Psalm 145.8-9, 15-end
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
When I was on retreat at the Convent at Wantage a few years ago, I went out for a long walk in the beautiful Vale of the White Horse. If I’m out walking in the country I have a habit of trying the doors of the village churches I come across; it’s always lovely to enter a quiet country church and take a moment to pray, and every now and then you come across a real gem, a building that has something distinctive or unusual, or that is just particularly beautiful. And so whilst I was out on my walk I came across a church, and of course I tried the door, and I was rewarded by a lovely church with some surprisingly well-preserved medieval wall paintings. There was clearly much that had been lost, but it wasn’t hard to work out the biblical scene that was being portrayed. There was a male figure with a crown, seated at a table; there was what seemed to be a young woman with an incredibly bendy body, almost as if she were doing limbo dancing; there was someone wielding a sword, and another more faint figure appeared to be the person destined to be on the receiving end of the sword. It was of course the story of the beheading of John the Baptist.
The beheading of John the Baptist is one of the most striking stories in the gospels, and it is unusual both because it doesn’t directly involve Jesus, and because it is told as a sort of flashback in the narrative. The account may well have come from an ancient Jewish source separate to the sources of the gospels. It is a vivid story of decadence and corrupt power. The scene is a banquet at the King’s palace. We learn of the unhealthy relationships of Herod’s family and court; he has married his sister-in-law, and now his enjoyment of the dancing of his step-daughter, who is presumably also his niece, seems to go rather beyond what anyone could consider healthy. And smitten by his step-daughter’s dancing, he makes a rash promise to give her whatever she asks. And the girl, prompted by her mother who hates John, demands the head of John the Baptist on a plate. Unwilling to lose face by breaking his promise in front of his guests, Herod sees that her request is fulfilled.
By now you’re probably thinking that I’ve prepared a sermon for the wrong gospel reading! But there is a logic to this apparently eccentric introduction to a sermon on the Feeding of the Five Thousand. One of the problems of reading the bible in chopped-up portions Sunday-by-Sunday is that the portions are not always continuous, and so the context for the readings on any given Sunday was not necessarily provided on the previous Sunday. Some of you may have now guessed that the story of the beheading of John the Baptist is the story before the Feeding of the Five Thousand in Matthew’s gospel, and if that is your guess, you are absolutely right. And I don’t think that this is an accident.
But let’s fill out the context a little bit more. Abundance miracles are a feature of Jesus’ ministry in all the gospels, whether we are thinking of the various accounts of feeding miracles, or the turning of water into wine at the Wedding at Cana. There are also parables of wedding feasts. This draws on a strand of the Old Testament prophetic tradition. There are many prophecies of abundance of food and drink, especially in the prophecy of Isaiah. We heard one of them today, promising wine and milk without money, without price. My personal favourite is in Isaiah 25, which could just as well have been chosen for this morning’s reading:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
All of this was a part of the Messianic expectation of ancient Judaism: the Kingdom of God would be brought in with a great banquet, the banquet of the Messiah, and so Jesus fulfils these expectations with miracles of abundant food and drink.
And so in Matthew’s gospel we find the corrupt, false King Herod contrasted with Jesus, the Son of David, the true King of Israel. Herod’s banquet is a decadent squalid thing, hidden behind the locked doors of the palace, a nightmare of disordered sexuality, arbitrary power, and violent death. Jesus’ banquet is something altogether different. Out in the open air, with a vast crowd of guests who have not been invited because of their status, but who have followed Him drawn by His words and deeds; a mixed crowd of good and bad presumably drawn from the ranks of the agricultural poor who made up the great majority of the population; no questionable dancing or unwise promises, but a great crowd blessed with Jesus’ compassion: taught, healed, and sent away with stomachs full of good honest, nutritious food. Here the promise of the Messianic banquet is at least partially fulfilled.
Partially, because in the promise of the Kingdom of God there is a tension between the now and the not yet. The Feeding of the Five Thousand is a kind of foretaste of the Messianic Banquet that is the Christian hope: that in the fullness of time we too will be healed and fed and satisfied by Jesus in God’s Kingdom. And of course when we break bread together in the Eucharist in our Sunday worship, we are also enjoying a foretaste of that banquet, something which has an obvious connection with today’s gospel in which Jesus also blesses and breaks bread. The Eucharist as a foretaste of the Messianic Banquet is an aspect of the theology of the Eucharist that we perhaps do not think about often enough, but it is very much a part of Matthew’s account of the Last Supper. Jesus says: “I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom”. In the Feeding of the Five Thousand, as in the Eucharist, there is a foretaste of something which is still to be fully revealed.
And what is true of the Eucharist is true of the life of the Church in general. One way of defining what the Church is is to say that it is the Kingdom of God breaking into this world. And this is why the Eucharist, the foretaste of the heavenly banquet, is so important in our worship and in our lives.
And so one way of reading the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand is to see it as a model of what the Church at its most authentic should look like. A motley mixed crowd of people who follow Jesus perhaps for rather mixed motives, but who nevertheless receive His compassion and His healing, and not only their spiritual but also their physical needs are met from His abundant love.
Which poses an interesting question when we think about our parishes or about the Church of England more generally – in our life together, do we more closely resemble Jesus’ wildly inclusive and impossibly generous picnic, or Herod’s exclusive and decadent birthday feast? In our Church life, do we find openness and healing and generosity, or do we find toxic relationships, exploitative sexuality and unhealthy dynamics of power? Beheadings at least we can thankfully say are not a common feature of life in the Church of England, but we might not always be able to say the same thing about backstabbing…
Let’s pray that by God’s grace we may be able to live together more fully the life of the Kingdom of God revealed by our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and forever. Amen.