Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 25 July 2021.
• First Reading: 2 Kings 4: 42-44 (Elisha feeds the people with 20 loaves of barley)
• Psalm 145: 10-19
• Epistle: Ephesians 3: 14-21 (Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians)
• Gospel: John 6: 1-21 (Feeding the 5,000; Jesus walks on the water)
I once heard a commentator speaking of a military parade as a group of men walking around, or something to that effect. Well, that is one way of describing it. I do not think that the commentator was particularly sympathetic to the precision and discipline of military parades and so it was reduced to the level of utter banality.
It was certainly reduced to the level and outlook of the observer as if it could be thereby contained and controlled.
But I wonder whether we might not do the same to God: reduce Him to our level of wisdom and ability and so judge Him by our transient standards, or lack of them.
But our lessons show us something quite different about God – and they also say something important about ourselves.
The first, from the writings of the two kingdoms and containing the stories of Elijah and Elisha, sets the pattern for Jesus as He fed the 5,000. But it was the words and actions of Elisha which both started it and referred back to God’s provision for the Israelites in the desert as they fled Egypt.
It was God who met the peoples’ need when there was no way to meet their own. Then also God acted far outside the expectations of the people. Gods were there to be worshipped and obeyed and they did not normally step into history for their people.
But as in the wilderness of Sinai, so here: Elisha accepted a pathetically small offering and by dedicating it to God, set the scene for God to multiply it so that the people might be fed. But here Elisha was acting for the people in the name of the Lord and was doing something direct and personal for each of them. God was acting in their own time and place, and when nobody remotely expected it.
But the provision was far more than just a simple sharing of food – it was an action within their personal lives that they could never have imagined. It was far beyond not just their dreams but and sense of being possible. It was direct, personal and extravagant, beyond counting and utterly unexpected.
In the same way, in the gospel, Jesus also fed the 5000. In this He was acting out the prophecies of the Old Testament and to this extent it was not wholly unexpected. It was a sign that the Messiah had indeed come and was present among the people.
More than that it was a demonstration of the authority of Jesus. In John there were various mighty signs by which Jesus revealed Himself.
At Cana He had turned water into wine, and done so in unbelievable quantities and of the best quality. He had shown His authority over sickness in healing a nobleman’s son, and this feeding of the 5000 was a third sign.
Now Jesus was showing not only His coming as Messiah but He was showing the kind of Messiah that He was. He would feed the people who had come out to see Him, far beyond the limits of their own comfort or provision. They had set aside all else in order to hear Him teach and preach, and in this they had already shown their commitment to Him.
They were already His and Jesus was not taking this offering lightly. Whatever they offered, He had received and blessed and multiplied.
Their gifts to Him became His gifts to them. And again He took what was so pathetically small and multiplied it. He took what was impossible and made it not just real but glorious. He received what was thought to be completely inadequate and gave it a new dimension for all those who followed Him.
But Jesus also did something more. He was not trying to end worldwide poverty – rather He was honouring those who were already following Him and He was setting a seal of ownership on them. They were His and He would be utterly committed to them.
This sets the scene for what Paul had to say to the Ephesians. For many of us, we grew up in the discipline of the church and there were an awful lot of dos and don’ts. Life was regulated and there was a lot of guilt in the air.
But Paul was saying something far more unsettling, especially for the setters and controllers of public morals.
Paul was declaring his prayer for the church, and it is a prayer of unspeakable extravagance. It is a prayer that comes from Paul’s personal knowledge and experience of God, and which breaks every boundary that our banal minds can imagine.
His desire is for the church – and that means the whole church, not just its leaders, may find its life and its being in the wholeness and fulness of God Himself. It is for life, not just existence. It is for exuberance, not just compliance. It is for the freedom to enter the very presence of God in their prayers and lifestyles, where they may be strengthened through the Spirit in their innermost lives and beings.
It is for the personal indwelling of their lives by Jesus Christ personally and directly and that they may know for themselves the length and the breadth, the height and the depth, which they could never find out alone or with any kind of science, ancient of modern.
Paul’s appeal was for the extravagance and exuberance of God to be made known and manifest in the life of the church as a whole: and they would never be the same again.