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Was Jesus simply a good man? Or was he God?

May 3, 2014

The Feast of Saint Athanasius           2nd May 2014

First something about Bishop Athanasius; then some thoughts on the gospel – the Feeding of the 5,000.

Saint Athanasius was born around AD 298, and lived in Alexandria, Egypt, the chief centre of learning of the Roman Empire. In 319 a priest in Alexandria called Arius, who was secretary to the local bishop, began preaching the very controversial view that Jesus was created by God, and therefore was not Himself God. This teaching was contrary to the Tradition of the Church, handed down from the Apostles, that Jesus was God, that He was divine.

After six years of controversy bishops from all over the known world met in the year 325 at the Council of Nicea, near what is now Istanbul. There were people there from England too, even in those early days. Athanasius became the chief proponent of the view that the Son was fully God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father; Athanasius won the argument overwhelmingly, and the bishops eventually agreed the Creed of Nicea – the Nicene Creed – a creed we proclaim to this day in order to categorically defines our belief that Jesus is has been, always is and always will be God.

We still regularly encounter the Arian error in our own times:

  • As soon as you hear say something beginning, “I think Jesus was a good man, but…” get ready to hear a denial of our Lord’s divinity;
  • Every time you answer your door to Jehovah’s witnesses, you are speaking to people who believe Arius was right;
  • a friend of mine told me that a Muslim acquaintance had said if he wasn’t a Moslem he’d be a Catholic: indeed, Muslims do believe Jesus was miraculously born of the Virgin Mary, they believe Jesus was a great prophet and miracle worker; and they believe He ascended to heaven. BUT…. they deny Jesus was crucified, died and rose again, and crucially, they deny that Jesus is God.

As Bishop of Alexandria Saint Athanasius spent the rest of his life tirelessly defending orthodoxy against the Arian heresy, which is a persistent error in the attempts by humans through the ages to understand God. The reality is that we Christians believe that Jesus is God, and anything less is false teaching. Saint Athanasius died on this day, 2nd May, in the year 373.

[The Gospel of the Feast of Saint Athanasius is Matthew 10: 22-25, the story of the Feeding of the 5,000…… ]

Do you remember Jesus asking his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and they said that some people thought He was Elisha?

Elisha was revered in Jesus’ time as a famous national hero, a spiritual leader who had had remarkable powers to perform miracles. Elisha was a very powerful prophet. He cured Namaan of leprosy[1] (Jesus cured ten lepers!); Elisha even raised a man from the dead[2] (Jesus went on to raise three dead people at least). And there is also a parallel to the story of the feeding of the 5,000 in the Book of Kings, when Elisha fed 100 men with 20 barley loaves.[3]

Through His feeding of the 5,000 Jesus is doing something truly astonishing. He is saying through His actions, “You’ve had prophets in Israel before, but you ain’t seen nothing yet!” He validates Elisha’s ministry, Elisha’s life of prophecy, showing Elisha’s very life to have been a prophecy of His own coming.

And Jesus didn’t just feed 100 men with 20 barley loaves. Jesus did even better – he fed 5,000 men, (which including their families would probably be nearer to 20,000 people); And he did it with less food – just 3 barley loaves and two fishes.

Not only did He feed a crowd 200 times bigger, he did it with LESS food AND had 12 basketsful left over. This was a stupendous, mindboggling, astonishing miracle.

The crowd would have got the message immediately. Here is something greater than Elisha returning: here is a man – they would have said – far, far greater than one of our greatest prophets, feeding us in the wilderness (like God did when Moses was in charge), and feeding us a balanced diet, not just bread but also fish.

We can now see that Elisha’s life “prefigured” Jesus – meaning that his life follows a pattern that predicts what Jesus will be like and confirms Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah over 800 years later.

There is also something more than a historical significance to this story. Just as Elisha prefigured Jesus, so Jesus is Himself prefiguring the Sacrament of Holy Communion – He is signposting the way towards eternal life through spiritual food, the way that God feeds not only our bodies, but also our souls through the Eucharist. This interpretation of the miraculous feeding would have only become meaningful to His disciples after the events of Easter, the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

And in receiving Holy Communion together in a few moments, we, as a community, in our own time, proclaim our faith in Jesus Christ and His powers to sustain our lives through our current existence to beyond – to eternity.

[1] 2 Kings 5: 10-14

[2] 1 Kings 17: 17-24

[3] 2 Kings 4: 42-44


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