12 March 2017
Generous God Generous People
Revd Cheryl Collins
The story of the feeding of the 5000 men, plus women and children, is the only miracle reported by all four Gospels and the each carry a very similar account of this miracle.
The miracle is a sign of how God, in Jesus, abundantly supplied both the physical and the spiritual needs of the people in a desert place.
This is not the first time that God had done this. The disciples and the crowd would have recalled the story of God providing manna in the wilderness to feed Israel on their long journey to the Promised Land. At points in the gospel story there are echoes of that earlier Old Testament miracle.
In our reading we heard how Jesus was trying to get away by boat with his disciples in order to rest for a while. He was clearly exhausted and would also have been greatly saddened on hearing about the death of his cousin John the Baptist.
But that great crowd of 5000 men, not forgetting the women and children, hurried along the coast on foot and when Jesus and his disciples arrived by boat there they were on the seashore wanting to see and hear Jesus once more.
Any ordinary person might well have been somewhat annoyed that their privacy was being invaded in that way, but the response of Jesus was typical of him.
34 ‘As he went ashore,’ we are told, ‘he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.’
And as Jesus talked to them, time slipped away and the disciples pointed out how late it was, and how they and the crowd were all getting very hungry. The disciples were getting anxious.
So Jesus said to the disciples, ‘You give them something to eat’. The disciples reckoned they would need 200 denarii worth of bread, or in other words they would need more than six months work to pay for enough food.
Then Jesus asked them ‘How many loaves have you?’ All four Gospels say that there were five loaves and two fish, but in St John’s Gospel he tells how Andrew introduced a young boy who was offering his small picnic of five barley loaves and two small fish to help the situation.
Bread made from barley was the cheapest and coarsest of all bread in those days and anyway, the disciples said, understandably, that such a gift would go nowhere to meet the great need.
But Jesus took command and told the people to sit down in groups. He then took the two fish and the five loaves, looked up to heaven, bless them and broke the loaves and told his disciples to hand them out to the people.
And when all the people had eaten the disciples collected 12 baskets of leftovers.
We will never know exactly the details of what happened on that grassy plain on the banks of the Galilee Lake. But we may look at the miracle in three ways.
We may regard it simply as a miracle in which Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes. After all, Jesus as God become man, had the power of the creator to carry out such a miracle and many Christians accept the miracle in that way. If we can believe in the sheer miraculous character of this miracle, then let us continue to do so.
Some however may genuinely find it hard to conceive and accept it like that. Some may find it hard to reconcile the fact that such an action by Jesus was what he refused to do at his temptations in the wilderness before his ministry began.
So if we are puzzled there is another explanation which shows the miracle in a different way.
We are told by St John that the young boy came forward with his small picnic offering. It is just the sort of trusting action that a youngster would do while the adults would only see such an offering as futile.
I well remember how just after Christmas one year we had some family coming to stay. We desperately needed some new pillows but we were very short of cash. I was very moved when our daughter who was about nine at the time offered her Christmas money to save the situation.
In the same way, that boy was generous with his small offering. And so Jesus ‘took the five loaves and two fish, raised his eyes to heaven and said the blessing. He then broke the loaves and handed them to his disciples to distribute among the people’.
Soon there was enough food for everyone to share and indeed so abundant was the food that there were 12 basketfuls of leftovers.
William Barclay, in his commentary points out that no Orthodox Jew travelled without his basket. They carried their own food supply so that they would be certain of eating food that was ceremonially clean and pure. May be the 12 baskets used for the leftovers were those belonging to the 12 disciples. [WB Mark pg 158]
He suggests that when the people saw the action of the young boy and the blessing given by Jesus, the crowd were moved by that example and instead of keeping what they had merely for their own use, they began to realise their responsibility to share , and so, when they did that, there was enough for everyone.
It could be said that this is a miracle in which the presence of Jesus turned a crowd of selfish men and women into a fellowship of sharers. [WB John pg 204]
To get 5000 men, plus women and children, to share so that all should have enough can truly be seen as a great miracle.
Whichever way we each understand what happened on the hillside overlooking Galilee, what is most certain is that there was a great need to feed the people and through the intervention and miracle of Jesus there was enough for everyone and to spare.
