Series: “Taste and See”
#4: Multiplying God’s Love (communion version)
John 6:1-15 (NRSV)
By John Gill
Every time a pastor is appointed to a new church, he or she inherits certain traditions and customs started by their predecessor – programs that may be wonderful, but ones that the new pastor probably would not have begun if it had been up to him or her. I know that has been true for me at every new appointment I have received.
When I went to my first solo appointment back in 1990 when I was assigned to First UMC Gulfport, near St. Petersburg, I experienced this situation for the first time. That church had some unique programs (as each congregation does), that I had to adapt to. Not that these activities were bad – in fact, for the most part, they were very good. But there was one that caused me to groan out loud when I first learned about it.
That community is on the Boca Ciega Bay south of St. Petersburg. The congregation had the practice of gathering at a picnic shelter near the waters-edge for an informal Bible study – every Monday morning at 7:00 a.m.! At that time in my life, my alarm didn’t even go off until after 7:00 a.m.! And yet, every Monday morning, I had to get up before sunrise, and drag myself down to the beach, ready to function before breakfast! It was a real shock to my system!
But you know, I came to treasure those times. The custom was that the first few minutes, we would discuss the people’s reaction to the sermon I had preached the day before. Then we would read the scripture for the following Sunday and discuss what it might be saying to each of us. It was wonderful to get the feedback on the message I had preached the day before, but it was especially valuable to hear the insights of folks as I was beginning to think about the next sermon! Who knows – maybe we should start doing something like that here!
I bring that up because, it was at one of those early morning Bible studies on the beach that I began to think of our scripture we have read this morning in a slightly different light. The scripture for the following Sunday happened to be this very passage we have read a moment ago. I began our study of the Feeding of the 5000, prepared to discuss the amazing miraculous power of Jesus to take those few loaves and fishes in his hands and multiply them so that everyone was fed. I was going to talk about the provision of God to supply all our needs. That’s the meaning of the passage as I saw it, and I assumed that everyone else was getting the same meaning I was from the story.
But one gentleman who had read the text for himself stopped me. He had a different interpretation. And, for the rest of the time, we began to discuss his understanding of this “miracle,” one that wasn’t dependent on supernatural explanations. As he read the story, he saw it as something of an acted-out parable that was intended to teach us something about what it means to live as Kingdom people – relating to others as God intends. I was skeptical, but intrigued. That morning was an “ah-ha” moment for me. Suddenly I realized that there were multiple ways to read the same verses of scripture, and it was OK to draw a variety of lessons from them. Even if someone else interpreted a passage differently from the way I did, could still learn from them. Let me explain.
Throughout the long history of the Church, most Christians have interpreted this story the way I had been: it was a miraculous and unexplainable multiplication of that little boy’s lunch in Jesus’ hands so that 5000 men and their families were able to eat their fill, with a surplus left over. I have never doubted that it was within the power of Jesus to do just that, and to this day, I still prefer this traditional interpretation of the Feeding of the 5000. If God can create the world and raise the dead, he can certainly multiply a few fish and loaves.
But in more recent generations, there has been an attempt by some scholars to de-mystify the Bible to try to find naturalistic ways to explain and to understand the miracles described there. I suppose it is inevitable that people would want to find ways to explain the unexplainable. And much of this effort to make sense of the miraculous has led to a broader understanding of the text. But this movement within Biblical scholarship has also caused some people to reject all divine intervention in the world – a few scholars even arguing that the Resurrection itself must be understood metaphorically or symbolically, rather than as a literal coming to life of a corpse. They deny the literal Resurrection of Jesus! I just can’t agree with those scholars!
While higher-critical analysis of the Biblical text has yielded a wealth of rich insights into the meaning of the scriptures, I believe it is foolhardy, even dangerous, to summarily reject all miracles, implying that the witnesses who reported them were either easily duped, or downright dishonest. Certainly, the overwhelming testimony of the first witnesses to the ministry of Jesus is that Jesus was indeed a miracle-worker who has the power to command nature, heal the sick, and raise the dead. So, it was easily within his ability to feed a crowd.
