Here is Bishop Stephen's third reflection, this week on elements of Chapter 6 and Chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel.
Lent 3 Reflection - Bishop Stephen
My third reflection is on elements of Chapter 6 and Chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel. I am thinking out loud about the two miraculous feedings and Jesus walking on water.
Let’s begin with Mark 6.32-44. I left off last week with the apostles returning to Jesus after their first venture in healing and preaching. Jesus proposed that they go to a lonely place with a view to escaping the ever-growing crowds. Jesus is completely thwarted by the sharp wits and sight of members of the crowd who watch the route taken by the boat carrying our Lord and his disciples and they followed. Those of us in public ministry know what this is like in microcosm: I was exhorted by my predecessor as bishop of Ely to go to the supermarket on Saturday so that local people could see what was in my trolley a kind of shopping witness. I don’t know what they think about all those sausages and fishfingers. A priest I know was on his rest day and decided to go swimming but at a leisure centre a long way from the parish to avoid meeting anyone he knew. He hadn’t swum a whole length before someone bumped into him and said, “Sorry, Father”. My friend then found himself doing marriage preparation in the pool. We might get cross about this; but what was the response of Jesus? As he disembarked onto the shore he was overwhelmed with compassion for the crowd. They seemed to him to be like sheep without a shepherd. This happens to be a stock Biblical phrase for people enduring the leadership of corrupt or negligent rulers, of whom Herod Antipas and his father, Herod the Great were but two. My most recent vote in the House of Lords was in support of an amendment to a trade bill which would have prevented HMG from entering into trade deals with countries which had carried out genocide against their own or other people. The standard for us as Christians is Jesus, the true shepherd leader like Moses and David, but greater than they.
Jesus expresses his authority in three ways. First he teaches (verse 34) as we have already seen plenty of in Mark. The healings and other miracles illustrate and underline his primary purpose to proclaim that the Kingdom is near. Now he orders how the people are to be seated formally as for a banquet, as God orders creation and that ordering is for the purpose of abundant living, so Jesus feeds the people. This miracle was hugely important for our early Christian forebears as disciples, as it should be for us. It reveals so much about Jesus and what God has in store for humanity through the full arrival of the Kingdom. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” says Jesus in John 10.10. The Feeding of the Five Thousand is a miracle of God’s abundance in the face of the disciples’ anxiety about scarcity. St Irenaeus said: “For the glory of God is a person fully alive; and the life of humanity consists in beholding God”. This saying has inspired our diocesan strategy to be fully alive. The story of the Exile is not one of abandonment by God. The glory of God went with them. Jeremiah was not believed when he prophesied the return to Jerusalem; yet it happened and the temple was restored. God is angry with Ephraim but his compassion grows warm and tender. God again and again renews his covenant with Israel which was formed in the desert where they lacked nothing in the forty years of their journey. Now in a lonely place, Jesus feeds the people.
There are echoes here of Elisha feeding 100 people with 20 loaves in 2 Kings 4, again with a disapproving servant clicking his tongue furiously. The people are ordered to sit down on green grass, strongly reminiscent of Psalm 23. I have often wondered whether Jesus’s whole ministry was a living out of that psalm in obedience to the Father. He is the Shepherd King of Israel. I invite you to ponder what parts of Scripture that have had most influence on your call as a disciple. My favourite copy of the Bible is one that I bought to take with me to Africa years ago. It is my travelling companion now wherever I go and its is rather tatty from use, as bibles ought to be, of course. As a living page of the gospel, how rough around the edges are you?
This whole passage looks back to the feedings in the wilderness during the Exodus and forward to the banquet of the final Kingdom. All ate and were satisfied, we are told. This is what complete human fulfilment can be. We are so often dissatisfied in our lives. Call centres are never free of complainers. Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells is never far away. Yet the number of people fed and the amount of food left over reveals the unstinting abundance of divine hospitality. The disciples began by acting like sensible managers of meagre rations, wanting to disperse the crowd so they would not go hungry. Even if they were people who usually acted as though the cup was half-full, they could not see that with God the cup is full to be brim and spills over. What Jesus does is to take the disciples and make them fully part of an event which was humanly impossible. There is no mention of how the food was provided, but the disciples are turned by Jesus into providers of joyous and abundant living through God’s hospitality. If we are looking to be fully alive in our parishes and chaplaincies and networks across the diocese, I ask how we can emerge post-pandemic to be even more hospitable. I love the Christian life described as being at prayer and at parties. In these months of necessary withdrawal, we have missed the parties, and most of all being the honoured guests of Jesus at the Eucharist. More of that anon.
