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Not more STUFF, but more FAITH: The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, July 25, 2021:
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

For a month — with a one-Sunday interruption due to St. Mary’s feast day — we make our way through a section of the Gospel of John. And I hope you like carbs, because it’s what I’ve heard some people call “the weeks of bread.” Now, there’s some irony that through the pandemic we haven’t shared in the meal at the centre of the life of the Church, but just as society has been looking at so many things with new eyes, perhaps we’ll approach the altar with fresh eyes (and appetite) in the coming months, and I hope that “the weeks of bread” help with that.

Though what catches my eye first is actually from the Letter to the Church in Ephesus. It ends with that doxology — praise to God — that inspired how we end most of our communion services: “Now to [the One] who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” There are just a few slight differences in wording between that and our green service book. And even though Anglicans historically have not been known for being the most regular Bible-readers out there, we can’t help but recognize that there is a LOT of Bible in the books that guide our prayer. The traditional Book of Common Prayer is especially known for this constant stream of Biblical quotes and allusions. But think, too, of our newer Book of Alternative Services, and especially how if you turn to any of its six eucharistic prayers, right near the beginning we find ourselves being reminded of how God has acted in the world, as recorded in our scriptures. (God created us; covenanted with Abraham and Sarah; brought people to freedom through Moses; spoke through the prophets; the Word was made flesh; Jesus ate and drank with sinners and outcasts, etc. etc. etc.!) So I’m thinking here that our meal — as Christians, our communion meal — shapes us, as people. Just like we’re formed by our family traditions and traits (for good or for ill), we are formed as Christians through our holy meal.

And what else do we hear in this little letter? We hear a wish “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” That reminds me of the words said when communion is given — primarily at our 8 o’clock service that uses the BCP: “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.” It’s been my practice to, from time to time, use ‘regular’ bread for communion, because I don’t want anyone thinking that the meal’s holiness and legitimacy has anything to do with the wafers having been made and shrink-wrapped at a Christian church supply factory — because that’s not how it works! The point is that God comes to us in the ordinary things of the world. (And there are significant environmentally-related implications there, if you think about it.) So our communion meal of bread and wine might look pretty ordinary on one level (actually in some ways it might not really look or taste like a meal at all!). But with the eyes of faith, with the heart of faith, it’s my belief that we are meeting Jesus, as host and as meal, as shepherd and as lamb. Think about the story in the gospels of the Transfiguration. They go up a mountain and the ordinary, dusty Jesus turns, for a moment, lightning white, and great saints of history surround him. Those disciples that were there got a momentary glimpse of what the world looks like, with faith.

Now the tough this is, if we were to stand on a street corner dinging a bell like on those Hallmark Christmas movies, asking for donations for our church, we’d probably get a really good response if we were asking for support so that we could supply groceries for people in need. But stand on that same street corner asking for support so that we can continue to gather weekly and pray over bread and wine, and then divide it up and share it. That’s just the way things are; the world around us doesn’t share a universal faith. But I don’t think we need to let that discourage us. Our gospel story specifically mentions that it takes place around the time of the Passover, the observance that commemorates God freeing the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. This was not a might nation; it was an oppressed, discouraged group of people that ended up taking a very long way to their eventual new home. It’s a David and Goliath story (before David and Goliath) of a community of slaves against a king and an army. That Jesus goes up a mountain in this gospel story only further hits home the Moses connection here.

And how do the disciples react to Jesus’s request that they feed the huge crowd of people? One of them says that they don’t have enough money! Another says that a kid has some food, but that clearly won’t work! To them, the task is as futile as standing on the street corner asking random people to support our most intimate, inwardly-directed ceremony.

But the thing is, Jesus took that ordinary, tiny amount of food, and — through the way of faith — fed everyone. What was needed wasn’t more STUFF. What was needed was FAITH. Think about all the hunger and poverty in the world today. Do you think it’s because there isn’t enough food being produced by the earth? Or do you think that maybe the issue has to do with distribution, trade, corruption, laws, coldness of heart? I think it’s the latter. And that’s why I put a lot of stock in our strange yet sacred meal of communion that the world, admittedly, is going to have trouble understanding. Our liturgy — our worship — doesn’t seem as immediately effective or practical as giving someone something. But this gospel story today says something to us about how the solution is not always about being practical and efficient. It’s said that the early Christians that left the cities revered the desert as sacred and special to God precisely because the desert was impractical and inefficient. To most it is good for nothing. But that’s how God works. That’s where some of the great stories of the Bible take place. That’s where Jesus and the crowd found themselves, with nothing to eat. And that’s where God is most ready to act, or maybe where we are most ready to see God at work. Now, there is most certainly a time and place for practicality and efficiency. You can go on YouTube and find lots of how-to videos. But there is also a time and place for faith. And in situations when five loaves and two fish is all you have, maybe reach out in faith, and not in despair. More ‘stuff’ might address problems. But faith addresses people. “Now to [the One] who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter