Homily on what God’s presence is about

I hope it’s fairly obvious to us that when Jesus talks about us eating his flesh in the Gospel today he does not mean it literally. (John 6:51-58) We know that he is teaching how he will be really and fully present for us in Holy Communion, not suggesting that we become cannibals! So he actually ignores the stupid question posed about him “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”, because it is so obviously silly. In another place Jesus actually quotes from the prophet Isaiah about the way some people will see without understanding because they are stuck looking at the surface of things, and are not prepared to think about things in a deeper way.

This deeper and more imaginative way of expressing ourselves is not just reserved to religious things of course. If I’m in the middle of a lovely meal but am looking sad, my host might ask me if I’m alright. In reply, I might say “Oh sorry, but I’m just fed up!” Now when I am sad I tend to eat, so I would be quite annoyed if my host, hearing me say I was fed up, took me literally and took the rest of the food away from me. We use such expressions all the time. I might have said “I am heartbroken” and been startled if someone called an ambulance. Nowadays people (especially young people) say they are “cool” to sort of mean they are happy – at least I think that’s what they mean – but when I first heard this expression used, I must admit I wondered what they were talking about!

Right through Christian history there have been some people who make this mistake about the Bible stories and the teaching of the Church. In the 13th Century the great theologian St Thomas Aquinas had to deal with many people who thought that the presence of Christ in the bread of Holy Communion was his actual flesh. In order to explain what Jesus really meant, Aquinas used the philosophical terms of his age, in which the “accidents” were the bread’s outward form and the “substance” was the bread’s inner reality. Following him, the Church has always taught that it is the substance of the bread that changes at Mass, that is the inner reality, whilst the accidents, the outward form does not change.

St Paul warns us in our 2nd Reading (Eph 5:15-20) not to be “thoughtless”. In other words, not to live our life on the surface but to perceive the presence of God not just when we gather to pray, but in every aspect of life. That’s why he tells us not just to sing when we’re in church but, as he writes, to “Go on singing and chanting to the Lord in your hearts, so that always and everywhere you are giving thanks to God.”

I heard the British astronaut Tim Peake being interviewed on the Radio recently, and I was horrified to hear the interviewer assuming that you either had to look at the world in a scientific way or in a religious way. He seemed to assume that unless the presence of God as the creator of the Universe could one day be discovered scientifically, then it couldn’t be true.

Like an astronaut looking at the beauty of the Universe from space, we too can see the world in more than one way. If I were a scientist, I could look at a beautiful sunset and explain in great detail what is taking place. I could talk about the way the different layers of the earth’s atmosphere combined with certain weather conditions creates the amazing and ever changing reds and golds that sometimes occur as the sun goes down. But that rather ordinary way of looking at beauty wouldn’t be sufficient would it? It would be like looking at a great painting, and just examining the paint’s chemical composition, or hearing a great piece of music and just examining how the sound waves reach our ears.  No. There are deeper levels to be expressed here, ways of talking about our world and us that convey a greater truth, a truth that is almost beyond words.

Once a rather stupid priest gave up being a priest because he couldn’t understand or explain what he was doing when he said the words of Jesus over the bread and wine. We heard in our 1st Reading (Proverbs 9:1-6) that true wisdom requires us “To walk in the ways of perception.” To think that we can ever understand the mysteries of beauty in the world, or in art or in music, or to think that we can ever understand what human love is. This is to be very stupid indeed. For us believers, all these things and more are ways in which we perceive the mystery of God. God’s presence is always beyond our understanding, and so when Jesus promises to give himself to us in a wonderful way when the bread is blessed and broken, we have to realise that we are proclaiming that there is more to the world than its outward form, and to praise God for his mysterious Presence with us and for us.

