St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

With Power

With Power

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.’

Philip Brad­ford