July 25, 2021 Ninth Sunday After Pentecost The text is John 6: 1-21.
1 Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I’ve been struggling to decide where to start a sermon based on this morning’s gospel; there’s just so much going on. Jesus withdraws up the mountain, the crowd follows him. The pious Jews are following Jesus even though they should be at home, preparing for the Passover Seder. Lots of grass to sit on; five barley loaves and two fish. Five thousand people, hungry for food, and for “signs”. Twelve baskets of leftovers after five thousand have had their fill. The crowd wants to forcibly make Jesus their king. Oh, and just to top it all off, Jesus walks on water. Like I said, where should we begin?
There are so many avenues this morning’s gospel reading might lead us down. There are the practical situations mentioned; the fact that this particular hillside had sufficient grass for all those people to sit down on. Let’s not forget that a large portion of the area around Galilee was desert or rather barren, hardscrabble ground. There was concern that this large group of people was probably hungry and brought little to no food for themselves. They had been following Jesus for quite some time and likely hadn’t thought about eating, as hungry as they were for his teaching. Phillip was worried about the cost of procuring food for so many people.
Then, the “signs”, as John refers to them throughout his gospel. These we think of today, as miracles, something supernatural. John’s use of Jesus’ “signs” is more deliberately focused. He wants his readers to understand that the miracles Jesus performed were “signs” that his power came from God, and that these works pointed to God’s miraculous abilities. And not that the feeding of five thousand people with two fish and five loaves of bread isn’t miraculous enough, we read that there were twelve basketfuls of bread left over. Oh, and there’s that walking on water thing that Jesus does.
And we also recognize the use of not-so-subtle biblical references; Jesus goes up the mountain, as did Moses. This story takes place near the Passover, the most holy of festivals for the Jewish people. The twelve baskets of leftovers; twelve tribes of Israel, and twelve disciples. Then the people want to make Jesus their king, in accordance with the Messianic prophesies.
And for good measure, as Jesus walks on the water, right up to the disciples’ boat he tells them not to fear. “It is I”, he says. Not unlike God’s revelation to Moses, to whom God says “tell the people ‘I am’ sent you”.
Like I said, what direction should we take when delving into this gospel account? After giving things a bit more thought I think focusing on the twelve leftover baskets of bread might, in fact encompass all three of the seemingly disparate categories we just covered. It’s a story of practicality in that hungry people were fed. It’s certainly a miraculous “sign” as John would call it. Unless this were truly a miracle, five thousand people couldn’t be fed with five loaves, leaving twelve baskets of leftovers. Then there are the obvious Hebrew Scripture allusions to twelve baskets and twelve tribes.
Jesus recognizes the deep needs of the people who have come to hear him preach, teach, and perform signs. He knows they need to hear his message of the coming kingdom of God, he is aware they need physical healing. But the pressing issue at hand is that they are hungry for sustenance right there, right away. So, before he tells of the good news of the coming kingdom, before he preaches a single word, he sees to it that the people’s immediate need is satisfied; he feeds them. Actually, the food distribution happens after he has the people sit down on the plentiful grass. Jesus makes sure that their basic needs are seen to before he shares his teaching with them. A comfortable place to sit and enough food to eat, so they may be fully engaged to hear his message. Jesus gives the people what they need, right before he gives them what they need.
There is a true universality in this story. The feeding of the 5,000 is the only account of a miracle that Jesus performed that is told in all four gospels. There is a bit of variation in the synoptics; that is Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In those three the disciples ask Jesus where they are to secure food for the people; in John, Jesus asks the disciples. Also, in the synoptics, the disciples do the actual distribution of the food. In John this morning Jesus himself dispenses the bread.
It’s generally accepted that John’s gospel is slightly different from the others in several ways, but mostly because it tends to be the most spiritual. It speaks more to the “signs”, the miracles that Jesus performed. John wants his readers to know that Jesus truly is the Christ, the Son of God. He uses the signs to point out this fact much more so that the other gospel writers. John also makes the greatest use of the “I Am” statements of Jesus, one of which we encountered this morning. This he does to assert definitively that Jesus is, in fact divine.
