Preached 31 July 2011 at St James Bolton, Bradford
Well, there we have it. The feeding of the 5,000. One of the most familiar stories in the Bible. So familiar in fact that, when I saw it was one of the readings set for today, I decided “I’m not preaching on that. I’ll go for the other reading instead;” so I wrote a sermon on Isaiah 55. But by last Thursday, a prompting to take a fresh look at Matthew 14 had become far too strong to resist, so here I am with sermon number two. And the first thing I have to say about the feeding of the 5,000 is this. It has a unique feature that, apart from anything else, should encourage all of us to give the story our close attention. And it is this. It is the only story of a particular miracle performed by Jesus to appear in all four gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all see this event as of such importance that they have to include it … though each then writes about it in his own special way. And, just like different newspapers all covering the same story, each includes things that the others miss-out and vice versa.
Only Luke tells us, for instance, that the miracle took place near Bethsaida in what we now know as The Golan Heights. Only John tells us that it took place at Passover time, that the loaves were barley loaves, and that they belonged to a boy. Only Mark tells us that the grass was green (grass is not often green in that part of the world) and that Jesus saw the crowds as being like sheep without a shepherd, and that Jesus made the crowds sit down in groups of 50 or a 100. And only Matthew tells us that Jesus healed the sick as well as feeding the crowds, and that there were women and children there as well as the 5,000 men.
But, fascinating though it is to compare the four versions of the story in that way, the differences between them are not what is important. What is important about this story is the big question that hangs over it. A question that is just begging to be answered. “Question?” you say. “What question? Oh … you mean how did Jesus do it? “
No, no. no … That’s not the big question. The big question – and the one I want to try to answer this morning – is why did Jesus do it?
You see, as God’s son acting under the authority and in the power of God, Jesus could do anything … anything at all. And even the devil recognised that for, right at the start, just as Jesus was about to begin his ministry, he came to Jesus and made a suggestion … a suggestion that it’s quite important to remind ourselves of when faced with the mystery of the feeding of the 5,000. For the suggestion was, of course, this: “Why don’t you turn these desert stones into bread?”
The devil was inviting an all-powerful Jesus to perform the very miracle that now, using slightly different raw materials, Jesus has actually gone ahead and performed. Yet in the wilderness, Jesus would have nothing to do with the devil’s invitation. For it was an invitation to win the support and adulation of the masses by putting food in their bellies, and Jesus told the devil, “I won’t do that. It would defeat the purpose for which I’ve come into the world.”
But now it looks as if he’s gone back on that decision. He has (so it seems) done something that he said he absolutely wouldn’t do. So why? What was going on? Why did Jesus feed the 5,000? Why didn’t he just send them away as the disciples made it very clear that they thought he should? After all, people in Galilee were used to going without. It would have been no big deal. They would have cleared off back to Capernaum round the top of the lake with their tummies rumbling, and that would have been that. But Jesus was having none of it. Why?
The more I’ve looked at this story, the more I’ve seen that there were several things going on that actually made it imperative for Jesus to do what he did. And the clue to the first was in the opening words of our Gospel reading this morning – “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” So what had happened?
Well, what had happened was that King Herod had just beheaded Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. John’s disciples had buried the body and then come to tell Jesus the appalling news. So was Jesus in a state of grief? Yes, surely he was … but surely more than that. Surely he was thinking: “If the powers of this world do that to the herald – to the one who merely proclaimed my arrival – what will they do to me?” And this is not conjecture or supposition. If we go forward just a little way in Matthew, we read, “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things … and that he must be killed …”
If the fact that he would have to die had been only at the back of Jesus’ mind until this time, now it was well and truly at the front!
The second thing that was going on was that it was Passover time. John tells us so in his account of the feeding of the 5,000; and that too was in Jesus’ mind. Passover was the defining moment in Jewish history. It was when the angel of death had passed through the land of Egypt but had passed over the houses of the Israelites because, smeared on their doorposts, was the blood of the Passover lamb – a lamb that died so that those within the house might live. Passover was the night of freedom and liberty, when a nation of slaves became the people of God. And it seems to me that Jesus must have been asking himself at this time, “If I am to die as John the Baptist has just died, am I to die as a kind of Passover lamb?” He knew what his cousin John had said of him: “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And now he is thinking: “Is that what lies ahead … maybe just a year ahead?”
