Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 17 • 26 July 2015

2 Samuel 11:1-15
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

Rev. Chris Udy

Today we read the first
of a series of passages,
all from the Gospel of John,
about a meal that changed the world.
It’s a meal that’s recorded in all the gospels,
but it’s different in each one,
and in John’s gospel,
which was the last to be written,
the focus of the story has changed.
When Mark wrote his version of the story
around about 70 AD,
forty years after
the death and resurrection of Jesus,
the Christians he was writing for
were still mainly Jewish,
still mainly focussed in Palestine and on Jerusalem,
and still hopeful that the kingdom of God
might become a political reality.
In Mark’s gospel
the disciples of Jesus had just returned
from the mission he’d given them.
Jesus had sent them to preach and to heal -
to call people to repentance
and to cast out unclean spirits.
The reign of God is close,
the disciples said -
trust, believe, have hope,
and turn away from pointless rebellion
against King Herod and the Romans,
repent of violence and self-destruction.

The disciples were enormously successful.
When they returned from their mission
thousands of people followed,
and when Jesus tried to find a quiet place
to reflect and debrief his disciples
they tracked him round the lake
and followed him into the wilderness.
In Mark’s version
he says Jesus saw the crowd
and was filled with compassion for them -
so he taught them through the day
until it was late in the afternoon.
Then, as Mark tells it,
the disciples came to Jesus
and urged him to send the crowd away
to the surrounding villages and towns
where they could buy something to eat.
Jesus answered - ‘You give them something to eat’,
and the disciples scoffed back
‘Are we meant to spend 200 denarii -
200 days wages - on bread,
and give it to them to eat?’
But it wasn’t money that was needed,
it was food - it was a meal -
and with a little research,
a little generosity, and a little organisation,
5000 men - Mark says -
all had enough to eat.

For Mark this story is mainly about
politics and economics.
A political movement was born
on the shores of lake Galilee,
and that crowd of hungry people -
hungry not only for bread,
but also for dignity and hope,
would follow Jesus to Jerusalem.
Jesus would die there,
challenging the powers
that had made the people who followed him
so hungry and so poor -
and although that would look like the end,
like the day fading into the night,
leaving the people as hungry and poor
as they had ever been -
with a little research, a little generosity,
and a little organisation,
another meal would come together,
and everyone would find they had enough to eat.

By the time John’s gospel came to be written
another 20 years had passed.
Jerusalem had fallen,
the Temple had been destroyed,
and many more gentile Christians
had joined the Jewish disciples.
The Christian movement had moved far beyond
those early horizons in Palestine,
and we think John’s gospel was written
from Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey.
We’re also pretty sure
that John had access to Mark’s gospel,
but where Matthew and Luke
had used Mark as their template -
the skeleton around which they wrote their gospels -
John was writing his gospel in a completely new way.
John was building his gospel on themes,
and only every now and again
does John include a story
that’s almost word-for-word what Mark had written.
This story of the meal beside the lake
is one of those rare places
where it looks like John has copied in Mark’s story -
but as always happens
whenever we re-tell
a story we first heard from someone else,
John has slightly changed it,
and included extra details
that deepen the meaning
for those who would be reading his account.

Mark says nothing in his story
about the Passover -
but John makes a connection
between the hungry crowd beside the sea of Galilee
and the people of Israel,
preparing for the Exodus,
eating their last meal
before escaping from slavery
through the waters of the Red Sea.
Where Mark says the disciples came to Jesus,
asking him to send away the crowd,
John says it was Jesus
who was first to see the need
and he then spoke to Philip.
Philip’s name is Greek,
and in John’s gospel he represents all gentile disciples.
Jesus was asking Philip what he would do
to provide for the needs
of a crowd of hungry new believers.
Andrew, the first disciple,
the one who represents the Jewish disciples
is the one who does the research
and produces a little boy with five loaves and two fish.
The Christian mission
has now reached the gentile world,
and Gentile disciples need to find a way
to serve the needs of hungry people -
but the basic resources for that mission
are and will always be
a gift we receive from Israel.
A little research,
a little generosity,
and a little organisation once again
and everyone who’s hungry
finds they have enough and some to share -
but where that’s the end of the story for Mark,
for John it’s just the beginning,
and over the next 4 weeks
we’ll be reading what he says about Jesus,
the bread of life who comes from heaven.

