Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sunday 26th July 2015 - 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Feeding Five Thousand / Miracles / Rescue on the Lake / God's boundless wisdom and love / Christ's immense love / God's work in us through the Spirit and Christ

Sentence: I pray that you may ... know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:18-19).


All-seeing God,'
teach us to be open with you about our needs,
to seek your support in our trials,
to admit before you our sins,
and to thank you for all your goodness. Amen.

Readings (related):

2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-18
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21


2 Kings 4:42-44

Most of Jesus' miracles, perhaps even all of them (we could argue that, but not here) have some background and some precedence in the miracles associated with Elijah and Elisha. Thus in seeking a 'related' passage to the gospel reading, the lectionary compilers have rightly looked into the Elijah and Elisha cycles of miracle stories. This one is apt.

Note that the numbers themselves are not the precedent ('twenty loaves barley,' 'a hundred people' (though this seems to mean 'it wouldn't feed a hundred people so how would it feed the starving multitudes', 4:38).

Psalm 145:10-18

The 'relatedness' of this psalm to the gospel reading turns on the phrase 'you give them their food in due season' (15). But the whole of the chosen passage frames what happens in the gospel story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. God is to be thanked and blessed (10). What God powerfully does leads to talk of 'the glory of your kingdom' (albeit that in the gospel passage this is converted by the people to the desire to make Jesus 'king.'

Ephesians 3:14-21

(Continuing a sequence of readings from Ephesians through these weeks).

Ephesians 3:1-13 has set out Paul's privilege as a commissioned servant of the gospel (2, 7) to reveal the gospel which Paul describes as a 'mystery' (3, 4, 9). This mystery is that 'the Gentiles have become fellow heirs' (i.e. with the Jews) of the privileges and possibilities for eternity of belonging to the body of Christ and sharing 'in the promise in Jesus Christ' (6). For Paul this mystery of the gospel now revealed includes 'the boundless riches of Christ' (8) and is a revelation not only for people on earth but also for heavenly rulers (10). So for all these and other reasons set out in 3:1-13 Paul says in 3:14, 'For this reason I bow my knees ...'

But what does Paul bow his knees to pray for? (We will come back to 'Father' in verse 14 at the end).

He prays a long prayer (16-19) in two parts (16-17, 18-19), each part of which is in turn divided into two. But these latter two parts might be best understood as two sides of the one coin of God's work in the believer.

Thus 16-17 concerns the strengthening power of the Spirit in the inner being of the believer (16) and the dwelling of Christ in the believer's heart 'through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love' (17). Note, incidentally, the Trinitarian flavour of what Paul seeks in prayer 'before the Father' ... 'through his Spirit' ... 'that Christ may dwell' (14-17).

Thus 18-19 concerns the 'comprehension' and 'knowledge' of the believer. In verse 18 the prayer is that the believer 'may have power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth' (of what?) and in verse 19 'to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge'. We should understand verse 18 as either applying to comprehension of the 'wisdom of God in its rich variety' (3:10) or 'the love of Christ' (19), noting also the grounding 'in love' of verse 17. Either way, Paul's invoking of breadth/length/height/depth is an invoking of the unlimited and multiple dimensions of what is available from God - Father, Christ and Spirit - for the believer which we might also describe as 'the boundless riches of Christ' (3:8).

In this way the believer, Paul prays, 'may be filled with all the fullness of God', a purpose and point of God's work in Christ which Paul has already prayed for in Ephesians 1 (noting the parallel between 1:23 and 4:19). Do we grasp the sheer scale of what God blessings mean for us? If we answer 'No' then we are understanding the passage well!

Then verses 20-21. In sum, Paul is saying, 'If this is who God is and what God has done and is doing for us ('able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine') then 'to him be glory.' But there is much to reflect on here.

The 'him' who works in us, according to the first verses in this passage, works through the Spirit and through Christ. The Spirit and Christ are co-partners in this divine work, not agents of the divine. The doctrine of the Trinity may have been finally formulated centuries later, but its groundedness in revelation is right here in these verses.

The glory of God which Paul wishes to be given to God is 'in the church' which begs the question whether we (let alone those outside the church) see that glory in the life of the church? It is also 'in Christ Jesus', for Jesus is the glory of God made visible on earth.

Finally, back to verse 14. There is a question whether the Greek translated in the NRSV as 'family' should be 'fatherhood' (the literal meaning of patria). First note that Paul is offering a wordplay between 'the Father/pater' and 'family/fatherhood/patria'. God is Father or Creator, Source and Ruler of all human entities (whether we think of nations, tribes, communities, families). Every such grouping derives its very existence from 'the Father'. But what grouping is Paul concerned with here? He is concerned with the church. If we track back through the preceding verses we see the church described as the body, dwelling place for God, temple in the Lord (3:6; 2:22; 2:21 respectively) and as 'the household of God' (2:19). None of this is particularly close to 'fatherhood' but 'the household of God' takes us close to 'family' so to 'family' we will stick, with the NRSV.

John 6:1-21


Starting today we spend five weeks in John 6. For those unfamiliar with the three year RCL cycle, the successive foci are on Matthew, Mark and Luke. But John's Gospel is not neglected and so from time to time (and especially in the Year of Mark) we also engage with Johannine readings. In this case we move from the possibility of considering Mark 6:35-52 to John 6:1-21 where (intriguingly, if we were to think of possible influence of Mark's Gospel on the composition of John's Gospel) a similar sequence of Feeding Five Thousand/Storm on Lake sequence is found.