 

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Called to enter into God’s very nature

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :-  During the period of the Greek (Hellenistic) rule of Egypt and Syria, from the time of Alexander the Great, his heirs in that region, the Ptolemies of the 3rd Century BCE, encouraged Jewish writers to develop their thought about God along the lines of Greek philosophy. Our passage from Proverbs (9:1-6) encourages not merely the sacrifice of animals and the ritual banquets that followed, with their rigidly prescribed rites and rules, but suggest something more, introspection: ‘Walk in the ways of perception.’ Both Judaism and pagan worship used animal sacrifice as ways of making offerings to God or the gods, and adherents of some forms of paganism were even encouraged to meet the deities in their dreams, as temples of Apollo and Asclepius provided ‘dream chambers’ for these carefully supervised encounters. On the whole though, both forms of worship seem to have been fairly ‘surface’ thing. Both Jews and pagans fulfilled what the laws required of them and went on their way. Clearly the suggestion of Proverbs that some deeper exploration might be undertaken was not widely followed up, indeed it is not in the Hebrew canon.

We have to remember that throughout his letter such as Ephesians (5:15-20) Paul was always writing to Eucharistic communities of Christians, tiny groups who followed Christ, having rejected paganism and the time-hallowed paths of their ancestors and friends and families. We also have to remember that the earliest Eucharists were always celebrated within the context of a large meal, one laid on by the patron, most likely the owner of a house/church large enough and wealthy enough to entertain the whole Christian community, probably of about 20-40 people. As the majority of free people lived in small apartments, cheek by jowl with their pagan neighbours, or even fully Jewish ones in cramped conditions in which each family possibly only occupied one or at best two rooms, the provision by one’s all essential patron was vital. Dining at banquets laid on by patrons was quite a difficult issue, as Juvenal the poet pointed out. The wealthier could get better food and wine and the more lowly poor fare. Under the Christian thinking, new and more egalitarian values were hopefully coming into being. Is this why Paul encourages the Christians ‘Not to drug yourselves with wine?’ Were these Eucharistic meals opportunities for members simply to overindulge? What Paul urges upon the Ephesian Christians is that they discern the presence of the Holy Spirit in these events, that Spirit by which the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. I suggest this because he speaks so clearly of the psalm and hymn filled structure of their meetings, in which what he envisages is, following Proverbs, some ‘perception’ of what they are doing and receiving, as they met in Ephesus in the mid 50’s CE. Clearly for Paul and his communities, the effects of their Eucharistic participation was meant to remain in their bodies, hearts and minds, ‘So that always and everywhere you are giving thanks to God who is our Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ The forging of the new Christian perspective by their continual re-entry into the redeeming sacrifice of Christ was meant to reach out into their daily behaviour, not be put aside at the end of the service.

For St John, (6:51-58) Jesus’ exploration of the meaning of the Eucharist, the entry into his saving death and resurrection for humanity, and the culmination of Judaism’s long journey with and to God, was the most significant and startling of the Lord’s teaching. Where Jews looked to the final vindication of Judaism in the coming of a great warrior Messiah who would finally establish an all powerful Judaism, restoring its land, law and temple forever, Jesus spoke instead of something utterly different, of God’s invitation that we share his life. This means eternal life, that every human being who embraces the faith can enter into God’s life, the shared solicitude of the Trinity.

Where Jews had for centuries used a system of animal sacrifice to placate a seemingly irascible deity, Jesus did away with all that, insisting on the unthinkable, that God himself had become human and been the final, the definitive sacrificial act which ended all sacrifice, and that only by reiterating the saving story of God the Son’s death could believers be assured of his promises and become partakers of the life they were promised. In eating the consecrated bread and drinking the consecrated wine, the Christian takes the risen and glorified and all powerful Christ into his/her body, and Christ takes us into his eternal life. Quite clearly all this was a million miles away from both Jewish and pagan thought about sacrifice to any god, and of its implications for those who joined in the sacrificial act. Jesus in John’s Gospel was requiring his followers to do some very radical rethinking of their understanding of God and of his relationship to us. What previously had been a fairly flat one way thing, what Jews and pagans gave to God was now utterly transformed, as we meet Almighty God in the person of Jesus the Son throwing away his immortal being in the flesh – for us! God now invites each believer to enter into himself, into God’s life, so that all our notions of divinity are blown out of the water. If God is the great sharer, the giver of self for others, what are we meant to be? Things so ordinary, so profane, like common daily bread and the coarse wine drunk by millions now in the Eucharist, by word and by actions can become the very being of God. God himself takes those elements and us into a quite different understanding of things. We are meant to be among the community of ‘perceivers’ those who are willing to enter into God’s very nature and it must leave us profoundly changed.

