Jesus worked miracles—signs, to use the language of the Gospel of John. This fact is the sort of thing that can make twenty-first century Christians squirm in their pews. Oh, I know, most of us probably would say sure, Jesus did some amazing things, but magically creating so much bread and fish that 5000 people were fed, that there were enough leftovers to fill 12 baskets, is just a little bit beyond the realm of belief. And that Jesus walked on water? That story is so farfetched that it’s become symbol of unbelievable holiness or perfection. We say of someone who’s just perfect in every way, “They walk on water.”
We approach such stories in the gospels as tests of faith, not unlike the sort of spin that John himself puts on the conversation between Jesus and Philip. And if we believe Jesus fed 5000 people or walked on water, what won’t we believe? And if, like most people exposed to or committed to the scientific worldview, we can’t believe that Jesus walked on water, then what are we doing here? Why bother with church and all that other stuff?
Well, I’m not going to let you escape the horns of this dilemma. I’m not going to explain the miracle stories away as vestiges of a premodern world view that we can safely ignore; nor I am I going to harangue you into believing that Jesus walked on water, or that he fed more than five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and fish, and that your eternal salvation depends on your belief in these or other miracles.
Instead, I want to us to delve into the heart of these stories, to wrestle with them, to try to understand them. For unlike our assumptions, which usually see miracle stories as proofs of Jesus’ divinity, these stories are never, or even primarily just about Jesus’ power and identity. They are about much more. They are about so much more that in the case of John’s account of the feeding of the 5000, it’s worth him spending a whole chapter, some 70 verses, on exploring its meaning. And the lectionary editors, in their infinite and perhaps twisted wisdom, agree in the importance of this miracle so that we will be spending five weeks, yes, five weeks, on this chapter. In case you’re wondering, that will take us right up to the last Sunday of August, which fittingly enough, is the weekend of Taste of Madison. So we’ll have plenty of time to reflect on the miracle and on the meaning of bread.
The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels. That fact in itself should tell us to pay attention. Either it was so firmly fixed in the tradition by the time the gospel writers began to write, or it is so important to the tradition, and to the gospel writers that it was considered worth preserving, first orally then as we have it, in written form. Each version also bears the mark of each gospel writer’s own concerns. That’s especially true here in the case of John. Not only are there powerful resonances with the Hebrew Bible—as in the brief story from the life of Elisha that we heard in our first reading. John has also packed in references backwards and forwards to other incidents in his gospel and to his some overarching themes. I want to draw your attention to some of those connections across John’s gospel and highlight some of the distinct ways in which John tells this story.
First, there is one very interesting way in which John changes the story from the synoptics. There, to take Mark as an example, we are told, “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples” (Mk 6:41).The language is almost word for word identical with Mark’s description of Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper—blessed, broke and gave to his disciples.” John puts it differently: he has Jesus himself distribute the loaves and the fishes.
That raises another very interesting point. While we see Jesus eating meals throughout the gospel, beginning with the Wedding Feast at Cana, there are only two times where we see Jesus presiding as host at a meal—here at the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and at the very end of the gospel, when the Risen Christ appears to the disciples by the sea of Galilee while they are fishing, and he prepares breakfast for them, a meal of bread and grilled fish.
In that story, Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him three times, “Do you love me?” After Peter says “yes” each time, Jesus then commands him, “Feed my sheep.”
Here, we are told that there was a great deal of grass in that place, that the crowd sat down before Jesus feeds them. It’s a minor detail but when I think of a great deal of grass, I think of pasture, and yes, in the case of the Gospel of John, sheep and the Good Shepherd. Just as Jesus commanded Peter to feed his sheep, just as Jesus feeds the crowd, so too are we called by Jesus, as his followers to feed those who are hungry—the many in this world who are food insecure, but also, because it’s not just about food, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, those who want to be fed the good news of Jesus Christ.
Even if as he distributes the food, Jesus is setting a model for us of what it means to follow him, in his instructions to his disciples, he is teaching them, and us more.
Just as at the wedding at Cana when he turned water into wine, making a super-abundance of wine after an already lengthy party, so too here Jesus provides a super abundance of food, so much extra that it filled twelve baskets. But he didn’t let it go to waste. He told his disciples to gather up the leftovers. We might reflect on how there was enough for each of the disciples to have a basket of bread to take with them, but not as food for their own journey, but having received the bread from Jesus, and having also seen his example of distributing it, they were implicitly given the task of sharing that bread with others whom they would encounter.
Over the coming weeks, we will have opportunity to explore other meanings in this story as John and Jesus delve into the meaning of bread, and the bread of life. Today, I think it’s worth staying here with the story, with Jesus’ actions, with his distribution of the food, and with the concern for the leftovers.
“Feed my sheep!” Three afternoons a week, and on Saturday mornings, a steady line of people visit our food pantry, where they receive food necessary to sustain their bodies. It’s especially ironic on Saturday mornings to contrast that line of people with the thousands who visit the Farmer’s Market and see, and purchase the bounty on display there. The deep inequities in our society are obvious for anyone with eyes to see.
On the first Monday of each month, and early in the morning on the next day, volunteers from Grace prepare and serve dinner and breakfast for shelter guests and people from the community. The other days of the month, groups of volunteers from across Dane County do the same thing, offering meals to homeless men.
Our natural tendency is to see such work as a response to Jesus’ call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love our neighbor. And so it is. But it is more than that. Just as there was more bread than was necessary to feed the crowd, so too is there more meaning when we offer food to the hungry, more meaning when we gather at table to eat.
In another meal, in another gospel, the Risen Christ was made known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread. When we gather around the table to enjoy a meal, when we prepare a meal or offer food to those in need, we are offering sustenance. But we are doing more. At those tables, whether they are in our home kitchen or dining room, or around the tables in Vilas Hall, or as volunteers reach across the counter in the pantry to offer food, we are also experiencing the presence of God, the grace of God. And when we share our food with others, when we help them experience the beauty and grace of a hearty meal, we are also making the grace of God present to them.