July 26, 2015, Ninth Sunday After Pentecost, RCL Year B



Lections:  Psalm 145:10-18; 2 Kings 4:42-44; John 6: 1-21

This weekend I was at the annual retreat, at Christ the King Spiritual Life Center in Greenwich, New York, of the Transfiguration Community, a prayer and study fellowship I have belonged to for 20 or so years.  A question arose at our Friday supper about the relationship of the parish church to the holy, catholic Church affirmed in the Apostle’s creed.  The Transfiguration Community is predominantly Russian Orthodox, and we have long-standing ties with the Hosanna community in Russia, but we have Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran and (at least one!) Methodist members.  So we are ecumenical, and over the years we have tried to understand how the unity of the universal church can be perceived.

This year we had three presentations by James Reid about art, and specifically, an analysis of how the elements of a painting, such as line and color, work together to transfigure naturalism into a picture of divine reality.  Any particular form, say a peach, that attains to its perfection through an artist’s rendering, is lit from within, as we might say our persons are, when we are guided by the Holy Spirit that resides in our hearts.  In such moments, it is as if a flame were kindled within, and we are strangely warmed.  

I think it fair to observe that each of us has gifts from God for discovering and sharing within the body of Christ; these gifts are the mediums we use, like an artist, to realize our particular expressions of the divine image.  Similarly, each church denomination makes a particular contribution to the Church’s understanding and communication of the truth revealed by God through his presence in the world. Parish or local churches are integrated into their denominational communions like the objects on a table in a still life, and all the denominations are active, that is muscular, within the inclusivity of the holy, catholic Church.  A local church can hardly exist independently and remain authentic in the full sense of what it means to be a church.  Carrying the analogy through, we can understand the church as an organism with kinesthetic intelligence that attains to radiance through the tension generated between its vision and the vision of the world.  The church is represented at its boundary, as an icon that generates its own light, and as a fractal that is self-similar across differences of locality and denomination.

We make disciples of ourselves, who are the members of the church, and of others, who are not members, because the church “exists in and for the world”  (Book of Discipline, 202).  As our mission statement here in Moretown says, we are “Reaching up to God and out to the community.”  In our disciple-making, we think and act as one body in which all members participate under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Each of us has a place in this “redemptive fellowship in which the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are duly administered according to Christ’s own appointment” (ibid, 201).  We minister to persons in the community and strive to live our daily lives in light of our relationship with God, not for our own sakes, but “to provide appropriate training and nurture to all” (ibid, 202).   The local church has “a definite evangelistic, nurture, and witness responsibility for its members and the surrounding area and a missional outreach responsibility to the local and global community.” The church is where we go to find love, and as a church, we act with love, ministering to all our members, wherever they live, and to anyone who choses us as their church (ibid, 204). We become lovers of God because we are loved by God.

The Christian vision – the vision we are safeguarding in a post-Christian society –  is most sharply focused in worship.  The one, holy catholic Church, all of its denominations and each of its local churches, transmits the Christian vision from generation to generation, and nothing is more central to the preservation of the Christian vision than the preservation of its worship.  The ecumenical church has recognized for about fifty years that by preserving its worship, we also preserve Christian doctrine and life, and we are blessed to have the results of much theological research undertaken recently to recover an accurate picture of liturgical practices across the centuries.

Christian worship, doctrine, and life, including personal discipline and interior life, are inextricably linked; if our understanding of worship changes, then our understanding of Christian doctrine and life also changes.  So will the relation between the church and the world, for the survival of the world depends upon the preservation of the Christian vision.  The vision that worship expresses will “illuminate and transform reality to the advantage of all humanity” or humanity will be lost.  This is what is at stake.  This is the Great Commission, restated in contemporary language, and we are the disciples Jesus commissions today to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”[1]