The wonder is that Jesus can take even a very small offering and in his hands that offering can become immense. Jesus needs what we each can bring him. It may not be much but he needs it and can work miracles with it.
And, sadly it may well be that the world is denied miracle after miracle and triumph after triumph because we will not bring to Jesus what we have and what we are. But when we do offer what we can, then there are no limits as to what he could do with us and through us. Little is always much in the hands of Christ.
And let us never forget that what we have is what we have received from God in the first place. At the offertory we often say the words of King David: ‘All things come from you O Lord and of your own do we give you’. (1 Chronicles 29:14)
Yes, just as the people received so much on that day so we daily receive so much from our loving God.
In this amazing world that God has created, he has provided all that we need of food and shelter, of family and friends, the beauty of nature and the gifts and skills of individuals from which we all benefit. His generosity to us knows no bounds.
One of my favourite hymns is, ‘Great is thy faithfulness’ which goes on to say: ‘Morning by morning new mercies I see, all I have needed thy hand has provided, great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me’.
The theme of our house groups and the theme for our church during this Lent is: ‘Generous God, Generous people’. We are being encouraged to consider the wonderful things that our loving God gives for us and does for us. And to consider what our response as his faithful people should be.
As Cheryl mentioned in church and in the February parish magazine the course is partly designed to help us reflect on our stewardship and giving in the light of God’s generosity. As Christians we are called to be good stewards of what God has given us in terms of gifts and abilities, in terms of the time we have available, and in terms of our financial giving.
Cheryl also said that we as members of St Gregory’s will be receiving later in April details of the financial position of our church, and an opportunity for each of us to return a pledge of our future giving intentions.
As a parish priest I have always found it very difficult to talk about money. In a way it seems so very personal, but from time to time these things need to be considered carefully and prayerfully.
When Jesus and his disciples were faced with the 5000 hungry men, not forgetting the women and children, the disciples were very anxious. There was a great need.
And at times of real need we should not be silent. And there is a real need in the church and in our diocese at this time.
As well as the day to day expenses of running our lovely church here at Greggs we also have a responsibility towards the running costs of our dioceses.
Some of the work of our diocese has had to be curtailed because there is a lack of funding. Several of the diocesan advisers have had to be made redundant.
Some of our sister parishes in this deanery and in other parts of the diocese are really struggling to meet their parish share of the cost of running this diocese. And we need to remember the biblical standard that the strong should support the weak.
Our Diocese is getting close to ‘living within its means’ but we are called to do our part by offering to our Lord what we can however small that may seem, but as we know from today’s gospel, the little we give will become much in the hands of Jesus
I also think that it is important for me to explain what happens to that money which we send to the diocese. The largest proportion of the parish share is to pay for the full-time ministry of the parish clergy in the diocese.
It enables our churches to have a priest, like our Cheryl, available to care for the spiritual needs of every parish in Suffolk and to lead the faithful in ministry, mission and worship.
I believe that as Christians it is a tremendous privilege to be able to support God’s work in every parish in this way, and that is why it is so important that we take this challenge and responsibility seriously and prayerfully.
As I said, later next month we will have the opportunity to return a pledge of our future giving intentions.
It may well be that for some of you, you will only be able to reaffirm what you are giving at the present time. If that is your position, that is fine. It may also be true that some people should be giving less where the circumstances are more difficult.
There will be others among us however, who could consider increasing their regular giving, and there maybe others who might consider giving regularly through the weekly envelope scheme or by a bank standing order. Again there may be some who pay income tax who could, by Gift Aid, increase their gift at no extra cost to themselves.
By regular giving we enable the church to plan ahead and to budget properly, but above all it enables the work of our loving God to be carried out in his way, to his glory and for the spread of the faith.
And let us never forget that our loving God has chosen to work and show his love in this world through us each of us, his disciples of today. What a privilege and also a responsibility that is.
As St Teresa of Avila said:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
No hands but yours, No feet but yours;
Yours are the eyes through which He is to look with compassion on the world;
Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good;
And yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now.
Thanks be to God. Amen.