John 6:1-15

In this version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, we notice a connection being made with the Passover (4). This reference seems a bit random, especially noticing the setting of the scene, beside the Sea of Galilee (1), which is a long way from Jerusalem (see 7:1). It could be that John is making a point with 7:1 anticipated in his mind: the popularity of Jesus in Galilee will make life difficult for him when he visits Jerusalem.

We also notice that the disciples do not draw Jesus' attention to the hunger of the listening crowd. Rather Jesus, seemingly even before the crowd have sat down to listen to him (i.e. to Jesus teaching his disciples who are already seated, 3), anticipates the problem and tests Philip (6) by asking him 'Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?' (5).

The Feeding of the Five Thousand has always been a story with numbers in it (5000, 12 baskets). Here Philip calculates 5000 mouths in terms of numbers of dollars: 'Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.' (In a rough top of the head calculation, I reckon a couple of months gross wages on the average wage today would buy a couple of nice buns from an NZ supermarket for each of the 5000).

With verse 8 we feel like we are getting into the version of the Feeding we are familiar with from the other gospels. Andrew steps forward to say 'There is a boy here who has five loaves and two fish.' (9a). But he shares Philip's pessimism about the scarcity of resources versus the plentitude of people present (9b)!

The people are made to sit down (10). Jesus takes the loaves, gives thanks and distributes to those seated and does likewise with the fish (11).

[Notable here is that Jesus neither 'looks up to heaven' nor 'breaks' the bread (so Matthew 14:19; Mark 6:41; Luke 9:16). This is in keeping with John dealing with the 'Lord's Supper' differently to the other gospels (noting that the other gospels offer parallels between Jesus' actions with bread in the Feeding and in the Last Supper; whereas John refrains from offering an account of the Last Supper in which the Lord's Supper/the Eucharist is instituted).]

Verse 12 has a poetic quality to its description: 'Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.' The care here for the fragments is reminiscent of the care elsewhere in the gospels for the last, the least and the lost.

The fragments gathered up here amount to 'twelve baskets' (13). A remarkable feature of this miracle story, told in all four gospels, is that when various details vary from telling to telling, there are four numbers which are fixed across the four versions: 5000 (people), 5 (loaves), 2 (fish), 12 (baskets of leftovers).

With verse 14 we are theologically in Johannine territory: what has happened is a 'sign', and this sign prompts a political speculation not found in the other gospels at a parallel point: 'This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.' John goes further than preserving this comment. With verse 15 he describes a spontaneous uprising to make Jesus 'king'. Before we think about the import of this report, note that Jesus avoids the momentum towards kingship by withdrawing 'to the mountain' which is a motif found also in Matthew 14:23 and Mark 6:46.

Most of John's Gospel seems unconcerned with what we could call the political dimension of life. Jesus does not, for instance, come to the attention of King Herod (recalling Mark 6:14-29 two Sundays ago). Nor does this gospel have much to say about 'the kingdom of God', a political concept if ever there was one. But here in John 6:15 we have this Johannine oddity: the people think what Jesus is up to with his 'signs' is worthy of making him 'king', a royal leader of Israel to challenge the imperial power of the Emperor and of his lackeys such as Herod. By saying that Jesus avoided this momentum, John is disavowing the political implications of Jesus' mission, at least in their local sense. Jesus has come (we later find) not to rule over Israel but over the world, not to challenge the Roman Emperor but the 'ruler of the world.'

Nevertheless we should not underestimate the impact of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. In the ancient world food was as much a necessity as it is today but its supply was more prone to being cut off (e.g. by drought) than our supplies are today (when, e.g. we have immense capacity to shift food from productive areas to unproductive areas). A human leader who could guarantee the supply of food in the way Jesus could was someone worth making king!

John 6:16-21

When we compare verse 15 with what happens at the beginning of the story of the lake which we now look at, we realise that either Jesus was not very far up the mountain (15) or the mountain was a small hill beside the lake!

There are several lake stories featuring storms in the gospels. All features boats and terrified disciples. Not all feature Jesus walking on the water. This one does (19). This one is also ambiguous about the terror: were they terrified by the storm or by the sight of Jesus (perhaps not recognised) walking on the water. Jesus' response in verse 20 is consistent with either cause of terror. Either 'It is I (so do not worry about the storm because I will take care of everything)' or 'It is I (hey, it's me, Jesus, not a ghost or apparition, so stop panicking).'

A unique feature of this story is that we are not told that the storm abated. Rather, when they took Jesus into the boat 'immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going' (21). Reaching land instantly is the same as having the storm cease instantly!

Apart from (so to speak) the usual application of this story, that disciples should not be afraid whatever storms may come, it is difficult to know what to make of this story because John himself has nothing more to say about it. The rest of the chapter is devoted to dialogue and discourse about the ramifications of the Feeding of the Five Thousand (i.e that Jesus is the Bread of Life, 35). What we can notice, however, is that when we discuss John's Gospel in relation to the other gospels, we have in this sequence of two miracles a sequence that is paralleled in Matthew 14 and Mark 6. Thus we have something to talk about when we ask whether the Synoptic Gospels may have influenced the composition of John's Gospel.

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