This year we have been reading from the Gospel of Mark. Last week we had the story of Jesus and the disciples crossing over the lake and coming to find a large crowd of people, which he set out to teach at some length. Rather than continuing the story from Mark, we interrupt the story and change to have an extended reading from the Gospel of John, so that we have his unique perspective. John’s gospel was written much later than the other gospels, probably late in the first century. You have this deeply reflective, theological and spiritual understanding of Jesus and the mysteries of the Church. One of the curiosities of John’s Gospel is that when you go to the Last Supper with John, there is no mention of Jesus blessing the bread; of Jesus taking the cup and telling the disciples that this is my blood. We can wonder – why aren’t what we call the Institution Narratives – the story of the institution of the Eucharist mentioned in John’s Gospel? It is because it is here, in this sixth chapter of St John. I invite you as we journey through this magnificent chapter over the next five weeks to take the time to prayerfully and slowly read through the chapter. Take the time to ponder these majestic words and allow them to sink deeply into our spirit.
Here in this Gospel, one of the things we must remember is that nothing ever happens by chance. Every word is carefully chosen to drive home this deep symbolic and rich meaning. The gospel begins with Jesus and his disciples going up a mountain. This should evoke every other mountain in the Scriptures – from Mount Sinai, Mount Horeb to Mount Tabor – all the other mountains in scripture that have that rich sense of those places that you go to be with God; where God will reveal his presence and his power and his majesty. Then it simply says that there Jesus sat down. We probably will miss the significance of this: in the ancient world a master would sit down and his disciples would also sit down at his feet in order that he could teach them. This was the symbol and gesture of teaching. So Jesus sat down to teach and instruct his disciples. It is why when we gather at the Eucharist we sit down to listen to the readings – to hear the word of God – and to allow the readings being proclaimed to nourish and enrich us. Hopefully this will also happen in the preaching of the priest as he tries to expound upon the words of God. John is reminding us that what is happening here in this scene is what happens every time that we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. First we sit down to allow the word of God to nourish us; to allow Jesus to teach us.
But then he says the Feast of Passover was drawing close. What happens at Passover? The Lamb of God is sacrificed. That lamb of God that allowed the people of God, the Hebrew slaves to escape the judgement of God upon the kingdom of Egypt. They remembered this every year as that time when God delivered them from slavery to freedom. This is the signal for John to remind us that we are moving from that time of teaching in the Mass into that time of sacrifice. Then Jesus looks and see this massive crowd of 5000 people approaching up the mountain. He says to the disciples ‘what are we going to do? How are we going to feed this huge crowd?’ Philip speaks the words that are on all their lips – even 200 Denarii or six-month’s wages – would not be enough to buy food to even give them a little bit to eat. Even that much money is not enough – and we don’t even have this much money. Then Andrew recognises at least something that is available. He says, well actually there is this little boy, this child has five loaves; he has a couple of fish. But what is that among so many? Perhaps that is what we sometimes think when we get to the offertory at Mass; when those few scraps of bread, that little jug of wine is brought forward as a sign and symbol of what our offering is; of what you as the people of God bring and what I as the representative of Jesus in this gathering receive on your behalf. Such fragile attempts – mere scraps – and yet we know and we trust that somehow in that the Lord will take it; the Lord will take our lives; the Lord will take what we can offer; he will take and he will receive. Jesus does this – he takes these small and fragile offerings of this young child and he gives thanks. That word, in Greek, is eucharisteo – it is why we call this gathering the Eucharist – because it is here that we give thanks; that we gather to give our return to the Lord – to bless him, to worship him and to offer our thanksgiving for all that he does through us and in us. So Jesus does this; he gives thanks to God – he prays the blessing of God to be upon this fragile offering which is our lives. Then he himself breaks and gives – a sign of those four central actions that are at the heart of every Mass. We take the offering of our lives, we give and bring up the gifts which are blessed in the Eucharistic Prayer; where they are broken at the Lamb of God, and then distributed to each of us so that we can feed.
Here, when Jesus feeds personally each of the people in this crowd – then everyone eats and is full. Everyone is satisfied at this feast. We have so many hungers – don’t we? We want pleasures, we want recognition; we want to be like everyone else; we want to have the thrill of money or of sex or of wealth or of whatever we want… But none of these things every truly satisfies. Even if we have our fill, even if we have the latest gadgets, even if we travel to the four corners of the world, we are never satisfied. But here in this place, when we are allowed to eat of the very life of God, when the Lord himself feeds us, then we can be satisfied; then our hearts and our longings and our desires can be filled and fulfilled in Christ. That is why he feeds us; that is why we gather to give thanks. That is why we bring those fragile offerings of our lives because the Lord always wants to work with us; he always wants to take what we can give and bless that, and multiple that and fulfil those deepest longings in our hearts and spirits.
The final curious detail that is given to us in the Gospel, is that Jesus instructs them to gather all the scraps and fragments together that are left over from the feast. It is the same thing that we do at the Eucharist – that we are very attentive even to the smallest fragment of this precious gift – because we want to gather it, we want to collect it so that others also can share in this gift. It is that sense of unity in being gathered. John tells us that there were twelve baskets full of scraps and fragments at the end of the feast – the twelve as that richly symbolic number representing the 12 tribes of Israel – that fullness of the whole people of God. All of us are called to be gathered in unity as his people; as different and diverse as we are we are called to come together in this place, for this Eucharist we are allowed to be one; we are allowed to be gathered into the great feast of the Lord. Today as we celebrate this Eucharist. As we allow the gifts of our lives to be brought up and to be offered; as I pray that great prayer of thanksgiving on your behalf when I ask the Spirit of God to come and fall upon these gifts to make them into the body and blood of Christ; as we break them and as we share them, know that the Lord himself is feeding our deepest desires and longings. He is bringing them all to be blessed and multiplied and in our turn we are invited to give thanks for this great gift of the Eucharist.
Recorded at St Columbkille’s, Vigil (10min)
Sunday 17, Year B. John 6:1-15