Monday, 23 July 2018

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 29 July 2018,
Ninth Sunday after Trinity

Feeding the 5,000 ... a modern Greek Orthodox icon

Patrick Comerford

Sunday next, 29 July 2018, is the Ninth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity IX). The appointed readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for Trinity IX as adapted for use in the Church of Ireland are:

Continuous readings: II Samuel 11: 1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3: 14-21; John 6: 1-21;

Paired readings: II Kings 4: 42-44; Psalm 145: 10-19; Ephesians 3: 14-21; John 6: 1-21.

There is a link to the continuous readings HERE.

Introducing the readings:

We all love parties and anniversaries.

Recently, I have been blessed with a number of baptisms and weddings in my group of parishes.

In recent weeks too, I have also enjoyed taking part in the events marking the 850th anniversary of the foundation of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

And, on Sunday next, because it is the Fifth Sunday in a summer month, my group of parishes is coming together for a joint celebration of the Eucharist in the Rectory Garden, followed by the parish summer barbecue – which may add extra context and relevance to any sermon I attempt to preach on the Gospel story of the feeding of the multitude.

Birthdays, baptisms, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, retirements – we all enjoy a good party. Why, if we allow ourselves to admit the truth, we even enjoy the ‘afters’ at funerals.

Parties affirm who we are, where we fit within the family, and mark the rhythm of life and the continuity of community.

It is not only the eating or the drinking. It is very difficult to sit beside someone at the same table after a funeral, or to stand beside someone at the bar at a wedding, and not to end up getting to know them and – as we say in Ireland – ‘their seed, breed and generation.’

King David (left) and King Solomon (right) in a window by Heaton, Butler and Bayne in Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

II Samuel 11: 1-15:

Leonard Cohen’s popular song and poem Hallelujah begins by evoking King David composing a song that ‘pleased the Lord’ and draws on the stories of Bathsheba and Samson.

When we come to this reading from II Samuel, David has enjoyed military success over most of the neighbouring nations. This time, he sends Joab, his commander, with even his officers and the whole army to besiege Rabbah (present-day Amman in Jordan).

However, David stays behind in Jerusalem. While Uriah the Hittite is with the army, David lusts after Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. She was a gentile – a Gilonite and the wife of a Hittite; she was the wife of another man; the law said a woman was ritually unclean for seven days after menstruation; and the text is not clear whether Bathsheba consents, or whether this is rape.

Bathsheba conceives, and so David tries to hide what he has done, hoping he can deceive Uriah into thinking Bathsheba’s child is his own. But Uriah abides by the ritual laws, he refuses to break the ritual purity of the warrior, and he sleeps outside. David now schemes with Joab so that Uriah is in a vulnerable place in the front line of battle and is killed.

David’s sin costs Uriah his life. We hear of further consequences the following week.

David married Bathsheba, but the child dies soon after birth. Later, Bathsheba and David are the parents of Solomon, who becomes king instead of David's elder surviving sons by his other wives, and who builds the Temple that David imagined but never built.

But the unforeseen consequence of this story is that Bathsheba is the fourth of the four marginalised and despised women beside Mary from whom Jesus is descended, according to the genealogy in Saint Matthew’s Gospel: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. The Son of God is the Son of Man, he is truly human and truly divine (see Matthew 1: 1-17).

Psalm 14:

Psalm 14 laments the breakdown of the moral order. For the psalmist, the world is full of ‘fools’ who deny that God is concerned with human behaviour, people who are corrupt and do terrible things. God sees no one who seeks to follow God’s ways, so do these wicked people not understand God at all?

But God is in the community of those who follow his ways, and God will protect them and deliver the oppressed from the ungodly. When he does, all Israel, Jacob’s descendants, will rejoice.

The ruins of the Basilica of Saint John the Evangelist on the slopes of the Hill of Ayasuluk and looking down on the ruins of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ephesians 3: 14-21:

Even though Saint Paul alludes in this passage to the fact that there are different families, he reminds us that there is a unique way in which we, as Christians, are members of the same family, a particular family, the Church, the family of God.

Families share names, share stories, share memories, share identities, share anniversaries. And that is not all in the past. These celebrations allow us to express and share our hopes for the future too ... is that not what baptisms and weddings are about in every family – hope for the future, hope for life itself?

Earlier in this chapter, Saint Paul has insisted on the equality in the Church of Gentiles and Jews in the Church. He has written: ‘Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus in the Gospel (Ephesians 3: 6).

Saint Paul now prays on bended knees to God the Father (πατήρ, pater), the source of life itself and every family (πατριά, patria). This is an explicitly Trinitarian passage in its scope, understanding and application. He prays:

● that they may have inner strength through the Holy Spirit;

● for the Christ may make them rooted and grounded in love;

● that they may the universal scope, capacity and totality of Christ’s love for all humanity;

● that this love rooted in Christ will fill them with fullness of God.

