Proper 12: 2 Kings 4.42-end; Psalm 145.10-19; Ephesians 3.14-end; John 6.1-21
“THE Christian would escape from the world into the universe” (G. K. Chesterton, St Thomas Aquinas). “The universe” is a gift from God. Our Psalm describes its sacramental purpose: “All your works praise you, O Lord, and your faithful servants bless you. They tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your mighty power.” When we handle that gift in a “worldly” way, forgetful of the giver, we obscure its true and sacramental nature, and make of it an idol.
Each of our readings shows us how to treat the material world aright, so as to reveal God’s glory and grace. Our Old Testament passage describes one of a series of miraculous feedings at a time of famine. As Gina Hens-Piazza observes, “these stories do more than assert the centrality of Elisha and his prophetic power to minister effectively among the people. They also offer a powerful lesson on how God’s word must be ministered to the people.”
In the feeding of the hundred people, Elisha “enlists the participation” of those in need so that their relationship with God is deepened (Abingdon Bible Commentaries: 1 and 2 Kings). The aim is to enable the people to recognise God’s glory and “speak of [his] mighty power”.
The miracle in our Gospel passage is on a greater scale. Whereas Elisha feeds 100 people with 20 loaves, Jesus feeds 5000 people with just five loaves and two fishes. But Jesus’s feeding has deliberate echoes of the earlier miracle. This itself is a sign of Jesus’s faithfulness, as the one who fulfils the law and the prophets. The parallels between the two miracles are striking: the scepticism of the disciples echoes that of Elisha’s servant; the boy’s gift of the loaves and fishes echoes the gift of the man from Baal-shalisha; and the 12 baskets which are gathered up echo the excess in the earlier story.
As St Thomas Aquinas writes, many of the crowd respond to Jesus’s miracle on a purely worldly level. When Jesus moves on to teach that he is their spiritual food — the true “bread of life” — and when he speaks of the commitment and cost involved in feeding on him, they will turn away (Commentary on the Gospel of St John).
The desire of the crowd to make Jesus king seems largely motivated by the prospect of an indefinite supply of free food. Jesus withdraws from their midst, because this is not the purpose of his ministry. He is not simply a wonder-worker. His deeds of power are sacramental “signs”, revealing his glory as the Word of God made flesh.
Our epistle identifies another gift from God, which can either be sacramental or can be made into an idol. St Paul says: “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.” As St John Paul II reminds us, the family is to be “a school of love”.
It ceases to fulfil this vocation when relationships of kin make us indifferent to those beyond its circle. Christian parents should seek to “spread their love beyond the bonds of flesh and blood, nourishing the links that are rooted in the spirit and that develop through concrete service”. When they do this, each family becomes a “Church of the home”: a material sign of God’s love and grace (Familiaris Consortio).
Over the next four Sundays, we will read the remainder of John 6, in which Jesus uses his miraculous feeding as the basis for an extended discourse on what it means to recognise and receive him as “the bread of life”. Helpfully for the preacher, each passage is paired with an Old Testament reading which illuminates a different aspect of Jesus’s teaching on “the bread of life”.
At the same time, we continue to read through St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. The author’s prayer, given to us in this Sunday’s reading, is that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love”.
It is when we draw near with faith, and receive Christ as “the bread of life” that he will “dwell in our hearts”. Through that indwelling — as individuals, families, and congregations — we become living sacraments. For it is he who “by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine”.