Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Bombing raids in Europe during World War II left many children orphaned, lost, and afraid. Without anyone to provide for them, hunger was a real and threatening part of life for them. Fortunate children were rescued and put in refugee camps, but even these little ones were traumatized by what they had seen and experienced. No wonder it seemed like nothing prevented their nightmares or allowed them to sleep peacefully through the night. Finally, someone came up with the brilliant idea of sending every child to bed at night with a piece of bread to hold onto. It was a security blanket of sorts—if they awoke during the night they could touch the bread and remember, “I ate today, and I will eat again tomorrow.” It calmed the children in a deep way that reminds me of a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
These frightened children existed in a context not entirely unlike the one in John’s Gospel reading for today, centuries before. The people who had come to hear Jesus speak were also traumatized and afraid. They lived under occupation by the Roman Empire and witnessed the persecution and violent deaths of fellow citizens on a regular basis. Most were poor and hungry for literal food (it’s a significant detail in John’s story that the little boy had barley loaves in his lunch pail, since at that time only rich people ate wheat bread—poor people ate the inferior barley bread). The crowd would have included people who were hungry for more than bread too—many were aching for healing, for hope, for the kind of assurances all of us need—that they had worth and value, that God cared for them, that they were not alone. There are a wide variety of hungers that haunt God’s people in every time and place, and God knows just how to address each one.
All four Gospel writers tell the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (and Matthew even tells it twice!), but each one has its own peculiar details. Since we’ll be reading from John’s Gospel for the next five weeks, I think it’s important to pay attention to some elements that are unique to John’s story of Jesus feeding the multitude. We should notice, for starters, that in John’s Gospel, Jesus is the first one to express concern about the crowd’s hunger. He doesn’t wait for the disciples to point it out, the way it happens in the other Gospels. And after Jesus himself notes that the people are hungry, he doesn’t ask the disciples to feed the crowd, as he does in Mark, Luke, and Matthew’s versions of this story. Here, Jesus feeds the people–all the people–himself. This is a sign in a Gospel full of signs, a neon-bright arrow that points us toward the vitally important message John wants to share about Jesus: Jesus knows all our needs, and Jesus alone can satisfy them.
For John, Jesus is always the Good Shepherd, always making sure that the sheep are led to green pastures where they can safely graze while the shepherd stands guard. Maybe that’s why John makes a point of telling us that today’s food miracle took place where there was “a great deal of green grass” for the people to sit on. Maybe Jesus wanted his disciples to think back to this moment when, following his resurrection, he cooks breakfast for them, and then asks Peter to tend his lambs. Maybe Jesus hoped that they (and we) would recall how he modeled for us what that kind of loving looks like—offering green grass to the wandering sheep, offering the security of a bit of bread to people who have nightmares of being without it. As the Psalmist puts it, “You open wide your hand and satisfy the desire of every living creature.”
Certainly John reinforces his point about Jesus meeting all our needs by connecting the story of Jesus with two important ancient stories that his audience would have known. One was today’s OT reading from 2 Kings about the prophet Elisha. John wanted his hearers to recall the earlier story, a story in which the prophet was able to feed a crowd of people with just a few barley loaves, so he throws in a few details to trigger their memories. He matches the skeptical servant asking, “with this we’re going to feed 100?” by including the disciple Andrew’s skepticism about the little boy’s bread and two fish not being enough to satisfy all the hunger around them. Both John’s Gospel and the story from 2 Kings show how God can take a what looks like nothing much, bless it, and offer it to a multitude–and amazingly still have baskets full of leftovers! It wasn’t just in the person of Jesus that God began providing abundantly for God’s people. The author of John wants God’s people to see the marvelous truth that God has always been with and for them in times of need.
The other iconic story from the Hebrew Scriptures that John invites us to bring to mind is the story of Passover. Passover marked the beginning of the exodus from Egypt, a time when, just before God liberated God’s people from slavery, they were encouraged to eat a sacred meal together. John makes a point of telling us that Jesus feeds the crowd around the time of the Passover, which none of the other Gospel writers do. He wants people to remember that God does not leave us alone when we are making difficult transitions. Even when the move is a good one—like the move from slavery to freedom—heading into the unknown can be scary and threatening. So before anything else, God makes sure the people’s bellies are full, their sandals are on their feet, and they are equipped for the journey ahead.