It’s interesting, I think that all of the spirituality, all the expressed holiness, the assertion of divinity, and the miraculous that interweave throughout this story; they all center on such a basic need. Satisfying hunger. Simple basic need of life. The need for food. It’s rather obvious why all four gospels recount this story. It’s the one that, in spite of all the other miracles, healings, Lazarus rising, and the rest, Jesus provides bread, basic sustenance to five thousand people. Christ is shown to be giving people the basic item they need to live, to survive.
We can also see an allegory here, a parallel with the Creation story that begins John’s gospel. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God. And the Word was God”. John tells us that Jesus was present at the beginning when the universe was created from nothing. Then in this morning’s reading we hear that Jesus now creates enough food for five thousand people from what amounted to almost nothing; five loaves and two fish. What lesson can be learned from all this talk of basic survival needs being met, miracles, and the creation of something from nothing?
Just this; God, in Christ Jesus is able to provide all that we need, from nothing, often without us even asking for or acknowledging it. This ALL that we need includes ALL that we need. From basic necessities such as food, water, and shelter, up to and including the miracles that constitute our existence. The earth’s atmosphere is just dense enough so that it doesn’t spin off into space, yet light enough that gravity isn’t able to pull it down to the surface. The planet tilts just enough to allow for seasons. Plants and trees utilize carbon dioxide and provide us with oxygen to breathe. Ocean tides happen because the moon tugs just a bit on the seas. All these are truly miraculous, God-made things.
The disciples asked Jesus in another story, “How should we pray?” The Lord’s Prayer includes the supplication, “Give us this day our daily bread”. Martin Luther reminds us that “our daily bread” indeed includes everything that God provides for us, all the things we just listed. From our basic daily needs to the miracle of creation made new at every sunrise, Jesus promises us that God will provide. It is reassuring, and a cornerstone of our faith that our Creator/Redeemer/Spirit God cares so much for us that all our needs will be met though God’s Grace.
So, we are given all that we need, just as the five thousand were. I said earlier that for me the twelve baskets of leftovers form the crux of this story. Did Jesus miscalculate the amount of bread needed to feed the crowd? Not likely; if he is able to create just enough, I don’t think he made a mathematical error, and made too much. No, I think these leftovers are at the very heart of this “sign” of Jesus’ divinity. While we are often quick to forget that all good things come from God, that in Christ we are provided all that we need, even more so we fail to recognize another fact. And this truth may be even more important in our understanding of who we are as members of God’s family. While we often remember, and are thankful that we always have enough, we sometimes forget that no matter how small the amount, there are always leftovers.
It’s what we do with these superfluous gifts that defines who we are. The mission of the church is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and be a place of shelter. These are the things this community, this assembly does as a unit. Through food donations to St. Agnes’ Guild, school supplies and backpacks, kits for the homeless, and the ministry of Emanuel’s Closet. These are examples of our collective leftovers. Clothing we’ve outgrown, more food than we really need, a few extra dollars at the end of the week to purchase socks and pencils.
These are wonderful examples of God providing us all we need, then by his grace, giving us our twelve baskets full of excess. These things are the basics, just like the bread and fishes Jesus distributed to the five thousand. Truly, there are many in desperate need.
But we are also capable of individually sharing the leftovers, the abundance we have of God’s grace. That limitless love that God shows us through the sacrifice of God’s very own Son. If God’s unmerited grace toward us has no limit, if there is so much that it can’t be contained, the least we can do is share this love with others. Imagine if every time we stop and remember something of God’s abundant gifts to us, we made it a point to share a little bit of the leftovers with another? A kind word, a smile, a gesture of understanding, a reassuring hand. God’s love may be manifest in these and a thousand other ways. If you’re not confident you have this ability within you, be assured of this; God makes sure you have an abundance of it. Twelve baskets full!
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, you have withheld nothing from us, your children. Send your Holy Spirit to remind us that no matter the circumstances, you ensure that there is always enough. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One whose example of the sacrifice of his life for us, taught us to share the abundance of the grace, love, and mercy we receive from you, with those around us. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.