Sermon preached at Enmore, 10th. Sunday after Pentecost, 29th July 2018
Readings: 2 Samuel 11.1–15; Ephesians 3.14–21; John 6.1–21.
You have probably heard the old misquote, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power is even nicer’. It came to mind this week as I reflected on the lectionary readings, all of which in some way are about power-its use and abuse.
In the wake of the Me-Too movement the story of David’s relationship with Bathsheba is noteworthy. There have been attempts throughout history by some commentators to excuse David’s behavior by implying that Bathsheba encouraged him by bathing on the roof where she could be seen. (The old ‘she was asking for it’ defense). Such a view ignores the culture of the day and does a grave injustice to Bathsheba. The truth is that Bathsheba was in her rightful place-the text tells us that she was having the ritual bath required by law after her period. According to Jewish law she was unclean during the days of her period and had to undergo a ritual rite of cleansing when it was over. Bathing on a roof top would have been a very normal thing to do. David, on the other hand is not where he is supposed to be. There is a battle going on and he is not leading his army as his kingly role requires. The text portrays him as having time on his hands to go looking at his beautiful neighbor, whom he has undoubtedly observed before.
When David summons Bathsheba he knows exactly who she is and is fully aware that her husband is away fighting. He seizes the opportunity to have what he desires. The NRSV softens the Hebrew text somewhat by rendering it: “So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him and he lay with her.” In the Lourve in Paris there are two famous paintings of Bathsheba being summoned by David- one is by Rembrandt the other by one of his disciples. Both show her holding the letter of summons sent by the King’s messengers. In both paintings the response on Bathsheba’s face is not one of pleasure, but of sadness. Bathsheba has no option but to do as commanded, the King has absolute power. The literal translation of the text is telling: “David sent messengers and took her”. There is no hint of caring or affection or love, this is lust, pure and simple. Today we call it rape. Years before Samuel had warned the Israelites that kings would be takers and his words are fulfilled. Prior to this episode David had not had to do much taking. God had blessed him with all that he desired and more. But now we see a different David. Power has corrupted him.
The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle performed by Jesus that is recorded in all four Gospels. Each of the writers presents it in his own way and their emphases are different but it was clearly an event that they understood to have very special significance. For most of us this is a well- rehearsed story and we may be inclined to think it has nothing new to teach us. But John’s distinctive telling of the event may shine some new light on its meaning. John tells us that Jesus and his disciples cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, possibly to get some respite from the large crowds who have been following them. Having made the crossing Jesus and his disciples climb a mountain and sit down together. No doubt the disciples were hoping for some quality time with Jesus to have their questions answered and try to learn more about the man and his message. They were to be disappointed in that hope but they were to have their minds opened to some new and disturbing ideas by the events that were to unfold that day.
John alone tells us that the festival of Passover was near. John never tosses in little comments like that without reason. It may seem an insignificant detail but it is actually at the heart of what John wants us to understand about Jesus. At the end of John chapter 5, Jesus complained that his critics among the religious authorities did not believe or understand what Moses had written. The closing words of Chapter 5 are these: (Jesus said) “If you believed Moses you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” The incident that John describes in chapter 6 not only takes place near Passover but the text will resonate with echoes of the Passover story.
No sooner have Jesus and his disciples settled down comfortably on the grass ready for a deep and meaningful conversation than Jesus notices in the distance a large crowd coming to join them. All the evangelists agree on the number of men in the crowd, namely 5,000 so we can safely assume a much larger number when we include women and children. In the synoptic Gospels the feeding takes place at the end of the day but in John, feeding the people is the first item on the agenda. The startled Philip is asked the question, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” The Gospels don’t reveal what Philip’s occupation was but on this occasion he spoke like an accountant. He did the sums in his head and came up with the answer that even six months wages would not be enough money to buy food sufficient for even a small snack. You wouldn’t even get a quarter of a kebab. John tells us that this was a test for Philip. Where else do we find tests in the Scriptures? In the Book of Exodus, God tests his people in the desert. He wants them to learn to trust him for everything, so from time to time they run out of water or they get tired of lentil burgers and then they complain like mad to Moses. ‘Why did you bring us out in the wilderness to starve to death?’ Like their ancient forebears, Philip and his companions have things to learn. Andrew has obviously been listening to the exchange between Jesus and Philip and he remembers seeing a small boy with a lunch pack, containing five barley loaves and two fish- doubtless provided by his mother before he set out for the day. He brings this to Jesus’ attention but adds the comment, ‘what are they among so many?’
I suspect many of us have experienced moments in our lives when we have faced a mountain that seemed impossible to move and then through God’s help a way forward was found. Certainly history gives us many examples of people who refused to give up when faced with impossible odds. I believe it was no coincidence that just a few days before the miraculous rescue of 300,000 men from the beach at Dunkirk, King George VI called his nation to prayer and thousands of people responded, packing churches and cathedrals, calling on God for help in that dark hour. We so easily forget that with God nothing is impossible. The reading from Ephesians today, concludes with a wonderful doxology where Paul reminds the Ephesian Christians that God’s power is at work in us and is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.
Jesus does not rebuke his disciples for their lack of vision. He simply gives them a job to do that they can manage- ‘get the people to sit down’, he tells them. Then Jesus took the loaves and gave thanks for them- perhaps in his mind giving thanks for the one thoughtful Mum who had sent her boy off with a nourishing meal. It was not a lavish lunch- barley loaves were eaten by the poor but it was enough. Having given thanks, Jesus then distributed the loaves and the fish among the huge crowd of people.
The meal over, Jesus commands that the ‘left overs’ be collected. The disciples fill twelve baskets. When Jesus provides there is never just enough, there is abundance. Perhaps the disciples remembered the wedding feast in Cana when Jesus provided an abundance of award winning wine for the thirsty guests. Certainly they realize they have witnessed something extraordinary which reminds them of the way Moses fed the people in the wilderness. The disciples are not the only ones to make the connections. The people reflect on what has happened and they come to the conclusion that Jesus must be the promised prophet, The Messiah who has come into the world. But rather than welcoming this, Jesus is disturbed, knowing that their vision of the Messiah is a political figure, a King who will lead them out of slavery to the Roman invaders. Passover was the great feast of liberation. Moses led them out of bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. They hoped Jesus would do the same for them. They had witnessed the sign but they had misread it.
So how should they have read the sign? The feeding of the five thousand is immediately followed in John’s Gospel by the account of the disciples crossing the lake at night, running into a storm and then seeing Jesus coming towards them saying, “It is I – do not be afraid.” The Greek is literally, ‘I am’. The next day Jesus will again teach a great crowd of people and will tell them, “I am the bread of Life.” He will tell them not to work for the food which perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life. John tells us that before Jesus fed the people he took the bread and gave thanks. The Greek for ‘to give thanks’ is the verb, ‘eucharistw’ from which we get our word Eucharist. The crowd were right to read the events of those days as a sign that Jesus was the promised prophet but they failed to understand the nature of the freedom that Jesus was bringing and the way it would be realized. The bread that came down from heaven had first to be broken before it would bring them new life.
This morning we will again be given the sign of bread and wine. We will eat and drink not to feed our bodies but to be fed with the bread of life. To remind ourselves that Jesus is the one who gives us true life now and in the world to come. He is the one who gives our lives meaning and purpose and offers us his gifts of forgiveness, love, joy and hope. In Paul’s words: ‘to him be glory in the church to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.’