Saint Paul’s prayer concludes with a doxology that gives praise to God, for whom there are no limits to what can be achieved and whose actions we cannot limit.

‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ (John 6: 5) … bread on sale in a bakery in Platanes near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 6: 1-21:

The stories of the feeding of the 5,000 and of Christ walking on the water are familiar to us from the other gospels. But Saint John presents these stories in a slightly different way. For example, he refers to the Sea of Tiberias. This was the official Roman name for the Sea of Galilee. Saint John is concerned to locate the events precisely, in place and in time.

The setting is at the time of the Passover (verse 4), so we can expect stories that have a Eucharistic context, if we are reading it in the time of the Johannine community, and we can expect Exodus resonances if we are thinking of the significance of the Passover for the first readers: these would include an Exodus of large number of people (see verse 2), crossing water to new freedom (verses 1 and 17), feeding with bread in the wilderness (verses 5 to 14), climbing a mountain (verses 3 and 15) and the giving of new commandments of a covenantal relationship. The 12 baskets represent both the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples, and Philip and Andrew relate to Jesus as Aaron relates to Moses.

When the people belice Jesus to be ‘the prophet,’ we are invited to recall how God tells Moses that he will raise a prophet like Moses who will speak what God commands (Deuteronomy 18: 18). When Christ says ‘It is I’ (verse 20), the phrase Ἐγώ εἰμι (ego eimi) uses the words God uses to identify himself to Moses in the Greek translation of Exodus 3: 14. It also precedes the first of the seven ‘I AM’ sayings in Saint John’s Gospel (‘I am the bread of life,’ John 6: 35).

The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle – apart from the Resurrection – recorded in all four Gospels (see also Matthew 14: 13-21; Mark 6: 32-44; Luke 9: 10-17), with only minor variations on the place and the circumstances.

The story of the multiplication of the loaves as Saint John alone tells it has a number of key details, such as a Passover context, that are there to remind us of our feeding at the Eucharist and of Messianic hope for the future.

Christ lifts up his eyes. Earlier in this Gospel, when the disciples came back to Christ at the well in Sychar, they found him talking with the Samaritan woman. He told them to ‘lift up their eyes’ and to see the ‘harvest’ of the seed he had been sowing.

Now in this story, just as at Jacob’s Well, the disciples have failed to buy or produce enough bread for a meal. In this story, Christ responds not by sympathising but by demanding great generosity, so great that it would take six months’ wages to be so generous.

Barley loaves were the food of the poor, and so the boy’s offering symbolises the poverty of the people, while the disciples fail to offer from the riches of the kingdom.

Christ, who has told the woman at Sychar that she shall no longer thirst, is now going to tell the people he feeds, and the disciples too, that he is the bread of life, and that whoever comes to him will never be hungry, whoever believes in him will never be thirsty (see John 6: 35).

The feeding with the fish looks forward too to a later meal by the shores of Tiberias … that breakfast with the disciples when the Risen Christ feeds them with bread and fish. The fish is an early symbol of faith in the Risen Christ: Ichthus (ἰχθύς, ΙΧΘΥC) is the Greek word for fish, and can be read as an acrostic, a word formed from the first letters of words spelling out ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ (Iēsous Khristos Theou Huios, Sōtēr), ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’.

Christ asks the disciples to make the people sit down – well, not so much to sit down as to recline. They are asked to recline on the grass as they would at a banquet or at a feast – just as Christ does with the disciples at the Last Supper.

And then, in a Eucharistic sequence, he takes the bread, blesses or gives thanks, breaks it and gives it. John here uses the word εὐχαριστήσας (eucharistisas, verse 11), from the verb εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteo), ‘to give thanks,’ the very word from which we derive the word Eucharist in the liturgy.

Saint John alone tells us that Christ later tells the disciples to gather up the fragments lest they perish. Gathering is an act of reverential economy towards the gifts of God; but gathering also anticipates Christ gathering all to himself (John 6: 39; see also John 17: 12).

Look at the amount that is left over in the outpouring of God’s generosity. There are 12 baskets – one for each tribe of Israel and one for each of the 12 disciples. God’s party, the Eucharist, is a looking forward to the new Israel, not the sort of earthly kingdom that the people now want but the Kingdom of God.

In the next chapter, when the crowds follow Christ to Capernaum, he tells them: ‘I am that bread of life’ (John 7: 48). In this way, the Feeding of the Multitude connects with the feeding of the freed slaves in the wilderness and the coming of freedom, and with the heavenly banquet and the coming of the kingdom.

