Much from Little
9 Pentecost B
July 25/26, 2015
In the name of the one who is revealed to us in the things of the earth—who multiplies a boy’s packed lunch, and who tames the waters of the sea. Amen.
Phillip and Andrew were two of Jesus’ most faithful disciples. But they suffered from poor vision, nonetheless. They were so very nearsighted. Too bad they didn’t have any corrective lenses back then…but then again, in today’s gospel Jesus corrected their vision just fine, without any glasses or contact lenses.
Phillip and Andrew were unable to see beyond the fact that there was hardly any food available to feed 5000 people—except for one boy’s lunch. But let’s not be too harsh here—I bet that none of us would have been able to see beyond that kind of scarcity either. I surely wouldn’t have had the vision to do that. [And I think that we still get tripped up when we perceive scarcity. It makes us anxious, and we lose the big picture, sometimes. We lose our hope.]
Phillip and Andrew were stuck, because logically, the situation was grim. There was hardly any food for all those people. It would have cost a fortune to feed them, and they hardly had any cash. But they were forgetting the gifts of their teacher. They were blinded by the scarcity and unable to see the possibility and the vision that Jesus brought. They weren’t able to see that in times of scarcity, God is certainly able to bring abundance.
So that’s a very major theme in this gospel: scarcity and abundance. Another major theme concerns the identity of Jesus. Who IS this person?
So we too will be wondering and asking this question as we walk through this chapter of John’s gospel this summer. Actually, we plunge into chapter 6 and we stay there for 4 more weeks, considering the implications of what Jesus did there on the lakeshore, and asking the same questions that the disciples and the others asked.
Now I won’t pretend that sometimes it doesn’t feel like a slog to be asking these questions for 5 weeks total. But this year, I am bound and determined to have a better attitude about cooling my heels in this story and its aftermath for that long. I hope you’ll be with me as we make this journey together.
Did you know that the Feeding of the 5000 is the only story that shows up in all 4 gospels? Since the 4 versions were written by widely spaced geographical communities within the space of 30 or 40 years, that means it must have made quite an impression on the first generation of Christians. They must have seen it as central to the character of God, revealed to us in Jesus. So let’s take a closer look at it now, at what it might have to say for us now, in the 21st century.
So as we said earlier, the story starts off with human-perceived scarcity of resources. The scarcity is shown in even more relief when it’s realized that the only one with any food at all is a boy. And the food itself is humble: barley loaves were basically the least-common-denominator of breads…the cheapest and least desirable. But out of this sow’s ear, Jesus makes quite the silk purse.
First Jesus tells his disciples to ask the people to sit. There’s a nice detail here in the gospel—John tells us that there was “a great deal of grass” in that place. It’s an interesting aside / that evokes sheep in a pasture—it’s an interesting foreshadowing of Jesus’ dwelling on his role as the Good Shepherd. That will come some 4 chapters later in John’s gospel.
So Jesus takes the gift that the boy made of his lunch, and he does some actions here that prefigure the actions of the Last Supper and the actions of every Eucharist. He took the bread and the fish, gave thanks, and distributed it. He himself gave it out to the 5000 people there—not the disciples. He did it himself. And in the end we have this great reminder that there were 12 baskets of leftovers. Jesus had the disciples gather it all up—“so that nothing may be lost.” Again—this tells of his desire that nothing is lost—that no one be lost. And we can draw our own conclusions about what that might mean for humankind.
Now let’s look at what happens next. The people react by identifying Jesus as the prophet who was to come into the world. And he fled away to the hills so that they wouldn’t make him king. So here we see the realization in the people that Jesus indeed is someone very special. They identify him as a special human being, and yet they fall short of identifying his divinity. They’re not yet capable of realizing fully who he is.
So John puts this next interesting little story into the middle of the feeding story in order to make Jesus’ identity clear—to the disciples, at least. It’s the story of Jesus walking on water, over stormy waves and wind, walking toward the disciples in their boat in the middle of the night. Of course, they’re scared out of their wits when they see him. And what does he say to them? He says, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Well, this is an unfortunate translation of the Greek here. What Jesus really says—literally—is “I AM; do not be afraid.” The “I AM” is the sacred name of God, first spoken to Moses by God at the burning bush at Mount Horeb in the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula.
Jesus is saying—definitively—that he is God. He says, “I AM.” He also follows his statement with the command, “do not be afraid.” This command is given almost always in the Bible when people come into God’s overwhelming presence. And look at the context, too: Jesus walks on the water, and through the wind. Only God can do that. And the command of these elements echoes what happened at the Creation, in Genesis 1, with the Spirit of God hovering over the waters and bringing the ordered creation out from chaos.
So Jesus here is revealed to the disciples—and to us—as God incarnate, God in a human body. He works through the things of Earth to reveal his power and to bring order from chaos, to bring abundance from scarcity. He uses barley bread and dried fish, a chaotic sea and wind, water, wine, spittle, dirt. He is God come to us in ways we can understand and through things we know and encounter every day. God incarnate and fully inhabiting the earth.
MOVE to the chalice and paten. Church of the Multiplication, Tabgha. Mosaic and its lessons: one body, many members. All take their rightful place and function, all produce the one illustration of the 5 loaves and 2 fish. A symbol of abundance from scarcity, of God speaking through the things of earth to each of us.
How is God using things of earth to speak to us today?