but at some point people get hungry. 

Jesus notices this: those drawn there by the desire to hear his words and to see signs of healing now needed to be fed. He asks out loud, where are we to by bread?

Philip responds by commenting on the impracticality of the question: they can’t afford enough bread. Andrew’s pragmatism is tinged with a realistic sense of scarcity and inadequacy.

Jesus’ response reveals God’s compassion; his actions are directed to our welfare: sit and eat, he says; rest here a while. He gives thanks and distributes food. Nothing is held back; all are satisfied. Nothing is lost; fragments are gathered up. 

As Vanier reminds us, this is not simply a miracle of multiplying food but also of creating and building a caring community where people are concerned for one another. 

This is a foretaste of heaven in ordinary. The twentieth century painter Eularia Clarke captures this brilliantly in her depiction of the feeding of the 5000: bicycles and handbags are set down, fish and chips are spread out; babies rest in their carrycots, children quench their thirst, adults eat without guarding what is theirs; strangers notice the needs of others, perhaps for the first time. 

In Jesus we see the fullness of God with us. A fullness which loves abundantly in order that we may learn how to live like that too. In Paul’s words of prayer to the Ephesians, we are to be filled with the fullness of God - in order that God’s power at work in us may accomplish more than we dare to ask or imagine. 

This is not a vision of competition or rivalry; it’s not life ordered by self-protection or lack. It is an invitation to be liberated from selfishness to become self-giving. Our Gospel reminds us of how costly and challenging it is to live in this way.

The crowds want to claim Jesus as a leader who will satisfy their physical needs for ever; but he wants to lead them into a deeper dependence on God who’ll reshape our attitudes and actions. 

Jesus disappears: he takes his rest and prays. To give out does not mean we must burn out. To be in community with others, we need also to be alone.  To nourish others - emotionally, physically, mentally and intellectually - we need to nourish ourselves. 

This lesson in sustaining life in all its fullness confuses the disciples. Perhaps they had hoped to hold on to the success of this feast; to enjoy the exultation and admiration of the crowd. 

As Jesus goes up the mountain, they walk back down to the lake and wait. They wait until it gets dark. And still he has not returned to them; so they return to Capernum.

Their impatience turns to fear when the storm rises up. Their journey is not merely physical; it is also spiritual. They, like us, long to abide forever on the sun-kissed mountain top where our longings are satisfied; where our fragile bodies are fed; where we know life in its fullness as an equitable harmony, where all is gathered up.

They, like us, return to a world which is fraught with lack, fear and complexity. We face storms which are beyond our control: uncertainty about the future; the fading hopes of our wishful thinking; cycles of anxiety and addiction We do not possess life; we receive it in fragile bodies. Bodies which are dependent on others; bodies which have the capacity to nourish others.

Jesus meets the disciples and us with words of assurance: It is I; do not be afraid

Paul prays that the Ephesians, may know this fearless assurance of Christ might dwelling in them. Today’s collect echoes his supplication: ‘open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we might bring forth the fruit of the Spirit in love and joy and peace’. 

At this cathedral we long to be open hearted - open to God and open to all. To fulfil that hope, in this Eucharist, we bow our knees before our heavenly Father; we are strengthened in our inner being through his Spirit; Christ dwells in our hearts in faith. Our fragile bodies are spiritually fed. As we take fragments of bread, we are being rooted and grounded in love. We receive in what is wafer thin, the fullness of God.

Here in broken bread and poured out wine, we touch and taste and see what is the breadth and length and height and depth of love. Love that surpasses all knowledge. Love that was manifested in compassion as crowds were fed on a hill side. Love that was manifested in peace as disciples clung to their boat.  

This love is cosmic in scope: it creates, redeems and sustains. This love is inexhaustible and yet known in intimate indwelling of us.  We gather to share this meal with the household of God, for the sake of God’s Kingdom. 

Here God’s love chooses to be emptied into us that we might accomplish more than we can imagine. In a world which is struggling with uncertainty about the future; where fragile bodies need to be fed,  let us pray that we may receive and give life, across all generations and forever: in the food we share, the compassion we show, the support we give. 

© Julie Gittoes 2018