Sunday 3 August 2008

Feeding 5000 (or 500 million!)

1. Today’s Gospel reading (Matt 14:13-21) is wonderfully apt for the day that’s in it!

The August bank holiday is a great time to have a picnic. Provided the weather is good, of course, which thank God it is today, and please God it will be tomorrow! A picnic - this is what Matthew is telling us about, isn’t it? A truly gigantic picnic!

To those of us brought up in the Church the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is a well-loved, familiar story from childhood. We can all picture the scene, because so many artists have painted it over the centuries.

Jesus wants to get away by himself for a while. He sails across to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, to a deserted place, but the crowd spots him and follows by land, getting there before he does. I haven’t been to the Sea of Galilee, but I imagine it as a bit like our own Lough Derg; a little bigger in area, and wider, but not so long. In my minds eye I see Jesus sailing from Terryglass over to Portumna Forest Park!

Jesus we are told ‘had compassion for them and cured their sick’, and no doubt he talks to the crowd about the good news of God’s kingdom too, as he usually did. And when it gets late and they are hungry he arranges to feed them. In a grassy place, miles from anywhere, the disciples serve a bountiful picnic to the crowd. Jesus provides the food miraculously from five loaves and two small fishes. Everyone eats their fill, and the leftovers fill twelve baskets!

It’s the only one of Jesus’s miracles that comes in all four Gospels. They all tell the same story, with the same numbers: a crowd of 5,000, 5 loaves and 2 fishes, and 12 baskets of leftovers.

John adds the charming detail that a boy gave the loaves and fishes to Andrew, who gave them to Jesus saying But what are these among so many? What a generous boy he was! I imagine the boy’s mother sending him off with a packed lunch, and though he must have been hungry himself, he offered it to Andrew to give to Jesus.

What I want to do today is to reflect on what we, today, can learn from this miracle. But before we get to that I think it’s useful first to reflect on the miracle itself, and second to reflect on what those present on the day would have learned from it.

2. So what really happened that day? What miraculous thing did Jesus do?

I suppose that most Christians over the last 2000 years have believed that what Jesus did was quite simply to multiply the loaves and fishes until there was enough to go round. The miracle was to multiply the physical items. If this is what you believe, you are in good company; be content with it, and may you remain undisturbed in your faith. If we believe that Jesus is God, and God is almighty, then Jesus as God can do anything he pleases. There is no reason to believe that he didn’t simply multiply the loaves and fishes.

But many Christians find this difficult to accept, and look for other explanations. Such simple multiplication seems to break the laws of physics, the laws God has established for the material world, which he seems to have made to behave quite predictably.

Some Christians see in this miracle a sacrament. They believe that those present received only the tiniest morsel of food, yet were strengthened by it in a spiritual way so they could return home satisfied. If this is so, then it is a miracle which we re-enact every time we take communion, and go out strengthened to walk the road of love that Jesus has shown us.

Other Christians see in it something at the same time both perfectly natural, and quite miraculous. Surely the majority of the crowd would not have set off on their long trek around the lake without taking some food with them. But they are humanly selfish, and afraid to produce what they have in case they must share it and be left without enough themselves. Then Jesus takes the lead. He takes the boy’s small offering and shares it with a blessing and a smile. And his example prompts the rest of the crowd to share, so that before they know it there is more than enough for all. If that is what happened, the miracle is how the touch of Christ changes selfish people into generous people.

But in the end, I do not think it matters a whit what we believe happened that day, and I do not think we all need to believe the same thing. What does matter is this: when Jesus is there the sick are healed and the hungry soul is fed.

3. So what did those present at the miracle learn that day?

Jesus’s miracles don’t yield their meanings all at once. They work like slow fuses, revealing their meanings bit by bit to those who ponder them.

The crowd who followed Jesus around the lake experienced someone who really cared for them. An ordinary man might have been resentful that they were invading his privacy with their continual demands. But not Jesus. He graciously made time for them, even though he wanted rest and quiet. He healed those who were sick. And when it was late and they were hungry, he arranged for them to eat to give them strength for the journey home. Most of them probably didn’t see what he did or how he did it - with 5000 there, how could they? But afterwards, as they mulled over the events of the day and talked to others about it, I feel sure that they came to realise that this man Jesus cared for them in the same way that, as Jews, they believed God cared for his chosen people.

What of the disciples? They experienced Jesus’s miracle directly, and Jesus made it into an action learning lesson for them. They ask Jesus to send the crowd home when they become anxious that it is late and everyone is hungry. But Jesus is uncompromising, that is not his way. He challenges the disciples, saying ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ What are they to do? They certainly don’t have enough food for such a crowd. In consternation, after searching around to see what there is, they bring him the 5 loaves and 2 fishes and tell him this is all they have. Only then does Jesus take charge, when they have run out of ideas, when they have offered him what little they have. Only then does Jesus bless and break the bread, perform the miracle, and give the disciples enough to feed the crowd with more left over.

They may have been slow to understand what Jesus was teaching them. On a later occasion Mark records Jesus reminding them of the miracle, and saying: ‘Do you not yet understand?’ But they did come to understand in the end, or the miracle would not have been recorded in all 4 Gospels. In years to come they understood that Jesus had taught them an important lesson of faith to guide their work. The lesson of faith is this: what they have to offer may be woefully inadequate to do what Jesus asks; but if they bring it to him, if they place it in his hands and let him use it, Jesus will bless it and he will give it back to them, but multiplied unimaginably, and now more than adequate for his purpose.

4. Now at last we can turn to see what we can learn today from Jesus’s miracle.

Jesus had compassion for the crowd and cured the sick. Jesus saw the crowd were hungry and arranged to feed them. Today as we look around the world, we see millions of people, made in God’s image like us, suffering and dying from preventable disease. And we see more millions of people hungry, many starving to death. Closer to home, the deepening economic recession will likely increase the suffering of the poor and the sick. As Christians, surely Jesus is calling us to show the compassion and care that he showed to the crowd by the Sea of Galilee.

We in the church, in all our denominations, are Jesus’s disciples today. There are many more of us now than there were disciples then. Jesus is calling us just as he called them to carry out his mission of love. And we need to learn the same lesson that he taught them, that lesson of faith.

The lesson of faith is this. Though the needs of the world seem altogether too big for us to make even a dent in them, we must not be daunted. Let us offer what we have to Jesus. Let us allow him to use it. He will bless and multiply what we offer. And it will be enough!

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