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"The Signs of a Generous God" (John 6:1-21)
The following sermon was delivered at St. John the Baptist Church, Maadi, Cairo, Egypt on Friday 27 July, 2012
Grace and peace to you from the God and Father of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Today, we shift gears. For the next five weeks we move from the Gospel of Mark to the Gospel of John. Today, we heard this:
“Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus took the loaves gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. . . . they all had enough to eat…(6:10-12).
Aside from the fact that the author of this Gospel mentions “plenty of grass in that place,” it is clear to me that he could be talking about any Charity Iftar being held on the city streets throughout Cairo these days – crowds of men, mostly, gathered in public spaces being fed as the religious holiday begins.
Yes, John describes very well your average scene at sundown during Ramadan. The difference, of course, being that while Jesus provides a miraculous feeding of these 5,000 from only five loaves of bread and two fish, Charity Iftars are put on by the local business people provide food for those who happen to be passing by at the “breaking of the fast.” Such an endeavor requires some planning and some money.
Perhaps some of these Charity Iftars are producing miracles of loaves and fishes. (I don’t know – I haven’t seen any, or heard about any, or read of any in the papers.) But, as good business people they have more than likely made ample preparations to purchase, collect and distribute food for any who happen to be there at sundown. It is their charity (zakat) that provides for others. And that should be respected.
The feeding of the 5,000 here is a good example of the intent to provide for others out of generosity. Jesus is a model here for the human act of sharing, of generosity. And yet, this is not only a human act – but is a sign of God’s gracious intentions of providing food and life – ayesh. The word in Egyptian colloquial means both. Bread and life mean the same thing - and God is at the centre of it all.
Our readings for today draw Jews, Christians and Muslims together around the theme of God providing food and life. And such acts are “signs” of a greater reality.
Our Old Testament Reading from 2 Kings (2 Kgs 4:42-44) certainly provides a parallel story. Here Elisha, a Prophet of God, provides food for the people with the assistance of a man from Baal Shalishah. Now, this man was not an Israelite – after all the title of his town was named after one of the Canaanite Gods – Baal. No self-respecting Israelite would live in such a town. Whether the people who were fed were Israelites or Canaanites or others, we don’t know. Nevertheless, Elisha uses this unnamed man outside of his own religious community to provide a meal for the gathered people.
In the Islamic tradition, both in the Qur’an and in later medieval Oral Tradition, there is the story of Jesus miraculously providing a meal for his disciples. In the 5th sura (al-Ma’ida) 112-115, the disciples ask Jesus to send down food from Heaven as a “sign” (‘ayat). Jesus prays to God and God provides a Table, where upon they eat.
The 14th century Islamic scholar, Ibn Kathir extrapolates on this Qur’anic reference and remarks that the table was filled with “roasted fish.” And that “thousands of people partook of it, and yet they never exhausted it. [In addition] A further miracle was that the blind and lepers were cured.” Ibn Kathir goes on to indicate that the disciples of Jesus forgot the real purpose of this meal and turned it into something else.
In a similar fashion, the Gospel from John provides another parallel story of another Prophet of God - as the people call him (6:14). This Jesus from Nazareth calls his disciples and the 5,000 together to sit down to commemorate the Passover, the seminal moment of the liberation from Pharaoh. And there he provides food out of his generosity.
This story as we have it in John could be accepted in the Islamic tradition. There is nothing here that would be either offensive or necessary to change. In fact, there is even the recognition of Jesus as the Prophet. (“Surely this is the Prophet who is come into the world” (6: 14).
Yes, in all three traditions, the image of the Prophet of God providing a “sign” to provide food for his people out of generosity is one we can all agree upon. The central point here is that God provides “guidance” and “signs” for humanity. God graciously opens wide his hand and provides, as the Psalmist says, “the needs of every living creature” (Ps. 145:17).
In fact, we Christians and Muslims can even agree on the fact that Jesus himself is a “sign” (‘ayat) from God. Sura Maryam in the Qur’an remarks that Jesus is “a Sign unto men and a Mercy” (19:20).
What is it, however, that makes the Jesus of John, or Mark, or the NT different?
Jesus certainly is a "sign" – a sign of God’s blessing and will for humanity – that we would seek him out and that God’s Will would turn us outward toward those around us, toward those in need.
He certainly is a prophet – a prophet from God that responds to those around him who are in need - but not only that. There is something special about this “Jesus from Nazareth.”
But just what is it that makes Jesus of John, or Mark, or the NT different?
Anglican Bishop Kenneth Cragg calls this Christian perspective the “vista from Jerusalem.” Christianity and Islam both look to Jesus as a “sign,” as a sign of God’s working in the world, but Christians look back on Jesus through the lens of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
For Mark (whom we have been reading these past weeks) and now John (who we will be reading in the coming weeks) as they are sat down to write their Gospels; they had the vantage of looking back at the life and ministry of Jesus after the experience of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. They knew the story, and they knew the ending. And thus, they want to pass on their message to those that come after them (us!).
John provides words and images that remind us of how Jesus fulfills the role of the Prophets - but so much more. He is not only a “sign” of God’s Will, but a “sign” of God’s essential generosity in and through his own life, death and resurrection. In fact, the Gospel of John as it has come to us is centered on the “signs” that Jesus provides for both his followers and those who are skeptics. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus continues to provide “signs” (semeia). He himself is the “sign.” He himself is ‘ayesh.
We might focus our Christian reflection today on the simple phrase put forward by John when recalling the “sign” of Jesus walking on the water. In the mist of the dark, and the strong wind, and the rough waters, Jesus appears to them on the water and says, “It is I; do not be afraid" (v. 20; Mk 6:5; Mt 14:27). The words literally are “I am: do not be afraid.”
These simple words are reflected over and over again in Christian memory. You see this in the images and icons of Jesus in Coptic Churches everywhere – the image of Jesus holding open the Scriptures to the phrase from the Greek New Testament: Ego Eimi – "I am.” “I am the bread of life.”
As we will hear later in the coming weeks:
“Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” …“I am the bread of life (6:32-33,35).
The image of providing bread for the hungry can be seen all around us this time of year, as you see the charity iftars on the street, or as you sit with others who have invited you into their homes for a breaking of the fast. What a wonderful way to embody and understand Jesus’ command here: “Have the people sit down” (v.10) and feed them.
Those of us gathered in this place - looking back over the life of Jesus - we recall the one who calls us to come and sit down and to eat and drink in the midst of all that is going on around us in our lives – perhaps darkness, and wind and rough waters.
This is the vista, or the view from Jerusalem. He provides wine and bread for the journey, for your journey. He calls you in, regardless of your background or nationality – regardless of your piety or your sin – especially in spite your sin. He calls you in and offers you this gift, this “sign” (see 6:66).
During this season of fasting (Ramadan) - where providing food and drink is such an important “sign” - may you take the “signs” of Christ in this place and carry them with you throughout this week. Go out with the knowledge that Christ goes there with you and before you, providing “signs” of God’s gracious presence in your life, even in the dark, the wind, and the rough waters of our lives. Look for these signs in those most unlikely places whether there be grass there or not! Look for these signs in the most unlikely people where you might experience the presence and generosity of Christ. Look for these signs in the ayesh you receive from him.
B'il Ismou Masih (In the Name of Christ). Amen.