“For he himself knew what he would do.”
This powerful Gospel story speaks profoundly to the nature of the Christian pilgrimage of faith. We are, to be sure, in the wilderness of modernity, but wilderness itself is such a significant image about sin and alienation. It is in the wilderness of our lives and experiences that we may learn the greater goodness of God. In the wilderness of our own insufficiency and incompleteness, we learn about God’s Providence and his provision for us.
God, and God alone, makes something out of nothing. God, and God alone, makes something great and wonderful out of such meagre provisions as “five barley-loaves, and two small fishes.” As Andrew says to Jesus, “what are they among so many?” We confront the radical insufficiency of our humanity considered in itself. On the one hand, this challenges the hubris and presumption of our technocratic culture in the idea that we can endlessly manipulate and dominate nature for ourselves without consequences for either ourselves or nature; on the other hand, this confirms our deepest uncertainties and fears precisely about our humanity and our domination of the world and ourselves which leads to a kind of paralyzing pessimism, to our dread and despair. This powerful story counters both our presumption and our despair.
In a way, this is the point of the story in John’s account of the miraculous feeding of the multitude in the wilderness, a Gospel story which along with the Epistle gives rise to the wonderful ways in which this Sunday is known as Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, and Laetare Sunday, the latter indicating the idea of rejoicing drawn from the introit anthem marking the mid-point of Lent which was Thursday past. None of these designations make much sense apart from these readings. It is also underscores the important point about rejoicing even in the midst of suffering which has been an emphasis in our Lenten Programme on The Comfortable Words and the Literature of Consolation.
Jesus asks Philip about the great company “whence shall we buy bread that these may eat? (And this he said to prove him”, John suggests, adding “for he himself knew what he would do.)” John’s parenthetical remark opens us out to the radical meaning of God in Christ and Christ in us. It is about what he wants for us.
We are being put to the test about our relationship to God and his provisions for us in the wilderness of our lives. As we saw with the story of the Canaanite woman, even “the little dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Here the fragments which remain will be more than enough for the Church in pilgrimage; twelve baskets are gathered up, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel; one for each of the twelve apostles of the Christian Church.
The story looks back to Israel’s time in the wilderness with Moses, a time of learning about living from the Word of God in terms of the giving of the Law and in terms of God’s provisions for his people in the wilderness. Manna from on high, water from the stricken rock, all those stories feed into the imagery of the Gospels and shape the Christian understanding of our sacramental life. And that, perhaps, is what lies at the heart of this story. It is found in what Jesus does. “And Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down.”
At the heart of this story of providential care and provision for our humanity is the act of giving thanks. The Greek word is eucharist as a verb, to thank or to give thanks. Here in the wilderness, here in the Church, there is the Son’s thanksgiving to the Father and our participation in that thanksgiving in which we find the provision for our journey to God and with God. We are gathered into the knowing love of God for us in Jesus Christ.
The story is told in the context of the Passover, itself the great and defining story of God’s liberation of the Hebrews from “Pharaoh’s bitter yoke” and the way in which that story is re-presented in the rites of the Jewish Passover which in turn inform the Christian eucharist. “Now, the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand,” John tells us in the verse that precedes the beginning of our Gospel reading this morning. The entire sixth chapter of John’s Gospel has become known as “the Bread of Life” discourse in which Jesus identifies himself as “the bread of life” and as the Son of the Father. “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me, and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day”(Jn. 6.38-39). Even more, “this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn. 6.40). The sacraments are rooted and grounded in the Incarnation and the Trinity, in the relations of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Those that hear this murmur against him because he said “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” There is a dispute about what Jesus is saying about himself and about who he is for us. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Tough teaching. A hard saying not just for the Jews but for “many of his disciples,” so much so that “many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.” This leads Jesus to say to the twelve, “do you also wish to go away?” to which Simon Peter answers, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” The chapter ends by pointing us to the Passion and to Christ’s betrayal by Judas.
In a way, the discourse unpacks the radical meaning of the miraculous feeding of the multitude in the wilderness. It is about our sacramental participation in the life of Christ, about God in Christ and Christ in us. It is about the interplay of Word and Sacrament. Here we participate in the Son’s thanksgiving to the Father, finding in the sacrament the means of our being fed and nourished with the eternal word of God. Archbishop Cranmer in a treatise On the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, notes that:
although Christ in his human nature, substantially, really, corporally, naturally, and sensibly, be present with his Father in heaven, yet sacramentally and spiritually he is here present … For as the word of God preached putteth Christ into our ears, so likewise, these elements of … bread and wine, joined to God’s word, do after a sacramental manner put Christ into our eyes, mouths, hands, and all our senses.
The sacraments are an essential feature of Revelation, in the witness of the Scriptures to our life in Christ, and in the tradition of its remembering that witness, sacramentum memoria. The sacraments are the ordained means of our participation in the life of God in Christ. Our “daily bread” is found in the will of God for us and it is always enough and more than enough. God takes the things of the world as given by nature and by human labour to make them the means of our being with him. He is our life. Here is “the bread of life” which sustains us in the journey of our souls to God and with God even in the face of our uncertainties and our certainties; the check and counter to both. It is about our being gathered to God in Christ. Cranmer explains:
We should understand the sacrament, not carnally, but spiritually … being like eagles in this life, we should fly up into heaven in our hearts, where that Lamb is resident at the right hand of his Father which taketh away the sins of the world … by whose passion we are filled at His table … being made the guests of Christ, having Him dwell in us through the grace of his true nature … assured and certified that we are fed spiritually unto eternal life by Christ’s flesh crucified and by his blood shed.
Powerful language and yet, it is what we pray in The Prayer of Humble Access, the prayer which draws upon the hard saying, the tough teaching of “the Bread of Life” discourse. “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, that we may eat of the Flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, And to drink his Blood, That our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body. And our souls washed through his most precious Blood, And that we may evermore dwell in him, And he is us.” That is the miracle of our life in Christ. And it is our comfort, “the comfort of thy grace” as the Collect for this day puts it. “Draw near with faith and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort,” as our liturgy reminds us.”
“For he himself knew what he would do.”
Fr. David Curry
Lent IV, 2018