Sermon preached at Saint Matthias’ Church on 31st July 2005
“He directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves” Matthew 14:19
The feeding of the Five Thousand is one of those stories that presents problems to people who seek to explain the life and ministry of Jesus in purely natural terms. It is an awkward story to explain away.
Healing miracles are claimed to be Jesus’ response to psychosomatic illnesses. The natural miracles, the calming of the storm, the walking on the water, are explained as products of an over-active imagination. Even Jesus rising from the dead is explained as something that took place in the hearts and minds of the followers.
Huge public events like the feeding miracles are more difficult to account for. The explanation offered is that the example provided by the small boy in offering his loaves and fishes prompted other people to share what they had, and so everyone was fed.
If the feeding of the five thousand was simply a sharing of food, then the facts of situation remained the same. There was no extra food, simply a moving around of what was already there.
If the feeding of the five thousand was simply about sharing what you had brought with you, then someone would surely have come forward at an early stage and said that this was untrue. This story was written down by Saint Mark thirty years later; there would have been plenty of people at that time who could have said ‘I was there’. I know this didn’t happen’.
The fact that this story became a very firm part of the story of Jesus from earliest times suggests that the facts of the situation did not remain the same. This wasn’t just moving things around, this was the creation of something new and unique.
The faith of the boy in offering the loaves and fishes, the faith of the disciples who got the crowds to sit down, the faith of those who carried the food around, enabled Jesus to respond and complete change the facts of the situation.
I think the story of the feeding of the five thousand helps us as we think about the declaration made by the IRA last Thursday.
When we think about the miracle, there is the simple question, have the facts changed or not? As we look at last Thursday, we can ask the same question, have the facts changed or not?
Amidst a great fanfare of publicity a recorded declaration was released on Thursday afternoon announcing that the IRA was going to cease all activities. If this was a final and complete end, it seemed strange that someone could not have made the declaration at a public press conference. Anyway, what are the facts of the situation?
The IRA have announced that they have ceased all activities, yet they have been on a ceasefire since 1997 and Sinn Fein have always denied vehemently that they engaged in any other activities. The Northern Bank raid was nothing to do with them. What change is there? They have not accepted they are an illegal organization and agreed to disband.
They have agreed to disarmament, although it is a disarmament process on their terms. The verification that it has taken place can only be by people acceptable to them. Given the fact that no-one knows exactly how many weapons they had in the first place, it would be hard to know if they had completely disarmed. More seriously, no matter how many guns they destroy, if they still exist as an organization, they still retain the capacity to mobilize again and rearm themselves.
What we got last Thursday afternoon was not an historic breakthrough, but a rearrangement of the facts. The facts of situation remain the same, the IRA still exists.
This is like the feeding of the five thousand being simply a sharing of food that people had brought with them. Thursday brought nothing dramatic or miraculous.
If Thursday is to be a day that becomes significant, then what we are looking for is a material change in the facts. We want a dramatic change. We want something that leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that something big has taken place.
Jesus always looked for faith to allow him the opportunity to do great things. We are told at one point that he could do very little in his home area because of their lack of faith. The feeding of the five thousand is possible because Jesus has the opportunity to work through the faith of those present.
The opportunity for a material alteration of the facts after last Thursday, the opportunity for something big to take place, depends upon there being faith on both sides of the process- faith, confidence in each other, but more than that.
True peace is more than the absence of violence, it’s a peace in hearts and minds as well as peace on the streets. There is a spiritual change that is needed as well as a change in the physical facts. Reconciliation on South Africa was only possible, I believe, because of the deep spiritual quality of the people on both sides– there were people who knew that true peace could only come from God.
Lasting peace in Northern Ireland will only be possible when reconciliation is achieved, and that reconciliation will only be possible through God working in people’s hearts. If there is no faith, then that will not be possible.
There is much to pray for– it is a miracle that we seek, a miracle that brings a complete change in people’s hearts. Last Thursday was just a rearrangement of the facts, what we must pray for is a complete change of the facts.
“He directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves“
Miracles can happen.