Well, the gospel story for today is an old favorite story about Jesus and his disciples that was told over and over again. There are some old favorite stories which are told only one time in the gospels.... such as the story of the Good Samaritan, told only once; the story of the Prodigal Son, told only once; the story of the Sheep and the Goats, told only once. These are favorite, great stories but they are told only once in our Gospel.
But the story for today, about the five loaves and two fish, is not told merely once, not twice, not three times, but four times in its variations. It is the only Gospel miracle, which is told in its fullness in all four Gospels.
Now, why is this story told over and over again? I believe it is because this story captures the truth, the essence of all the people involved; the essential truth about Jesus and the essential truth about the disciples and the essential truth about God.
So I would like to retell this story for you, but include elements from the other Gospel versions of the story, and then two more Bible stories that are connected. Let’s begin.
It was springtime in Israel. The rains of March and April had come and the land was now fresh and green. The brown hills had soaked up the spring rains and the flowers were blooming and the hills were green again.
It was Passover time in Israel. Passover was their great religious feast, like Easter is for us. That meant a holiday from school, and a holiday from work. That meant that people were taking trips, packing their donkeys and going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It was a time of religious aliveness, of fasting and feasting and traveling.
It was popularity time for Jesus. Jesus had healed people of their diseases and his popularity was becoming enormous. He was like a new rock star, and thousands would gather to hear him preach.
But it was also tragedy time in Israel. According to the Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist had just been beheaded. John, the Baptist, was the greatest moral force, the greatest spiritual force, the greatest prophet the land of Israel had experienced for four hundred years. He was the person that everyone looked to for moral and religious inspiration, and he was just beheaded by King Herod. Everyone was stunned by this tragedy, by this enormous loss, including Jesus, who had been baptized by John.
And so it was grieving time in Israel, mourning time. People were stunned, and Jesus wanted to get away by himself to grieve, to pray, to remember. He wanted to get away to a lonely place and so he got into a boat to sail across Lake Galilee to a remote point, some four miles away, in order to get away from the massive crowds who were following him, to be alone and grieve the loss of John the Baptist.
Jesus took a four-mile boat ride to a more remote, wilderness area, but the crowds could see from the shore where he was sailing to. And so the crowds followed along the shoreline, keeping an eye on his boat, and so when Jesus’ boat landed, many of the crowd had already arrived.
And what was Jesus’ reaction to the thousands who had shown up? Irritated? Angry? Imposed upon? No, he looked on the massive crowd with compassion, like they were sheep without a shepherd, like people who were in need of spiritual feeding for their spiritual hungers inside. And so he taught them and he healed them.
The day quickly passed. It got to be later, long into the day, and one of the disciples said: “Lord, the hour is late and the people don’t have any food and we are a long way from any villages. Maybe you should send them home now.” And Jesus said to Philip, according to John’s version of the story,
“How are we going to buy bread, so that people can eat?” Jesus said this in order to test Philip. Philip replied, “It would take more than two hundred denari, more than two hundred days of wages, and even that wouldn’t be enough bread to feed all these people.”
Jesus said, “Look around the crowd and see what you can find.” Andrew found a young boy with five loaves of bread and two fish, and brought the boy, fish and bread to Jesus. Jesus invited everyone to be seated on the green grass. Jesus took the bread…looked up into heaven...gave thanks...broke it…gave it to his disciples...who gave it to the crowds. And they all ate and were all satisfied ...and… there were twelve baskets of bread left over. The number who ate were five thousand men, plus women and children.
That story was told over and over again in the gospels, but it continues. A few days later, Jesus was again out in the wilderness, again with a large crowd of four thousand men plus women and children, and the same story happens again. This time, seven loaves and a few fish were found. And once again, Jesus took the bread...looked up into heaven...gave thanks...broke it...give it to his disciples...who shared it with everyone. And everyone ate and everyone was satisfied, ... and... there were seven baskets of bread left over after the feeding of the four thousand plus.
And then comes the final twist to the story, the final intrigue to this saga. Jesus and his disciples got into a boat and sailed back again across Lake Galilee. And as they arrived in the boat, the disciples began discussing quietly among themselves, out of earshot of Jesus, “Who brought the bread? Did anyone bring any bread for lunch?” And Jesus, knowing their thoughts, asked them: “Don’t you men get it? Don’t you understand? Are you so hard headed? Are you so hard hearted? You just saw the feeding of the five thousand and twelve baskets of bread which were left over. You just saw the feeding of the four thousand and seven baskets of bread which were left over. Don’t you get it about who I am? Don’t you get it about the abundance generosity of God? Don’t you get it that God will take care of you in your needs? Don’t you get it, even after you have personally seen these miracles?
And that story, about the feeding of the five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish, that story seems to capture the essence of all the people involved.
That’s why it was told over and over again.
This story captures the very essence of Jesus as the wondrous Son of God.
It captures the very essence of God, in God’s abundant and extravagant generosity and grace, twelve and seven baskets full of bread left over.
And it captures the very essence of us his disciples, who don’t get it, even after we have seen first hand, God’s miraculous work in our lives.
As a good rabbi, I would like to offer some commentary about this classic story.
Jesus can work miracles with five loaves and two fish. That is at the heart of the story, that the little boy brought his meager gifts to Jesus, his five loaves and two fish, and look what mighty miracles God did with them. And God wants to do the same with us; that we bring our meager gifts to God, our five loaves and two fish, our meager and ordinary talents and gifts, we bring the simplicity of who we are to God, and look what mighty miracles God can do with our little lives.
