1After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When 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?” 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10Jesus 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. 11Then 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. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When 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.” 15When 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. 16When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
Larry Nugent is an Irish farmer, also the owner of the Bed & Breakfast where Amy and I stayed in Northern Ireland last week. Larry bears a striking resemblance to the late comedian Robin Williams, and cracks about as many jokes, although you have to listen very carefully to understand them through his rather thick and fast-paced Irish Brogue.
One morning after breakfast, I was telling Larry how nice it was that in Ireland, we could drive almost anywhere in the country in just two hours. I told him that back home in Texas, it took us almost an entire day to drive to another major city. Larry just patted me on the shoulder and said, “I know how you feel. I once had a car like that, too.”
Part of Ireland’s enduring charm comes from the fact that it is indeed a small island, tucked away at the North Western edge of the Atlantic ocean, in many ways isolated from the rest of Europe. Christianity came to Ireland in the 5th century, the time of Saint Patrick, and it continued to grow and flourish there even as the rest of Christianity, along with the Roman Empire on the continent fell into a time of chaos and fragmentation that has been called the “dark ages.”
Because of this, a different form of Christianity developed in Ireland for several centuries, a separate stream with its own unique emphases and ways of understanding the scriptures. This period and these practices are often referred to as “Celtic Christianity.” During our time in Ireland, Amy and I were both privileged to take a course on the subject, offered through the Centre for Celtic Spirituality, taught by the Rev. Grace Clunie, who is an ordained minister in the Church of Ireland and the author of the book, “Sacred Living,” which examines practical ways that we can incorporate these ancient Celtic ideals into our own modern faith journeys.
So for the next four weeks, I’ll be leaning heavily on Grace’s insights from her book and from the class that we took, sharing them with you, and using the stories of Jesus feeding the 5,000 and then walking on water to tie it all together. Four weeks, and four key concepts that were important to Celtic Christians: Creation, Hospitality, Creativity, and Journey. Today we’ll talk about Creation.
In just a moment, we’ll come back to our scripture passage in John, but first I’d like to take us back all the way to the beginning of the scriptures, to the first chapter of Genesis. You’ll recall that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, the day and the night, the land and the water, the trees, the flowers, the grass and all the plants, the birds and the fish and all the animals, and last of all, humankind. And after each of these things God pronounces that it is good. Some Christians mistakenly believe that after God created humans, he pronounced them alone to be “very good” but that’s not the case: After God creates humans, Genesis 1:31 says that he “saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.”
All creation is inherently good–trees, animals, humans–all equally good. This is an important aspect of Celtic Christianity. Later Christian theology (right up to the present time) tends to emphasize the “fall from grace” or humankind’s brokenness, sinfulness and “total depravity.” But while Celtic Christians were aware of these doctrines, their primary emphasis remained rooted in the goodness of creation. Even when Adam and Eve leave the garden, God never pronounces them (or the garden, or anything in creation) to be bad. And so they (and we) remain inherently good.
There is also an inherent equality in this belief–the rivers and the trees are just as important as the cows and the birds, and the humans. Why? Because God pronounced all of these things to be Good, none more so than any others. Ancient Greek and Roman culture viewed nature as something to struggle against, something to conquer and subdue. And so the Roman and Greek version of Christianity emphasized using nature for one’s own benefit. Celtic Christianity, on the other hand, emphasizes the role of humans as partners with and protectors of nature for the benefit of all God’s creation.
You can see this reflected in Celtic art, where people and animals of all kinds are intertwined and woven together with twisting vines and branches. In Celtic prayers, you find references to birds, cows, bees, trees, wind, mountains, rivers, and more.
Nature is not itself god, but God is in every aspect of nature, and because of this, in Celtic Christianity you don’t find the same sharp dividing lines between the “sacred” and the “secular” that emerge later in Christian thought. For example, today we have “Christian” radio stations and secular/non-Christian radio stations. Christian bookstores, and non-Christian bookstores. Places that are sacred (churches, sanctuaries, cemeteries) and places that are not sacred (homes, offices, parks). But for ancient Celtic peoples, all of these things were sacred, because God was in all of them, God created all of them. There are Celtic prayers to be said while milking the cow, or while sweeping the kitchen, because these activities (as well as the cow, the milk, the kitchen, and even the dust) are all part of God’s inherently good creation.