I now move to 6.45-52 where Jesus walks on water. He first goes up the mountain to pray, reminiscent of Moses and presumably to contemplate the next stage of his ministry among the gentile towns. We read that the disciples were in the middle of the sea. This was not a geographical location. It points to the fact that they are lonely and in fear of the storm: they had made little progress from the evening until 3am, when one can cross the sea at its worst and widest in eight hours. More than anything, they had failed the test of faith. They cannot understand the miracle until they come truly to know the breaking in of God’s Word. They cannot see it when Jesus walks on the waves and defeats the powers of chaos and destruction that the storm represents. Only God has this prerogative. When we read that he was going to pass by, remember that Moses could only look on God from the cleft of a rock as God passed by. This is the amazing self-revelation of who Jesus is, demonstrated further by his saying, “Take heart, it is I”. Well, we would all identify ourselves in the dark; but this is reminding us of the God who identifies to Moses in the burning bush as “I AM”. If the disciples had yet understood the true meaning of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, they would not have been so surprised to see Jesus revealed in power. The trouble goes further. Their hearts were hardened and this has only previously been said about the pharisees as opponents of Jesus. They were still puzzled when Jesus fed four thousand people as we shall see. As disciples, we can be outsiders as well as insiders if we do not give ourselves to being drawn into the mystery of God and the power of his Word. This brings us to Chapter 8.1-10.
At this stage, Jesus is preaching and healing in the Gentile towns of the Decapolis, an interaction frowned on by the Jews who feared spiritual and moral contamination. In the Feeding of the Five Thousand we see Jesus revealed as the Shepherd King fulfilling the expectation of the Hebrew Bible. Here we see Jesus reaching out beyond the people of the First Covenant to the new Covenant which will be made by his blood. The feedings, therefore, look not just to the final banquet but to the Eucharist. In both miracles, Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks over it, breaks it and gives it to the disciples just as in the action at the Last Supper and in the action during the Eucharistic action of priest and people. Now the whole human family will be able to enjoy the hospitality of God.
In Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the church receives and re-receives the gift of communion in every Eucharist. The right administration of the sacraments is one of the marks of the visible Church of Christ, and each eucharistic community is summoned to manifest something of GodAs the ecclesial Body of Christ is fed by the Body of Christ given in bread taken, blessed, broken and given, grace is received and communion renewed. St Augustine said that we become what we eat, the Body of Christ. In this way we become God’s bread for the world’s hunger for love and justice. The Eucharist models the mission entrusted to all disciples: all are assembled and called, fed the same portion of bread and wine and empowered by Christ and then sent. The assembling and sending require no building, only the power of the sacrifice of Christ lived in communion. One of my favourite theologians, Austin Farrar wrote that as Jesus knew he would be returning to the Father, in feeding the disciples at the Last Supper with his body and blood he was continuing his physical presence in the world through the disciples and all who would follow them as they do this in remembrance of him. +Rowan Williams and many others have drawn attention to the nature of Jewish remembering in the celebration of the Passover. It is as if they have the dust of Pharaoh’s brickyards in their hair as they are led out of Egypt. Their depth of memory also re-members them, brings them together as a people. As the principle celebrant of the Eucharist, the bishop is caught up in the celebration of Christ as our Exodus and as the one whose dismembering on the cross makes us one body. +Michael Ramsey wrote: “For the supreme question is not what we make of the Eucharist, but what the Eucharist is making of us, as together with the Word of God it fashions us into the way of Christ” (Durham Essays and Addresses, quoted in Glory by Douglas Dales).
Have a blessed and holy week.