Why go to church? Why do we gather here week after week? We could be sleeping in. We could by enjoying brunch. We could be reading or hiking or doing any one of a long list of things that pass as leisure activities in today’s San Francisco. We could even be doing chores. Instead, we’re here. Why?
Today’s Gospel story about Jesus feeding the 5,000 can help us answer this question. Those who wrote the Gospels clearly thought this miracle story was important: it is included Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This is not surprising since these three Gospels share a common source. But the author of John also includes this miracle story. And that is interesting: for usually there’s not much of an overlap between John and the other three Gospels. More surprising, the authors of Matthew and Mark like this story so much that they tell it twice!
That makes six times the same tale is told – and remember we only have four Gospels. Why is this so important? And what does it tell us about why we come to here on Sunday?
Perhaps this story captures a truth valued by those who followed Jesus early on. Perhaps this story reflects an essential truth about the disciples or an essential truth about God. Perhaps we can better understand this teaching if we put in into its first-century context.
It was springtime in Israel. Which meant it was also time for Passover, a great religious festival of the Jews. And it was a time of growing popularity for Jesus: he’s been going from town to town healing people and fighting with scribes and Pharisees. It has been a time of growing conflict with Rome’s puppet king and the religious authorities on one side and John the Baptizer on the other. Things are so tense, Mary, mother of Jesus, and her family have tried to do an intervention to dissuade Jesus from his current course, a path we know will lead to Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.
For Jesus was becoming too popular for his own good. Large crowds would gather to hear him preach or see him heal the sick. Perhaps some see Jesus as a follower of John the Baptizer, the man who was in prison after criticizing the King’s marriage to his brother’s wife. Once John the Baptizer was beheaded, some felt abandoned and looked to Jesus to be their spiritual shepherd.
Jesus wanted some time away from the crowds, some time to pray and think and recover. So he boarded a boat and headed for the wilderness. But people could see where he was headed. When Jesus disembarked, he found a crowd already gathered.
Jesus could have been cranky. He could have returned to the boat and escaped. He could have grown angry and chastised the people. He could have pouted. Instead, he looked at the crowd with compassion, seeing them as a flock of sheep without a shepherd. And he ministered to them.
Hours passed and it was time, some of the disciples thought, to send people away. Instead, Jesus pulled off a miracle: with five loaves of bread and three fishes he fed the crowd. “The number who ate were five thousand men, plus women and children,” scripture says. And “there were twelve baskets of bread left over.”
This story seems to capture the essence of all the people involved. That’s why it was told over and over again. It shows Jesus as the wondrous Son of God. It reflects the very essence of God’s abundant, no extravagant, generosity and grace. It even captures the very essence of us his disciples, who don’t get it, who don’t see Jesus as the Messiah. Aren’t they just like us when we strain to see God’s miraculous work in our lives?
At the heart of the story, is the idea that Jesus can work miracles with people who have very little to offer. A little boy offers five loaves and two fish and look what happened! So part of the loaves and fishes tale is about each of us, reminding us that if we give our gifts to God, then God will do mighty things through us.
A key here is that the little boy gave his gift to God. At the heart of the story, today is the invitation for us to do the same: to give our gifts to God. That’s what God wants from you and me, for us to give the gift of our lives to him so we can – as the Prophet Micah said – walk humbly with our God. But sometimes people get distracted and lose sight of this principal point.
Some people get stuck on the mechanics of feeding 5,000 with five loaves and three fish. They wonder “How did he do it?” Perhaps they to make this all about transformation of the loaves, so that the loaves continually multiply, so that the loaves themselves experience transformation, so the loaves are what is important.
But God is not a magician. And thinking this story is about magic loaves of bread shifts the focus away from you and me and here and now. Through this story, God speaks directly to each of us and asks us to give our lives to God so we can walk humbly with our God.
The real miracle here was the radical transformation of five thousand hard-hearted men. The example of the little boy giving Jesus his five loaves of bread and three fish, brought these grownups up short. They had to look at themselves, at their hearts – before they could open their coats and share the food that they brought with them.
The real transformation then, was not of the magically replacing bread, but of transforming five thousand selfish hearts. Isn’t that the greater miracle? Isn’t that the miracle each of us could experience in our own hearts?
To discover the essence of this miracle, each of us must focus on Christ’s transformation of their selfish human hearts and then wonder how our own selfish heart can be transformed, changed so spending time at church each Sunday makes sense.
Which brings us full circle from the first century of Jesus to this day and place, a sacred space where we will soon celebrate the Eucharist. The liturgical references of this text are clear: it tells us Jesus took the bread…looked up to heaven…gave thanks…broke the bread…gave it to his disciples…who gave it to everyone…and they all ate and were satisfied. These actions parallel our words and actions during the prayer of consecration.
And then in the Gospel of John’s version of this story, we discover that the feeding of the five thousand is a prelude to Jesus’ teaching that “I am the Bread of life.” So the feeding of the 5000 we read today is a prelude to John’s teachings on the Eucharist: today’s miracle story and Holy Communion are directly and irrevocably connected.
For those first Christians, Communion was a miracle: a very big miracle. It was a time for the transformation of their selfish human hearts! It was a time for sharing food for their soul! It was a time for we who are many to become one by sharing one bread one cup! It was a time for Communion to serve as the way we create community, the way we refill and renew ourselves so we are ready for another week of hectic living here in the Bay Area.
Why do we come to church? We come to be fed spiritually. Some find sustenance in the prayers or the hymns or the incense or perhaps even in the sermon. But that is why we are here: to be fed spiritually.
Today we heard the fantastical story of how Jesus fed 5,000 people with only enough five loaves and three fishes. We also considered how that happened without resorting to magic. And this reminded us that we gather together to be fed – spiritually nourished – so we can make it through the week ahead.
And we were also reminded of how we build community here: how we who are many become one because we all share the same bread, and the same cup. And that sacramental act of making and sharing the Eucharist is why we come to church.
Let us pray.
In your compassionate love, O God,
you nourish us with the words of life and bread of blessing.
Grant that Jesus may calm our fears
and move our hearts to praise your goodness
by sharing our bread with others.
May the church say: Amen.