After this, Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias). A large crowd kept following him because they had seen the signs that he was performing on the sick. But Jesus went up on a hillside and sat down there with his disciples.
Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When Jesus looked up and saw that a large crowd was coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where can we buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, who was Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There’s a little boy here who has five barley loaves and two small fish. But what are they among so many people?”
Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was plenty of grass in that place. So the men sat down, numbering about 5,000. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were seated. He also distributed the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were completely satisfied, he told his disciples, “Collect the pieces that are left over so that nothing is lost.” So they collected them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they kept saying, “Truly this is the Prophet who was to come into the world!” Then Jesus, realizing that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, withdrew again to the hillside by himself.
Our Gospel reading is John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000 – a familiar story and one that seems particularly relevant to our community in Dulwich Hill.
For if you look up at the front of our church building you will see an enormous stained-glass window, depicting the very scene we read about. There’s Jesus, the disciples, and the little boy with his loaves and his fish!
Now, if you’ve been following the Bible readings as we read them week by week in church, you probably remember that last week we also read an account of what seemed to be the same feeding miracle, as recorded in Mark chapter 6, though it was a much briefer account, sandwiched in between stories of Jesus teaching and His walking on the water. Here, in John’s Gospel, we get a much more drawn out account.
Why the difference, you might ask? Well my guess is that in the case of today’s reading, which is by far the more long and complex account, the difference is that the author was actually there when it all happened, whereas Mark was getting the story second-hand, and so John recounts the story in much more detail!
And so we get all the details about the dialogue that went on between Jesus and His disciples, the boy with his meagre lunch, and my favourite detail in the story the grass!
“Now there was plenty of grass in that place. So the men sat down” (vs. 39)
The implication of course is that if there hadn’t been much grass (if the terrain had been all rocks and dirt) they would have eaten standing!?
Well it sounds to me like one of those details that’s remembered by someone who was there, and who found the whole experience unforgettable, and it must have been an unforgettableexperience.
Perhaps John, right into his dotage, used to lie awake at night, replaying that scene in his head and asking himself again and again, “how did He do that?”
No doubt he remembered the sense of bewilderment he felt when Jesus initially asked him and his mates, “Where are we going to buy bread for these people?!”
No doubt he remembered Andrew, Peter’s brother, fronting up with the boy who had offered to contribute his paltry meal of loaves and fish.
No doubt he was a little confused himself at first when he was asked to help organise the massive crowd into organised groups on the grass, so that they could all be fed in an orderly fashion.
And then he watched in amazement as Jesus started praying, breaking and distributing, and the more it went on, the more he tried to focus on where the food was coming from, but perhaps it was all just too confusing at the time, and perhaps he had no idea how much had really been passed around until they eventually took up the collection of the baskets full of food left over!
It must have been a very memorable event, and that, I assume, is why John goes into such detail when he retells this story. And that is probably why also this is the only miracle that Jesus did that gets recounted in all four of the Gospels – because it was such a memorable event!
And presumably that’s why people like us continue to build stained-glass windows that retell this story once again – because it is such a memorable, picturesque, heart-warming story, even though it must have been the most trivial miracle Jesus ever performed!
I mean … Jesus used to raise the dead, He cleansed lepers, He made the blind see and the lame to walk, and He forgave sins! Where does making sure everybody gets a good meal before they go home fit in alongside that?
Now, I don’t want to detract at all from the importance of seeing that people are fed, but there is no indication in John’s account that the people were starving by any means.
No doubt it had been a long day, and no good host wants to send people home late at night, tired and hungry, but we have to be honest here and recognise that the needs of these people for food was relatively trivial compared to the needs of so many others who came to Jesus for healing and wholeness.
I know I’ve been criticised by a lot of Christian people over the years for my work in raising funds to combat world poverty. They say, “what’s the use of buying food for the poor when they are only going to get hungry again? Why not feed their souls with the ‘bread of salvation’ that will feed them for eternity?” Now I find that sort of question irritating, but of couse there is some sense in it!
