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Readings: 8th Sunday after Trinity

by
17 July 2015

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2 Samuel 11.1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3.14-end; John 6.1-21

 

Almighty Lord and everlasting God, we beseech you to direct, sanctify and govern both our hearts and bodies in the ways of your laws and the works of your commandments; that through your most mighty protection, both here and ever, we may be preserved in body and soul; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

FOR the next five weeks, the Gospel readings will progress through the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. This returns to the feeding of the five thousand, omitted from last week’s reading from Mark 6, and provides an opportunity to pay attention to Jesus’s commentary —though “commentary” is hardly an adequate description of this journey into the mystery at the heart of the miracle.

John’s interest in the event is quite different from Mark’s, as his careful chronology makes clear. It is near to Passover (John 6.4). Brendan Byrne reminds us that John casts the whole of Jesus’s ministry in a “Passover framework” (see John 2.13-25 and John 13.1), leading his readers to the dénouement in which Jesus dies as “the Passover Lamb of God”.* The ensuing weeks’ readings will explore the Passover motif even further.

In addition, whereas much of the action in Mark’s account centres on Jesus’s relationship with the disciples, John assigns the disciples a more functional role. Their hesitation over the idea of providing food for such a crowd, Philip’s alarming calculation, and Andrew’s despairing mention of the boy who has “five barley loaves and two fish” emphasise that something is about to occur that would be impossible on any rational terms (John 6.7-9).

Jesus, however, “knew what he was going to do” (John 6.6). The people seem to understand the exceptional significance of what has happened, even if the disciples do not: this is a “sign”, performed by the “prophet” they have been expecting (John 6.14). That they leap to the wrong conclusions and want Jesus as their king is only partly attributable to the limited and opportunistic attention for which he rebukes them a little later (John 6.25-27). Though there is no Lord’s Prayer in this Gospel, it has its own way of addressing the coming of the Kingdom — on earth as it is heaven.

It is difficult to understand why anyone would want to demystify the feeding, or Jesus’s walking on the water towards his beleaguered friends some time afterwards. William Barclay, for instance, reads into the breaking of bread a lesson in generosity and sharing. He goes on to point out that the words translated as walking “on the lake” (John 6.19) are rendered “beside the lake” in John 21.1, giving grounds to think that the disciples in fact saw Jesus on the shore.**

That doesn’t dispose of the fact that Mark, who uses the same words, clearly means “on the sea” (Mark 6.48). But more important still is the way in which Jesus identifies himself: “It is I; do not be afraid” (John 6.20). Byrne points to this as “an instance of divine revelation”, to be set alongside Exodus 3.14 (p.114). God has power over the waters, as over the behaviour of the burning bush (Genesis 1.1-10; Exodus 14-16.21; Psalm 29.3 and 10; Psalm 114). 

The magnitude of God in generosity and faithfulness is contrasted with the disappointing limitations of the human spirit in the narrative of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11.1-15). Here is a king who has conquered in the strength of the Lord in a series of successful battles, forgetting that he is not above the law. Bathsheba’s pregnancy is not an unfortunate accident: the useful biological information provided by the writer makes it an extremely likely event (2 Samuel 11.5). David’s desperate attempt at a cover-up, as well as his cowardly arrangements for Uriah’s death, show the king in a very poor light against the loyal officer. Yet God will keep the covenant made with David and his house, because God remains God (2 Samuel 7).

Out of that covenant will come a much larger hope, embodied in Jesus, who is born of David’s line and in his home town — the “House of Bread” (1 Samuel 16.1-13; Luke 1.26-27). It will extend beyond David’s house to a spreading community of believers, to whom the Spirit will reveal the “breadth and length and height and depth” of what the Greek magnificently calls “the surpassing knowledge love” of Christ (Ephesians 3.18-19).

The writer of the letter ends the prayer begun at Ephesians 1.3 on an exalted note (Ephesians 3.14-end), before turning to the details of the new way of life which this knowledge will demand.

 

* Brendan Byrne, Life Abounding: A reading of John’s Gospel ( Liturgical Press, 2014), page111.

** William Barclay, The Gospel of John,Vol. 1 (The Saint Andrew Press, 1975), pages 204, and 208-209.

 

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