2nd Samuel 11:1-15 Psalms 14 Ephesians 3:14-21 John 6:1-21
It is six-year-old Ella’s turn to say the blessing for Sunday dinner with her family. She prays for her family members and for the food, taking care to say each item separately – the chicken, the potatoes, the carrots. She pauses and looks at her parents. “Will God know that I am lying if I give thanks for the brussels sprouts?” How do you define a mixed blessing?
The feeding of the five thousand is found in all four gospels. The Jesus of John is always in control. Jesus knows that he will create plenty from a little. A child offers the raw material – five barley loaves and two fish. The people sit, and Jesus promises a feast. In John, the truth of the message is always about God. The truth here is that Jesus out of grace will provide.
In today’s gospel reading, we leave Mark and hear John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand. Reading the Gospel of John is like entering a whirlpool, a funnel that sweeps us into a compelling embrace of gracious lines – all interconnected and propelling us toward the center – God. His gospel encourages believers to be attentive and hang on tightly to Jesus. We can trust the Word and words that uphold us; the Gospel writer’s testimony is true, no matter what the accusers say.
Jesus has returned to Galilee from Jerusalem in the springtime, and the season of Passover is approaching. This is John’s second reference to Passover, which gives us some sense that Jesus was a good Jew and observed the requirement of Judaism to recognize and celebrate the feasts. The setting of the story is the Sea of Galilee.
The sea was surrounded by numerous fishing villages. This explains Jesus’ ministry in these villages, his using fishing illustrations and his recruiting hard working fishermen to become his followers. This is a poor society. Galilee was a peasant farming area where farmers were heavily taxed and their land frequently lost to the wealthy elite or to Roman authorities. Jesus’ interest in these people and his sympathy for their needs inspired widespread support for his message.
Jesus is in the region teaching his disciples, sitting down with folks was common among rabbis, but even though he is in the western hills, far away from his home, his reputation as a healer brought great crowds to him. Jesus’ compassion leads him to provide food – miraculous food – for all five thousand. Through this miracle and the following discussion with the people, he hopes to unveil more of his identity, as he did in Jerusalem. After the feeding, Jesus puts his followers on a boat, and later, in Capernaum he engages the crowds and his disciples in an intense discussion about the meaning of the miraculous signs.
If we take a minute and look at some of the features that are well known in the Passover story, features that every Jew understood fully as shaping the background to Jesus’ deeds in Galilee. Among Moses’ many miracles in Egypt, two stand out as truly remarkable - his departure through the parting of the Red Sea, and his miraculous feeding of the people with manna for forty years in the desert. These are powerful symbols of God’s preservation of God’s people – rescuing them from harm and sustaining them in the desert.
In John 6, Jesus appears at Passover, repeating many of these themes. The people are a multitude not unlike those in the desert; Jesus feeds them with “heavenly” bread; and following the feeding, when the disciples are on the sea, Jesus comes to them walking on the water.
This Passover story of Jesus makes direct connections with prominent Old Testament stories that tumble over one another very quickly. They provide a growing impression that in some fashion the hero of Passover, Moses, has now been superseded by Jesus, who not only provides “bread from heaven” but is himself “the bread of life.”
This feeding miracle gathered widespread fame and became a part of the collective memory of early Christianity as a key event in Jesus’ life and ministry. John provides insights not found in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Jesus not only wants to provide food, but he wishes to test the developing faith of Philip. Philip’s response indicates that he does not yet grasp Jesus’ miraculous ability. He exclaims that “six months’ wages” for a common laborer would not provide enough to feed the crowd. Food and incomprehension come together for the disciples.
But Andrew, Peter’s brother, finds a young boy who can help. This boy is carrying five barley loaves and two salted fish. Only John mentions that the bread is barley, which is a signal of the poverty of this crowd. Barley was considered the bread of the poor and this boy has five pieces of it – much like five rounds of today’s pita bread. In the Old Testament, we are reminded of Elisha feeding a hundred men with twenty barley loaves, and is assisted by a young servant. As with the twelve baskets left after Jesus’ miracle, Elisha also had baskets of food left over.
Those 5,000 people had a very practical problem. They were hungry. They left their villages and homes and raced around the lake to be with Jesus, to be healed and instructed – although healing was probably higher on their agenda than being taught.
By the time Christians began to hear John’s gospel, this event happened many years earlier. Looking back at the gospel lessons, we find it easy to “spiritualize” the mighty acts of Jesus. It’s good for us to return to the obvious. The people were hungry and far from home. They were fed. How they were fed was extraordinary, miraculous, and therefore, to our modern minds, terribly odd. How on earth, or even heaven, may 5000 people be fed by half a loaf of bread and a can’s worth of sardines? So, we resort to metaphor. It’s easy to do because John will go on to recount Jesus’ teaching on his being the Bread of Life. The gospel has to be read as a whole, and so we too see the connections of the miracle, the teaching, and the Eucharist in which we are fed and transformed by a crumb of bread and a sip of wine.
There is some talk by theologians and historians that there may have been other food in the crowd. When folks traveled, they frequently carried a small sack for food tied around their waist. When the crowd sat down, the bag would be in their laps, so when the baskets were passed, some may have taken some out and some may have put some in. This idea doesn’t diminish the miracle, but adds to it. The people shared what little they had, so that all could be fed. It underscores the generosity of God!
And it also underscores that we are in this together as a community of faith. Our recent changes are an effort to feed everyone in a safe environment and thoughtful approaches to each of our interactions. We, on the Vestry, show our love for you by thoughtful and heartfelt decisions to keep us all coming back.
Jesus fed. In his taking care of the physical needs of the crowd, that which will be normal in the kingdom breaks into our world and we are amazed. Even the disciples were amazed. It is important for us to realize that in this miracle the material and the spiritual are one. When we attempt to separate the two, we lose meaning and get into trouble. People who attempt to be spiritual without being religious end up with neither. Christianity is not about saving souls but about the redemption, the putting right, of “ourselves, our souls and bodies” and of the world. When we feed the poor, we are being sacramental. When we receive Holy Communion we are being material. Passing through things worldly involves the whole person and gaining things eternal also involves the whole person.
It has been said that every preacher has basically one sermon that gets delivered in different contexts. My sermon is that God is love, God loves us and wants us to pass that love along to others as the hands and heart and feet of Christ. Hopefully you hear that in my messages, because it comes from my heart that has been touched by the hand of God. Hopefully, you hear that we are all called by God, we are all special in our response.
Maybe we are meant to journey not only toward God or even for God, but with God and in so doing, we bring others with us to build a community of faith, and we all will be fed! Amen.