But having said that, I believe that it is still worth listening to those like that man in my Bible study who see a less supernatural explanation to this miracle of the Feeding of the 5000.
And on this Saturday/Sunday, as we continue to reflect on Holy Communion, it is worth considering what lessons we might learn from this text about another “blessing of the bread,” the Lord’s Supper.
For the sake of argument, humor me a little bit. Let me share with you what my friend at that Bible study said to our group. He asked: What if this miracle in the story, at least as John reports it, is not that Jesus performed a magic act to feed the crowd. What if the point the gospel writers are trying to make is about life in the Kingdom of God? What if the miracle was that, when Jesus received a little boy’s innocent gift and lifted it for all to see, people in the crowd were inspired, not to hoard the food they had brought with them, but begin to share it with others? What if the miracle is not what happened to five loaves and two fish, but what happens to us when we begin to live lives of generosity?
And, what if the miracle of Holy Communion is NOT that Jesus “turns the bread and wine into his body and blood…” …what if the miracle is what happens to US when we BECOME his “body” broken and poured out for the sake of the world?
Let’s take a moment to reflect on this story from this alternative perspective:
The text tells us that Jesus had developed quite a reputation and attracted larger and larger crowds. Most of these were not disciples, not even followers. They were curiosity-seekers, flocking to hear Jesus preach and hoping to witness one of the fantastic miracles he preformed every place he went. They were simply inquisitive.
That means they were a multitude of strangers – individuals who set out on their own or in small groups to join the throng on that hillside. They deliberately journeyed into the countryside for miles in order to spend the day with Jesus – certainly they would have thought to bring provisions with them. And yet, the text seems to imply that no one had broken out their picnic baskets yet, when it was getting past time for them to be eating.
So, when Jesus took note of the crowd, according to Johns account, he asks his disciples, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat? Philip, who was the disciple who took care of the funds, threw up his hands, saying it was impossible. There wasn’t enough money to go to one of the villages and purchase food for such a mob – the crowd was too big, the task was too hard – it couldn’t be done. And Jesus thought to himself, “Oh yeh? Just sit back and watch!”
Now, this is where John’s Gospel relates the story a little differently from the first three Gospels. It is John who tells us that the loaves and fishes came from a young boy’s lunch. You know, John’s gospel doesn’t say how that little boy came to the attention of Andrew. Did Andrew notice the boy’s lunch and draft him. Did Andrew have so much faith that Jesus could do anything that he grabbed the boy by the arm and dragged him before Jesus, saying, “Rabbi, here’s a little boy’s lunch – I’m sure that you can do something miraculous with it!” No. Andrew’s attitude is completely negative – devoid of faith. “This kid has a little food, but what’s the point – it’s just a drop in the bucket!”
My friend suggested that it may have happened like this: This youngster may have overheard the conversation between Jesus and his disciples about being hungry, looked down at his meager lunch, and decided to offer to share it with Jesus. Did that little boy believe Jesus would miraculously multiply it to feed the whole crowd? – I doubt it. As an innocent little child, he just has a generous heart. And Jesus was impressed!
So, he took the boy’s offering and held it high above his head for all to see. And, even though no one in the crowd had as-of-yet broken open their picnic basket, Jesus said grace for the meal. Perhaps those in the crowd were so humbled by the little boy’s generous gesture that they began to share the food they had brought with the strangers around them, and there was plenty for all, and then some! At least that’s how my friend saw this text.
So how did it happen? – a miracle of bread or a miracle of brotherhood? – a multiplication of fish or a multiplication of love? I must confess that I don’t know the facts of what took place that day on a hillside in Galilee. But I do know this: Whichever way you want to understand it, there is a powerful spiritual truth we can learn.
The traditional understanding of this story reminds us that we can trust God with what little we have, knowing that God will not only meet our needs, but will shower blessings on us, far more than we can even imagine! That’s great news!
But this alternative reading also contains good news: When we share what we have with others, a true miracle takes place: there is enough for all – no one goes hungry! That’s ALSO good news! And, not only are everyone’s basic needs met, but there is a super-abundance – a fabulous surplus. If only we could all learn the truth of this Kingdom-principle and apply it, our world would be a very different place!
