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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 17, Year B
Commissioning of Elders
South Sydney Uniting Church
July 29, 2012

2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:17-19; John 6:1-21

A series of thanks’

The multiplication of the loaves is the only miracle from Jesus’ public ministry narrated in all four Gospels, and in all four it has Eucharistic overtones. But John alone uses the verb eucharisteo – “to give thanks”. God be with you

I’d like to begin by thanking our elders, for passion and humility – for responding to the call to serve, and the call to share, each in their own ways, the joy of Christian service. Sometimes, in busy-ness, we race ahead without an acknowledgement of what we mean to each other, how much we rely on one another. I’ve mentioned to some lately my enthusiasm for the Spider-Man comic – I’ve been reading a book called Spider-Man and Philosophy: The Web of Inquiry. In one excellent essay, Taneli Kukkonen writes, with reference to Peter Parker aka Spider-Man: “[L]ove’s debt is felt in the gratitude we feel for the very fact that we get to love, and if this means for us unspeakable agonies and heartrending choices, as lovers we still would not wish for things to be otherwise.” Our elders are lovers, then, and yes, superheroes, if by that is meant human beings committed to both social/ecological justice and personal wellbeing. “With great power comes great responsibility,” says Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, wisely. Our elders, by the grace of God, have committed to just this kind of wisdom, just this way of faith and life. Thank you.

Today’s homily is a series of thanks.

We give thanks for the witness of John, the poetic evangelist whose Gospel invites us to receive a poetic Word – rich in meaning, dense like good bread. John alone locates the event of the multiplication of the loaves at Passover, and portrays Jesus sitting. This recalls Moses at Sinai, and the subsequent discourse (John 6) will deal with the manna in the wilderness and use food as a symbol of true teaching. Only John’s account of this event mentions Philip, who later will bring “Greeks” to Jesus, anticipating the inclusion of non-Jews in the Eucharistic banquet. Only John’s account mentions the “small boy” with five barley loaves and two dried fish. In John, Jesus alone distributes the bread, and commands the disciples to gather the fragments/pieces (using a word that becomes a technical term for the Eucharistic elements) so that “nothing gets wasted” (literally, so that nothing perishes) – an allusion to the failure of some to gather all of the manna in the wilderness (whereupon it bred worms and became foul), as well as a symbol of the community to be gathered by Jesus, where none may perish (3:16; 10:28).

One commentator writes: “Jesus meets that most basic human need, hunger, and does so with largess and compassion. Meals are a privileged place for meeting Jesus and for the service and gathering of disciples. Yet John uses this story to introduce a profound and extended reflection on the Eucharist and the bread of life. By placing the action before the long discourse, John indicates that deeper understanding of the mystery of the Eucharist follows only upon an experience of gracious love” (John R. Donahue, SJ).

We give thanks for the Jewish experience of gracious love, from which arises the Church’s understanding of God, of God’s messiah, of the world as God’s beloved. That’s not often said with reference to John’s Gospel – John’s community was one, it would seem, embroiled in conflicts with the synagogues of the late first century. Which is one good reason for it to be said.

The twelve baskets filled with “leftovers” symbolise the twelve tribes – that is, Israel, the people of the covenant. The barley bread (cheaper than bread made from wheat, barley bread was known as the bread of the poor) recalls 2 Kings 4:42, wherein the prophet Elisha “miraculously” fed a hundred people on barley loaves. And the five loaves very likely symbolise the five books of the Torah – the Law, the Teaching according to Moses.

We might put it like this. Drawing on Torah, Jesus’ actions fill people and leave enough leftovers for a basket apiece for each of the tribes of Israel. There’s something expansive here for a colonised people, for a new community of Jews and Gentiles – affirming of distinctive cultural resources and identities, transforming them in the context of oppressive rule. Commentators point out that emperors regularly placated the populace with distributions of bread or grain (circuses or spectacle). In John, the imperial “feeding” has been replaced by a community meal – more than entertaining, the meal is truly sustaining.

Or, as one artist suggests, we might say that Jesus “will not loose his hold on what is broken and in pieces. How he gathers them up: a sign of the wholeness he can see; a foretaste of the banquet to come” (Jan L. Richardson).

We give thanks for Jesus the Messiah, the Christ (the word means “Anointed” – it’s another word for “King”, for “Ruler”). We give thanks for Jesus the Ruler, who evades our attempts to crown him as anything that is not the will of the One who sent him into the world as the world’s lover and peacemaker. Our reading from 2 Samuel can be a reminder, a warning, that the kings and rulers of our making – even the most charming and pious – manipulate and murder. “They eat up my people like bread.” It’s a sobering and shocking truth. One scholar writes: “Instead of allowing himself to become a tool of the masses’ desperation, [Jesus] withdraws to await the ‘hour’ when he will accept his kingship, on his own terms.” We need only imagine a crown of thorns.

We give thanks, too, for a sacramental tradition. The sacred bread of Christ is an artifact (and therefore part of our political economy) and yet resists our instincts for pragmatism and utility. The Eucharistic bread – as the body of Christ – does not make itself available to be bought or sold. Christ is the host of the feast and simply gives of himself to those who come to his table. Those who consider themselves pragmatists may be inclined to mock the very notion that participating in the Eucharist is an experience of feast, that is, of celebration and abundance. They, quite plausibly, may argue that food – that bread – will always be a limited commodity that leaves some fed and others with nothing. The Christian faith is doomed – from that perspective – to ridicule and absurdity. That it may appear absurd, says Rachel Mann, is a condemnation of political expediency and an invitation to rediscover the shape of real hope.

Lastly, we give thanks for the great expectations Jesus has for us. Too readily we think in narrow and self-centred terms. Faced with life’s challenges, we are tempted to think (like Peter Parker in very early Spider-Man episodes), “What’s in it for me? What will I get out of it?” If the small boy in our Gospel had that attitude and did not give his five loaves and two fish to Jesus there would have been no meal, no sign. He shows us what Jesus expects of us. That when we give – and we do have something to give – we receive, we are “filled with all the fullness of God”. Our vision of ourselves and the way things are is often narrow and self-centred but the vision of Jesus is without limit.

You’ll find small hands on the altar-table today. You’re invited to come and to take one, and, as you place it before the Christ Candle, to say what you think it is we hold in our hands to offer to others – either as a congregation or as individuals.

… Amen.