If you were to imagine yourself into John’s version of Jesus feeding the 5000, I wonder who you would be? One of the disciples, trying to work out how to feed all these people? The boy who offers the loaves and fishes? Would you be one of the crowd, waiting hungrily to be fed? Or one of the people trying to find a political solution to the nation’s problems by making Jesus a king?
The question the disciples were facing was “Where are we going to buy food for these people? These people we didn’t invite, didn’t expect – but who followed Jesus out of the city because of what they’ve seen him do – heal the sick”. In John’s gospel Jesus asks the disciples this, rather than the other way round, and the reply is “it can’t be done, there are too many of them – even if there was a big enough bakery round the corner, we don’t have enough money.”
But that’s not what the boy with the packed lunch thinks. The Greek word implies someone who’s very young, a small boy overhearing the conversation, and without thinking about the scale of the problem, he just offers what he has. ‘Do you need food, Jesus? Here, have my lunch.’ And Andrew brings him up to Jesus – maybe that’s desperation, maybe he thinks it’s cute, who knows? We can only imagine how the other disciples would have reacted – possibly along the lines of “are you nuts? How do you think that’s going to help?”
But Jesus gets everyone to sit on the grass, and takes the loaves, and gives thanks, and distributes the bread. These are words we use in the Communion service, and maybe these words, this story, have something to teach us about what the Communion service means. These are words about hospitality, about being a good host – except that here, Jesus not only welcomes people and gives thanks, he also does what a servant would usually do – he distributes the food. And everyone has enough – more than enough – there are 12 baskets of leftovers gathered up ‘so that nothing may be lost’. We don’t know what they did with the baskets of leftovers - maybe they took them to the people who couldn’t be there, gave them to the poor.
John sets this story just before the feast of the Passover – the feast that celebrates Moses rescuing the people of Israel from oppression in Egypt. So we’re immediately reminded that the people of Israel in Jesus’ day lived in an occupied territory – they were also looking for someone to rescue them from oppression. And they see the connection between this miracle and the manna God provided for the Israelites in the desert when they fled from Egypt, and start to think that perhaps Jesus is another Moses, a political leader with God on his side, come to save them from Roman oppression. Maybe someone starts shouting ‘Jesus for King!’ But being a political leader isn’t what Jesus has in mind.
It’s easy to see this as just a story about Jesus seeing that people were hungry and having compassion on them. But while that’s part of it, it’s not all. It’s at least as much a story about God’s power, shown in Jesus. Power that can take a tiny offering, and turn it into something that can feed a huge crowd; power over nature, so that in the second part of the passage, Jesus can walk on water through the storm. And it’s also a story about how people respond to that power.
It’s perfectly understandable that, faced with the problem of feeding 5000 people, the disciples did the sums, worked out what was needed and what they had, and then threw up their hands and said it was impossible. Most of us would probably have done the same. Sometimes, though, I think we need to be a bit less sensible and more trusting – you can tell I’m not an accountant any longer… Maybe, sometimes, God wants us to say ‘take what I have’ instead of ‘I don’t think I have enough to solve the whole problem so I won’t do anything’.
When we’re faced with something that’s outside our experience, something we don’t understand, most of us have a tendency to try to domesticate it – to reduce it to something familiar that we can get our heads round. So the people in the crowd want what they know from the scriptures, they want a king, a heroic leader who will get rid of their oppression. The disciples want to bring Jesus into the boat – because it’s too unnerving to have him walking on water. Perhaps we sometimes try to impose our solutions onto a situation, and hope that God will co-operate; try to bring Jesus into our boat, to join in with what we’re doing, rather than listen to him tell us not to be afraid of what he’s doing; rather than offer up what we have for others.
There’s a communion liturgy – I think it’s from Africa – that includes the words ‘Christ is the host and we are the guests’. It’s a quote from A W Tozer, an American pastor and writer. Christ is the host and we are the guests. We’re not doing God a favour by being here, we’re remembering Christ’s offering of himself for us, so let’s be aware that we have a God of overflowing generosity – a God who provides great things for us. We have a God who cares that nothing – and no-one – should be lost – how do we respond to that? Do we share that passion?
Yesterday I was leading a session on beginning and ending a sermon at a training day for Occasional Preachers, and all the time I was leading it I was conscious that I had written most of my sermon for this morning – apart from the ending. Because every time I tried to write the ending, my brain kept coming back to this passage from Ephesians, which is one of my favourite passages from the Bible. It’s both a prayer for the readers of the letter and a massive celebration of all that God is and all that God has done for us. It’s almost like a poem, or a song – Ephesians the musical. And in the end I decided to just go with the flow, so I’m going to finish by reading a couple of verses from it as a prayer.
Father of all, strengthen each one of us in our inner being with power through his Spirit, that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith, and we may be rooted and grounded in love. Help us to acknowledge the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled to overflowing with all the fullness of our generous God. Amen