2 Kings 4:42-44
There has, since as early as the 4th century, been a church on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. The Church of the Multiplication as it currently stands is not, it must be said, a particularly attractive building from the outside, having been built toward the end of that architectural dark age that was the 1960s to the 1980s. Fortunately, some of the beautiful 5th century mosaics have survived, the most famous of which is of course the familiar one of the loaves in the basket, flanked by two fish, located just in front of the altar. Under the altar is set a large limestone rock, said to be the very spot on which the miracle happened. As with nearly all such precise biblical archaeological claims, it is difficult to know what to say about historical accuracy here, except that it does not much matter.
In June this year, the church was vandalised and, it seems likely, set on fire by Zionist extremists. The graffiti, left in red painted Hebrew, said, “False idols will be smashed”. The response from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish authorities came in swiftly, and with one voice, condemning the aggression of the extremists, and appealing to the Israeli government to do more to protect the different religious groups in the region. We don’t hear nearly enough stories about different religious groups coming together like this, and when we do, it is almost always in the wake of some kind of violent conflict. That’s a shame.
For all the social progress we have allegedly made, there is still an intolerable antipathy across sectarian religious lines, not just in dry and dusty lands far away, but even here and on the neighbouring continent. Consider the arson attacks on mosques in Sweden earlier this year. Again, masses of people came out to disavow these atrocities, but the fact is that such acts are all too common. In Germany, there were over 70 attacks on mosques between 2012 and 2014. In France, in the week after the Charlie Hebdo shooting, there were 54 anti-Muslim incidents reported. Closer to home, consider the negative stereotyping and verbal abuse that British Muslims—particularly British Muslim women—face much more than we might realise, or care to find out about. And while the mass media moguls and their chattering classes are focused on the horrific acts of extremist Islamist groups, let us not forget that there are also violent extremists who claim Christian and Jewish identity.
The story of the feeding of the five thousand is, as we have heard, an unmistakably Jewish story. Elisha feeds 100 men during a famine, with twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain, and had some left over. St John, not to be outdone, has Jesus feeding 5,000, with considerably less food, and considerably more left over. This will not, as we know, be the last example of petty one-upmanship in the sordid history of inter-faith relations within the Abrahamic traditions; indeed, it isn’t even the only case in St John’s gospel of what might be read as an incipient Christian anti-Semitism.
And yet, and yet, the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is unmistakably a Jewish story. And St John’s gospel is unmistakably a Jewish text. And early Christianity is unmistakably a Jewish sect. Similar things might be said about the relationship between Christianity and early Islam. By the by, Christians tempted toward supersessionist narratives in which Christianity has replaced Judaism might want to reconsider, given Islam’s historical location and her current increasing popularity.
There is one body and one Spirit, one hope [to which we are called], one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.
This lyrical section of the epistle to the Ephesians is often cited in the context of ecumenical conversations among Christians. It is usually used to emphasise our similarities—the beliefs we share in common, for example—over our differences. As such, it might be somewhat less helpful for thinking through inter-faith issues. It is less clear that we share one hope, one faith, one baptism, and so forth with our Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu friends.
And yet, the implications of our commitment to the oneness of God should make a difference to our relationships with people with whom we significantly disagree theologically. This is not because there are no substantive disagreements across religious traditions, but because Christian orthodoxy is necessarily a generous orthodoxy. And this is because, as St Paul writes, “There is…one God…who is above all and through all and in all”. In other words, God is the one from whom all things have their existence, and who is therefore beyond all existing things, and therefore also beyond all manners of thinking and speaking about existing things.
There are, and have always been, two attitudes to take toward the unutterable mystery of God. The first is to refuse to speak at all; that is, to give in to the fear of blasphemy that is based on the odd notion that God’s feelings are somehow hurt by our failed attempts to talk about God. The second, which is the path the Church and her theologians have generally trodden, is to say as much as humanly possible, daring to exploit the intellectual and linguistic resources of every age and culture encountered by Christian people. This has always included Jews and Muslims, and now also includes a much larger variety of religious and cultural traditions. Without Moses Maimonides and Avicenna, there well may not have been Thomas Aquinas, or at least not as we currently have him. God only knows what our future blindspots will be if we now ignore or demonise or patronise our brothers and sisters from other faiths.
We have, you and I and ours, much to repent, not least the pathetic defensiveness with which we cling to the false securities of a Christendom long gone. Religious fundamentalism—Christian or otherwise—is, almost always, a kind of death tremor.
We have much to repent; not least the failure to recognise that God is not first of all to be found in doctrinal statements about which we can agree and disagree more or less vehemently, but rather to be encountered—known, as it were, in the biblical sense, carnally—in the eating and drinking of his flesh and blood.
In this eating and drinking, we are committing ourselves to the kind of self-abnegation that Jesus himself demonstrated before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate. In the face of violence, we do not raise our swords. In the face of disagreement, we do not score cheap rhetorical points. In the face of moral criticism, we do not make lame excuses. Instead, we are called to a different ideal. Thus, the epistle to the Ephesians, the fourth chapter:
Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all the lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.