Sunday, 3 August 2014

Sermon for Trinity 7: The Feeding of the Five Thousand

So, the feeding of the five thousand. Let me start by saying: Jesus is not just showing off. This miracle is not at its heart just about Jesus proving Himself with divine powers. It's not part of a checklist of "a hundred impossible things to believe before breakfast." There is more to it than that.
For a start, there is the numbers: five thousand people; five loaves, plus two fish - makes seven; twelve baskets left over at the end. What would Matthew's listeners and readers make of these? Well, not much if they were gentiles, probably, but if they were Jews - and because the numbers would make sense to Jews, it makes sense for us to assume that the target audience was indeed Jews - the numbers would be quite familiar.
Five is the number of books in the Torah, the Law of Moses, the "Pentateuch" or first five books of what we call the Old Testament. So, the five thousand and the five loaves carry an association with Moses, the Jewish people and the Law.
Seven, on the other hand, was the traditional number the Jews gave to the number of the gentile nations: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, according to Deuteronomy. There's one for the pub quiz.
Twelve, of course, is the number of the Tribes of Israel and, consequently, of Jesus' Apostles.
So let's think again about the story with these numbers in mind. Like Moses, Jesus retreats into a "desert place" at the beginning of the story; but where Moses' gift to the Jewish nation is the five books of the Torah, Jesus' gift to the Jews, symbolised by the number 5000, is five loaves of bread. Moses nourished his people with the written Word of the Law, but Jesus does something different: He gives living bread, bread that grows and increases and nourishes many people. And not just Jews, either. The two fish add to the five loaves to make seven, the number of the Gentiles. From now on, the bread of life will nourish all peoples.
But even once it has fed everyone, that bread is not exhausted. There is excess of it: twelve baskets full, to be precise. Enough to fill all twelve tribes of the Jews even while the Gentiles eat their fill. Enough for everyone.
So what does this miracle say to us today? Today's Collect can help us towards an answer to that. You may like to have a look at it again:
"Lord of all power and might, which art the author and giver of all good things; graft in our hearts the love of thy name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same."
This ancient prayer was collated by the fifth century Pope Gelasius and translated by Cranmer for the first English Prayer Book of 1549. Notice the powerful series of verbs: graft, increase, nourish, keep. God gives us a little piece of the bread of life to sow the seed of His love in our hearts; thanks to His work in us, it grows and increases within us, like the five loaves, nourishing not just us who receive it, but overspilling to those around us; and so it keeps us all together in God's true religion, the Christian religion not of the stale word of laws but of the living Word who is Christ Himself, our bread of life.

And how do we receive that bread? Well, that should be obvious. Surely that is the reason why we, with the whole Church around the world, gather at His altar today.  

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