‘’Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted’ John 6:11
The grey skies and damp weather of recent months have come to dominate life in my midlands parish. Many of the cattle, which should be grazing in the fields, have been brought back into sheds on the farm and are eating fodder intended for the winter—partly because the grass was not growing, partly because the fields were being churned into mud. Silage and hay that should have been cut is either late, or, in some cases, has not been cut at all. The harvest does not look promising.
The weather has been such a cause for concern that last Sunday we prayed a prayer from our old Prayer Book, ‘Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth, in whom we live, and move, and have our being; who dost cause thy sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendest rain both upon the just and the unjust; We beseech thee at this time favourably to behold thy people who call upon thee, and send thy blessing down from heaven to give us a fruitful season’. It was a prayer that captured the mood of the moment.
My friend and colleague in our neighbouring parish will have nothing to do with such prayers, he asks, ‘if we think God is a vindictive hobgoblin. If so, praying for rain or shine, as required, might be just the thing. If you see the Lord as an irascible headmaster needing to be placated and massaged, then prayers for this or that might be just your cup of tea’.
At the heart of the question is whether, in the words of the Australian writer Nick Cave, we believe in an interventionist God; whether we believe that in response to prayer, certain things happen; whether, in simplest terms, we believe in miracles.
A lecturer in college days was fond of what he called ‘demythologisation’; he did not believe in an interventionist God; miracles didn’t fit in with his way of looking at Jesus. It was very hard to argue with him without sounding like a backwoods fundamentalist and, anyway, I liked the lecturer. He was a very warm and friendly man and his words were always lively and challenging, but I was always troubled by this aspect of his theology, this desire to take anything non-rational out of the story.
When it came to this morning’s Gospel reading, the feeding of the Five Thousand, the lecturer’s line would have been that Jesus neither could nor would have engaged in such an action. The story would have been as symbolic; the boy’s action in sharing what he had inspired others to share. Jesus would not have engaged in such activity, according to the lectures, his mission was an ethical one and such wonder-working would have been a diversion from the true purpose.
I spent years reflecting on these stories, and on two questions:
Could Jesus have done these things?
Would Jesus have done these things?
The answers to those questions are important, the answers we give to them should shape the way we see the world and the way we live our lives.
Could Jesus have done these things?
What sort of God do we believe in? If he is a God who is bound by the laws of physics, if he cannot multiply loaves and fishes, then in what sense he is God?
A contemporary view of Jesus is that he was a great prophet and teacher, but then so was Muhatma Gandhi. We would not dream of singing hymns of worship to Gandhi, so if Jesus is to be worthy of worship he must be something considerably greater than a prophet and teacher. If the reality of Jesus is going to reflect the words we use in our worship, the words of our hymns, of our prayers, of the Creeds, then that reality must be someone who finds feeding 5,000 to be no trouble whatsoever. The miraculous runs against both our intuition and our experience, both of these tell us these things don’t happen, but if the idea of God is going to mean anything at all, then he must be a God of miracles, a God who is not bound by scientific laws.
Could Jesus have turned the water into wine? Could he have fed the Five Thousand? I believe so.
If God is an interventionist God, if he is a God of supernature, a God beyond our explanation, a God who does the unexpected, then this must have a serious impact upon the way we see the world and the way we live. Faced with this God, how do we respond to him? There’s no escaping, no avoiding a God like this.
I believe he could have performed the miracle, but would he?
The objection to the feeding of the 5,000, and to other spectacular actions like Jesus walking on the water in the second part of the Gospel reading, is that they are stunts that distract from the vital ethical teaching that Jesus came to bring us. Even Jesus objects to using power to impress people, in the story of the temptations in the wilderness he is tempted to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple so that the angels will catch him, and he refuses to do so.
There were many wonder workers around at the time of Jesus, we would call them illusionists now, people who could convince their audience that the impossible was happening before their eyes. They were for the most part charlatans and tricksters, surely Jesus would not have aligned himself with such people?
To see the miracle of turning the water into wine as a stunt is to see the event through modern middle class eyes. Most of us have lived fairly economically secure lives where we have never really been financially embarrassed. If we have ever been short of something, particularly something as important as food, then perhaps we can have some understanding of the importance of this miracle.
Poor communities elsewhere in the world would much more readily understand this story than people who have never been under great pressure. Jesus declares himself that he has come with good news for the poor; there can be no clearer way of demonstrating the seriousness of these words than in responding to the obvious and immediate practical needs of those who were hungry.
Would Jesus have fed the crowds?
Why not? If the Christian faith is about a God who is with his people, then why shouldn’t Jesus respond in a way that shows he identifies with his community?
The miracles ask us whether we believe in an interventionist God, and, if we do, ask us what difference it makes to our life. If we believe in the miracles, if we believe in the greatest miracle of all, that Jesus walked out of the tomb, if we believe that this Jesus is with us now as we break the bread an share the cup, what difference does it make? What things will we include in our prayers?