St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at St Peter’s House on 26th July 2009
2 Kings 4.42–44, John 6.1–21
I'll begin with a short passage from The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom, by Alexander McCall Smith*.
Professor Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld is having dinner with the Duke of Johannesberg, Beatrice his attractive Russian assistant, and the Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa. The conversation turns to miracles.
‘Then there's the question of miracles’, went on the Duke, ‘There is a major schism on the issue of miracles. Are they possible? Does God choose to show himself through the miraculous? That sort of schism.’
‘But of course miracles exist’, said Beatrice, ‘Miracles occur every day. We all know that. You yourself said that it was a miracle when you and I…’
The Duke cut her off, rather sharply von Igelfeld thought.
‘Be that as it may ’,he said, ‘But it is not really the personal miracles that are at issue. It’s the miracles of ecclesiastical significance that are the real substance of the debate. The Miracle of the Holy House for example. Did angels carry The Virgin Mary’s house all the way to Italy from the Holy Land as it was claimed?’
‘Of course they did’, said the Patriarch, ‘No sensible person doubts that.’
Von Igelfeld looked down at his plate. Had five fish appeared on it at that moment, it seemed that nobody would have been the slightest bit surprised.
Last Sunday morning between 9 and 9.30, I lay flat on my back for half an hour while my body was bombarded with magnetic resonances of some kind. That, I was told, would enable a consultant to assess the state of my bone structure, my muscles and sinews and the state of my vital organs. That might then enable him to address some health issues I currently live with. I don't understand the processes but I trust the experts and compared with the diagnostic tools available even in my early years it is quite amazing. A miracle you might say.
Over the weekend and on Monday we had programme after programme, special supplements in the newspapers and learned discussions analysing the first landing on the moon just 40 years ago. We were told that the computer memory capacity available to the astronauts was less than we have in our mobile phones and washing machines. In July 1969 we were in Africa and many of the students in our schools didn't believe it had happened — they had seen space films before and they knew how things could be mocked up in a studio and that debate goes on. Earlier this week I heard an intense debate on radio still continuing to argue the point as to whether it really did happen. I personally had no doubt at the time about the reports of the moon landing and I am confident that Neil Armstrong did take that historic first step in the moon dust of the Sea of Tranquility.
I say all this because we live in this world which has been transformed by science and technology and we live our lives by its discoveries and inventions, And inevitably that gives rise to debates about miracles and what we believe about the Biblical records for example.
The readings we heard come out of a very different age and context. The Elijah story of the feeding of the crowd is part of whole series of miracle stories. The widow is almost out of cooking oil so the prophet tells her to collect as many jars as she can and she keeps pouring from her little dribble of oil until everyone in the village has a jar full — then a child, unexpectedly conceived as the prophet foretold, becomes sick and dies, and Elijah restores him to life by the earliest recorded instance of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Next he saves people who have eaten poisoned food. Then comes the feeding of the hungry men. That is followed by the healing of Naaman's leprosy when he goes for a dip in the Jordan. Oh yes, I nearly forgot, he then makes an iron axehead float to the surface when it flies out of a workman's hand into the river
It's not very different when we turn to the gospel stories in John 6. The feeding of the five thousand is followed by Jesus walking on the water.
I don't know what you make of those stories. What I do know is that my regard for Elisha as a courageous and remarkable man of God does not depend on his performance of the fantastic and mind boggling. What I do know is that my following of Jesus does not depend on his suspending of the laws of the universe and astounding a pre-scientific and credulous people. Nor do I believe that He saw miracle-working as a method of attracting a following. What I have to do is read between the lines, as it were, and it is there I find much that attracts me to Jesus and his predecessors, and reminds me of the core of His teaching.
Look for instance at the story of Elisha. He is a wandering holy man often in danger — sometimes from his people's enemies, sometimes from his own people — such was a prophet's lot. That is the context of an act of thoughtful kindness on the part of the woman who has the unexpected child. She is well-to-do and persuades her husband to build a guest flat onto their house for the prophet to rest and shelter when he is passing through. That little incident was the inspiration in the 18th century for the wife of a Cornish blacksmith called Digory Isbell to build a similar room on his house on Bodmin Moor for the use of Mr Wesley and his travelling preachers. If you detour off the A30 at the village of Trewint the cottage still stands — a memorial to the importance of hospitality and what may result from it. I suspect many of us can recall the encouragement, the pleasure, the inspiration even that has often come through unexpected encounters when hospitality is given and received. I'm sure it happened in Shunam and Trewint, it certainly happened at Bethany and Emmaus, and in the homes of Annanias in Damascus and Cornelius in Caesarea.
Then there is the little incident in the midst of the miracle stories about the ongoing struggle between the Arameans and the Israelites. It was a struggle in which at one point during a siege of Samaria the people are driven to cannibalism. Elisha strikes some Arameans blind (or at least God does at his request) and they are led into the presence of the king who is inclined to kill them. Instead Elisha suggest that a feast be prepared for the men and then they be sent back to their master as an act of charity. The result is, the story says, ‘So the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory. For all the rules and regulations of the Geneva Convention it is still the case that prisoners of war are maltreated and often tortured, rarely are they treated with generosity, and if they are released or exchanged as hostages they take back to their side a legacy of bitterness and hatred destined only to fuel the fire of antagonism. Had they been shown the kind of generosity Elisha showed, who knows what difference that might make. Perhaps one of the encouraging developments of recent years has been the recognition of and the attempts to deal with the residual anger and bitterness that remains when open conflict comes to an end. Truth and reconciliation commissions can result in miracles
When we turn to the Gospel reading I always find myself drawn to the little miracle embedded in the story. The miracle of the little boy's generosity. Whatever food the crowd might have had with them they were obviously keeping it to themselves to such an extent that Philip feels obliged to ask his question of Jesus about buying bread. Is it likely that this wandering teacher would have the funds to buy enough food for 5,000 people — I think not. But the child in the midst says, ‘you can share my lunch’. That in my opinion is the miracle when someone shows generosity and maybe unlocks a few tight fists.
During the week I had an email from Audry's American cousin — it was about the Johns in the New Testament. Was the Gospel writer the same as the writer of Revelation? Did he die a martyr's death? and so on. Many of the replies reiterated the tradition that John — portrayed in the gospels as ambitious for a good seat in heaven and short tempered (Jesus called James and John ‘The sons of thunder’) lived to a ripe old age and died in Ephesus. Like a lot of old men he tended to repeat himself over and over again saying to his followers ‘My children Love one another… My children Love one another…
Jesus uses the events that follow the Feeding of the Five Thousand to teach important truths. He doesn't attempt to attract a following on the basis of a possible never ending food supply but calls them into a relationship with himself and a discipleship based on love for God and neighbour that for Him will lead to the Cross.
Today we gather to share Bread and Wine — symbols of Generous Hospitality,and the miracles that most certainly can flow from that
*p. 198, The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom, Alexander McCall Smith, Abacus, London, 2004.