The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12 - 29 July 2012

II Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-19
Ephesians 3:14-21
St. John 6:1-21

Background: Bread

Since we are in the midst of the series of Gospel readings all pointing to “the Bread of Life”, it might be a good time to talk about the bread of Israel and the bread of Jesus.  The appearance of the Hebrews in the area of Palestine dates from the 12th Century – 10th Century BCE.  These tribes brought with them the bread of the Mesopotamian cities, and the bread born of nomadic life in the wilderness.  The landscape of the Levant was altered so that bread might be made from the grains grown on the newly terraced hillsides of Judea.  The basic foods of Israel consisted of locally grown and produced bread, wine, and oil.  In fact these three products are mention as the divine provisions offered by God to God’s people (cf. Hosea 2:23-24).  Indeed, so important were these foods that they become a part of the ritual life of Jews, and then Christians.

The Word for bread, Lehem (thus Beth-lehem is “the house of bread”), also indicated food in general.  Bread is so important in that culture that there are nearly a dozen words that the Hebrew uses to describe bread.  Bread often composed from 50% to 70% of an individual’s daily consumption of foodstuffs.  Bread was first baked from barley flour, later from the flour of Emmer Wheat, and even later Durum Wheat.  Each household produced daily its own bread including the production of wheat flour (which was a three-hour process each day).  Various ovens were used – the jar-oven, the convex dome oven, the Persian tanur oven (cf. Tandoor) and finally the Roman furn. 

2 Kings 4:42-44

A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, "Give it to the people and let them eat." But his servant said, "How can I set this before a hundred people?" So he repeated, "Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the LORD, `They shall eat and have some left.'" He set it before them; they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD.

In the midst of a period of want and famine comes this miracle story not unlike some Gospel stories with the same effect.  Elisha has other experiences of want and need of bread, most famously the story of the “Widow and the Oil” which parallels the Elijah story about the “Widow of Zarephath” (I Kings 17:7-16).  In both stories, abundance flows from the jaws of want.  In today’s story, a man from Baal-Shalishah (a place whose name means either “the third idol [Baal]” or “the lord of three things”) comes to offer “first fruits” to the “man of God” (Elisha).  In the Talmud, this place name is identified with the earliest place for fruits to ripen.  Elisha follows his orders to his servant with a common formula for prediction/fulfillment stories, “Thus says the Lord.”  The people are fed and are satisfied “according to the word of the Lord.”

Breaking open Jeremiah:
  1. What “first fruits” do you offer to God?
  2. Do you hunger?
  3. How do you deal with those about you who hunger?

Psalm 145:10-19 Exaltabo te, Deus

All your works praise you, O LORD, *
and your faithful servants bless you.

They make known the glory of your kingdom *
and speak of your power;

That the peoples may know of your power *
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.

Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom; *
your dominion endures throughout all ages.

The LORD is faithful in all his words *
and merciful in all his deeds.

The LORD upholds all those who fall; *
he lifts up those who are bowed down.

The eyes of all wait upon you, O LORD, *
and you give them their food in due season.

You open wide your hand *
and satisfy the needs of every living creature.

The LORD is righteous in all his ways *
and loving in all his works.

The LORD is near to those who call upon him, *
to all who call upon him faithfully.

This is a praise psalm, and the only one thus dedicated with “A David song of praise.”  Its latter verses have found their way into many a table grace and are thus familiar to most.  It is an acrostic psalm, only missing the letter nun.  The author exalts God for all God’s acts, and at verse 10 exalts God for provisioning all the creatures of the earth.  It is universal in that regard. There is not provision for just a certain people, or for only humans, but for all.  God thus does “satisfy the needs of every living creature.” It is these sentiments that link this particular psalm to the readings for this day.

Breaking open Psalm 145
  1. For what do you exalt God?
  2. How is God faithful to your enemy?
  3. What does the psalm mean by “every living creature”?

Ephesians 3:14-21
I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Paul signals to his readers the earnestness of his prayer by kneeling.  The prayer posture in ancient times was usually standing, but here Paul kneels in a heartfelt prayer.  Paul puns on the name “Father” pater and the word for “household” patria.  For Paul the agency of this unity of humankind and God was Jesus the Christ.  Through Christ all are made into one body.  He uses a stoic concept to get the point across by noting the “breadth, length, height, and depth” (in Stoicism the unity of the universe) of the love of Christ.  Christ is the universal actor for Paul.  This understanding surpasses all knowledge (read gnosis – the philosophical understanding of all things so sought for by the Greeks).  This doxology of praise and realization exists both in the Church and Christ, for both are extensions of the other.

Breaking open Ephesians;
  1. What or whom do you regard as your household?
  2. Who is the head of your household?  Why?
  3. How is the church a household?

John 6:1-21

Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberius. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?" Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost." So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world."

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, "It is I; do not be afraid." Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

This reading from the Gospel of John consists of a large (second only to the Passion Narrative) section on the Bread of Life theme.  In these sections, John closely follows the synoptic Gospels, especially Mark.  Naturally, though, John does find his own way in these stories.

In setting the stage for his version of the Miracle of the Loaves John provides a highly symbolic setting to enable us to see the theology of the story he has chosen to relate.  We are in a semi-arid area, on a mountainside.  If Moses should come to mind we are right on track.  John has the multitude hungry, anxious to see Jesus, and preparing for a holy moment of which they are unaware.  If Sinai should come to mind, you’re on track.  That the Passover should be mentioned only fortifies these associations, and provides for a new Eucharistic association as well.  Jesus takes the loaves and “gives thanks” eucharistesas.  Here it is not the disciples that distribute the bread, but rather Jesus himself.  Here we ought to be reminded of the upper room, where he again will share the bread.  John designates this action as a “sign”, a point in the life of Jesus in which the people begin to perceive the promise, and at the same time miss-understand.  Jesus is aware of this and removes himself from the situation.

If Jesus is the new Moses in the story of the bread, then he is more than Moses in the next pericope where he walks on the waters of the lake; they need not part for him.  What is the point?  Just as the people waver in their understanding of Jesus so do the disciples.  They are “terrified” to see Jesus as he is, and he explains, “It is I”.  That should be sufficient for them.  It is not clear as to whether Jesus enters the boat with them; the importance is the recognition or vision of Jesus as “the prophet” and what that really means.

Breaking open the Gospel:

  1. How does God provide for you?
  2. How do you provide for others?
  3. What is the symbolism around your daily meals?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


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