After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 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 towards 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.’
For nine years I had the privilege of teaching church history at Westminster College. Church historians, it seems to me, hold the keys to the church’s treasure chest, and its skeleton cupboard! Historians, of all the church’s servants, are peculiarly aware of the humanity of the church. They are constrained by the traces that people leave behind them, with the biases that brings – clergy rather than lay people, rather more men than women, the articulate and able rather than those differently gifted.
As I look back over fifty years of the URC, it is the URC’s ‘saints’ that I am profoundly grateful for. Some have been big canvas men and women, those whose words and actions will be sifted by future historians. Most aren’t. They are ordinary folk who came to our doors with their five loaves and two fish, and without realising it found themselves turned into blessings for other people. My personal pantheon includes two middle aged women who had a vision of a lunch club for the lonely that transformed the lives of generations of elderly people, a Junior Church leader whose care for the young people extended to taking them all to a Christmas pantomime so their parents could breathe in the run up to Christmas, and some remarkable non-stipendiary ministers who gifted churches with Word and Sacraments despite the almost impossible demands their day jobs were making on them. But the list expands to include those who turned sickness and misfortune into the stuff of discipleship, and those whose patient love for those struggling with the difficulties of old age was transformative and life-enhancing, true demonstrations of Christian love.
Most of that escapes the eye and pen of the historian, but God rejoices in the faithfulness of that United Reformed Church.
Gracious God Your love has touched the URC and called forth disciples. We give thanks for those who have been examples to us, who helped us on the journey of faith and opened windows into the wonder of your kingdom. Take our loaves and fishes, and transform them into your people’s nourishment, that they may speak your Word, that the world may know Christ as Lord and return to You in praise and thanksgiving. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr David Cornick is a retired URC minister, an Emeritus Fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge, and a member of Downing Place URC.