06 August 2020

Putting out into the deep: The Five Thousand and Elijah - Homily for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost and the Feast of Elijah the Prophet, for the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom at the Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, W1

The story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand we have lived with all our lives. What is the Lord showing us? Well, first of all, this story (Matthew 14.14-22) looks back to one series of events in the Gospels, and at the same time looks forward to another. And then there is a twist in the tale.

First, the story looks back to the first time Jesus that, as a grown Son of Man, walks by the sea of Galilee. First, He calls Andrew and Simon-Peter. One morning He saw the fishing boats finishing up after a night with no catch, and told Peter to “Put out into the deep” and let down the nets one last time. After a surprise haul, Jesus takes Simon-Peter to draw the conclusion: “If you follow Me, I will make you fishermen of people.” Like his brother Andrew, he forsakes everything and immediately follows the Lord. Now one evening later on, we are beside the lake again. There are five loaves, as there were five disciples, who first took up the call from Christ, and now there are five thousand men, not to mention the thousands more of women and children. The disciples became fishermen of people indeed: and far more than those two little fish.

Jesus speaks of the leaven in the bread that will make it expand and rise. He speaks of Himself as the Bread coming down from heaven, telling us to pray daily for this Bread with a nature, a new “Life for the World”, from beyond the world. He also tells us daily to take up our Cross and follow Him. Simon-Peter and Andrew become the first after Jesus Himself to be the ministers of the Bread of Life at its Breaking, just as they will be broken upon a cross of their own - St Andrew tortured by being crucified diagonally, St Peter by being suspended by the nails upside down.

The second direction of the story is to look forward. We are shown a hint of the particular way in which Jesus always blesses Bread, in what He will reveal on the night before He died as the Eucharist, the mystical banquet that is our Divine Liturgy. But we are also pointed even further beyond that. St Matthew tells us that it is evening. It reminds us that on the first Easter Sunday, two disciples, one of whom is Cleopas, whose wife had been standing with the Mother of God at the foot of the Cross. They are on the road to Emmaus, when a stranger encounters them as they discuss the incredible events of earlier that morning, and makes them credible. He reveals how the Scriptures show that the Messiah must suffer, and must enter into glory – and neither suffering nor glory could happen without the other. And what happens next? Once again, it is evening. Once again, they sit. Once again, the Lord takes bread, blesses, breaks and gives it to the disciples. So it makes sense that, beside the sea of Galilee, when fishing people are preparing to set out on the water for a night of hard work, Jesus points ahead, beyond His Crucifixion, to His resurrection from the dead, and to how we will always know that He is with us. When the archangel announced to the Virgin Mary that Jesus had taken flesh in her womb, he said, “He will be called Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’.” And now see Him, laying the foundation of trust for his promise that, indeed, He will be with us to the end of time. Yet how can this be? Well, let us look at the story again. Immediately He feeds the five thousand and more, immediately He disappears. He dismisses the crowd, and He dismisses the disciples on their boat. It is the same in that village between Jerusalem and Emmaus. Clopas and his fellow disciple receive the Bread of Life – but Christ disappears. They recognise Him in the particular way He takes the Bread, blesses and breaks it – in just the same way as we shall do in a few moments. And then He is gone? So much for being with them, to the end of time. Where is He? Well, the answer is here: when they have received the Bread of Life, why would He be there before their eyes, when He is now inside their lives, bodies and souls? As once He dismissed the crowd, He dismisses the disciples that first night since the Resurrection. And then at once, even though it is dark, they hurry back to Jerusalem and declare that, first, they have seen the Lord and, second, they saw Him no longer - because He is now for ever with them to be seen in the Breaking of the Bread.

So, what of the twist in the tale? Just at the end of the Gospel today, St Matthew tells that, after giving the Bread He has blessed, He acts “immediately”, and departs from the sight of both the crowd and the disciples. It is the same as when Simon-Peter and Andrew see Jesus walking up to them beside Galilee. St Mark, St Matthew and St Luke all say that “immediately” they forsake their nets and follow Him. Now, what happens on the road to Emmaus? Jesus breaks the Bread and gifts it to the disciples; they recognise Him and, as soon as He does so, immediately, He disappears from sight. In other words, our Gospel tells us that our following of Jesus Christ is not a long term intention that we can get round to one day when we have time, after we have first dealt with worldly concerns. Instead, the moment is always here and now, just as it was “here and now” when Simon-Peter and Andrew were “caught up with” by the arrival of the King in His Kingdom. It is an early morning when the fish were caught. it is an evening when the people were fed with manna from heaven like their ancestors. And, most of all, it is whenever the Lord comes to us, person to person, now, immediately, saying, “I am with you. Follow me.” We take Him into us, now, immediately, and His presence becomes something that follows us, in us: now, immediately.

Yet there is even more. After the events of today’s Gospel, the disappeared Jesus goes up a mount to pray by Himself. He goes up into God His Father. It is the same as when Moses went up the mount to commune with God and receive His Law. It is the same as when Elijah, whose feast is today, went up to the top of the same mountain to hear the Lord’s “still, small voice” (I Kings 19). It is the same as when the Lord appears to Moses and Elijah, transfigured on another mountain to show that His human nature will suffer but His divine nature will shine through in the same Person on the Cross and then out of the grave. It is the same as when the Lord goes up the mountain of mountains to be crucified on mount Calvary. Elijah is famed as the first of all the hermits and contemplatives who wait for the Lord, while their spiritual lives take them ever further up the mountain closer to union with God. It is the same as when the Lord tells the disciples, if they would be fishers of people, to “put out into the deep”. The higher we seek to rise to God, the deeper we must let him reach down into us.

The multiplication of the five loaves and the two fish speaks to us of the growth of the Church into the whole world. The fish were probably dried, to be soaked in water and expanded. It reminds us of what is still happening to us as a consequence from our own baptism in water. The twelve baskets of bread and fish – Eucharist and Baptism – present the full reconciliation of all the estranged twelve tribes of the Jewish people brought back together to form the core of Christ’s new People of God. Beyond them, they tell of even more baskets, with even more peoples, more fish to fish. But it all starts in this way: a Person meets a Person, just as Jesus met Andrew and Simon-Peter, just as He met Clopas on the road to Damascus, just as He immersed us in the waters of His Baptism, and just as He meets us at this Eucharist. Jesus and His Kingdom is not for later, it is now. He is with us, not only in the future, but always and immediately. Like Elijah, like Peter and Andrew, like all the others, immediately we follow Him, up His mountain, out into the deep water, listening for the still, small voice, to the end of time.