Sermon for Eighth Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 26 July 2015
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Jesus took the loaves and when he had given thanks he distributed them to those who were seated.
God lives in our souls. Christianity is an intimate business. We know that intimacy for real in Holy Communion. God comes to feed us, and that is what saves us. Doctrines and rituals don’t save us. God saves us. It is a blasphemy to see the Eucharist as a membership sign, separating who’s worthy to receive and those who don’t make the grade. God is food for everyone. All we need is hunger, the hunger for a solution to the problems of human existence, and a willingness to surrender to the One who is that solution. St Augustine wrote: Christ is the bread awaiting hunger. Food makes us what we are. We don’t just receive holy bread; we become it, God’s incarnate body in every human body, bread that is broken and shared. we are hungry to be filled, not only with bread, but with Jesus’s presence. That’s the miracle of the Eucharist.
And that’s the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the feeding of the five thousand. For St John this miracle takes place just before Passover. It is a Passover meal. It is a Last Supper. Jesus takes the bread and gives thanks; he says a standard grace.
So what is the miracle, what unnerves the crowd? The miracle is Jesus Himself. Here is a man who knows that nothing is impossible with God. Now we might believe that, on and off. But it’s a different matter to take the first step and risk your life to bring this Kingdom of God, the way God does things, before people’s eyes. That’s what Jesus did. Jesus took the first step and let God do the rest.
Being a parish priest is never a soft option. Being Vicar of All Saints Margaret Street must be among the more challenging posts in the Church of England. And to serve as that for twenty years, as Father Alan has done, would be impossible in prospect, and is unbelievable in retrospect. Let’s look at two different crowd scenes, two Galilee hillsides here. There is the external view, the building, the restoration of this place, a massive responsibility shared with the church wardens and the church council. But there is also the internal landscape, the responsibility for souls, the feeding of the multitudes, and that has its own challenge for any parish priest. (I’m setting to one side of course all the pastoral and administrative emergencies of daily ministry which arise.) The challenge is that you don’t see the result of your labours. It’s not a factory or office where you see a product. You must know from your own attempts at spiritual renewal that planning doesn’t help much. Renewal, revival, closeness to God, cannot be managed into existence. God’s grace works according to His plan, not ours. So with the Church. It can’t be managed into success. All we can do is what Jesus did on that hillside; take the loaves and bless them; take the first step and let God do the rest.
Now to do that every day for twenty years is impossible without support, and we must remember with gratitude that Teresa and the family have also lived and worked here for twenty years. The job is also impossible without a clear view of Jesus in that crowd beside the Sea of Galilee, and what he was doing. Jesus’s task was Communion. Human beings can share in God’s generosity; communion awakens in each of us a divine energy, love without limit. It is not the job of a vicar to keep everybody happy. Just as well, I hear you say, with people as contrary as other churches might say we are. But it is necessary to keep everyone together, because there’s no Communion on our own. The priestly task is communion, in every possible sense. And that is what Alan has given us, day in, day out, for twenty years.
Now in this church, because of the frequency of mass, because of the business of our services, the intimacy of that moment of communion can be lost. Communion should never be rushed, never. It is the moment when God says to you, it is all right, it will be all right. I shall feed you, and I shall feed you with my whole life, which I have given up for you. You were right to follow Me to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, tired and hungry as you are.
Communion outside in the open air is somehow different from communion in a church. The last time I was privileged to distribute communion outside was among the crowds at Walsingham on the National Pilgrimage this year. Thousands of people: there were a number of communion stations around the Abbey grounds. People came and went. The choir sang something. The birds sang along too. The army cadets dawdled. People sat on the grass. In silence we gathered up the pieces that remained, that nothing might be lost. There was no rush. Nobody wanted to be somewhere else. Where God is, life begins. “When we meet the living God in Christ … we know what life is.” [Benedict XVI]. What the world sees as unusual is for Christians business as usual. And that is what you, Alan, have given us over twenty years, business as usual, our place by the Sea of Galilee where God is to be found.
At the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the crowd knew that in the presence of Jesus they had all they needed. They sat down, they were fed. It’s the same for us. When you come up for Communion, remember the comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him: Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. And give thanks for this Church and for all who work and worship here.