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The fellowship meal

We meet today to share a fellowship meal. The Gospel for today in which we read about the feeeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-21) reminds us of the tradition of fellowship meals Jesus had with his disciples, and how on that accasion they also shared with a much wider group. The origin of this meal we share today in the liturgy of the Eucharist, the holy communion, is in the communal meals that Jesus and his disciples shared. We remember especially the occasion of his last night with them before he died when he took bread and wine as a sign of his life that would be broken and shared it with them. He gave them instructions to continue to do this in remembrance of him. We now follow that instruction. "Jesus, we thus obey, thy last and kindest word", as we have it in the old hymn. Doing as he commanded, we set apart ordinary food for this holy purpose of communion, sharing in his life, using words from the ancient records of the early celebrations, the most ancient of which is in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians:

When Paul wrote about passing on what he had learned about the celebration, he was pointing to a practice of the early church that was already an established tradition - "what I handed on to you". It does look back to what happened during his earthy ministry and especially just before he died. The Lord's Supper recalls the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. More importantly for us. That was not the end of their fellowship. The celebration of it on the first day of the week is intimately connected with his resurrection. We meet on a Sunday, the first day of the week, for this purpose because the disciples met him and broke bread with him on that day, the Day of the Resurrection, and again on the same day the following week. We recall, by meeting in this way at this time, how he shared meals with his disciples from the evening of the Day of Resurrection onward. The apostles remembered, and passed on to us, how not only did they meet together, but that he appeared to them at such times, how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread, just as he appeared to those who walked with him on the the road to Emmaus, after his death, when they shared a meal together and he blessed and broke the bread. [Luke 24; John 20-21]. It is in the fellowship of the risen Lord that we share the gift of new life.

The experience of fellowhip with the risen Lord which his disciples began to enjoy points forward to our celebrations and to the fellowship in which all Christian share. It also points back, as we have seen in the story of the feeding of the five thousand, to other occasions on which Jesus shared meals with his followers and to earlier Jewish practices, This sharing of ours, although it is founded on the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus had some earlier beginnings. It also stands in the tradition of the fellowship meals of Ancient Israel, especially in the Passover which Jesus celebrated with them at the Last Supper. Even the record of Luke that the two who had walked with him on the road to Emmaus recognized him when he gave thanks and broke the bread suggests that it was a familiar sight to them to see him perform that particular action, and it was an action which the head of the family commonly performed. The event we know as the feeding of the five thousand was one of those occasions, albeit a miraclus one as well. Compare Matthew's report of his blessing and breaking of the bread there with Luke's account of the Emmaus communion:

The greatest miracle is the miracle of his presence. The story does, of course, have other meanings then to foreshadow what we do today in remembrance of him and in his presence, to be willing to share with people who are hungery, to follow his commands, but those additional meanings all depend upon his being present; and everything depends upon his being who he was and is, the Lord's Messiah, the holy one of God, the Word made flesh who was with God at the beginning and was God, the Saviour of the world, who gave up his life for us and continues to offer his prayers to God on our behalf. The bread he shared was his body, his life, the life of the one who is the bread that came down from heaven (John 6).

Social and Political implications of his feeding the five thousand

One of the results of the feeding of the crowd was that everyone was fed. They were all satisfied, and there was more than enough, indeed an overabundance of food. Do you see a social and political lesson to learn from this? If people are prepared to share there will be plenty for everyone. Do you think it was possible that besides the boy who offered his lunch to be shared there might have been others inspired by this great teacher to share also?

[Matthew does not mention the boy, but see John 6:9 and note how Jesus goes on later in that chapter of John to speak of their eating his flesh, thus making a direct connection between the feeding of the five thousand and the Eucharist. And is not the miracle of sharing in the body and blood of Christ as great if not a greater a wonder?]

What would be the greater miracle, the overcoming of selfishness so that whatever they had could be shared by all, or the multiplication of loaves and fish in the hands of the Master through whom the world the was made?

I am not saying that you have to choose between those explanations, the social and the metaphysical, and anyway, we do not seek today to explain in human terms but to celebrate a gift in which we continue to share. Nevertheless there are practical social consequences which have traditionally been associated with the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Over the centuries it has been a traditional practice to make a collection for the poor when Holy Communion is celebrated. I can remember from my childhood congregation an additional offering being made, that is, in addition to the regular Sunday offering for the parish funds, on Communion Sundays. There was a second offering at the conclusion of the service for people in special need, and some churches still do that regularly. Where we have a planned giving program, we still set some of our offering aside for people in need either locally or through the wider church, and we have in many churches the symbolism of baskets of food being brought forward and dedicated for this purpose..

Another tradition which expresses this willingness to share what we have is the greeting of peace that we give to one another. We are expected to come the Lord's table reconciled with our neighbours. By the way, as part of our liturgy, the greetings that we share when we say to each other, "The peace of God be with you", is more than a social greeting, it is a prayer that the person you meet will be blessed. It should be said as a prayer. It is part of the liturgy in the tradition of devotional peace making and charity. In the former Methodist service, the words of invitation to the Lords' Table included an exhortation, from the older Anglican tradition, to

In this spirit of charity, it is a very strong part of the tradition that we pray for others immediately before we partake of the holy food. We do that regularly in our service of worship when we offer prayers of intercession for the church and the world. It comes to us from the traditional celebrations of the Lord's supper. We know that praying for one another and for others not present was a regular part of the celebration from the very early days because such prayers are mentioned in the earliest descriptions we have of the Eucharist, as in the old records from the first and second century. We have one example conceren with unity of the fellowship in the words of the hymn "Father we give you thanks, who planted" (Eucharistoumen soi, pater agie) from about the year 110, (with which we began today). We pray "Watch over your church, O Lord, in mercy", and prayer for the whole church to share in peace and unity is in the last verse linked with the symbol of the broken bread. In the version we have:-

As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,
was in the broken bread made one,
so may you world-wide church be gathered
into you kingdom by your son.

The concern for others is present not only in the sharing of the communion in church, or that took place among the people when Jesus blessed and broke the loaves, it was there in the behaviour of Jesus himself. In the example of the feeding of the five thousand, firstly, he cared for the people, not sending them away when the disciples suggested that he should, but seeing that their needs were met. Still there was another factor present in what happened immediately before and after this event.

The priestly role of Jesus, the man for others

Before this event, Jesus had just received news that John the Baptist had been executed. He wanted to be alone in his grief:

He could not escape to deal with his grief alone. I think of this sometimes when I see how ministers and other people in the serving professions are called upon at times to set aside their own grief or trouble for the sake of others when they really need "a little space" to themselves. See how Jesus responded:

It is the same compassion in which he offered himself for our sakes at the end. When the task on the occasion of healing and feeding in the wilderness was done he went on to complete his plan of grief and recovery which had been interrupted:

So we believe he continues in prayer for us and the holy mystery of the Lord's Supper is set about with prayer in which the service of others is passed on from him to us. The feeding of the five thousand then is a miracle story with deep and widespread implications. It calls us into social action for the benefit others, it calls us to prayer on their behalf, into sharing, that is sharing, with others; and above all it calls us into communion with our Lord, who inspires both prayer and action, and who continues to share his life with us. Glory be to him. Amen.

[Note: for a more detailed exposition of the meaning of the Eucharist see the sermon Be present now dear risen Lord for Sunday Easter 3 Year A]

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