In modern Christianity, when we want to experience God’s presence, we tend to shut ourselves off from God’s creation–we go inside a church with four walls and a ceiling, which we expect to be perfectly quiet, well lit (day and night) and about 70 degrees Fahrenheit in all seasons. And then when we can no longer see the mountains and the valleys, when we can no longer hear the ocean and the wind, when we can no longer feel the heat of the sun or the cold of the winter, we say, “God, where are you? we can’t see you, hear you, or feel you!”
All places are sacred, and God is surely present inside or outside of the church. But the natural world–the plants and trees, rivers and the fields–offers an especially powerful opportunity to encounter the divine presence through the very works of God’s hands.
I think it’s fascinating that in all the stories we read about Jesus and his ministry here on earth, only a handful of those stories take place in the synagogue or the temple, and in those places, Jesus never seems able to accomplish much. On the other hand, his greatest miracles, his greatest teachings take place on the lakeshore, in a garden, or on a mountaintop.
In today’s passage from John 6, before Jesus performs the miracle of the loaves and fish, he crosses over the sea, and goes up the side of a mountain. We read 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. We read in verse 10 that “there was a great deal of grass in the place” and this seems to be an important enough detail for John to include it in his gospel. After Jesus miraculously feeds the crowd and they try to make him king, we read that “he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
A few verses later, another great miracle: We read that it is now dark, and “the sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.” Jesus walks through the wind on the rough water to the boat, and in this version of the story, note that he does not interfere with nature, he does not calm the storm, but rather he calms the disciples, saying “It is I; do not be afraid.” And when Jesus says “it is I” … I can’t help but wondering if “it” refers just as much to the wind and the waves as it does to his human body. It (all of this) is me…do not be afraid.
Two more Ireland stories, and then I’ll conclude.
Given all that I’ve just said about Celtic Christianity and nature, it shouldn’t be surprising that the class Amy and I took didn’t take place entirely in a walled classroom. Our teacher, Grace, took us on several “expeditions.” Perhaps my favorite was when she showed up one morning in her Wellingtons (big rain boots) and told us she had a spare pair if one of us needed them. We drove into the nearby town of Armagh, parked and took a walk past the ruins of an old Franciscan Friary to see if we could find St. Brigid’s well–it was a natural spring that had been used for hundreds of years; the water was reputed to have healing properties.
Near a grove of trees, the city had placed a large sign labeled “St. Brigid’s Well” with a description, some history, and an arrow pointing to…pretty much nothing. Grace pointed in the opposite direction of the arrow and said, “actually, the well is over there.” We walked through some more trees, across a soccer field (football field), and through some tall, overgrown weeds…and there it was. There were five or six stone steps descending down to a little cave-like enclosure. You almost had to get on your knees to crawl in, and it was completely dark inside, but once in you could hear the faint bubbling of water, coming up through the sand. The water was cool to the touch. I didn’t drink it, but apparently Queen Victoria was quite fond of it, and made a special request that the Archbishop of Ireland bring her some whenever he visited.
I think the place where I had the most powerful experience of the Divine Presence, however, was on an excursion Amy and I made by ourselves, to see the Ardboe High Cross. It is an ancient Celtic cross–over a thousand years old–covered with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, the tallest and oldest one of its kind in Northern Ireland. The cross stands outside the ruins of an old abbey and cemetery, on the shore of Lough Neagh, which is the largest body of water in the British Isles. The lake is actually so large that when Amy and I first saw it, we thought we were looking at the ocean, since you can’t see any of the opposite shores.
Not long after we arrived, it started to rain. Amy wandered on up to the abbey ruins, while I stayed behind to look at the cross. And as I lifted my head up to see it, I felt the rain on my face. Towering high above that highest of crosses made with human hands, was an even taller tree, made with heavenly hands, waving gracefully in the wind. And forming the backdrop, behind that thousand-year-old cross, was the vast lake that seemed like an ocean, formed about 400 million years ago by shifting tectonic plates. I felt very small, and very young, and it occurred to me that both the cross and I were the newcomers here, both of us just passing through, both of us occupying a small space in the world. But the cross and I were not alone, nor was I the smallest or youngest creature there at that moment. Buzzing all around my head was an enormous swarm of Irish midges–tiny gnat-like insects that have a lifespan of about 3 to 5 days. They were so tiny, but so many, that they formed a visible cloud of witnesses around me.
And in that moment, in that sacred space where the very large and the very small, the very old and the very young converged as one…
I knew that God was in that place, too, looking at all of us, his strange, beautiful, very diverse creations…
Earth and sea…
Wind and sky…
Wood and stone…
Flesh and flying wing…
God was in that place, and every place, saying once again words spoken at the dawn of time and throughout eternity…
It is good.
It is VERY good.