The third thing that was going on was the growing belief, throughout Galilee, that in him, Jesus, occupied Israel had found its new revolutionary leader; and there was a build-up of forces that now had either to be used or defused. All the gospels talk of 5,000 men who had come round the lake to where Jesus had retreated. As Matthew notes, there were women and children too, but it was mainly men. Why men? Why follow Jesus to where he was temporarily holed up in the Golan Heights?
Because the multitude that had come here to Jesus was an army looking for a commander … a potential guerrilla force that was ready, willing and able (so they thought) to take on the occupying armies of Rome … if only someone with the power and charisma of Jesus would stand at their head and cry “Freedom!” like Mel Gibson in Braveheart. The momentum was building. Galilee was a hot-bed of revolution. And everything Jesus did was increasing the temperature. So he had to do something about it … and that too must surely have been in his mind.
And last, but by no means least, there was the sheer lost-ness of the crowd in front of him … and indeed of the sea of humanity of which this multitude was just a token. An army without a commander? No … sheep without a shepherd, that’s how Jesus saw them. You sometimes hear people saying that Jesus fed the 5000 out of compassion because they were hungry. But, no, it doesn’t say that. Only Mark tells us why Jesus had compassion on the multitude and he says it was because they were lost … because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
So, putting all this together – the execution of John and the pointer it gave to Jesus’ own execution too, the proximity of Passover and the idea of a lamb dying for the freedom of the world, the building-up around him of a revolutionary force who were, in truth, just lost sheep needing a shepherd – putting all this together, Jesus took five barley loaves and two little pickled sardines and fed the entire multitude.
But hang on, you say. Surely that would only make things worse so far as the crowd-in-search-of-a-leader issue was concerned? Yes, it would … and it did … and it was meant to. According to John, the 5,000, once Jesus had fed them, were all set to take Jesus and make him king. But what did Jesus do? He turned his back on them and walked away, up into the hills. Having finally ignited the flame of rebellion, he blew it out. They would never try and make him their leader again. They had looked for a Barabbas and found a Jesus by mistake. They had shouted for the wrong man. Well … they would never make that mistake again.
So, all right – feeding the 5,000 solved the practical issue of bringing the crowds’ hopes of rebellion out into the open and then crushing those hopes; but what had the miracle to do with those other things that I have said were in the mind of Jesus at this time … the need for him to die, the lostness of the world?
To find the answer, let’s go back to the beginning of this miracle and see how Jesus approached it. “Taking the five loaves and the two fish” we are told, “and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples …” Sounds familiar? It should. It is the language of our Eucharistic prayers that speak of Jesus “who in the same night that he was betrayed, took bread and gave you thanks; he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take eat; this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
The crowd on that hillside by the eastern shore of Galilee would not understand it – not then – but they were participating in a kind of prequel to the sacrament of holy communion. There was, in the actions of Jesus, a looking-forward to the next Passover, one year later, when he would again take bread, for the last time, in the privacy of an upper room, and break it and give it to his disciples saying “This is my body, broken for you. Take, eat …”
Am I being fanciful? Not a bit of it. It’s all there in John’s gospel. There, when some of those who have eaten of the loaves and fishes at the feeding of the 5,000 catch up with Jesus back in Capernaum, he tells them: “I am the bread of life … Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day … He who feeds on this bread will live forever.”
John sees the feeding of the 5,000 as so much an anticipation of what Jesus did with the bread at the last supper that, in his gospel, he doesn’t record Jesus as doing anything with the bread and wine at the last supper. Nothing at all. It’s true! Read John 14, 15, 16 and 17 – four whole chapters devoted to the last supper – and you will find that there is no mention of the bread and the wine. Because, for John, the feeding of the 5,000 is the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine. For John, it is here, in the story of the feeding of the 5,000, that Jesus is spelling out, more clearly even than at the last supper, what his death is all about.
