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Friday, 27 July 2018 19:43

Can I believe in a God of surprises?

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Br Julian McDonald cfcSeventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Is my faith sufficiently strong to believe in a God of surprises? If not, I may as well retire right now, unfit for the role of walking in the footsteps of Jesus, writes Christian Brother Julian McDonald.

Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?”…Jesus took the bread, gave thanks to God, and distributed it to the people who were sitting there. John 6, 1-15

One of our recurring anxieties is that the world’s resources will peter out. Despite our awareness that the earth is being contaminated by the use of fossil fuels, we are nervous about the decreasing accessibility of coal, oil, timber, edible grain crops, clean air and water. When natural disasters and cataclysmic industrial accidents occur, our immediate instinct is to look after ourselves by stocking up on fuel and water.

We experience similar anxiety when our own personal resources come under threat. If our heartbeat becomes irregular, we seek medical attention. When the red and white cells in our bloodstream compete for supremacy, we experience a loss of energy and fear that this may be a signal that the end of our life is nearer than we had hoped. Loss of mobility, increasing moments of forgetfulness, loss of short-term memory and emotional apathy are all signs that we are getting closer to death. We begin to realise that there is no lasting medical help available to stop the physical and emotional depletion that is happening to us.

However, as Christians, we do have a sense of someone accompanying us as our depletion progresses. That sense is faith and that someone is God. That faith in God flies in the face of any prediction that our life is doomed to end in nothingness.

In today’s gospel, Jesus offers us a powerful message about resourcing, presented through a very ordinary example of the generosity of a boy who is prepared to contribute five barley loaves and a couple of fish towards feeding an estimated five thousand people. Whether we take literally the miracle that follows or whether we conclude that the generosity of a boy and the generous heartedness of Jesus inspire members of the crowd to dip into their bags and share the contents, the message is still the same. Jesus is totally convinced that his Father is a resourcing, generous God. If people can come to see God as resourcing, they might stop regarding their possessions and themselves are commodities that are under threat.

The message for us is that we, in our turn, might stop asking God to supply everything we want, to be the one who satisfies our desires for a win in the lottery or a new house or a top grade in our examinations. Instead, in our prayer, we might come to discover God’s boundless creativity at work in us and in those around us, for our benefit and the benefit of our world. The confidence we will gain from such a realisation will free us from the anxiety of worrying about our needs and our future, and free us to be generous to others, sharing with them whatever we are and have. Our faith as Christians is that God will surely make something of us. On that foundation, we will give generously of ourselves and our possessions, even when our own personal resources and possessions are clearly dwindling.

Even though that might be our faith and our approach to life, we have all experienced people who always want to be on the take. The crowd in today’s gospel seemingly failed to grasp the significance of what they had experienced when they saw their hunger and the hunger of those around them satisfied. They saw Jesus as an instant source of supply, and their response was to make him a king who would deliver all they wanted. They were prepared to live in a state of dependency, rather than use their God-given gifts and talents to create their own future and give generously of their resources to others in greater need. Jesus was not prepared to tolerate unhealthy dependency in anyone. He was fully prepared to give of himself, his time and his talents, reaching out to those in need. He was not prepared to respond on demand to a crowd whose acclaim was based on having their wants and desires satisfied. That’s why he eluded them and went off to the hills by himself.

One of the delightful aspects of this story is the insight it gives us into the contrast between the workings of the rational mind and the creative imagination. Somehow Jesus sensed that there would be enough and, indeed, more than enough to feed the whole crowd. The rational, practically-minded disciples were well able to count the five loaves and the two fish the boy had. It was patently obvious that so little would make no dent on the appetites of five thousand hungry people. Against all these voices of common sense stood Jesus and the generous youngster. The only thing in the disciples’ favour was that they knew that Jesus had been faithful and dependable in the past. So, they responded to Jesus’ direction to arrange the crowd into manageable groups.

Like the common-sense disciples, we can be so grounded in the quantifiable reality of the present that we are incapable of imagining a different future. We can imagine the future only in terms of what we already know. We often forget that, while we can make educated guesses about the future, the unpredictable sometimes creeps in to surprise us. Jesus had grown to appreciate that God is a God of surprises. If there is one thing that the disciples learned from what unfolded before their eyes, it was not to let themselves be paralysed by a lack of imagination. Maybe, just maybe, it’s a lack of imagination that prevents us and our Church community from taking the courageous and risky steps to respond creatively to our world in need.

One of the challenges that this story puts to me is this: Is my faith sufficiently strong to believe in a God of surprises? If not, I may as well retire right now, unfit for the role of walking in the footsteps of Jesus.