And even that’s not the end of the story for John.
When he comes to give his account
of the Last Supper
he talks about the Passover again,
and this time Jesus is no longer just the bread,
he’s become the Passover lamb,
the one who dies
to nourish and prepare the people of God
for their journey through the desert
to the place of justice and peace
that God has promised.

The people who first read John’s gospel
were in a different place
from those who first read Mark.
Mark’s people were part of a culture
self-destructing under the weight
of greed and violence,
cruelty and exploitation -
but Mark’s people still had much in common
with many of their neighbours.
They weren’t going to get any help
from those who were in power,
but with a little research,
a little generosity, and a little organisation,
they could care for each other,
and protect each other,
and with love and the grace of God
and the hospitality of Jesus
they could make sure
that everyone who needed would have enough.

By the time John’s gospel was written
the situation had changed.
John’s people were seen as a despised minority
within another despised minority:
a heretic sub-group of the Jewish diaspora,
exiled and dispersed from Palestine
into the Roman Empire
and living in a place and in a culture
indifferent at best, openly hostile at worst,
struggling to hold on
to the message and the meaning
that told them who they were
and gave them hope to live and work
in a difficult world.
Their problem was no longer finding enough food;
in fact we think that in Ephesus
they would have been much like us -
comfortably secure in an affluent city.
But John’s people were hungry for something else,
something bigger and deeper -
a meaning to live by, and a hope to live for.

So John wrote his gospel,
and in it he re-told the stories
he’d been told by those who nurtured him to faith.
He told stories that were unique to his community -
stories that none of the other gospel writers tell -
like the wedding in Cana,
the meeting with Nicodemus,
and the Samaritan woman at the well.
He also included stories from Mark,
and maybe from other writers long since gone.
But whenever John told or re-told a story
he also thought about it,
and adapted it,
and looked for deeper meanings within it.
Often he developed and expanded what he’d received
into a kind of sermon - an extended discourse -
such as the one we’ll be reading
over the next few weeks.
He discovered layer after layer of meaning
in the life and work of Jesus,
he found images and metaphors
that have inspired
and encouraged the Christian movement
not only in those early days of exile and dispersion,
but over the generations and centuries to come
he provided sustaining nourishment
from the life of Jesus
for those who wanted to make the world
a more just and peaceful place.
The meal that started out
addressing simple physical hunger
became a source of energy and comfort,
and companionship and guidance,
for everyone who broke bread with the disciples
and heard about who Jesus is,
and what he did and said.

Two thousand years later
that meal is still being set.
With a little research, and a little generosity,
and a little organisation,
disciples of Jesus
have not only done practical things
to meet the needs of the hungry and poor
who live among them and around them -
as Mark’s people did -
we’ve also set out what John was teaching
his people to provide -
a place where hungers of the spirit and the soul
could be addressed -
a gathering where people
could hear stories about Jesus,
and find that his love, and his grace,
and his hospitality,
are as necessary, and as nourishing, as bread.

We here at Crows Nest
have very much in common
with the people John was writing to and for.
We no longer live in an overtly Christian culture.
As members of the Uniting Church
we could fairly be described
as a minority in a minority,
but most of us are also fairly comfortable,
fairly secure,
when it comes to basic needs and daily requirements.
What we hunger for is meaning:
a hope that’s worth our work,
worth our sacrifice and striving;
a truth that’s richer and deeper
than political polls and reality TV shows;
a community that we can stay with
as changes come and go,
people who will help us find our compass,
identify our purpose
and remind us of our values.
What we hunger for is communion;
the meal that is changing the world;
a connection to the source
of all those stories and their truths,
a life that draws its nourishment and flavour
from the living body of Christ.