And it is about life for the world. In Jesus is life. Zoe. Real life. Life that pulses to the heartbeat of God. Life that death cannot destroy and that will endure throughout eternity. Eternal life. The kind of life that the men and woman and children in front of him – indeed all the men and woman and children in the whole wide world – should have, but don’t. Just as their bellies are empty so their souls are empty too. So how can they be filled?
Taking the barley loaves, Jesus shows us how. The loaves must be broken … and so must he. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” he tells those who have eaten of the loaves and fishes once they are all back in Capernaum. “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Let me just pause here for a moment because there may be some of you in church this morning for whom all this stuff about the bread of life is quite new. And you might be thinking: “If this is true, how can we eat the bread that is Jesus? What does that mean?” Well, I don’t think it can be put better or more simply than in the invitation we hear at the Eucharist: “Feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving.” Feed on him in your heart by faith as you come here to receive the bread and the wine this morning … or as you come to receive a blessing. But feed on him in your heart by faith too at home. Read the Bible. Pray. As the old hymn puts it: “Break thou the bread of life, dear Lord to me; as thou didst break the bread beside the sea. Beyond the sacred page, I seek thee Lord; my spirit longs for thee, thou living Word.” Feed on him in your heart by faith whenever Jesus is present to you in the sacraments, in the Word, in the Spirit, in his people. And you will have eternal life. You really will.
But back to the text … What I’ve been trying to say is that the feeding of the five thousand was, in fact, an enacted parable. It was a parable showing how, in Jerusalem a year later, Jesus would offer his body to God and how it would be broken on the cross to bring eternal life – the life of God – to this dying world. And for John, the feeding of the multitude by the shores of Galilee hammers that message home in a way that the feeding of the disciples at the last supper in Jerusalem doesn’t quite match.
So is that it then? Is that everything that this enacted parable is meant to teach? Well almost, but not quite. As I see it, it teaches one more thing that I must just touch upon before I close, because that one more thing is simply too important to be ignored. And it is this. The broken bread was carried not by Jesus himself but by the disciples to the hungry crowds. Jesus gave the pieces of broken bread to the disciples “and the disciples gave them to the people”. And nothing has changed. That is still the job that Jesus gives to each one of us. Our task, in whatever way we can, using whatever gifts God has given us, is still to distribute the bread of life to those around us. To share Christ crucified with a lost and empty world.
And if we are obedient in that, we shall, I know, find that the bread of life is not used up, and does not grow less, but is rather multiplied as we give it away … so that at the end, there are still twelve baskets left over – “twelve baskets full”. Twelve baskets full. Do you see the significance? There is a basket for each disciple. As each one – Andrew, James, Bartholomew, Thomas, Philip, Peter etc – set about his task of giving away the bread and fish, a basket of bread and fish was being filled for that disciple himself. How tempted each one must have been to just stop and satisfy his own hunger with what was in his hand, but perhaps, had he done so, that would have been the end of that. No more multiplying, no more increase … and certainly no basket full at the end of the day.
There is a serious point here and we will do well to heed it. You often hear Christians saying they are hungry and “needing to be fed”. You often hear churchgoers grumbling about “not getting much out of it”. And if I’m honest, I’ve done plenty of that myself. But then I have to ask myself whether my hunger, my dissatisfaction, has come about for no other reason but that I am not giving away the bread of life. Only when I share the broken bread of Christ crucified am I guaranteed to share in the abundance. St Paul says that God “gives seed to the sower and bread to eat.” To the sower, please note. It is as we give that we ourselves receive.
You know, in the days when I used to assist at the Eucharist, one of the things I loved most was pressing a wafer into outstretched hands and saying those wonderful words “The body of Christ.” But as I was writing this sermon it struck me that, in a way, I’ve never stopped doing that. Every day of my life, it’s my prayer that I will give away something of the Jesus I know and love to everyone I meet. That I will share Christ in some way with the world. And that is something that every single one of us who has a living relationship with Jesus has the privilege and the duty and the joy of being able to do. Even our “good mornings” and “Hi, how’ya doings” can be a way of saying “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for you, preserve your body and soul to everlasting life.” Every interaction we have with another human being can be and should be a way of sharing Jesus, the bread of life. Amen.