Here’s my sermon for last Sunday. The gospel reading is the feeding of the five thousand followed by Jesus walking to the disciples across the Sea of Galilee in the storm.
“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” (John 6:9)
It’s been said that you should always expect the unexpected.
On the website Yahoo! Answers, a site where you can ask questions on any subject in the hope that someone else has the answer, someone posed the question “Do you always expect the unexpected?” To which someone else has replied: “Technically it’s impossible….I mean you can’t expect the unexpected… as the word unexpected means you didn’t expect it… so if you expect the unexpected, it’s no longer unexpected is it? Because it becomes expected… so anybody that says they do expect the unexpected are lying as it’s impossible…” Which clears that up! As far as that person is concerned you can’t expect the unexpected.
You might have thought that the disciples, having seen what Jesus has been doing, would have learned to expect not just the unexpected, but the downright impossible! Already by this point in Jesus’ ministry, according to the write of John’s Gospel, they have seen him turn water into wine, they have seen him heal an official’s dying son from a distance, they have seen him heal an invalid at the pool of Bethesda. By now they should have been ready to expect just about anything. And yet it seems that although they had seen what Jesus could do they still couldn’t get their minds around the reality – the new reality – that the impossible was possible when Jesus was involved! Constantly they found their faith in Jesus being out to the test – deliberately put to the test – by Jesus.
And in our gospel reading this morning we see two impossible situations where the disciples – and in a very real sense, us as well – have their faith put to the test. We see Jesus’ disciples face two impossible situations; will they respond in faith? Will they trust that Jesus has everything under control, even though it may not seem so?
Jesus is followed by a massive crowd to a remote place, and we are told that Jesus test Philip by asking him where they can buy bread for all these people. He knows what he is going to do, but he wants to find out how Philip will respond to the situation. Note that there is no indication that these people are actually hungry – but Jesus has decided to feed them anyway. Philip responds to the test in a very human way: he considers the finances and concludes that it is totally impossible as they would need a huge amount of money to feed everyone, more than half a year’s salary. Then Andrew chips in, mentioning that he has found a boy with five barley loaves (the cheapest, least palatable bread) and two fishes (which were likely to be no more than a pickled relish), but states this small amount of food would be little help in feeding the crowd. Both disciples look only at their own resources to deal with the problem and, as such, believe it to be irresolvable. Jesus shows them that what is impossible for them is possible for God and proceeds to feed the entire crowd so amply that there are twelve baskets of food left over: more than there was to start with!
Afterwards, Jesus retreats into the hills and does not return by nightfall as the disciples appear to expect. Being well acquainted with the temperamental nature of the Sea of Galilee, the disciples realise that they can wait no longer if they are to cross before a brewing storm breaks. However, three or four miles in, after hours of hard rowing, exhausted, with conditions deteriorating and still only halfway across the lake, they are clearly in trouble.
Again, they are in a truly hopeless situation: all alone and believing Jesus to be too far away to help. Indeed, when Jesus does approach them upon the water they fail to recognise him and are petrified. They may have recently witnessed him miraculously feed five thousand, but they still seem to struggle to believe that he could be there to help in their desperate situation. Once Jesus has reassured them it is him, however, and he is on board, another miracle occurs: the boat immediately finds itself ashore!
Well, what are we to make of these two miracles – feeding thousands with five loaves and two fish, walking on water in the middle of a storm and then bringing the boat and its occupants immediately to their destination? There’s a tendency to try and explain these two miracles away by interpreting them as picturesque ways of describing purely natural occurrences. A popular interpretation of the feeding of the five thousand is to explain the abundance of food by the decision of everyone to get out the hidden stashes of food they all had after they saw the young boy willing to share his food. A way of explaining Jesus apparently walking on water is that the water was very shallow where he was because the boat was actually close to the shore but the disciples couldn’t see it because of the storm. Jesus, in this interpretation, simply waded out to meet them and they only thought he was walking on water.
But if we play down the miraculous aspects of these stories we completely miss their point. If we try to come up with ways of showing that these were not actually miracles, simply ordinary events described in terms of the miraculous, then we – like the disciples – are failing to realise that with Jesus we should be expecting the unexpected, and even the seemingly impossible. For the point of the feeding of the five thousand is not that five thousand people are fed. It is that Jesus is testing his disciples to see whether they have now realised that the unexpected, the impossible, can happen. “What are we going to do to feed these people?” he asks. And when, yet again, the disciples show their faith, their understanding of Jesus, to be lacking, he goes ahead and distributes the five loaves and two fish among the people. If we do not believe that there is a miracle here, if we think everyone simply got out their packed lunches, then we like the disciples have failed to recognise the power of God at work in our midst. We, like them, have failed to expect that Jesus can work among us in power.
And when he comes walking across the sea to them in the middle of a storm, if we like them fail to recognise Jesus, then like them we fail to see the power of Jesus at work among us. “It is I; do not be afraid.” He says to them. As we face the storms of life he says to us, “It is I; do not be afraid.” And just as he then brought the disciples to their destination so if we will let him he will bring us to our destination – our eternal home.
Jesus tests the disciples. Have they learned that with Jesus they can expect not just the unexpected, they can expect what those without faith would think impossible? In today’s gospel reading they are not yet there and they didn’t get there until after the resurrection. The writer of the gospel, though, is putting the same test to those for whom he is writing his gospel. Those who will read his words – or more likely hear them read – and who live in the light of the resurrection. Do you have the faith to believe that Jesus can work miracles, that Jesus can use his power to overcome the natural order of things.
We face the same test. Jesus wants to feed you – do you believe that he can even when it seems that there is nothing there to be fed with? Jesus wants to come to you in those times when you feel you are all at sea in the middle of a storm to rescue you – do you believe he can?
Jesus didn’t respond in ways that the disciples expected – and that can often present a problem for us. Of course, it is far from easy to keep exercising faith in situations such as when we lose our job, or are diagnosed with a terminal illness, or our marriage breaks up, or a loved one dies, and so on. For Jesus doesn’t always respond in the way that we might, at one level, want. He doesn’t wave a magic wand and make everything go back to how it was. But, as with the disciples, he is there, ready to support in the ways that he thinks best, and help us find a way through.
It was in difficult and seemingly unsolvable situations times that Jesus took the opportunity to try and inspire faith from his disciples, because those times should have forced them to look outside themselves and seek God’s help through Jesus. It was clearly important to Jesus that his disciples had a growing faith and if the disciples needed to develop their faith, so must we. So may we encourage our faith to grow, putting it into practice each day by choosing to believe that Jesus can and will help us, no matter how difficult our situations. That Jesus can use his power among us: for what is impossible for us, is possible for Jesus!
I finish with the words of Saint Paul which end our extract from his letter to the Ephesians – a prayer which many preachers use to end their sermons. We used it regularly during worship at the Church Army College when I was there, and it has become one of those prayers that I know by heart and use at opportune moments. This is the version from the Common Worship prayer book.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or conceive, by the power which is at work among us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all ages. Amen. (Eph.3.20-21)