Sermon preached on the eighth Sunday after Trinity (29 July 2012) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel

Today at the Cathedral View More
7:30am Morning Prayer
8:00am Eucharist
8:30am Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Choral Evensong

Sermon preached on the eighth Sunday after Trinity (29 July 2012) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel

The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel looks at Miracle and Parable - and asks, are they two sides of the same coin?

Ephesians 3: 14-end John 6: 1-21

Two remarkable stories about Jesus in this morning’s gospel lesson are sufficiently well-known that they read easily: almost too easily, such that our understanding may become lost in the melodrama which surrounds them both.

The first remarkable story is that of the feeding of the five thousand. We know the story very well. It appears in several of the gospels. It’s one of those stories that we probably know too well so that we don’t read it as closely as we should do each time we come across it.

To many people, it is a miracle which emphasises the divinity of Christ. The multiplication of the loaves and fish is a creative act in the same manner as the creative act of God at the beginning of the book of Genesis. To others, it is a parable of a divine encouragement to share: individual members of the crowd being encouraged to produce their own food and share with each other in the same manner as Jesus shares with his disciples.

Now the first of those two interpretations is certainly the more dramatic and perfectly credible if Jesus is truly the Son of God. It has a "Hey presto!” quality to it, however, it seems to me, which doesn’t sit well with Jesus’s own caution about revealing his true identity except to those to whom it has been given to understand the nature of the kingdom. At the same time, once the miracle has been accepted as a means of "proving” — a tricky idea in itself — that Jesus is God made flesh, the story loses any further significance. It becomes a snapshot or — dare one say it — a sleight of hand.

But the idea that it simply encourages people to share may seem a rather weak and feeble interpretation of so dramatic a scene. But then again, placed in the context of the unjust distribution of the earth’s resources, it may be a more powerful teaching tool than we realise.

We can bring both interpretations together, however, if we look beyond miracle and parable. First of all, we need to remember that St John in his Gospel gives us no account of the Last Supper and therefore gives us no account of the institution of the Eucharist – the service which we gather here this morning to celebrate together. There is a sense then in which this story, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, may be John’s version of the institution of the Eucharist.

St John says that "the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near”. And, of course, it is the Passover which Jesus and his disciples are celebrating at the Last Supper in the relevant accounts of the other three gospels.

And then, when Jesus takes the loaves, we read: "and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated.” "And when he had given thanks” are the very words used in St Luke’s Gospel, chapter 22, verse 19 at the Last Supper; they are also the very words used in Prayer of Consecration in the Book of Common Prayer service of Holy Communion. It gradually becomes clearer that we are intended to treat this story as John’s version of the institution of the Eucharist.

Why John gives it to us this way is another matter. That he gives it to us this way is highly significant because it immediately sets what we are doing here this morning in the context of a shared meal not just between Jesus and his disciples but also with crowds of other people included (like you and me). It also locates the institution of the Eucharist in a very specific place: not in an upper room in an unspecified location but right next to the Sea of Galilee which, if we believe in the traditional site set aside in the Holy Land as the scene of this story, is in a place called Tabgha, not far from Nazareth, where there now stands a church with the famous fourth century mosaic depicting a basket of loaves flanked by two fish. The basket contains only four loaves and it has been argued that this is because the fifth loaf is placed upon the church’s altar when the Eucharist is celebrated.

Outside the church, we are reminded of the second remarkable story in this morning’s gospel lesson because, here, the pilgrim may wander down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee where the water laps against the pebble beach. It is shallow water and Jesus could have walked along it for some time before getting to any degree out of his depth: perhaps this is what is happening in the second half of this morning’s gospel lesson when the disciples see Jesus walking on the lake. The Greek word at this point actually says "by the lake” and is the same word which is used later in St John’s Gospel when the disciples are onthe shore discussing going out fishing.

I’ve suggested that John’s account of the institution of the Eucharist allows us to identify ourselves with the crowds gathered there that day and therefore to identify ourselves also with the intimacy of that first Eucharist. When we walk forward this morning to receive communion, we may do so with the knowledge that there is a very particular place not a million miles away from here where this actually happened for the first time.

And there are crowds gathered here in London right now to compete in Olympic and Paralympic games – not 5000 but 10000. A miracle perhaps that 204 countries can participate harmoniously in a sporting competition in London. A parable of the need to share across national boundaries, especially when two of those 204 countries are Israel and Palestine who now fight over that very particular place where this morning’s Eucharist was celebrated for the first time.

Miracle and parable: two sides of the same coin and brought together in this Eucharist because, whenever two or three or five thousand or ten thousand are gathered together, God is in the midst of them so there is hope.