When I was first ordained in the Diocese of Perth I was appointed to a strange role which included being Assistant Curate in one Church, Deacon in Charge of another parish about half an hour away, and the Development Officer for one of the regions of the Diocese.
I was in a Diocese which was new to me, ministering across the parishes of a region which was new to me, and with specific responsibilities in two parishes which were also new to me. In fact having just been ordained, everything was new for me.
It was one of those periods of my life when I wasn’t just learning new things every day, it felt like I was learning new things every five minutes. Rather than being just ahead of the congregations I was working with, it was quite clear, to me at least, (although I hid it as much as I could) that in many ways I was a long way behind the members of those congregations, and struggling to catch up. There was so much busyness going on that I spent most of the time in the present, thinking about what I was going to do next in the future.
I would be in one place thinking about the next place, I would be one conversation thinking about the next conversation. And regularly in the middle of all of this I would find that I was in the middle of a conversation with someone waiting for me to reply, and without having any clue as to what they had just said to me. During that period one of my colleagues, in the parish that I was in charge of as a deacon, was another deacon called Dulcie. Dulcie had been a member of that congregation for many years. And she was very active in the wider community, working for community groups, and helping the unemployed and the homeless who slept rough in the area around the Church.
Dulcie’s ministry was so widely recognised that the congregation had asked the Diocese if she could be ordained as an unpaid deacon, so that the ministry which she was already doing could be recognised and owned as the ministry of the Church. And our bishop, Bishop Brian, (when he was the Regional Bishop of that area) had ordained her in the local Church, to be a deacon for the whole Church. Dulcie was wonderful, because she wasn’t like me at all. Whilst I was thinking about other things when people were talking to me, she was always present with people. When you were talking to Dulcie you knew that you had her full attention, unlike when you were talking to me, and I sometimes had this strange vacant expression across my face.
Well Dulcie was much wiser than me, and she decided that she was going to educate me. So when she saw me, from across the Church Hall, starring into space whilst someone was talking to me, she would stride over. “Listen!” she would say, “people are talking to you!”
It was Dulcie that came to mind when I read the Gospel reading which we have just heard together this morning. As I read this encounter between the crowd and Jesus, I was back in Perth in the Parish of Midland, as Deacon in Charge of the Parish, and I could hear Dulcie, loud and clear, like Jesus, saying “listen! I’m talking to you!”
Because that is exactly what Jesus is saying to the crowd. Jesus has been healing the sick and teaching the people, and not surprisingly he has attracted a large crowd around him. (It is quite a crowd-puller when you can heal the sick.) And the crowd – which may have numbered thousands of people – has grown hungry. So Jesus has taken a few loaves and some fish and has miraculously fed all of them until they are full.
After everyone has been fed Jesus’ close disciples have tiptoed away into their boat in order to escape from the crowd and go instead, across the water, to Capernaum. At some point the crowd has realised that Jesus and his disciples are missing. They had been so focused on enjoying the miraculous feast, that they had not realised that the host of the meal had gone. Which meant that there free meal ticket for the future, and their evenings entertainment had gone as well. So, guessing that Jesus had gone across to Capernaum, the crowd had travelled over there in boats as well in search of him. That’s where our Gospel reading starts today. Jesus has fed the crowd and slipped away, and now they have come looking for him. And as we heard just a few moments ago, when they catch up with Jesus, and he finds that they are looking for him, he gives them a good telling off.
“You haven’t come here because you want to see me,” he says to them, “you have come here because I gave you a free meal and you want another one. Haven’t you listened to anything that I have been telling you? Don’t make all this effort for food that will perish, work instead for the food that will last for eternal life.”
We can imagine the crowd being a little perplexed.
“Okay,” they say, “we’re listening now we really do want to follow you, so how do we do it?”
“You need to believe in me and not the bread,” Jesus replies.
“That’s fine we can do that,” they say, “but… just to encourage us along… can we have another sign, some more bread please, after all Moses gave bread to his followers in the wilderness all those years ago, and if Moses can do it, surely you can do it as well!”
“Your still not listening,” Jesus replies. “It wasn’t Moses that gave them that bread, it was God… and he didn’t give it to them just so that they could eat some food, he gave it to them as a sign of his faithfulness to them. The bread of God is about much more than having your next meal, it gives life to the world not just for one meal, but for ever.”
“Oh… now we really are listening,” says the crowd, “that’s the bread we want!”
“That bread which you want doesn’t look like bread at all. It is me,” says Jesus. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty, but the food that I am offering isn’t physical food, it is the food that will sustain you for eternity.” And, although it doesn’t say it in the story… my guess is that someone at the back of the crowd probably still isn’t listening, and is whispering, “well we wouldn’t mind some real bread as well, or another miracle to entertain us!” It’s a wonderful encounter with Jesus isn’t it. And I don’t know about you but it speaks volumes to me! The crowd are mesmerized by the experience of being with Jesus – the drama of his healings, and the miracle of him magic-ing up a meal for them. But it takes a lot of work for Jesus to actually get them to listen to the message behind everything that he is doing.
The healings and the miracles aren’t incidental. The person who couldn’t walk can now, the person who was on the edge of society because of their disability is now (through God at work in Jesus) right back where they should be, in the centre of it all. Even the crowd who were hungry, have now had enough to eat. These things aren’t just tricks or gimmicks, they are important, but they are not the heart of what Jesus is trying to say. And yet, even after witnessing all that Jesus has done, and even after experiencing it for themselves, the crowd simply wants more of the same. The people in the crowd are not listening to the message behind Jesus’ actions, they are caught up instead in the immediate experience of all that is going on.
How do you rate yourself as a listener? It’s probably better to ask your best friend that question, rather than trying to answer it for yourself. I think I am a better listener now than I was when Deacon Dulcie used to have to shake me. But my wife may disagree, and I know that it still takes a long time sometimes for me to really hear clearly what someone is trying to say to me.
T.S. Eliot wrote, in his poem The Dry Salvages, “we had the experience but missed the meaning.” That is such a powerful insight, and it describes so perfectly what is going on in this encounter between Jesus and the crowd.
They have had their fill from the miraculous meal, and now that they have found Jesus on the other side of the water, they want the experience to be repeated again — who wouldn’t? Everyone wants more bread, but no one has stopped to ask why the bread was multiplied at all. They have had the experience, but they have totally missed giving any attention to the meaning behind it. And when Jesus tries to make the meaning clear to them, it takes a while before they begin to listen.
As ever in John’s Gospel, the stories of Jesus are as much about those who will listen to them later in the life of the Church, (people like you and me), as they are about the original characters. How often do we take the opportunity to stop and reflect upon the meaning behind the experiences which we have every day of God at work in our lives? Jesus says, through our Gospel reading this morning, “the experience is where we start, but it isn’t where we end.” The problem with experiences is that over time their appeal fades. Even a miracle dinner from bread and fish won’t draw the crowds forever if it is repeated day after day after day. It’s the meaning behind the miracle which will be life-giving and sustaining.
So here’s the challenge: for us all, especially me, to take away from this Gospel reading this morning. “How can I find space and time to explore the meaning behind the experiences in my life this week?” How can I bring whatever meaning I discover, back here next week to share with the rest of this community.
Jesus says to the crowd, “Listen. I am the bread of life. Don’t just live with the experience of having daily bread. Explore in this community the meaning of why I give it to you.”