The key for me is that the little boy surrendered his meager gifts to Christ, and at the heart of the story today is the implied invitation for us to surrender our little gifts, the gift of our little lives to Christ, and then see what mighty miracles God can do in and through us. That’s what God wants from you and me, to surrender, to give the gifts of our little lives to him.
God can use your inadequacies and mine and work mighty miracles through them.
Implied in the story is this question: Have you surrendered your five loaves and two fish to Christ? Have you surrendered the meagerness of who you are to Christ? You would be amazed at what mighty miracles God can do with your meager self when you have surrendered who you are to Christ? The question is persistent when the memory of this story lingers on: “Have you surrendered? Have I?” Like the little boy did.
Sometimes people ask about this story: “How did he do it? How did Christ feed all those people with so little food, with merely five loaves and two fish?” I like what one commentator suggested: Some people want Jesus to work a transformation of the loaves, so that the loaves continually multiply, endlessly, so that the loaves themselves experience transformation and become an endless supply of bread.
But others suggest that what was really transformed were the selfish hearts of five thousand men; that when these five thousand men saw the example of the little boy giving Jesus his five loaves of bread and two fish, these men were inspired to look inside their coats and share the food that they brought with them, food that had been hidden inside their clothing. The real transformation then, was not of the loaves, but of five thousand selfish hearts. The Bible says: “A little child shall lead them.”
I ask you: which would be the greater miracle?
The transformation of the loaves
or the transformation of selfish hearts?
I would like to suggest to you that some people would prefer to focus on the transformation be of the loaves in order to avoid focusing on their own selfish hearts that need be transformed. Focus on the magic of it all in order to avoid the transforming miracle needed in my life and heart.
If Christ worked that miracle today, and transformed five thousand or five million selfish hearts, we would feed the whole world. Jesus said that Christians today would do greater miracles than he did when he was on earth; and if the selfish hearts of Christians were transformed, we would feed the entire globe. Focus on Christ’s transformation of selfish human hearts and you will discover the essence of this miracle.
But also, today, we need to talk about Holy Communion. In this passage, the liturgical references seem clear. Jesus took the bread...looked up to heaven... gave thanks (gave Eucharist)... broke the bread...gave it to his disciples...who gave it to everyone...and they all ate and were satisfied. These actions seem parallel to Holy Communion.
And then we read the Gospel of John’s version of this story, and we discover that the feeding of the five thousand is a prelude to Jesus’ teaching that “I am the Bread of life” and Holy Communion. In John, chapter six, we also find the most complete description of Holy Communion in the whole Bible. In John, chapter six, Christ says: “I am the Bread of life. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, I live in that person and that person lives in me.” “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will never die but live forever.”
Incredible words. Incredible promises. And so the feeding of the 5000 in chapter six of John is a prelude to the teachings about Holy Communion. They are directly connected.
For some of you, Holy Communion is a drag. You may be thinking in the recesses of your mind, “Holy Communion today? Oh no, the service will be fifteen minutes longer? Holy Communion today? Time to people watch and see who is and isn’t in church? Holy Communion today? O shucks. We’ll be late for...” But not for the early church. For those first Christians, the receiving of Our Lord’s Body and Blood was a miracle. THE miracle. The transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood! The transformation of selfish human hearts! Forgiveness? Never die? Live forever? Food for the soul? My soul? Food for the spirit, my spirit, the spirit in me, being fed by the Holy Spirit? O yes, it was sacred time, the miracle of Holy Communion.
And then, I am intrigued by the last twist to the story, the final surprise to the story. The disciples had personally witnessed the feeding of the five thousand, then personally witnessed the feeding of the four thousand (Matthew 15:29-39, Mark 8:1-21), and then when they were alone, facing their own need, they asked the question among themselves: “Who brought bread? Who brought stuff for lunch?” (Matthew 16:5-12 The Yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees)
They didn’t get it.
They saw miracles for others
but didn’t understand it for themselves.
So often, I am just like that. I see the miracles of God first hand. I saw how God worked a miracle Jim Craig’s life who had a heart attack so in surgery, the surgeons could find an unknown aneurysm. Jim had been a walking time bomb. It was miracle for Jim, that he had a heart attack and the doctors then found that aneurysm.
I see God’s miracles. I see signs of God working and intervening in your lives, and then....when all alone by myself one night, I asked: “God, are you real? Is there really a God, a personal God, who watches over and participates in my life?” And I laugh at myself, having seen God’s miracles day by day, and I still question God’s existence and intervention in my own life.
Does this ring in a bell in you? Do you do the same? Seeing miracle after miracle in the lives of others, but then when it comes to you and your own life, you question and doubt God’s miraculous goodness to you? How human we are.
This story was the old favorite of the early church, told over and over again. Why?
Because it captured the essence of Jesus, the wondrous, loving Son of God.
It captured the essence of God’s abundant grace and generous gifts to us, with more than twelve baskets left over.
It captured the essence of our lives, who having seen the miracles of God day by day, all around us, we still doubt and ask, “where is God’s action in my life?”
(This sermon was given orally on Sunday morning and then typed up for later use. For me, a uniqueness of the sermon is that it includes stories about the feeding of the four thousand and the disciples’ lack of understanding. These two stories are not included in the lectionary but are included in this sermon.)