The threat posed to the Word of God by the world in which it is proclaimed is rendered in today’s Gospel passage through an army-like multitude of 5,000 men needing to be fed.  The men are apart from women and children;[2] they are seated in an orderly fashion (arranged in groups of 50 and a 100) for the distribution of their food[3] and fed because they are “like sheep that have no shepherd,”[4] meaning “an army without a captain.”[5]  When they attempt to make Jesus their captain, repeating one of Satan’s wilderness temptations of Jesus, he goes off by himself.  According to John, at this moment, Jesus is at the peak of his popularity, and soon the people will begin turning against his ministry. This is why we are shown the terrifying aspect of our Lord, Creator of the Universe and the Savior of Mankind.  Imagine for a moment how frightened his disciples are as they watch him approach their boat on the Sea of Tiberias walking on the water.  Or reconsider the five bread loaves and a couple of dried fish distributed to 5,000 men, and with plenty leftover.  We need to be sure to go beyond our senses when considering signs and miracles.  Clement of Alexandria comments, “So very mystically the five loaves are broken by the Savior, and fill the crowd of listeners.”[6]

There are three basic ways we can engage or re-engage our commitment to our own discipleship.  Discipline is the first way: “a practice of daily serious theological reflection, and being so engaged in the faith that it shapes the way we think and act” and “how we live and how we die.” The second way is establishing an interior life through prayer, contemplation, and Scriptural reading; we grow in our love for God while conforming our personal wills with His.  Third, is liturgical worship:  expressing the essential reality of the church as a living presence.[7]  Liturgy is “a strong communal sense of being with God and with the community of faith in every time and place.”[8]  Re-phrased in terms of salvation, we can say that liturgical worship is a window that opens onto the truth that brings the dead to life.

John’s Gospel uniquely focuses on Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s calendar of festal observances and the synagogue’s cycle of readings.  The relationship between the feeding of the 5,000, prefigured in the 2 Kings account of Elisha (4:42-44)[9], and the Last Supper is suggested by the chronological placement of the meal “when the Passover was at hand” and the thanks Jesus gives over the bread he distributes.  “Blessed be you, Yahweh, our God, King of the world…who causes the bread to issue from the earth,” Jesus might have said, reciting the ordinary Jewish blessing, as he fulfills the Passover by identifying himself as the “living bread that came down from heaven, of which the manna in the wilderness was a type.”[10]  The several signs that John recounts in the first twelve chapters of his Gospel refer, in addition to the Passover (6:4, 11:55, 12:1), to the Jewish rite of purification (2:13), the Sabbath (5:1), the Feast of Tabernacles (7:2), and the Dedication of the Temple, or Hanukkah (10:22). In each instance, the sign manifests, “through the person of Jesus,” God’s life-giving work in the world.

Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s “messianic hope and the substance of Israel’s ritual symbolism.”[11] John describes Jesus as “the true Temple (2:18-22), the antitype of the brazen serpent (3:14-15), the true manna (6:30-58), the true water-giving rock (7:37-39), the true fiery pillar (8:12), the eschatological Moses (6), the new Torah (5:39-47), and the true Paschal sacrifice (1:29-36).  The lectionary calendar we use in common with several other denominations originates with the Jewish lectionary established by the Word of God for Israel’s salvation long before the person of the Son incarnated here on earth.  It is a sacred trust, underlying the order of our liturgical worship, a gift from God to us, given, for the New Israel, Christ’s church, to fulfill its mission in God’s plan for the salvation of all creation.

When Jesus walked on the water, in the evening, on the Sea of Tiberias, it was dark, and a strong wind was blowing.  As the disciples saw Jesus drawing near their boat, they were frightened.  “It is I,” Jesus said, “do not be afraid.” The boat on the lake, Augustine will write, “prefigured the church.” Walking on the waves, Jesus keeps all the tribulations of the world under his feet.   “And yet,” Augustine says, “so great are the tribulations that even those who have trusted in Jesus and who strive to persevere to the end greatly fear lest they fall…But they open the Scriptures and find all these things foretold; that this is the Lord’s doing.  He tramples down the heights of the world that he may be glorified by the humble.”[12] Let us then live humbly and glorify the Lord.  Let our hearts be forever gladdened by the goodness of God and thankful for his bountiful gifts.  Amen.

[1] Matt 28: 19-20a, NRSV

[2] Matt 14:21

[3] Mk

[4] 1 Kings 22:17

[5] T.W. Manson, quoted in F.F.Bruce, “The Gospel of John.”

[6] Stromateis 5.6


[8] ibid

[9] Ernst Haenchen, John 1, 277

[10] Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis In the Apostolic Period, 135

[11] ibid, 136

[12] from Tractates on the Gospel of John 25:4-7

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