What do we do with the kind of story which we have just heard from the Gospel of Matthew? How do we respond to it, and other stories like it in the Bible? Is it so different from our experiences of living that we just put it in the “too hard” basket, or can it have some meaning for us today?
Those of you who are visiting us this morning, might be surprised to know that within this congregation there would probably be a range of responses to those questions.
Anglican Christians do not have just one way of approaching the Bible and the Christian tradition, they have many. That is why, often, in our newspapers and on the television news, when we hear stories about the Anglican Church, they tend to be about the disagreements which we are having with each other. As Anglicans we do not have one centralised authority. We are not the same as the Roman Catholic Church in which decisions about what should be believed are ultimately made by the Pope and his representatives. Neither are we, as Anglicans, like some of the newer churches around the place who assert that the Bible is the only authority which is needed for decision making. On the one hand we are not convinced that one person, in one culture and with one set of understandings can make decisions that affect all people in all cultures.
On the other hand those of us who have read the Bible know that within the Bible there are a great many different perspectives, stretching out over the many hundreds of years in which the Bible was written, by many different people, in many different places. So whilst we value the Bible, we know that it is not like a car manual, we cannot simply look up a problem in the index and be given a straight forward answer about what we should do. As Anglican Christians (and Anglican simply means English – because our history is inter-linked with the Church of England) we tend to find ourselves struggling more than other churches about how our Christian faith relates to the contemporary issues around us, and what we should do about it.
That is why our news here in Australia is often reporting our debates about homosexuality, and the role of women as leaders in the life of the Church, and how Christians should respond to stem-cell research (for example) – and in the past we had those same debates about birth control, and divorce, and all kinds of issues which affect people who live in Australia. As Anglicans we recognise that there are not easy answers to many of these questions, and that the Bible is often a hard book for us to use in our decision making.
What do we do when we hear a story about Jesus sharing five loaves and two fish with more than 5,000 people? How do we make sense of that kind of story, when it does not seem to correlate with our own experience of living? Because we have not seen that kind of a miracle, or perhaps any kind of miracle take place, do we simply reject the story as a beautiful but strange fairy tale, or do we listen to the story because that is what we do when we come to church, but forget about it before we leave the building this morning? Or is there another kind of response?
Well, my guess is that within our Church this morning there are people who would have a wide range of responses to those questions. Within the regular congregation here, I think that there are probably two dominant responses to the miracles of Jesus as we read about them from the Bible in our modern world.
One response is to say that we must take miracles at their face value. In other words, as we read the Bible together it is important for us to believe that through the plain words of scripture we know literally what happened as people encountered Jesus. Those people who have that kind of view would want to suggest that as a sign of the power and authority of Jesus, he was able to multiply bread and fish – feeding five thousand people, and that’s simply how things were in the time of Jesus.
Another response would be to say that as modern people, living in a very different world to the world which Jesus inhabited two thousand years ago, we owe it to ourselves to interrogate these stories with all that we know from modern science and from our own experience of life. We approach the miracle stories with a little suspicion because it is difficult for us to make sense of people rising from the dead, and food being multiplied. We need to ask questions about these stories because we do don’t see these events happening on a regular basis in our own lives.
Those who take that kind of view would want to suggest that when Jesus fed the multitude from just a few loaves and fishes, the reality behind the story is that those who were sitting around Jesus shared their food with each, and so everyone else did the same and there was enough to go around. A miracle of generosity perhaps, but not a literal miracle of multiplication.
For some of us that may seem a strange approach to take to the stories in the Bible, but equally the problem for those of us who take the miracles as literal events, is that these stories do not often seem to correlate with what we see around us today. We might see people get better through prolonged medical treatment and prayer, which we would want to say was the work of God, but we are not accustomed to seeing instantaneous miraculous events happening before our eyes. But at the same time, the problem for those of us who want to seek to explain in rational terms the miracles through natural occurrences is that we are in danger of making Jesus appear like some kind of trickster – someone who through slight of hand is able to convince people that he has miraculous powers, when in reality he is just like a good magician fooling people through his clever and well practised tricks.
So there are a range of responses within the life of the Anglican Church to how to approach stories like the one which we have just heard together. If you are waiting for me to give you the definitive answer this morning, and tell you what you are supposed to believe, then I am going to disappoint you. In true Anglican style I want to suggest to you that those kinds of responses miss the point of why, Sunday by Sunday; day by day we read and reflect upon the Bible and the Christian tradition together. Because the point of the stories in the Bible, for us, is not their history, but their meaning.
The people who wrote them down were not primarily concerned with the historical details, they were interested in conveying (within the life of the Church) something of the meaning which Jesus can bring to all of our lives. The question for us is far more like, “what does it mean?” than it is “how did it happen?” And the miracle story which we heard this morning was clearly of great importance to the Early Church. It is the only miracle story which appears in all four of the Gospels. There is no other miracle story which appears in Matthew and Mark, and Luke and John. So we know that this story was held very dearly by the first followers of Jesus.
What might the story which we have just listened to together have to say to us? It is clearly a story which is rich with meaning, but this morning I want to give us just one suggestion, amongst the many possibilities, to focus upon. Did you notice the different responses of people in the story to the need for food? Those who are closest to Jesus (his disciples) realising that the hour is late, want him to send the people who he has been teaching away hungry because they don’t want to be landed with the cost of providing dinner. And yet through the generosity of one person who is willing to provide his own dinner, that food is ultimately shared with everyone through the generosity of God.
Tradition has it that the person who provided the loaves and fishes was a small boy. In the story his generosity is contrasted with the first members of the Church, who are decidedly ungenerous in their response to the need of the people. If we are willing to give to God the little that we have (some of our time, and skills, and energy, and passions), God can multiply our gifts for the good of others. Through the generosity of one small boy (who is willing to share his dinner), God’s generosity breaks through so that there is not only enough food for everyone, but an abundance of food is left over at the end for people to take home with them.
For those of us who regularly gather here week by week, we might well want to reflect on the things which we do as a Church which mark out this same kind of generosity, and also perhaps the things which do not always make that generosity clear. For us all, this morning, it is this generosity of God which we celebrate as we gather with Michelle and Gary who have brought Jake here for baptism. Together we thank God for all that Jake means to us, and all that he will become in the life which is ahead of him. As we thank God for Jake, with his family, and ask God to bless him, we pray too that all of us, with Jake, will continue to grow into people whose lives are marked by a spirit of generosity. That we might be people who put others first, who value the building of local communities, and who are willing to help those around us who are in need.
At the heart of the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is the fact that it was the generosity of one person, who was willing to give up his small dinner of fish and bread, which led to God generously and abundantly feeding everyone. As we thank God for Jake this morning, we pray with his family today that he will be marked by the generous love of God in his own life, and that as he lives a life of generosity, God will use him to create many miracles for others.
In baptism, we remember that there is nothing which Jake (or any of us) could ever do which would make God love him more than God already loves him; and that there is nothing which Jake could do which would make God love him any less. We celebrate his entry into the body of Christ, the life of the Church and we assure him and his family that they will always be welcome here, and that we will remember them in our prayers in the months ahead.
If we put the arguments about the history of the feeding of the 5,000 to one side this morning and reflect instead on its meaning then our watch word this week will be generosity. We pray today, that Jake’s life will be marked with generosity – knowing that if we are willing to offer the little that we have, God can use our generosity to perform abundant miracles for others. We celebrate Jake, we celebrate God’s love for him and for us all, and we seek to live lives in the image of our generous creator to create with him, a world of miracles.