One of my Twitter followers wrote to me the other day and said, “What are you on about – human sexuality, peace in the Middle East, or saving souls?” I replied to her, “If you’ve worked out a way of caring for people’s souls without looking after their minds and bodies, please let me know”. Perhaps you might think I was being too dismissive, for I accept that she had a point. Not all human needs are equal. Some needs are greater and more significant than others. And Jesus Himself certainly recognised that!
In that story of the paralysed man who Jesus healed (in Matthew chapter 9), Jesus both made the lame man to walk and forgave him his sins, and it is quite clear that Jesus considered the forgiveness of his sins to be the far more significant form of healing that the man experienced!
And in the case of this very feeding miracle, even Jesus Himself later downplayed its significance!
In the story immediately following our passage today from John chapter 6, we see Jesus encounter the same crowd again, and Jesus lays into them, saying: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life” (John 6:26-27)
In other words, Jesus said ‘You guys are only here for another feed! Get over it! Realise that you have deeper and more important needs!’
Yes, Jesus Himself downplayed the significance of His own feeding miracle. And in truth, there was little outstanding about this miracle. It wasn’t even a particularly good meal!
The entire fare, you remember, seems to be derived from this one boy with his five loaves and two fish, and the fish are not the finest John Dory, such as we would find served up the finest of Sydney restaurants.
This is one of those rare instances where knowing the original Greek text actually helps with your preaching on a passage, as there are two words in Greek for fish – a little word for a big fish and a big word for a little fish, and this word is the big word for the little fish. In other words, we’re talking sardines here! This was a peasants meal.
Contrast Jesus’ turning the water into wine (in John 2) where the steward is depicted as saying’this wine is the best we’ve had the entire party’. No one is saying anything like that after this meal – ‘Oh my God, that was the most exquisite sardine I think I’ve ever tasted!’
No! It was a peasants lunch. It filled them up, it kept them going. It probably had decent nutritional value, but the food itself doesn’t seem to have been anything that would have got a mention on’Master Chef’.
And so we have this miracle through which Jesus didn’t seem to contribute anything particularly significant to the greater scheme of things, that got Him into trouble (as people responded by wanting to make Him king by force) and which Jesus Himself must have anticipated would prove unhelpful in some ways to many in the crowd who would treat it as mere entertainment. And yet the amazing thing is the truly amazing thing is He does it anyway!
Jesus feeds the hungry! Why? Because they will die if they don’t eat? No! Because some great calamity will befall the world if they are not fed? No! Because this meal will somehow lead them to their eternal salvation? Not necessarily! Jesus feeds the hungry … because they are hungry!
Despite the fact that it was not their deepest, most enduring, spiritual need, He feeds them anyway! Why? Because He cares! And He cares about the little things as well as the big things!
This is the Jesus whom we worship. This is the Jesus – the visible image of our invisible God. This is the Jesus through whom we have a knowledge of God our creator – Jesus, the one who forgives us our sins and brings us salvation, but also Jesus who wants to make sure that we don’t go to bed on an empty stomach!
This is Jesus through whom we see our true Heavenly Father in action, caring for us as only a parent can – caring for us in the big things, but making sure too that we have band-aids on all our cuts, and that we’ve packed our jumper and our play-lunch before we head off to school!
This is Jesus, our healer, saviour and sanctifier, who wants to bring us forgiveness of our sins, wants to see us healed deep-down within, but who is also concerned (deeply concerned) to see us work through our sexual identity issues, who is committed (deeply committed) to seeing peace break out in the middle East, and who wants to make sure that each of us gets a good three square meals per day!
This is the Jesus we meet in John Chapter 6, feeding the five thousand. Despite the fact that His miracle would be misunderstood. Despite the fact that feeding these people would get Him into trouble. And despite the fact that seeing that their bellies were full was not the most important thing He could do for them Jesus fed them anyway, and it was an unforgettable experience!
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, July 2009.