29th July 2018

The Rev’d John Deane
Anglican Board of Mission

Lifting up his eyes, then and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do!

In late 2013 a typhoon began to form far out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – now there was nothing unusual about this, other than it was rather late in the season for a typhoon to develop. However, as it began its rapid movement westwards across the Pacific, it became obvious fairly quickly that there was nothing regular about this typhoon, which by this stage had been given the name Yolanda.

In the first place it was not following the normal pattern of typhoons which meant that there was much higher level of unpredictability about where the typhoon would make landfall. This then meant that it was likely to strike communities which were normally not in the direct line of typhoons and perhaps more importantly, it was far more difficult to prepare people,

The second unnerving aspect of this system was its size – no one had ever seen a typhoon become so big so quickly. As it moved closer to the Philippines it grew larger in size and ferocity eventually becoming the strongest and largest typhoon ever to cross into the Philippines from whence it moved onto Vietnam and China.

Its path though the Philippines was catastrophic – it centred on the Visayas which are generally highly populated low lying islands and rarely suffer a direct hit from typhoons. Thousands dead or missing – no food, no water, no shelter – needless to say it was the poor especially those who are squatters on the fringe areas of the coastline who suffered and lost the most.

There was a global response – although the frequency of typhoons tends to blunt the impact of these stories – and here in Australia the Anglican Church through ABM proved itself to be very generous. For this ABM is very thankful.

However, a little more of the story of the local response needs to be shared. The Episcopal Church in the Philippines is numerically quite small. It has almost no presence in the Visayas where Yolanda struck and none of its members was directly affected. Yet, in the mountains where the Church is strongest they too know the ravage of typhoons and understand what it means to live in poverty.

They responded immediately – asking all their parishes to set up collection points and to donate surplus food. It is the first time that they had really attempted something like this and they were amazed at the extraordinary response they received. Initially they had sought to support one community of several thousand people. Fairly quickly that number doubled, trebled and then became multiplied by ten.

Funds began to arrive from outside, and it provided the means to ensure transport for the food and to buy water. As more funds were sourced, thoughts began to turn to rebuilding the housing in at least several of the communities. For three years the ECP worked with these communities to help them to become self reliant and in mid 2016 I found myself sitting at a table in a house which had been totally destroyed sharing a meal with a family of six, receiving their thanks and hearing about the miracle – their word – of deliverance

Food and storm a good introduction to today’s gospel which consists of two stories. On first hearing they seem to be related to each other by their common theme of the miraculous power of Jesus. Both the stories have a very high significance in the early tradition of the earthly ministry of Jesus, and, unusually, are found in all four gospels – albeit in slightly different form and context.

In John’s gospel the stories are meant to be read together as they have been today. However, when it comes to preaching the general practice is to focus on one or the other of the stories and the miracle that they contain. In this respect the first story of the feeding of the five thousand generally wins out. Probably because of its length and strong association with the Eucharist and possibly also because it is about food!

Yet the text makes clear that they are linked and are intended to be interpreted through the lens of the Jewish tradition of the Exodus. John tells us that the feeding of the crowd took place near Passover time. The blessing and breaking of bread played a central part in the Passover meal, as did the sharing of wine.

So when Jesus feeds the five thousand, he is symbolically reaching back to that Passover story of deliverance and redemption. Jesus fed the crowd, it reminded them of how God had fed the Israelites in the desert. “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’”.

So John imagines Jesus as a new Moses responding to the people’s need and giving them the food they craved. “I am the Bread of Life” – I am to you what Yahweh was to your ancestors in the desert. I give you what you ask for.

The connection continues into the second story, where here too we are reminded of the deliverance of the Israelites in their crossing of the Red Sea. The disciples of Jesus find themselves under threat from a tempestuous sea. Miraculously and instantaneously they are delivered and brought safely to land, once again under the leadership of Jesus.

In both stories the actual signs performed by Jesus demonstrate that Moses and the earlier Exodus tradition merely prefigured the shape of what is God’s ultimate deliverance. Moses relied on God to provide the means of deliverance but Jesus accomplishes it in his own right, because Jesus is the Word of God! And what Jesus completes is fully abundant, satisfying and eternally life-giving

But between these two stories is a bridge piece which is intended to link the narratives. “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” The locals see the sign but do not understand its true significance and the destiny of the One who has fed them.

They are constrained by their own earthly expectations and needs which Jesus duly resists. They are not as yet able even to perceive the test which Jesus sets, let alone pass it. And so this second story is related to make even clearer that this Moses, who can even master the elements has a purpose which encompasses the whole of Creation.

Now John’s gospel is a gospel of signs. These signs are intended to guide the ministry, the mission of the church. which Jesus calls into being and empowers by the gift of the Holy Spirit. They constitute both the test –  faith; and the means of passing the test – grace. They are signs for all of us. individually and corporately, who follow Jesus. They undergird what we in the Anglican Church regard as the five marks of mission. They are the core of our witness to the world.

Lifting up his eyes, then and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do!

On Friday night after I returned to the city from the ABM Conference and the Provincial annual dinner at Glenelg. Too much food and too much sitting suggested a walk might be in order. I have to admit that I am rarely in any city late on a Friday night and so the crowds around Rundle Mall and its surrounds were at first a little surprising and perhaps even daunting.

But gradually as I walked some of the vibrancy and the enjoyment of the revellers must have filtered through and I felt myself relaxing. Then I turned down a lane – I don’t know its name. It was relatively dark and did not appear to have any bars or nightclubs in it.  As my eyes adjusted a little I became aware of the sleeping figures huddled under blankets to block out, I guess, the noise and the light!

As I continued to walk I became conscious that even where there was light and noise these figures were also to be found in some doorway or covered space. Here, though, many were awake with signs begging for money – money for food, local travel, medicine – occasionally something a little less usual – help for their pet dog which appeared to be sleeping next to them or to go to Sydney for a job.

In describing this scene I could be presenting a picture of Sydney, Melbourne, even Brisbane and Perth. It is not just a phenomenon of the night, but increasingly a 24/7 occurrence in most of our large cities. Of course, there are many reasons why this homelessness occurs, violence and other forms of abuse, neglect, mental illness, all of which we can find sympathy for, or less appealing, addictions – gambling, alcohol, drugs. But merely knowing the cause does not really let me off the proverbial hook – the physical need is great as is the need for faith and grace.

As I returned to the hotel and sat down to finish this sermon, the scene I described would not leave me. I can make many excuses but there is here a sign of the kingdom of God which cries out for fulfilment. The question of Jesus to Philip rings in my ears and remains unanswered.“Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” How are they to be brought out of a tempestuous sea and delivered to a place of safety? For only when these questions have been answered will the reign of God find ultimate fulfilment.