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"…but what are they among so many?"

06 March 2005 11:00 | Rev Canon Dr John Cullen

NT: Galatians 4.21-31; Gospel: John 6.1-14

His face was very wrinkled, and bronzed by the Mediterranean sun. His bright eyes glistened as he spoke. His voice was deep, gravely, but gentle.

"I can remember it, as if it were yesterday", he said, "but of course, as a boy of 8, I didn't understand what was happening until a long time after - until after he had died.

"It was one of those very hot days, without a breath of wind. The lake was perfectly still. The crowds had been building up for days - you know how word travels among village people! As he'd been going around the lakeside apparently he'd been laying hands on sick people and all sorts of wonderful things had been happening.

"He'd been teaching too, but not like other rabbis. He talked a lot about God - but hardly said a word about the rules and regulations that our usual teachers went on about. And his stories were wonderful - about ordinary things, about real life: about house-cleaning, farming, things getting lost, wedding feasts and parties. Not that I always understood what the stories meant - but you could feel the message rather than understand it.

"Well, on this particular day, I'd been following along with the crowd all day. It was late afternoon, and we were on one of those slopes looking over the lake. Everyone was tired, so when he stopped and sat down with his friends, we all stopped - wondering if he was going to start teaching again.

"I was starving. I'd grabbed some little loaves as I was leaving the house, and there were two fish left over from breakfast. I wrapped them up and put them in my pouch. But I hadn't eaten them yet. In fact I hadn't noticed anyone eating yet. We'd been so wrapped with his teaching - we hadn't thought of food. But now we'd stopped, I realised I was ravenous!

"I was sitting quite close to where he was, and so I saw him looking out over the crowd. I heard him asking his friends: "How are we going to feed all these people?" The one he had spoken to shrugged his shoulders. The others just stood around looking pretty helpless...

"And then I thought about my two fish and my few little loaves. I thought if I started the ball rolling, and offered them, then perhaps others would open their knap-sacks and pouches and start pooling what they had. So I tugged the coat of one of his other friends, and said they could have what I had. It was at least a start....

"I remember laughing. It was a bit ridiculous really: how far would my few loaves and two fish go among so many? By then I was standing right in front of him. He smiled across at me, and I found myself just handing over my bag to him - the whole lot!

"It was then I realised! Hang on a minute; I hadn't kept anything back - not so much as a small piece of loaf! And there he was, standing up in front of all the crowd, offering thanks, and beginning to break the bread and divide the fish... There was my lunch (- and supper!) - gone, being shared out among five thousand people!!!

"Well, the rest is history! I don't really know what happened. But somehow, what I'd let happen (even if I was having second thoughts!) seemed to trigger off a mass reaction among the whole crowd. Before we knew it, everyone was diving into their own bags and bringing out all kinds of food - bread, cheeses, fish of all kinds, , salted meat, olives, cakes, fruit - the most fantastic picnic ever - just happened! I was being inundated with offers of food until I was so full I just wanted to lie down and sleep it off. So much for that fleeting moment of regret as I saw my paltry offering disappearing before my very eyes!

"When I got to thinking about it later, it gradually dawned upon me. Of course it hadn't just happened....

"It took me to give over what I had - all of it! - in a rash and reckless moment of spontaneous generosity - even if I did have second thoughts! But actually, it all started with Him. What I had done seemed to spring directly from what he had been teaching us: when he spoke about holding on to things, and thereby losing everything; and the alternative: letting go of things, and gaining everything.... I hadn't really figured it out at the time - but I'm sure that was the real trigger.

"And then subsequently as I followed him throughout Galilee, and back and forth on his journeys up to Jerusalem, it became clearer. It was all of a piece with the rest of his teaching. What had happened that afternoon at the lakeside wasn't just about handing over my lunch. What attracted me and drew me on was that that pretty insignificant gesture of mine released in me a whole new outlook on life - and now it's also giving me a whole new way of looking at death.

"It's interesting, when you think of it. The picnic that afternoon was just before the Feast of Passover - when we remember how God released our ancestors from their slavery in Egypt. Somehow, what happened to me that day was a kind of releasing; it taught me about letting go. It taught me about handing over - to him; looking into those unforgettable eyes and knowing what it is to trust someone from the very depths of your being. It's true to say that that day changed my life.

"I've told this story again and again and again over the years, to countless followers. People came to refer to it as a "miracle" - and of course even more crowds followed him after that to see what wonders he would do next. But for me, the miracle wasn't that I had a much bigger lunch that day than I had in my own little lunch bag. The miracle was what happened inside me that day..."

And there he paused. It was a long pause - but the silence was full, full of memory, full of wonder, full of love. And then he motioned to us to gather round the table. He lit a stump of candle, and put on the table a cup of wine, and some bread. And so he led us in making eucharist, as he had done many times before with parties of pilgrims who came to visit him.

As he prayed the prayers, so we were caught up in those memories, the wonder, and the love. As his frail old hands took up the bread and broke it, so he shared again, not just his bread, but also the very miracle that had happened to him that day on the hillside above the Sea of Galilee.

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