God is with us even in our darkest times

I think most of us can identify with Elijah in today’s 1st Reading (1 Kings 19:4-8) when he says he “has had enough”, sometimes translated “I am fed up”  There are times for all of us when we’ve had enough, when despite our faith in God, everything seems to be going wrong for us. We wonder then what is the point of putting ourselves to all the trouble of following the ways of God, and we feel like giving up altogether, on God, on life, on everything.  But note how gentle God is with Elijah in the midst of his depression? He just encourages him to eat something, and then lets him sleep some more, before offering him more food, and gently suggesting that he needs strength for the journey : in other words that he moves on.

 It reminds me of how St Paul tells us in his Letter to the Philippians, (3:13-15) that he “forgets what lies behind, and strains forward to what lies ahead.” Yes, it is easy to spend our time thinking about the past, how things could have been different, “if only”, instead of getting on with the future, whatever that may be.  This moaning about the past can often include complaining to ourselves, and perhaps to God, about people or organisations that have wronged us in one way or another. St Paul tells us in our 2nd Reading (Eph 4:30-5:2) that the better way is to “forgive each other as readily as God forgave us in Christ.”  Yes, God sees all the many stupid even evil things we humans do, and yet he still loves us, and encourages us to look forward and not back. He forgives us endlessly, provided we let him.

This sense that life is a journey, even an adventure, is absolutely central to our Christian faith, isn’t it? Jesus does not just call himself “The Truth”, he calls himself “The Way.” (John 14:6) Jesus is a path to walk along, not simply a far-off perfection; and as we heard in today’s Gospel, (John 6:41-51) Jesus not only is the way, but he also offers himself as the food to sustain us on the way. Comparing himself to the manna, the food that supported the people on their journey through the desert to the promised land, he calls himself : “The living bread” and he then says ‘The bread that I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

This reminds us that the bread at Mass in which we receive him into our very being, is his way of linking us, not just to his presence with God in all his glory – though it is that of course – but also his way of linking us to his loving actions two thousand years ago in which he entered into the darkest moments of depression and pain and death, and by doing so took us through them into the fullness of life with and in God for ever.

When Jesus says “Do this in memory of me”, the words we hear the Priest say at every Mass, the word for “memory” in Greek is anamnesis, which does not just mean remembering the past, but bringing the past into the present, so that his action of dying on the cross is no longer just a past event in history, but an ever-present event, an ever present power with us now to support us through whatever troubles life throws at us. He gives us the life which he calls eternal life, which is not just life after death in the future, but life with God now. This means that God says to us at every Mass “Receive me, so that you may have strength for whatever journey you are on now or will find yourself on in the future.” We may well have little idea what our future may be, but what we are assured of is that God will be with us whatever our future holds, for being a Christian must always be an adventure into the unknown.

One amazing example of this is surely Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose special day we celebrate this coming Wednesday. Mary was always going on journeys with God. Remember how she set out to visit Elizabeth once she knew that she was expecting a baby that she would call Jesus. Then later she had the journey to Bethlehem, and then as a refugee fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod, and then learning more about her son on the journey to and from Jerusalem when Jesus was a boy, and then finally following him as he carried his cross. We praise God for Mary because she is such a great example of someone who did God’s will and followed his way, which included many troubles and worries, without knowing where it might take her. In the end, we affirm that her faithfulness despite all she had to face, brought her into the glory of being one with God for ever.

 We too are called to trust in God, and so when we do not feel God with us we need to pray “Lord you are with me, even though I cannot feel your presence.” For despite all the troubles we may face, God will support us on our way whatever it may be, just as he supported Mary, and thus lead us, as he led her, into the mystery of being one with him in eternal love.  

Christians must know what we do

When Jesus names himself as “The Bread of Life” in Todays Gospel  (John 6:24-35) and then later at the Last Supper takes the Passover Bread and says “This is my Body”, (Mark 14:22) it is clear that he is saying something very significant about his continuing presence with us in this way. Of course, the bread that the priest blesses is not the only way Jesus is present with us ; for he also tells us that he will be present in the sick and the poor when we help them. We know too that God is present everywhere; so that all of creation from the stars in the Universe to the tiniest flower proclaims God’s power and glory. So why then does Jesus pick out this bread in a special way?