The earlier food miracle in this Gospel is the Wedding in Cana (John 2: 1-12), when Christ turns the water into wine. Now we have a miracle with bread. The Eucharistic connection of bread and wine is so obvious.

Saint John’s account of the multiplication of the loaves has a number of key details that remind us of the Eucharist.

When Christ asks the disciples to gather up the fragments, he uses the word συνάγω (synago, to gather up) – the same as the word συναγωγή (synagogue) for the assembly of faith, and as the word σύναξις (synaxis) for the gathering or first part of the Liturgy.

Christ puts no questions of belief to the disciples or to the crowd when he feeds them on the mountainside. They did not believe in the Resurrection – it had yet to happen. But he feeds them, and he feeds them indiscriminately. The disciples wanted to send them away, but Christ wants to count them in. Christ invites more people to the banquet than we can fit into our churches.

When we invite people into the Church, we have so much to share – must more that the meagre amount people may think we have in our bags.

Saint John the Evangelist with the poisoned chalice above the main gate at Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Connecting the Readings:

For me, the readings from the Letter to the Ephesians and Saint John’s Gospel make a connection with another story about Saint John and the Church in Ephesus.

This recalls the legend that Saint John was tested by the high priest of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, who gave him a poison chalice to drink. Saint John blessed the chalice, the poison escaped in the form of a winged dragon, and Saint John then drank safely.

But there is another poison that can damage the church today – we can fail to love.

Saint Jerome tells us that Saint John continued preaching in Ephesus even when he was in his 90s. He was so enfeebled in his old age that the people had to carry him on a stretcher into the Church in Ephesus, on the hill above the Temple of Artemis. And when he was no longer able to preach, he would lean up on one elbow and say simply: ‘Little children, love one another.’

This continued on, even when the ageing John was on his deathbed. Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out. Every week, the same happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, with the same message: ‘Little children, love one another.’

One day, the story goes, someone asked: ‘John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, “little children, love one another”?’ And he replied: ‘Because it is enough.’

There we have the basics of living as a Christian in a nutshell. All we need to know is ‘Little children, love one another.’ If we want to know the rules, there it is: ‘Little children, love one another.’

In his old age, that is all Saint John preached in Ephesus, week after week.

And if we live by that, then all those Christ wants to feed, all those Christ wants to gather into his family, into the Church, into the Kingdom of God, will be fed and gathered and become one with us at his banquet in the kingdom.

That is why we build churches and cathedrals, that is why as a church we celebrate and have parties, why we celebrate anniversaries, why we are gathered in to share the Word and to share the Sacrament.

And so, in Saint Paul’s words in the epistle reading:

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love (Ephesians 3: 16).

‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish’ (John 6: 9) … fish on a stall in the market in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 6: 1-21 (NRSV):

1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 10 Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.

A variety of fish on sale on a stall in Bologna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical resources:

Liturgical colour: Green

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who sent your Holy Spirit
to be the life and light of your Church:
Open our hearts to the riches of his grace,
that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit
in love and joy and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Holy Father,
who gathered us here around the table of your Son
to share this meal with the whole household of God:
In that new world where you reveal the fulness of your peace,
gather people of every race and language
to share in the eternal banquet
of Jesus Christ our Lord.

A variety of bread in a shopfront in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Suggested Hymns:

The hymns suggested for Proper 12 (Year B) in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling, include:

II Samuel 11: 1-15:

551, How can we sing with joy to God

Psalm 14:

649, Happy are they, they that love God

II Kings 4: 42-44:

44, Praise and thanksgiving, Father, we offer
497, The Church of Christ in every age

Psalm 145: 10-19

24, All creatures of our God and King
42, Good is the Lord, our heavenly King
80, Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father
125, Hail to the Lord’s anointed
321, Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty
73, The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended
492, Ye servants of God, your master proclaim

Ephesians 3: 14-21:

294, Come down, O Love divine
454, Forth in the peace of Christ we go
3, God is love: let heaven adore him
616, In my life, Lord, be glorified
589, Lord, speak to me that I may speak
168, Lord, you were rich beyond all splendour
621, O Love divine, how sweet thou art
105, O the deep, deep love of Jesus
307, Our great Redeemer, as he breathed
341, Spirit divine, attend our prayers
313, The Spirit came, as promised
373, To God be the glory! Great things he has done

John 6: 1-21

665, Ag Críost an síol (The seed is Christ’s)
612, Eternal Father, strong to save
39, For the fruits of his creation
647, Guide me, O thou great Jehovah
584, Jesus calls us! O’er the tumult
587, Just as I am, without one plea
652, Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us
428, Let us break bread together, we are one
657, O God of Bethel, by whose hand

‘Let us break bread together, we are one’ (Hymn 428) … bread in the window of Hindley’s Bakery and Café, Tamworth Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

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