Today the theme of our message is “Multiplying God’s Love,” and I’m sure by now you have gotten the point of our morning’s scripture. We can choose to be like those in the multitude, following Jesus on the fringe; curious by-standers, standing alone in the crowd, clutching tightly onto what is ours. Or we can be like the young boy who trusted Jesus enough to share whatever he had, so that Jesus might use it to be a blessing to others. One way reflects doubt, the other reflects trust in God. One way reflects a mindset of scarcity, the other a mindset of plenty. One way sees only impossibility, the other sees that in Christ all things are possible. It all depends on whether or not we are willing to offer Jesus what we have so that he can bless it – and bless us.
God had promised that, whenever we offer him our hearts, His love shining through us will grow exponentially and be a blessing to others.
One of my favorite children’s stories is the story of Stone Soup, a tale very much like our scripture this morning. It’s a story with a powerful lesson that teaches us about what can happen when we have a spirit of giving.
In the story, a stranger came to a village, claiming that he could make the most delicious soup out of a pot of water and a magic stone. The people scoffed at the idea, but the man built a fire, drew water from a well for the pot, and tossed in his magic stone. As he stirred the pot, a crowd began to gather. “Ummm. . .” the man said, as he sniffed the boiling water. “This soup is coming along nicely. All it needs is one small onion, and it will be perfect.” “I have an onion I’ve been saving for something special,” an old lady said, as she rushed off to retrieve the onion. When she returned, the man chopped up the onion, and threw it into the pot. Then he said, “If only we had a few potatoes and carrots, that would make it fantastic. “I’ve got potatoes, one man replied.” “And I have a carrot or two,” a young mother added. Soon the potatoes and carrots were bubbling away. And so it went . . . one by one the people of the village went to their homes and gathered vegetables, meats, and spices to add to the pot. Finally, the stranger declared the soup finished, and everyone in the village sat down to enjoy a fabulous feast.
It’s a wonderful story. But, you know, a church is a lot like making Stone Soup. We start with an empty pot, and then we ask people to add something to the soup. Each member of our congregation is asked to contribute something unique and precious to the mix, And, as every member’s contribution is added, the soup becomes heartier and more satisfying. But it can only be declared perfect when everyone has offered their best. Only then will there be enough to go around – and more than enough to share with others. Only then will it be fit for a feast!
We read John’s version of the Feeding of the 5000, but the first three Gospels also tell their own versions of this miracle. John’s version is often preferred by folks because he tells us the sweet detail that it was a little boy’s lunch that Jesus blessed. But there is one detail that the first three Gospels include that John does not – and in closing, I think it’s worth mentioning.
In the first three Gospels, it is the disciples, not Jesus, who first brings up the need to send away the crowds so that they can find food. And when they do, Jesus looks squarely at his disciples and says “They don’t need to go away. YOU give them something to eat.”
Was Jesus just kidding with them when he said that? Or was he serious? Was it a suggestion? Or was it a command?
It seems like a small thing in the story, easily overlooked. But I suspect it is the key to understanding the meaning of the miracle that follows. There are vast multitudes of people today
who are hungry for spiritual nourishment. If they are to be fed, it is up to us to “feed” them. We have the “bread” that gives life to the world – we have the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s up to us whether we will do as Jesus asks of us and feed them, or let the multitude starve.
So, I ask you again – is this miracle a miracle of bread? Or a miracle of brotherhood? A multiplication of fish? Or a multiplication of love?
Either way, that day on a hillside in Galilee, Jesus made Stone Soup to feed a multitude. And as his Body in the world today, he challenges us to do the same.
In a few moments, we will be remembering another occasion when Jesus lifted a loaf, blessed it, broke it, and gave it for all to share. Jesus blesses the bread so that, through our sharing, WE may become a blessing to one another, and to the starving “multitudes” who surround our little church.
As Jesus said to his disciples – and to us: “The people don’t need to go hungry – YOU give them something to eat!”