by the Rev. Robert C. Laird
The Gospel today, with its story of feeding the multitudes, is the only miracle story that is included in each of the four Gospels.
This is truly significant; the Resurrected Jesus doesn’t even show up in all of the four Gospels (in case you’re wondering, Mark makes reference to Jesus’ resurrection in the short ending of his Gospel, but Jesus isn’t actually there.)
The miraculous feeding of multitudes actually shows up six times in the four books: the miracle so nice, Jesus did it twice.
This miracle must have been a tremendously important story to the early Church for it to show up in each of the Gospels; and there’s true depth for us to explore this morning in this Gospel story.
And the story we just heard is truly miraculous, it’s the electricity that lights the filament in a light bulb; the miracle is what makes this story glow,
and shines the light for us to see by.
Though the light that shines the brightest this morning isn’t the fact that all those people were fed: rather, it is in showing us God’s love.
Let’s set the stage again, briefly: It’s been a long day for Jesus and the disciples. They’ve just learned that John the Baptizer has been beheaded, and Jesus, in his grief, needs some time to clear his head, so he takes off in a small boat, to a deserted place.
But the crowd follows him; Jesus can’t get a moment’s peace, because the crowds need him so much.
He’s been healing the crowds, he’s been inspiring the crowds, and he’s been loving the crowds; and because Jesus has been doing all this, those crowds just can’t leave him alone.
Most of us, were we there in Jesus’ place, would have found this frustrating; but the first miracle of the story today was that Jesus had compassion on them. Beset by the crowd who had gathered at the shore, Jesus is moved, has compassion on the crowd, and begins to heal them.
This is God’s love: Jesus sets aside his own grief, overwhelmed by his compassion for these people, and begins to heal them.
God’s love for us is big, so big, in fact, that even when Jesus is grieving, love wins out, and Jesus heals the sick gathered there.
In fact, Jesus is always about compassion and love, not just here in this story, but always, every time, Jesus always picks love; love always wins. And remember, the folks that are following Jesus around aren’t the wealthy and affluent; Jesus is opting for the poor, for the sick, and the people at the margins, and choosing to be with them, to love them, to give himself to them even when he himself is troubled by John’s beheading.
Part of the Christian life is learning to follow Jesus’ example, and to make choices in our lives that imitate Jesus more and more, and opting for the poor is a big part of what Jesus is about.
We, as souls in the world, are each called to living Christ-like lives, learning from the example Jesus set for us in his earthly ministry, and Jesus is giving a master class today: sometimes, when we least want to, we have to step up and care for others who need us, even when it’s hard, even when it’s nearly impossible.
And the disciples got that one wrong today, as you might notice; they wanted to send the poor away, but Jesus opted to have them stay. Christ’s opting for the poor, his choosing to focus his energy on those people, and their needs and problems shows us a lot about what it means to be one of Jesus’ disciples.
And that’s the second amazing thing in today’s Gospel: Jesus is revealing to his disciples a significant part of what their calling is. And it’s so beautiful and understated, we often blow right by it when we’re reading, because we want go get to figuring out how he did the loaves and fishes trick.
The disciples, who are just as grief-stricken and concerned as Jesus is, ask Jesus to send the crowd away, since it’s getting late, and they’ll need food. The disciples don’t want to deal with the crowd, so they use a sneaky gambit in talking to Jesus: “You know, Jesus, you should really send these folks away; we’d hate for them to not get any food, since the day is getting short…”
And an amazing thing happens: Jesus tells them, “The crowd doesn’t need to leave: YOU can feed them.”
The Disciples are charged with feeding the crowd: it’s the Disciples that feed the crowd, not Jesus.
Now admittedly, Jesus has a big part in it: He shows them how its done. But the responsibility for feeding the crowd lies with the Disciples.
This is one of those times when Jesus is talking to the Disciples gathered there, and also talking to all the disciples gathered here.
We’re charged with doing Christ’s work:
WE feed the hungry,
WE visit the prisoners,
WE heal the sick,
as disciples, as Christians.
As we are able to live lives that imitate Christ, and make our lives more and more about showing Christ’s love to everyone, making his healing known, and bringing Good News to the poor, we are living the charge that he gives us: “There’s no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.”
And finally, the most remarkable lesson, the piéce de résistance, is that the Holy Spirit can truly work through us to make miracles happen.
The Disciples didn’t believe; they were skeptical,they had their doubts. And Jesus says, bring me the loaves and the fish, and he asks God’s blessing upon them: Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” Jesus asks God to bless the food, and God does, in fact, bless the food, and blesses it so abundantly that there are twelve baskets of leftovers.
When we need God to show up, God is there, blessing everything: blessing you, and me, and our food, and our work, and our love, and our lives, lived in the world, our lives that show God’s blessing to everyone, our lives that live the Love of God.
This story shows up in the four Gospels SIX TIMES, with Jesus telling the Disciples “YOU give them something to eat,” and the people are fed.
How often do we approach life in the exact opposite way that Jesus does?
It’s so easy for us to hear that call, “Give them something to eat,” but be overwhelmed by how great the need is, and how scarce our resources are. It’s easy for us to think “It’s impossible; I can’t do this thing Jesus has asked of me.”
But we see in today’s Gospel,
all we need to do is say “yes,”
all we need to do is show up,
and say yes,
and God can do the rest for us.
God has a handle on this situation; this is not beyond God’s ability, making food where there was none; and if we show up, and follow Christ’s lead,
God can do amazing things through us, too.
That’s another part of being a disciple: Trusting God, even though we think something is impossible; actually, especially when we think something is impossible. It’s a hard thing, trusting God like that. It’s a lot easier to trust ourselves, even through we’re not as trustworthy as we’d like to think we are. But we often want to rely on ourselves, especially in our cultural context, here in the United States. We like to think that we are responsible for our fate, and that we are the reason we have good things, and if the multitude of folks are going to get fed, it’s because we took charge and got things done.
But that’s not the lesson from today’s Gospel,
or from ANY Gospel lesson, for that matter;
when we work together,
and listen for God’s leading,
and ask for God’s blessing,
God can break through to reach us
in the most amazing ways.
That’s not to say that it’s always like this, asking God’s blessing and then getting baskets of bread.
After all, Jesus himself had his share of pain and suffering, and a death on the cross, and a tomb; it’s not necessarily easy, but it is absolutely worth the cost.
You can see how, I hope, why at the beginning of our time today I said that the most important parts of the Gospel today weren’t the actual feeding. We could focus on the bread and the fish, and wonder about how it happened, and speculate on what was really going on, and how all those people got fed; but that question is so far down the list that it’s not worth looking at: the story doesn’t address how the miracle happened, and that it happened and how seem to be much smaller questions than why it happened, and what it means for us.
Jesus took the opportunity that presented itself today to teach his disciples about what discipleship means, both the disciples there on the lakeshore,
and the disciples here at the table. Jesus showed us how big God’s love is, how it’s big enough for everyone, especially the people who have the least.
Jesus showed us whose job it is to feed the crowds, and showed us whose job it is to spread the good news, and to get out there and do the work
in Christ’s name. And Jesus showed us how God will bless us if we ask it, even though it may hurt, even though we may be skeptical, even though we may not understand.
Jesus sat at the table with his friends and with the people who needed him most, and we’re still filling baskets with all the leftovers,
Thanks be to God.