I think that part of the answer is that God knows well what we humans are like. We are physical beings, and so we express ourselves in physical ways. We do not just say ‘Hello’ to someone we love, we give them a hug or kiss. We do not just say “Happy Birthday” to someone, we give them a Card, and maybe a Present too. We may know that these people love and care about us without these outward signs, but the outward signs, the hug or the Card, somehow express something that isn’t there in just words.

This is surely why God comes to us as the man who we know is Our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, God is always invisibly with us in any number of ways, but God knows our need for outward signs; and so deliberately chooses to make himself visible for us as a fellow human being. Jesus then takes this one step further; for when his human life with us is finished, he gives us an outward sign, the bread and wine at the Last Supper, that will always affirm what we hear him say at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. “Remember I am with you always, to the end of time.” (Matt 28:20) This marvellous gift of his special presence is something that those of us who go to Mass regularly get so used to, that if we are not careful, we begin to forget how wonderful this gift is.

What can we do then to wake ourselves up to the wonder of this gift? Last week I mentioned rather forcefully the need for the priest to help all of us with this, by the way he celebrates the Mass; but in the end we have to remember that Christ is present for us whatever the priest is like, and so it is up to each one of you to realise this wonderful presence for yourself in one way or another.

In the old days, as many of you know, Catholics were taught that we had to do certain things to indicate God’s presence in this way. We were taught to genuflect, to go down on one knee, as we came to receive, to make the sign of the cross after we received, and to go back to our seat and kneel in silent prayer when that was over. I’m always glad to see that even if people do not kneel before they come up,  worried perhaps that the person behind might fall over them, many bow just before they receive Communion, and many still make the sign of the cross afterwards. These are things that I wish all of us would do, rather than coming up as if we were queuing for a bus, and showing no outward sign that what we are doing is far more important than that.

Note, that doing such things is not just a way for us to more fully realise what we are doing and who we are meeting; we are also doing it for others. People new to churchgoing, as well as children who come to church with us, will only know how important this Presence is if we show it by some outward signs. But beware! If such outward signs become just a habit – something we do without thinking about it – then although it might help visitors, it won’t help us. Unless we accompany our outward actions by inner prayer, unless we admit that sometimes we fail to concentrate as much as we should, much of the point of these outward actions is lost.

Did you notice what St Paul said in our 2nd Reading? He was talking to fresh new enthusiastic Christians, and yet he has to say “Your mind must be renewed by a spiritual revolution so that you can put on the new self that has been created in God’s way, in the goodness and holiness of the truth.” We too must ask God to help us with this regular renewal of the mind. We may be distracted at Mass, especially if we have little children to look after, (and being distracted happens to the Priest and not just to you) but even then deep down, we have to really KNOW what we are doing. We need to know this even in the midst of distractions, for otherwise we are in danger of becoming hypocrites, saying things with our lips whilst our hearts are somewhere else. And you know what Jesus thought of people like that, don’t you!

 

 

A new relationship with God is called for

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :-  I suppose people have always had difficulty distinguishing between a healthy materialism and one which has become thoroughly misplaced. Certainly for us in the rich West, where amassing ever more stuff is simply what we do, it is an unending problem. Yet we do not want to deride matter. Ever since the Incarnation, we know that God has made holy the very flesh of his Christ and with it our whole humanity and the things that pertain to it; yet it has always been the place in which we were prone to misconstrue our understanding of ourselves and our destiny in God.

We meet this in our Reading from Exodus (16:2-4.12-15). The Israelites had been aided by God to escape their Egyptian captivity, and en route to the Promised Land when the going gets tough all they do is complain; indeed they lament their lost captivity and the steady food supply it had given. God intervenes once more, with we note, further instructions to the escapees; he will provide meat and bread for them every day, just enough for their needs. But as the story progresses, we would find if we read on, that many with an eye to making a bob or two gather more in the hope of  presumably selling it on! Small wonder then that God is once more displeased with them; they do not live according to his decree. Indeed, the whole history of Israel is of disobedience, as Jesus tries to wean them away from their obsession with land, temple and sacrifices and rule keeping. They, like us, have become fixated on the means to redemption and set them in the place of the God revealed in Jesus.