This is also exactly why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper here each week. Because being disciples is not easy and predictable work. Trying to live authentic, honorable lives that mirror Christ’s life can be challenging and scary, filled with uncertainties. So Jesus makes sure we are fed, makes sure we hear that he himself is taking care of us, reminds us we are all in this together, and that God will go with us each step of the way. That might involve a sign as conspicuous as a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day, or perhaps as subtle as a fragment of bread we hold in our hands, a token that God will always provide for us. “We have eaten today, and we will eat again tomorrow.” Jesus even asks that the leftovers be gathered up so that nothing may be lost. Everything and everyone is precious in God’s sight.
It would be nice if the story ended when everyone had a full belly, not to mention leftovers, but people are not like that. Even after receiving great blessings, gifts beyond our wildest dreams, we live in fear that tomorrow we won’t have enough—enough bread, enough money, enough friends, enough courage, enough health, enough beauty, enough whatever it is. And when we get scared, we clamor for whatever we imagine will make us feel safe. People are just like that. So the crowd clamored for Jesus to be their king, to give them more than enough every day. Jesus has just met the crowd’s material needs, and certainly material needs are important, but Jesus didn’t come to establish a new political regime. Jesus didn’t come to ensure that our lives would never be scary. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he tells Pilate. Jesus came to reveal that God’s essential character is loving, and God’s essential desire is to be available to all people in every land, every community at all times. The kingdom of God is not restricted to a political party; it is not a regime. It is a way of harmony and peace. So Jesus walks away from the box the crowd wants to put him in and retreats to a mountain alone.
No wonder the very next thing that happens to the disciples is that they get caught in a storm. That’s the way things often go, isn’t it? Just when we feel like we’ve got all our ducks in a row, some big wave comes and threatens to swallow up everything. Even if we’ve just witnessed a miracle, sometimes in the midst of a storm we begin to doubt that God will really provide for us. We suspect that if God really loved us, really cared what happened to us, we wouldn’t be in that predicament. We suspect that if we really were God’s special people, we would not encounter cruel enemies, violent weather, or any kind of need. The disciples seem to think that if trouble is present, then God must not be.
Once again the Gospel of John urges us to turn away from our fear and toward the Scriptures, for here we find story after story of God in the very midst of chaos! John might now might be pointing us toward the story of God parting the Red Sea for the Israelites as they are running away from the Egyptians. For suddenly, there is a vast body in front of them and a thundering army behind them, and God makes a way out of no way. Today, when it looks like all is lost, among the waves the disciples glimpse Hope—which is to say, Jesus. How can we keep forgetting that God is ALWAYS where the trouble is? When fear holds us captive, and we feel God might be at work elsewhere around the world, but not in our own homes or heart, Jesus comes to us. When our faith curls up into a little ball and huddles on the floor, Jesus walks over the waves toward us.
Knowing his friends are in distress, Jesus calls out to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Or, translated another way, we hear an echo of God’s promise to Moses from the burning bush: “I AM. Don’t be afraid.” Could there be a sweeter sound? In the midst of tumult, to hear the sound of someone we love assuring us that we are not alone? And suddenly the disciples become aware that they have arrived, safe and sound.
This is the Good News, my friends! God is all-powerful, almighty, and eternal! God IS! Just as God delivered God’s people long ago from the Red Sea, from starvation, from persecution, from an army, from slavery, from storms, God can and will do so again. God WAS and GOD IS and GOD WILL BE! Do not be afraid. We have eaten today and we will eat again tomorrow. Cling to the Bread of Life with both hands, knowing that God is with us when we lack courage, ahead of us when we fear the future, and beside us in the storms and the nightmares, holding us, even when we don’t feel it.
And since we rest in the certainty that God was and is and always will be with us, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to follow where Jesus leads. We can radically embrace the poor, to give bread to the hungry, support to the sick and the sad, and welcome to the outcasts. We are able to hear and obey the command Jesus gives to his followers: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep.” Jesus may not provide political stability, but with Jesus by our sides, we can endure any storms that come. There is no Biblical promise that believing in God and following God’s call will keep us safe. But there is this promise: “It is I. I AM. Don’t be afraid.”
Hold onto that crust of bread as I pray for you the prayer we heard today from Ephesians: “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
~Pastor Susan Schneider