Sermon for the Sunday Next Before Advent
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
November 21, 2010
Earlier this week I posed a question to some fellow priests who preach from the historic Lectionary of the church, and asked them if they knew any reason why we heard this particular Gospel on the final Sunday of the church’s year. I realize that the framers of the Lectionary had to pick something, but I was just curious, why this one? We’ve already heard the account from St. Mark of Jesus’ feeding of the 4,000 earlier in the year, why John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000 as we approach a new year, and our Advent preparation for the coming of the Messiah.
One priest wrote me back and said that he remembered from somewhere back in the deep recesses of his memory someone telling him that this feeding story was quite pertinent as we were preparing to enter a time of fasting and prayer in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. While we limit the amount of food we partake through a prayerful time of fasting, we might concentrate on the notion that our Lord took a quite limited amount of food, and fed the crowds with more than they could imagine left over. With a very small amount at the beginning, the end result overflowed in abundance. When we approach the discipline of fasting and prayer, we too are able to receive overwhelming benefits from what seems to be a small beginning.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, two particular details strike me as puzzling. One occurs right at the outset when our Lord sees the great company of people following him, and turns to Philip and asks him, “Whence shall we buy bread, that they may eat?” Why Philip? It seems like Peter is usually the one who Jesus singles out for a teaching point, but here he selects Philip. In pondering that question, an interaction came to my mind, and might very well point us in the right direction.
At the beginning of John’s Gospel the following interaction takes place after Jesus calls Andrew and Simon. In the first chapter we hear these words recorded:
The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee, and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, Follow me. Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see. Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee. Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel. Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these.
Philip was the one who went out and found Nathanael and told him that the One that they had been longing for and waiting for was here. At this point he had seen no miracles, no signs, and had most likely heard no teaching, and yet, he knew that the Messiah had arrived. Most importantly, he didn’t simply bask in that knowledge for he went out and shared that Good News with someone else. He did the very thing that we are called to do as his disciples.
This is my own speculation, but I think that Jesus wanted to see where Philip was now that he had been with Jesus for a while. Did he still exhibit that same sense of certainty about who Jesus was and what He was able to do? Of course, I know without hesitation I would have probably made the same mistake he did, and say the exact same thing if Jesus asked me that question. After all, I still do. We still do. Each and every day we second guess what Jesus wants for us, and it takes yet another miracle to bring us back to a place where we can again let God work in our lives.
The other peculiarity in this passage involves what I think is a curious phrase. For there are a number of instances when reading the Scriptures that a particular sentence, phrase, detail leaves you puzzled, and almost begs the question, “Why did the author include that?” In this morning’s Gospel lesson, I wondered about the phrase, “Now there was much grass in the place.” Most of the time I would probably glance right over something as seemingly insignificant as John’s detail about the terrain. A phrase that appears out of place like noting that it was sunny outside, the flowers smelled nice, or the birds were singing a lovely tune. However, I believe there is more here than meets the eye.
Certainly, I believe that the comment is a description of the area where the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 would take place. John is trying to paint a mental picture that there is in fact enough room for a mass of people to assemble and sit down as the story explains.
However, if we dig a little deeper I believe there is something else behind those brief words. One of the great I AM statements in John’s gospel speaks about Jesus being the Good Shepherd. One of the attributes of Jesus the Good Shepherd is that he leads his sheep out and goes before them leading them as the 23rd Psalm says, “beside the waters of comfort…[to] feed in green pasture[s].” The people who were following Jesus that day were being fed by the words that he spoke to them, and would then be filled physically as well. Of course the physical need for food was merely temporal, but the words that Jesus spoke were true bread and met their spiritual needs, which of course are the things eternal. They were in just the right place to receive this nourishment because the Good Shepherd had led them to a field with much grass. The environment was perfect, and I believe that John is conveying that detail when he mentions that there is much grass in the place.
As we sit here this morning, we too are in a place with much grass. A place where we were led by the Good Shepherd to receive nourishment in the form of Christ’s Body and Blood. Like the feeding of the 5,000, what seems like a woefully insignificant thing, the receiving of a small wafer of bread and a sip of wine is transformed into the most significant thing we can ever do. As St. Paul told the Corinthian church, “For as often as we eat this bread, and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
With the most remarkable of twists, and through God’s divine Providence, the Good Shepherd who leads us into green pastures where there is much grass, becomes the true Lamb, which was slain so that we might taste death no more. It is not grass that we are to feed upon, but Christ Himself.
When we gather together to celebrate the Holy Communion, we come to another miraculous feeding. No, we are not seeking to multiply loaves and fishes on the altar. Rather, we pray that God, through the Holy Spirit, might transform the gifts of bread and wine into the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. That He might so change that which seems so small, into something that surpasses everything we could ever imagine. That we through faith might worthily receive the greatest gift that has ever been given. And, that as we offer our selves, our souls, and bodies as a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice we seek God’s nourishment that we might be forever changed, and transformed.
Part of our life-long journey is the process of sanctification or being made holy. We bear God’s image and we were created in His likeness. Receiving Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is a critical component of our sanctification as we strive to live out the last line of the Prayer of Humble Access in which we pray that we may evermore dwell in Christ as He does in us.
Jesus told his disciples as He ascended to the Father that He would be with them always. He made that promise to us as well. Behold there is much grass in this place and the Good Shepherd has led to a pasture where he has promised to be truly present.