All Saints Margaret Street | High Mass – 9th after Trinity Sunday 29 July 2018

Sermon for High Mass – 9th after Trinity Sunday 29 July 2018


Readings:  2 Kings 4.42-end; Psalm 145.10-19; Ephesians 3.14-end; John 6.1-21 

It seems no time at all since young William’s mum, his aunt and his uncle were among the “angel voices” * singing around the throne of light in the choir at Old St. Paul’s in Edinburgh when I was the Rector there– now here they are, all grown-up. *(The Entrance Hymn was “Angel voices ever singing round the throne of light” New English Hymnal 336) 

Like all infants, William’s principal concerns at this stage of his life centre on food and sleep, comfort and security, and his parents’ role is to provide them. 

And, however grown up we become, or think we are, we still need food, just as Jesus knew the crowd who had followed him into the hills of Galilee would be hungry. 

In our gospel readings at the Sunday Eucharist this year, the Church takes a break from reading St. Mark and for five Sunday’s turns to the 6th chapter of St. John, which begins with the Feeding of the 5000 and then continues with Jesus’ Discourse on the Bread of Life. 

This chapter is part of what is known as the “Book of Signs” in John’s Gospel. These “Signs” are actions which point beyond themselves to the identity and meaning of the one who performs them:  Jesus Christ. 

Today, we have had not one but two of those “Signs” – the Feeding of the 5000 and the Stilling of the Storm. 

  • Both look back, at Passover time,  to the foundational event in the life of the people of God: the Exodus from Egypt: to God’s liberation of the people from slavery in Egypt, his saving of them at the crossing of the Red Sea, his feeding of them with the manna, the bread from heaven,  in the wilderness 
  • Both look forward to Christ’s Passion and death, to his passing over from death to life at the time of Passover in Jerusalem. 
  • Both point to Jesus in the present as the one who is the hoped-for prophet, like Moses promised in the Book of Deuteronomy (18.18). 
  • Both look forward, further, to the sacramental life of the Church; to the Baptism and Eucharist we celebrate this morning. In his account of the Last Supper, John gives no account of the institution of the Eucharist: Chapter 6 is his equivalent.  

Signs, however, can be mis-read and we will hear over the coming Sundays that most of those who had witnessed the first of these did indeed fail to understand. 

In the ancient world, as in parts of the world today, political leaders were expected to provide food for their supporters: the poor of the city of Rome were famously kept in order by a combination of “bread and circuses”; cheap food and free entertainment. In our society politicians running for election simply promise us tax-cuts. 

In the temptation stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke Jesus is tempted to win favour with the masses by doing just that, by turning stones into bread. He responds with words from scripture:  “Man shall not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” 

This was the first text from scripture I am said to have quoted as a child. Often on Sunday afternoons we had to walk to my grandparents’ home in the next village. The afternoon would end with high tea – but before we were allowed cake and jelly, we had to eat a ration of brown bread, which we did not much like. I responded on one occasion with: “Man shall not live on bread alone.”

It didn’t work. 

The crowd who have been fed by Jesus think he is such a prophet, such leader. With his miraculous power, he will free the nation from the yoke of imperial Rome. So they want to make him their king. 

But Jesus is not to be co-opted to their this-worldly nationalist political agenda; one which fails to understand the role God intends for his people; the kind of nation they are meant to be he slips away from them to take refuge in the hills.  He will return later to seek to explain the radically different nature of the sign. 

As the Baptism service makes clear, and as most parents know, their responsibility towards their children is about much more than the provision of material things, the simple promotion of physical growth.  It is to enable and encourage our children to grow into good and responsible and virtuous human beings; ones capable of loving and caring relationships with others. 

I belong to a sort of clerical lunch club which meets monthly at St. Matthew’s, Westminster. 

  • We begin with a celebration of mass – food for the soul;
  • then have a good lunch – food for the body;
  • then our guest speaker gives us a talk – food for the mind. 

Our most recent guest spoke about a project she is involved in to help congregations deal with collective traumas like recent ones in the  life of our city: terrorist attacks or the  Grenfell Tower fire. Those of you who were here at Corpus Christi will remember Fr. Robert Thompson of St. Clement’s Notting Dale, the church under the shadow of the Tower, speaking about the parish’s role in the aftermath of the latter. It began simply with the clergy opening its doors in the early hours of the morning as a place of refuge and welcome; a role which has gone on to be a place, along with others, where people could start to come to terms with tragedy and trauma of it all; where people could sit and weep; where they could find a voice. The Vicar of St. Clement’s. Fr. Alan Everett, who worshipped here at All Saints in his younger days, has written a book about it called, “After the Fire: Finding Words for Grenfell.”  It’s not exactly beach reading but it’s worth buying. 

What, you may be wondering, has all that got to do with a christening?  Well one of the things our speaker mentioned which stuck in my mind, as a parent and grandparent,  was about research of the effect in the early months of a child’s life of the relationship with mother, and also father, established by sight and touch and sound: a face which is open and smiling rather than closed; a voice which is comforting and kind rather than angry and scolding; arms open to embrace and give comfort and security rather than closed and excluding.   St. John tells us elsewhere that we love because God first loved us; we learn to love, too, from those who love us – because we are made in the image of God. 

When a child wakes in the night, frightened by the dark, they are comforted by the voice of the parent who says, “It’s alright, don’t be frightened, I’m here;” and who takes them in their arms and holds them.  Amid the storms of life, when our hearts are afraid, then the Gospel tells us that Jesus comes to us with words and actions of reassurance and hope; as he comes to the disciples in the boat saying: “It is I; do not be afraid.”   So he comes to the disciples at Easter and says to them “Peace be with you.”

One of the ways the Church speaks about the sacraments is as “pledges”; outward and visible signs, along with God’s words, of God’s presence and love. And because we are not disembodied spirits but material beings too, God gives us physical signs which communicate his divine life and love; we are given the sacraments, “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.” 

Jesus will go on to show that the sign of the loaves is about much more than the provision of short-term physical sustenance; it is about our sharing in the bread of life which is the sacrament, the effective sign, of the eternal divine life;  of God’s presence and action in our lives; not simply to comfort and console, but to feed and strengthen us, to enable us to grow and flourish, as we pray young William will, in the renewed humanity which is given to us in our communion with Christ, in the life he shares with us and we are called to share with each other. 

What each of us has may not seem much, but neither were a wee lad’s five loaves and two fish, but taken, blessed, broken and shared by Jesus they fed the crowds.  The bread and wine, the lives we bring to the altar this morning, may not seem much either, but taken, blessed, broken and shared by Christ, who knows what they might be and do. 

So, “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly fare more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.”  (Ephesians 3.21)