Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 29 July 2018.
The task seems massive and beyond any resources that any can find. Feed the world, abolish poverty – or at least, hunger, unemployment, sickness and homelessness. Establish peace and the rule of law. Renew the environment, educate the children, abolish crime and war, close the prisons – and so it goes on.
We all have our dreams of the perfect society – or maybe, just one where its institutions work with a maximum of effect and a minimum of cost, and where the aims are supported by clearly thought-out assessments of costs and benefits. This is not revolutionary.
In the case of our gospel reading, the question was about feeding the crowd who had gathered in a lonely place far from shops or markets.
And it is interesting how the story is told. Jesus asked Philip where they would buy bread for them – and Philip answered with a quick calculation, having made an estimate of the numbers there and the amount required: 6 month’s wages would not be enough. He looked, calculated and gave a short and rational response. He did not quite say ‘Mission Impossible’ but he was not far from it.
With Andrew it was different. Instead of looking at the problem he had a practical solution, even if it was hopelessly inadequate. And it was not even his own solution but that of a boy from the crowd with his packed lunch. If Philip answered with the head, then Andrew came through with the heart.
And some modern commentators have suggested that there was never a problem anyway as everyone had their own packed lunch and immediately shared it with their neighbours; if so, why is this story even recorded?
But Jesus took the initiative. Yes, the problem was impossible – except nothing is impossible with God. And then the solution was laughably inadequate – but it was enough.
The very smallness of the offering was Jesus’ opportunity. If there had been wagons of food available then again the story would not be told, but it is the very smallness of the offering that made all the difference.
For Jesus took that very smallness and inadequacy of the boy’s offering and blessed it. And then having blessed it He passed it over to the disciples to distribute.
This was part of their training and their engagement in His ministry. They would have to do all this and more when He was gone so here was a good object lesson.
And this is where we turn to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in which he shares his prayer for them. And he desires nothing less than the best and the greatest for them.
- The measure of his prayer is nothing less than the fullness of heaven, and the richness of the glory of God Himself.
- The starting point is in the innermost parts of their being from where all ambitions and motivations and loyalties begin. Unless this is consecrated before the throne of Heavenly Grace then we have not even started.
- The method is the indwelling in their hearts of Jesus Christ Himself, for it is by His word that they are created and by His blood that they are redeemed. It is by His spirit that they continue to live in any kind of faith.
- It is His self-denying love that is to be the foundation of their lives of faith.
But this is only the preamble to Paul’s prayer for he is asking that the church may be granted the power to comprehend what is the breadth and the length and the height and the depth. This can only come as a work of the Holy Spirit within them and among them – it is a prayer for the church as a whole and not just for a few selected individuals.
For Paul the vision of the church is as the body of Christ taken with the mind of Christ and fulfilling the works of Christ.
And nothing less will do.
And yet we also have a cautionary tale of the affair of David and Beth Sheba.
When the others were away fighting the king’s battles, David stayed behind, watching Bath Sheba in her bath and entertaining his fantasies. Just how this was possible we do not inquire, and equally whether the lady was wholly unaware of David’s interest, we are not told either.
But the rest we know.
It is easy to feel superior in our day – this could never happen here or now. But is that so? David had taken his eyes off the work of the Lord and the governance of his kingdom.
Perhaps we are also liable to be distracted from the Kingdom of God and the message of the gospel by matters of church management, by committees and agendas and reports and by positions of importance together with their privileges and prominences.
Perhaps we also need to look upwards and begin to pray Paul’s prayer for our own life of worship, witness and fellowship.
Above all perhaps we also need to look away from the immensity of the task to the Lord Jesus Christ.
No offering is so small that it cannot be blessed; no offering is so small that it cannot be used by the disciples of the Lord to great effect as He takes it, blesses it and then gives it forth.