It was probably the greatest problem our Christian ancestors had to face too. In the Letter to the Ephesians Paul had begun the letter with his great praise-song to the Father, celebrating our new redeemed life in Christ the Son who has enabled us to become ‘sharers in the mystery of God’s will’. Ephesian converts from paganism it appears had no trouble with all that. Citizens of this great Imperial city with its many cults and magnificent libraries, they knew all about wisdom and the search for the ‘spiritual life’; but when it came to lifestyle, ah well that was a problem. Paul urges them (Eph 4:17.20-24) to give up their old lives with its corrupting, illusory desires, or as the Greek has it lewdness and greediness, in favour of a wholly new mindset, that shaped after the very likeness of God in Christ.

As the smart new Imperial capital of the Roman province of Asia, Ephesus was a bustling Greco-Roman city, with all the amenities Rome had on offer from its temples, baths, theatres and facilities for blood sports. People who lived there would have been intensely upwardly mobile, aping their imperial masters, and ever with an eye to social, economic and political advancement. It was a concern which left little room for charity and the thoughtfulness towards others the Gospel required. Its port brought in items from Egypt and even as far away as India and Arabia. Moreover Augustus, in the early days of his reign, saw the usefulness of exploiting the Imperial cult in the province. (Worship of the emperors) With this in mind, he and his successors allowed and encouraged the building of cult temples by the wealthy of the cities. By the end of the first century, Pergamum the old capital boasted proudly that it was the only city in Asia to have three temples to the imperial cult, nekoros. Proud Ephesus retorted that she went one better, being fourfold nekoros! Clearly this acquisitive lifestyle belonged to entire cities as well as the men and women who inhabited them. Belonging, following the crowd, for good or ill has a very long history.

Jesus, it appears, had this problem too; (John 6:24-35) as the crowds follow him not because they desire his teaching or his divine presence, but simply as the way to an easy meal – and plenty of it, as we read in last week’s Gospel. Throughout his Gospel, John will describe the various miracles of Jesus as ‘signs’, indicators of something more, in this case pointers to his true identity, God-with-us. Significantly, the crowds ask for ‘more signs’; in their case, I suspect hoping for more material goodies, but they don’t seem to look beyond the simply material, and if they do it is only to attach him more firmly to their ideas of the longed for messiah. They hoped for someone who would lead a massive revolt against their Roman oppressors, and free them to be an independent and powerful nation. They hoped that their temple and sacrificial system would become all powerful, drawing the world to Jerusalem. The fact that Jesus had an entirely different agenda was not something they wanted to hear. The whole of Chapter 6 of John, with its lengthy ‘Bread of Life’ exposition, is Jesus’ attempt to get people to think differently, to think the way of the Incarnation, of God’s huge adventure as he reached out through the Son to a fallen humanity, and offered them an entirely different understanding of the world. We note that the crowds ask Jesus what ‘works’, material acts, they should do to inherit eternal life, to key into the ‘Food the son of Man is offering you.’ Jesus replies that they must believe ‘In the one the Father has sent.’ Now believing was about loyalty, changing ones allegiance, here accepting God as one’s super patron, and living according to his ways. But the people get it wrong again, fixated on ‘works’ acts, they insist on further ‘signs’, proof of his identity, as if the feeding of the 5,000 was not enough. Jesus speaks of himself as ‘the bread of life’, food for eternity, enduring beyond the daily meals God gave Israel through Moses. A new relationship with divinity is called for, a letting go of old, time honoured ways, focussing ones understanding beyond the merely material, following Jesus to the cross.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Give thanks in all circumstances

Did you notice who it is who offers his picnic lunch to Jesus in our Gospel today? (John 6:1-15) Yes, it’s a little boy ; and we modern people influenced by the teaching of Jesus on children tend to say “Ah! Isn’t that sweet of him?” But of course that view of children is not the one we find in the Gospel. Instead we hear the disciples once again dismissing this child, as they dismiss other children who want to come near Jesus, as of no account. So we hear the scornful, ‘There is a small boy here with five barley loaves and two fish; but what is that between so many?”

