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Trinity 8 -Sermon – John Repath.
On the last two occasions I preached a sermon I mentioned the Revised Common Lectionary – the readings and psalms for particular Sundays which rotate every three years. I also pointed out that this year we are using Gospel readings from Mark during Trinity. What I didn’t mention specifically is that as Mark’s Gospel is so short, the people who compiled the lectionary have included readings from St John’s Gospel on the six Sundays starting today. It is however interesting that today’s reading is remarkably similar to that of St Mark.
In today’s gospel reading we hear that Jesus crossed over the Sea of Galilee, presumably with the disciples although that isn’t specified. The actual lake is about thirteen miles long and eight miles wide. For comparison Lake Windermere is about eleven miles long but only approximately one mile across. The lake is fed by the Jordan and the water finally ends its journey evaporating beyond the Dead Sea. In Jesus’ time there were thriving settlements around the shore including Tiberias and Capernaum. It has been estimated that there were 230 fishing boats working there at one time as it was alongside a well-known trade route.
When we had the good fortune to go to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage, it was very much a tourist route. We stayed in Tiberias on the shore of Galilee and the first place we visited in the morning was Tagbha where by tradition Jesus fed the 5000 although scholars now think that is highly unlikely to have been where it did happen. We also saw the remains of a boat from the time of Jesus which had been unearthed during an excavation in 1968. We were then taken across the lake in what was called a replica boat which sounded a bit suspect – the word replica worried me slightly – and we had a stop for the raising of the Union Jack and our National Anthem. The banana plantations were also a bit of a surprise.
We were taken to the Church of the Beatitudes and were told that it may or may not have been where Jesus addressed the crowd on that particular occasion. It certainly looked like a natural amphitheatre. The lake is surrounded by hills and in some respects it doesn’t matter where the feeding of the 5000 took place. Moreover, on this particular occasion it wasn’t so much what Jesus said that mattered, but rather what happened, and while I said that both Mark’s account and John’s were very similar it is worth looking at the differences.
While preaching on Mark’s gospel I have stressed the urgency and immediacy of his writing. It always reminds me of Dennis Potter’s play “Son of Man” which many of you will remember being shown on television and the furore that followed. St John’s gospel in contrast is a work of sublime literature beginning with those wonderful words we hear on Christmas Day, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” Mark’s writing was more prosaic, more basic, written as it was for early Christians whose lives were threatened. In Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5000 we are simply told that “They all ate and were satisfied”. In contrast John tells us that “After the people saw the miraculous sign Jesus did, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.”
There is also a difference in the accounts of walking on the water but I don’t want to go ahead too fast because this leads into next Sunday’s Gospel. However, I can tell you that in Mark’s account the reaction of the disciples is, “They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.” The contrast in those two different reactions speak volumes.
What we do find in both of the Gospel accounts is a real enactment of the first temptation when the devil said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” In his book “The Brothers Karamazov” the Grand Inquisitor, speaking to the prisoner says, “Do you see the stones in this parched and barren desert, turn them into loaves, and mankind will run after you like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though for ever trembling with fear that you might withdraw your hand and they would no longer have your loaves. But you did not want to deprive man of freedom and rejected the offer, for, you thought, what sort of freedom is it if obedience is bought with loaves of bread.”
Well, the people were running after Jesus, they didn’t just run like a flock of sheep, they followed him by boat, they wanted more miracles, more entertainment, sooner or later they might have wanted him to raise an army to get rid of the Romans, but that was not the Gospel that Jesus was preaching. In the maelstrom of the Near East, the crucible where empires clashed and rose and fell time and time again, the son of a carpenter was bringing a new message – the Good News of the Gospel which we read and hear Sunday after Sunday in our churches and in churches throughout the world.