In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s Collect we prayed “Let your mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord…”
We stand with the witness of Scripture in our estimation of the Church. St. Paul said that the Church of the living God “is the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3.15), and we also affirm the Apocalyptic vision, given even here and now, of the Church whom St. John saw “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21.2).
It can therefore be a disconcerting experience to look around and find our ecclesial world rocked by dispute and the alienation of people (who claim to be brothers and sisters) from one another. One recalls the words of the great hymn that “with a scornful wonder / men see her sore distressed / by schisms rent asunder / by heresies distressed.” How can this be? How is it that we find it necessary to beg the Lord to “cleanse and defend”, to “help, protect and govern” the Church – as we ask him to do in today’s collect?
Part of the answer lies within ourselves. When we take an honest look within ourselves and find lust and hypocrisy and acquisitiveness and revenge and hatred, when we find our own failures to inhabit the free gift of peace and reconciliation in Christ, it can hardly surprise us that the visible society of his Body, the Church, whose members we are – it can hardly surprise us that the Church is likewise rent asunder by schisms, by heresies distressed. After all, WE are the heretics and the schismatics. We are the ones doing the rending and the distressing.
When we are presented with the Church’s teaching, the divine and incarnate narrative of salvation, we are presented with a decision: will I become a disciple? Will I leave everything and follow Jesus? And though we’ve been told at the outset that this will mean being crucified, that it will mean suffering and alienation, yet when push comes to shove – when we are confronted with the horrible, tedious minutiae of the suffering to which we are called individually, it can cause us to have second thoughts and to lose our nerve. We should remember the Lord’s words to the young man, “‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions,” (Matthew 19.21-22).
The Lord was not joking when he said that whoever would come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. We should always be mindful of what it means to follow him. It means the “via dolorosa,” the road up the hillside to Calvary; it means being stripped and beaten and pierced. And the question that should confront every believer afresh, every day is: Am I willing to be led by Jesus up that hillside? Can I forsake all in order to hold onto him.
The prophet Nehemiah said that the people of Israel found such questions hard to answer with integrity. After God led them through the Red Sea, yet they “acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey [his] commandments.” Because after God delivered them from the slavery of Egypt, they found that he had led them into the wilderness.
You and I also have been led through the Red Sea of Baptism and delivered from our bondage and servitude to sin – but what happens when we too find that God has led us into a wilderness? What happens when there’s no water? Our temptation becomes that of our forebears who: “railed against God and said, * ‘Can God set a table in the wilderness? * True, he struck the rock, the waters gushed out, and the gullies overflowed; * but is he able to give bread or to provide meat for his people?’” (Psalm 78.19 passim).
The Fathers of the Church noticed the time and place of the miracle of today’s Gospel lesson: in the wilderness, as the sun is setting. In such situations, when you have no food, and the darkness is setting in, there’s always a temptation to return to the fleshpots of Egypt, or to invent new gods, new doctrines, golden calves commensurate with our circumstances – anything we can control and understand. But the Lord of heaven and earth calls us to something different. FROM the cross, he calls us TO the cross: “Follow me.”
The miracle in today’s Gospel lesson is the feeding with five loaves and two fishes, of “five thousand men, besides women and children.” Notice that, contrary to what we are apt to think, Jesus does not feed the crowds. The Apostles feed them. Jesus said to the Apostles: “YOU give them something to eat.” “Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass…” He tells the crowds to dispose themselves to receive what is about to be given to them BY THE APOSTLES. “…And taking the five loaves and the two fish [Jesus] looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and GAVE THE LOAVES TO THE DISCIPLES, AND THE DISCIPLES GAVE THEM TO THE CROWDS.”
Here is a picture of the economy of the Church – an icon of the fact that when it comes to the content and the object of our faith, we do not make it up as we go along, because that’s idolatry. We are nourished by the teaching of the Apostles. We affirm what we have received, and our task is to guard it carefully and faithfully. As St. John was instructed to write to the Angel of the Church of Sardis, in the Apocalypse: “Remember then what you received and heard; keep that, and repent” (Rev. 3.3). That is our task: we are called to remembrance, custodianship, and repentance.
Its no coincidence that in today’s Gospel reading, this image of unity in the Truth, unity in the Apostolic teaching of the Catholic Church, is an image of being nourished by bread. And we dare not forget that the night before he suffered, the Lord prayed that his disciples might be consecrated in the truth, that they might become perfectly one, with him, with the Father, and with one another; and then once again he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them, and said “Do this in REMEMBRANCE of me.”
In the story of the bread, we see an icon of our deliverance and our unity in the truth. In one of his homilies, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote about the Eucharistic bread:
[At communion, the priest says to you,] “The Body of Christ”… and you answer “Amen”. Be members then of the Body of Christ that your “Amen” may be true. Why is this mystery accomplished with bread? We shall say nothing of our own about it, rather let us hear the Apostle, who speaking of this sacrament says: “We being many are one body, one bread.” Understand and rejoice. Unity, devotion, charity! One bread: and what is this one bread? One body made up of many. Consider that the bread is not made of one grain alone, but of many. [When you were being prepared for Baptism]… you were, so to say, in the mill. At baptism you were wetted with water. Then the Holy Spirit came into you like the fire which bakes the dough. Be then what you see and receive what you are. (Sermons 272 & 234)
And we can see in the fire that bakes the dough an image of the suffering and the purification we must endure as we come to perfection in Christ, as members of his Body.
The fact is that we, who were far off from God, are brought near to him through the Body of his Son, which is the Catholic Church, as there we are renewed by the waters of baptism, nourished by the bread that comes down from heaven, by the life-giving self-disclosure of God, which comes to us from the Apostles. Here, in this Sacrament of the Catholic Church, we discover ourselves in the Bread, brought together in the one loaf, reconciled to God and to one another.
One of the prayers I pray silently at every mass, as I break the host (the communion bread) takes up this image of our unity in the Church, the Body of Christ, the Bread that came down from heaven:
“As grain, once scattered on the hillsides, was in this broken bread made one, so from all lands may your Church be gathered into your kingdom by your Son.”
Our job is to stand aside as individuals, and to allow ourselves to be gathered, like sheep… to be harvested like grain, and to give way to being renewed – refashioned, reCREATED – in the grace of our baptism, and to give in to the purgative power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, which becomes an engine, driving the work at our hands of the expansion of God’s capacious dwelling-place within the contexts of our life-circumstances and relationships, so that at the last, we pray, we all may be gathered into his Kingdom by his Son, Jesus.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.