DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Sermons from the margins


Leftovers

Ever since New Testament times there has been a tension in the Church between two kinds of Christian discipleship. The young lad in the story usually known as "The Feeding of the Five Thousand" in John 6.1-21 brings out this tension for us all.

On the one hand is the heroic approach. "Sell all that thou hast ... and come, follow me" (Mark 10.21). "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children ... and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14.26). "Enter by the narrow gate ... For the gate is narrow and way is hard that leads to life and those who find it are few" (Matthew 7.14�15). On this view, to be a Christian is to be one of a spiritual elite, the special armed services elite of the Kingdom of God. "For many are called, but few are chosen" (Matthew 22.14).

But these challenging quotations from Jesus are not the whole story. There is also a gentler and more welcoming side to his call, most familiar - at least to the older ones among us - from the "comfortable words" in the old Anglican Prayer Book communion service: "Come unto me all who travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you ... " (Matthew 11.28).

Both the harsh and the welcoming aspects of discipleship have their exemplary characters in the gospels. Among the "heroes" is the poor widow, who threw into the Temple treasury the two tiny coins that were her entire wealth - and therefore, said Jesus, of more worth than all the larger contributions made by the wealthy, who could well afford it (Mark 12.41�44).

And a classic among the "welcomed" is Zacchaeus, the corrupt and despised tax-collector, whom Jesus befriends and calls out from the crowd long before the he shows any sign of repentance or makes any promise to live honestly in the future.

To which camp does the young lad with his five loaves and two fishes belong? What kind of a role model does he provide for us?

The common view is that he was a type of hero. Like the widow with her two mites, he brings all that he has - pathetically little though it might seem - and offers it all to Jesus.

That is certainly true as far as it goes. But since most of us do not belong to the heroic school of disciples, I want to press the question a little harder, and see whether there might be some word of encouragement in his story for more ordinary mortals.

So I look again at the details of the story and I find myself asking, "Why does he have five loaves but only two fishes?"

We can only guess, of course. The author of John's Gospel does not tell us. Perhaps two fish were all his mother gave him. But having once been a small boy, and knowing something of their attitude to sandwiches - and the relative attractiveness of the bread and the filling - I can picture a somewhat different explanation for his depleted picnic.

I think that maybe he started off with five rolls each with a fish in it. But the day was long, and some sustenance would have been in order once or twice as the hours passed. Barley loaves were hard and coarse compared with those made from wheat flour, so the juvenile temptation to concentrate on the filling rather than the outside of the sandwich would have been especially strong.

If my drawing of the scene is correct, then it is still true that the boy gave Jesus all that he had. But what he did have was only the leftovers of his meal, not the whole thing. He had already eaten what he wanted.

When I have suggested this possibility on other occasions, people have commonly leapt to the boy�s defence and accused me of an unwarranted slander on his character. But my chief concern here is not with the boy but with Jesus. The purpose of my speculation is not to belittle the lad�s offering, but to focus on what Jesus does with it, and what lesson this might hold for his response to our own less-than-perfect gifts.

If someone makes a truly sacrificial offering to God, then we might feel that in some way God is bound to do great things with it. Outstanding human generosity almost demands a reciprocal generous use of power.

But in my version of the story, we are not dealing with a case of sacrificial giving. More a case of, "Well, here you are Jesus. It�s not much, but it�s what I�ve got left." And surely it is an even greater miracle if the Lord can use even such half-hearted gifts to feed his people.

I am not saying that the take-home message of the story is a negative policy statement reading, "Live for yourself and give God the leftovers". What I am trying to do is to draw some positive encouragement from this story for that majority of Christians for whom the heroic approach is not a realistic option.

The positive message is this: "So maybe in an ideal world we should all live sacrificial Christian lives, give away our total possessions, and throw ourselves and our families upon God�s bounty. But in the real world - where we actually live and make our day-to-day financial decisions about personal needs, family loyalties, and Christian discipleship - we need not despair when such total commitment proves impossible."

The story of the five loaves and two fishes shows that whatever the shortcomings on our side may be, anything and everything we offer as part of our Christian stewardship of time, money, and abilities, can and will be taken and used by God, for our good and to his glory.

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