This is a reminder to us that God never dismisses our little offerings to him, however small or insignificant we are or think we are. We have to admit that our prayers are often pretty feeble, that our meagre attempts to thank him are tiny, and our little acts of kindness or generosity are often as nothing, compared with the times we have moaned about other people, or got irritated or even angry with them. Yet, we are told today, that even our smallest offerings are wonderful in God’s eyes, and he can do great things in and through us.

I am going on holiday to Crete in September. I don’t know much Greek, and most of the Greek I know is ancient Greek as used in the original New Testament section of the Bible, but I do know how to say please and thankyou. Parakalo is please and Efharisto is thankyou, and I know the Cretans will appreciate my little efforts to speak a few words of their language, even while they’ll probably be amused by my pronunciation.

But Efharisto is a word that many of you will know in its ancient form, because it is the same word as the word we sometimes use to describe the Mass. We call it the Eucharist. Efharisto was Eucharisto, and thus Eucharist in English. In the Bible of course the Mass is called The Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:20) and it was only later called the Mass or the Eucharist.  Mass comes from the message at the end of Mass where the Priest tells you to “Go and share God’s love with others.” Mass in Latin is Missa from where we get the word Mission. And we all know what that means, even if most of our missions, our little acts of kindness and love, are not as spectacular as those depicted in the Mission Impossible Films. Eucharist, on the other hand, as I have just explained, means “Thank you”; and so reminds us that every Mass is our great thankyou to God.

I was listening to a Buddhist speaker on the Radio a few mornings ago talking about those boys from Thailand who were rescued from those caves in such a dramatic way. He was explaining why the boys have now gone to a Buddhist Monastery to pray and work for a few days, as part of the process of getting over their ordeal. He pointed out that they will be taught to pray in a way that directs their minds away from negative thinking, and towards positive thankfulness to all involved in their rescue. He gave the impression that this was a distinctively Buddhist thing to do, and I was saddened that he thought this, because it is actually a very Christian thing to do as well; but I thought “Yes. Too often people think of Christianity as mostly about trying to be good, and miss the point.”

The point is that the heart of our faith is a thankful response to God. We do not come to Mass to pray to be better people,  nor do we come to Mass to get some help from God, although hopefully these may be by-products of what we do. No, principally we come to Mass to offer our lives to God in thanksgiving. We heard it in our Psalm today “All your creatures shall thank you O Lord.”, and St Paul says (1 Thess  5:16-18) “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”, and that is what the Mass is for, indeed that is what our Christian faith is all about.

You may have heard me say before how upset I get with people who say they’ve stopped coming to Mass because “They don’t get anything out of it.” My reply is “For 6 days and 23 hours every week, you get everything from God. Now, just for one hour you come to Mass, simply to give thanks for it all.”  Such thanks is a very small offering, but like the little boy’s offering in our Gospel, it is much more significant than we realise.  I went to a Mass the other weekend and I felt like strangling the Priest. He stopped the Mass at the Offertory to chat in an animated way to the children about all that they were going to do over their holidays. I thought he’d never stop gushing. And then, making no connection between all that fun and the rest of the Mass, he went back to the set prayers and said in a dull voice “Lift up your hearts” and  “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” Of course no priest is perfect and so I pray that whatever the Priest is like, you will realise what the Mass is all about and pray it with thanksgiving in your heart.

The Kingdom of God is a great banquet in which all can share

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- Our Gospel begins a five week period of Johannine teaching on the meaning of the Eucharist (John 6:1-15), here significantly set ‘On the other side of the Sea of Tiberias’, so in the Decapolis, Greek, pagan territory; indicating that the Gospel had gone out to the pagan world, and left Judaism behind. This account is so different from its original in Mark 6, where movement is merely along the coast, and where a mission to the pagans required an entirely separate feeding miracle.

