Trinity 9 2018
All this sweltering heat we have been having reminds me of the places in the world where I have been, where such temperatures are normal. Usually hot weather is associated with holidays - or pilgrimages - and for sure we have had Israeli and Jordanian and Egyptian temperatures these last few weeks. So having to work in the heat has been strange. A BBC news website article recently suggested we spare a thought for those who have to wear ‘work clothes’ in the heatwave, and had little features on builders, nurses, pizza chefs, bar staff and, yes, priests! It’s not just the robes, which can be multi-layered, but for many clergy, black is the colour of the clerical uniform. You will no doubt have noticed that I do not always wear black!
On the other hand, I was in Beverley Minster a few days ago, enjoying the companionship and mental stimulation of the Hymn Society, and we visited that magnificent church, and one of the most memorable aspects of walking into it was the sensation of entering a chilled room. There is one cool church – in all sorts of ways! Indeed it has been suggested that churches should market themselves as cool places to take refuge - sanctuaries for the sunburnt! Our own church of course was nice and cool early on, but by now I fear, the stones have warmed up and are now retaining the heat. Perhaps this will be to our benefit in October!
We have had some hot air in church in July for sure, mostly breathed out in song. Removing the orchestra from the morning Patronal Festival on St Mary Magdalene’s day last weekend, and having an orchestral Songs of Praise festival after a sumptuous tea in the late afternoon, was great fun, and well supported and enjoyed.
Moving forward, permissions notwithstanding, the organ will be under repair from September. To some extent we won’t notice for a bit, but the various processes will take until Easter. Congratulations and thank you to everyone who has made and will continue to make this possible. Concerts, walks, coffee mornings, parish events, sponsorship events, have all got us across the starting line and we look forward to what will surely follow. But hopefully the heat will have calmed down before our organ builders have to don their overalls!!!!
Which brings me back to those places of which the heat reminds us. Perhaps some of you remember being in Galilee in August, where the temperature was well into the thirties. Pilgrimage can be a hot business - but one of the aspects of going to the Holy Land, so often overlooked - is that alongside visiting the places, touching the stones, eating the food, and walking where Jesus walked, is the experience of the weather - more particularly the hot weather. One can only presume that temperatures in Jerusalem and Galilee were pretty much the same 2000 years ago as they are now. So even if first century Palestinians were more used to it than us, some Biblical stories have quite a hot context. When Jesus was tempted in the desert, the heat was surely an obstacle. The story of the Good Samaritan is told in a landscape of parching heat and direct exposure to the heated elements. Jesus was crucified during the peak heat of the day - between noon and 3pm. Blood, sweat and tears all flowed at Calvary, under a blazing sun.
And what of the events of which we have just heard? A hot day by the lake with 5000 people - probably men - who perhaps in hot temper as well as hunger were ready to rise up in arms and follow Jesus as a rebel leader.
They could so easily have risen up to make him King and storm Jerusalem. Heatwaves are often followed by storms - as I discovered in Yorkshire on Thursday when I was caught in a thunderstorm that soaked me to the skin, through a raincoat, in about 10 seconds. It was so unpleasant I almost enjoyed it! And then had some difficulty with the trains getting home on Friday.
And in this story today we have a heatwave followed by a storm. Or perhaps the Galilean heat hadn’t fully risen, because we are told that there was much grass, and it was Passover time - Springtime. Springtime when, tradition held - that the Messiah would come. But in my experience April is pretty hot ion Galilee too. So those 5000 men had turned up expectantly, turned up to become an army, led by Colonel King Jesus. And as the leader, he needed to feed the army who expect him to lead them into battle.
But Jesus is not wanting to wage that kind of war, and the food he is giving them is not that kind of food. Sure enough though, they are hungry, and their material needs must be met - and they are. But there is a wider and deeper symbolism here. Jesus himself is the bread - the bread of life - and as we shall see in succeeding weeks, Jesus himself uses this miracle to illustrate his role as spiritual food and divine feeder. So when he asks Philip ‘what are we to feed these guys?’ it is also a rhetorical question, for, as he reminded Satan in the wilderness ‘man cannot live by bread alone’. ‘Man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’, as the song would have it. So Jesus is going to give them a snack, aided by the boy who shares his lunch, but most of all he is going to feed the crowd with the living Word of God. The Word - the bread of life - himself.
So, yes, we can take this as a miracle story where Jesus does something weird and wonderful which folk remember, and write down: a miracle that reveals his divine presence and power - a sign of the coming of the Messiah, which, of course, the gathered picnic army recognise. That they want to rise up and act becomes a temptation that Jesus must shun - and does. And in his retreating from them there is another sign of command over nature as he walks on the water. But as well as sign-miracle, this story of the 5000 is also about Jesus teaching and trying to get his message across - on this occasion with mixed results. Feeding them with the Word of God is his mission - the Word that is Bread - as bread to the mouth, so is teaching to the soul.
This is a very Johanine thing. For John, writing up Jesus’s exploits and encounters, having opened his gospel by telling us that Jesus is the light shining in the darkness, soon tells us about the first miracle - the changing of water into wine. That is a sign that Jesus’ ministry is going to be about change. And now this - feeding 5000 - this is a sign that Jesus’ ministry is all about feeding the armies of faith with the food of the Word. And so it continues - John takes the events of Jesus’ life and gives them meaning.
But what now? That was a long time ago.
Well, now, we go to the altar and we will share a little piece of bread and sip a little wine. They are a small token of our involvement in the ongoing feeding of our own spiritual lives and our own ongoing membership of Christ’s body - the church. Tokens - yes, for as well as being bread and wine they are the body and blood of Christ through which we believe, and belong. We partake. And we re-member - Christ is re-membered - resurrected in the ongoing sign that is for us the Eucharist. It is a sign that is not buried in the fusty pages of that old book called the Bible, nor buried in a tomb outside the city wall of Jerusalem, but rather living for and among us as we receive into our own hands, and place into our own mouths, the body of Christ - the bread of life.
Come - you are invited! Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 29/07/18