The passage which comes before today’s Gospel tells of the death of John the Baptist. At the end of that passage we are told that “John’s disciples came and took away the body and buried it; and they went and told Jesus.” The response of Jesus was to withdraw privately by boat to a lonely place. He needed to do this, partly to recharge his batteries after a gruelling tour around the towns and villages of Galilee, and partly, not so much to mourn for John, that would have been totally inappropriate, but to prepare for a further stage in his own ministry.
Only two chapters on we read of the Transfiguration, and we shall be celebrating that event next Sunday. On that occasion, Jesus is seen to be conversing with Moses and Elijah. He speaks of the “exodus” that he is to accomplish in Jerusalem.
We will be familiar with the word “exodus” from the title of the second book of the O.T., but not everyone will know what it means. If you go to a Greek speaking country you will see this word written boldly where we would use the word “exit”.
In biblical terms, it refers to the exodus or exit, coming out, of the Hebrews from Egypt via their passage through the Red Sea. This event has always been seen as a “type”, or a symbolical representation, of the passage of Jesus through the “deep waters” of death and the grave to his glorious Resurrection. It is from that point, the Transfiguration that Jesus begins to teach his disciples about his forthcoming death, so we could see the short period between the death of John and the Transfiguration as a transition for Jesus during which he prepares in this lonely place to which he had gone by boat for what he knows is to come. He badly needed time to spend in prayer and preparation for the next stage in his ministry, but this was not to be.
Jesus, on arrival at what should have been a lonely place, was met by a great crowd. Instead of being irritated and trying to get rid of them, “his heart went out to them and he cured those who were sick”. Instead of considering his own needs, Jesus had compassion – one of the most characteristic qualities that we associate with him – on these people.
We are familiar with the word “passion”, which, in the biblical sense, means “suffering”. To say that Jesus had compassion on them means that he looked at these people, recognised their need, and himself shared in their suffering. He entered into their suffering with them. The immediate and most pressing need was to heal the sick, and this he did, but then towards the end of the day his disciples came up to him, pointing out that this was a lonely place, and the day had gone. He should send the people off to the villages to buy food. But how practical was that?
The day is far on, it will soon be dark and this, being a lonely place, the nearest village was some distance away. And what when they get there? Was there likely to be enough food available? We are talking of five thousand men, as well as women and children.
It was then that Jesus performed one of his most remembered miracles, recorded in all four Gospels. He took five loaves and two fishes, blessed God over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples, who distributed them around among the people – and all were satisfied.
Miracles, to some people are a problem. They are not something that we normally expect to take place. Possibly, for that reason, they rarely do. However, Jesus knew exactly what to expect. All the disciples had to do was to follow his instructions. Miracles do take place, and I have been told that there are examples among Orthodox Christians of even such as this, the “multiplication of bread”. However I could not tell you when and where.
Someone once said, about the miracles that were taking place among a fairly simple and uneducated people, to another who questioned the facts, “The trouble is, these people are to dumb to know what is not possible”. If we were to receive the gifts of humility and simplicity from God, we would not only expect miracles, but not be surprised when they occurred.
And yet there is one miracle which occurs among us week after week.. We have become so accustomed to it that many of us don’t bother to come if we don’t feel like it. It is the miracle of the Eucharist in which ordinary bread and wine are changed by the power of the Holy Spirit and become the Body and the Blood of Jesus Christ. In St John’s Gospel, Jesus follows the feeding of the 5,000 with a teaching on its meaning. As a Eucharistic homily it says all that could be said. “I am the Bread of life.” “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells continually in me and I dwell in him …….. he who eats me shall live because of me” and so on. Read St John Ch 6.
It was this kind of terminology that led to early Christians being accused of cannibalism. In a group that I once belonged too there were two elderly ladies who had tremendous problems with it, even the words used by the priest as he distributed communion. “The Body, the Blood of Christ”. So how can it be? It still looks like bread and wine. It still tastes like bread and wine. If submitted to scientific tests it would react as bread and wine. And yet Jesus says this is my Body, this is my Blood. And that is just the way that in faith we receive them.
The Western (R.C.) Church developed a particular theory as to how this could be so. The Orthodox Church does not have any such theory, but the important thing is to be aware that whatever they may appear to be in every physical characteristic, in a real spiritual sense they are actually something different. By receiving them we are ingesting something of the life and reality of Jesus Christ himself without which we cannot live.
Don’t put yourself above the words of Jesus. Receive them thankfully. When he first spoke them they caused great scandal, and we are told that many of his disciples withdrew and no longer went around with him. Jesus didn’t call them back. He didn’t say “come back, you haven’t quite understood what I have been saying.”
I am reminded of something that I heard years ago;
His were the words that spake it,
His were the hands that break it,
And what his words do make it,
That I believe and take it.
Some of his words are hard, but we cannot reject them just because they don’t fit into our world view of things, or our way of thinking “The words which I have spoken to you are both spirit and life. And yet there are some of you who have no faith.” says Jesus.
May God grant us this faith, which is founded only upon simplicity and humility – so may he grant us those two gifts first of all.