We do however note the link made between this miraculous feeding and that performed by the prophet Elisha (2 Kings (4:42-44). It is in both cases Passover time, the time of the early ripening barley harvest and of course, for the Christian Church, the time of the sacrifice of Christ for our universal redemption. He will ultimately be the one and eternal offering to God which does away with all other sacrificial offerings. Yet we note further allied incidents, as the original offerant of the barley loaves was sceptical that his small offering of 20 loaves would be sufficient to feed one hundred men and in our Gospel Philip is similarly dubious about the ability of the disciples to produce sufficient food for the crowd. John of course wants us to think how the sacrifice of one man, Jesus, could possibly be sufficient to redeem the whole world, or, as in its original setting, where the High Priest argues for the killing of the troublemaker Jesus to save the Jewish nation from Roman reprisals. Clearly in both the setting in 2 Kings, and that in John we are meant to take on board the enormity of what happened.

It is surely not simply an example of communal sharing which features so strongly here, though that is in itself remarkable, and would become a central feature of Christian Eucharistic life, as the early church met in the houses of the better-off to eat a meal, and within this celebrated the death and resurrection of the Lord. What is even more remarkable is the quantities of food obtained from the small and unpromising beginnings. In the Book of the Kings we notice that the career of Elisha takes place in a time of famine and death, in which the prophet continually intervenes as God’s agent, reminding the people who is actually in charge. Indeed the stories attached to him are generally ones of one-up-man-ship, meant to correct the wandering Israelites and drag them back to the worship of the one true God. It’s the continual theme of the Old Testament

But in the hands of John, the one intimate with Jesus, something much more significant is going on, as the amount of food Jesus provides is on the level of a great banquet, clearly the messianic banquet, and the sign of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Most of us mercifully have never lived through a famine, or ever really been life-threateningly short of food; but this was a common feature of life in the ancient world where the failure of the harvest spelt death to thousands. Small wonder then, that for Elisha and for the crowds gathered round Jesus, the remains of the feast were eagerly gathered up, and in the latter case, marvelled at as twelve hampers full were collected, a symbolic figure, representing the new Israel, those bought and paid for by the sacrifice of Christ. This was not a ‘throw-away’ society, but one which recognised a miracle and its symbolism when they saw it. Knowing, as those first disciples did, what Passover originally stood for – the making of the Jewish people freed from slavery in Egypt, those now liberated to worship their God, and seeing this transformed by the Passover crucifixion of their Lord, ground to the earth like that barley, utterly snuffed out for others. Those who became members of the Christian community would have been able to understand the rich seams of the symbolism of this miracle. The fact that John wrote his Gospel some forty to fifty years after the resurrection gave him the opportunity to fine-tune his material, so that he could make clear that whilst some in the original setting mistook the signs and tried to make Jesus into a political warrior king, his true identity was known to the church because of the resurrection, and the life of those tiny, insignificant groups, so reminiscent of the tiny amounts of food originally mentioned, and taken up by God for his greater purposes.

Our part of the Letter to the Ephesians (4:1-6) explores the meaning of the newly founded Christian Eucharistic community in Ephesus as Paul writes to them from prison in that city. ‘There is one Body, one Spirit, just as you were all called into one and the same hope when you were called.’ Greco-Roman society was intensely classist. Racist it never was, but knowing one’s place in the world of Rome where each group was so easily distinguished by its clothes, manner of walking, speech, even by the ranking of seats in amphitheatres, circus or theatres, let alone all the other markers such as names, which gave abundant evidence of slave origins or patrician parentage which meant so much. All this meant that entering the Christian world made heavy demands on each and every member. Paul’s ‘Bear with one another charitably, in complete selflessness, gentleness and patience’, is not an appeal to some sloppy-wet idealism, but a call to be modelled on Christ. If, as we claim, the Eucharist makes us one flesh, this is not some fancy, liberal notion, but the insistence that the Eucharist has wrought an indelible bond between each and every believer, as it does at each Mass with every believer and the Lord Jesus. This has to be lived out in the flesh of each of us. If it was a tall order to the newly converted in Ephesus and elsewhere in the pagan world, it is still a hard call for us to today; but it nevertheless remains true if we are to understand the meaning of the Eucharist correctly.