SERMON FOR JUNE 23, 2019
The Most Body and Blood of Christ Sunday
Reading I: Genesis 14:18-20
Reading II: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
YOU GIVE THEM SOMETHING TO EAT
Our Gospel lesson today tells the story of the miraculous feeding of the multitude in the wilderness, numbered as 5000 men, and no telling how many more women and children. It is the only miracle story told in all four Gospels. So apparently this story is so important it was required reading for any biography of Jesus. What does this story teach us about Jesus, about the Kingdom of God, and about ourselves? If all four gospel writers considered this story an indispensable part of the life and teaching of Christ, I think we can be pretty sure this one is going to be on the final exam!
First, what does this passage of scripture teach us about the mission and identity of Jesus? We can see from this passage that Jesus was certainly popular at this point in his ministry. His reputation had spread like wildfire across Palestine, and especially in the region of Galilee. Mind you, this was before the age of internet and social media, when information bombards us continuously and instantaneously. No, the surge in the polls for Jesus was simply fueled by word of mouth, a low-tech high meteoric rise in popularity based upon one person telling another person. By this point in his ministry, Jesus was swamped by adoring, or at least curious, multitudes. They dogged his every step, filled his every free moment, drained his physical and emotional and spiritual resources.
And why not? By this time Jesus had exorcised demons, healed paralyzed people, cleansed lepers, calmed angry storms, and even raised the dead. And in this miracle of the feeding of the 5000, Jesus must have reminded the people of the days of Moses, when God fed the crowd in the wilderness by miraculous provision. You can almost hear the crowd singing, “Happy days are here again!” His sensational reputation sounded like a greatest hits album or ESPN highlights reel. In addition to these mighty works, his teaching was simple enough for the unlearned to understand, but he also confounded and put to shame the most learned of scholars. In other words, for the common folk of Galilee, starved for a hero of their own, eager for someone to bring back the glory days of Israel, and longing for a Messiah who would bring God’s justice and power back to the common person, Jesus was nothing short of a walking and teaching miracle. And of course, he was the greatest show in town. So whenever he showed up, the crowds flocked to see and hear him.
If Jesus were a modern-day politician, this wave of popularity would be an addictive drug, impossible not to indulge and relish. But Jesus was not a politician. Though he loved the crowds, he did not live for their adoration and approval. In fact, Luke tells us that frequently Jesus withdrew from the crowds, at just this prime moment of surging popularity in the polls, at a moment when a political advisor would counsel him to press toward the crowds. But Jesus continually allowed the crowd’s euphoria to dissipate in order to keep his own spiritual strength from dissipating. At multiple key times in the Gospel of Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus, he withdrew to pray just before those great moments—before he began his public ministry, just before he called his first disciples, before he calmed the storm and walked on the water, before the moment of Transfiguration, before his announcement to the disciples about his mission to die on the cross, and the night before he would be arrested and crucified. Again and again Jesus withdrew from the spotlight, renewing his spiritual battery in private prayer and communion with his heavenly Father. Would that we would do the same!
Second, what does this passage of scripture teach us about the Kingdom of God? Luke tells us that when the crowds hounded Jesus and flushed him from his private time with God and closest disciples, he responded with compassion and mission, not anger for their violation of his boundaries or lack of care for his personal self-care. Luke tells us that he simply took yet another opportunity to teach the crowd about the Kingdom of God, and to heal those who needed to be cured. We can imagine that teaching included parables, his favorite way to teach about the Kingdom of God. But Jesus also taught with visual lessons, not just oral ones. And the feeding of the 5000 is just such an object lesson. What does this story tell us about the Kingdom of God? For one thing, it tells us that God is not trapped in the past. Jesus deliberately repeats the miracle of the manna in the wilderness in this story. Like Moses of old, Jesus is surrounded by the people in the wilderness, a place where there are no visible resources for food and water. By feeding them there, against that stark backdrop, Jesus once again reminds them that God is the ultimate source of their sustenance, and the only legitimate object of their trust and worship. But this miracle also teaches that God is not limited by our short-sighted alarm about scarcity. All the people could see, all the disciples could calculate, was that there were too many people to feed, not enough food to go around, a hopeless upside down economics. How easy it is for us to see scarcity instead of abundance! It is the calculus of fear and insecurity, the focus on limitation. But God wired the creation around abundance, not scarcity. This is the great and hilarious surprise God reminds his people about all the time. On this occasion it was Jesus multiplying the loaves and fish, so that everyone ate their fill and there were still 12 baskets of leftovers! Have there been times in your life when you could not see the way forward, when resources seemed hopelessly limited, only to look back now and realize that there was plenty all along, and that God could provide and multiply beyond your wildest dreams?
And finally, what does this passage of scripture teach us about ourselves? I am struck that although it was God’s mighty work through Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes, there was still a crucial role Jesus wanted the disciples to play on that day with the crowds too. St. Augustine once said that one way of looking at miracles is to see them as occasions when God simply sped up the clock, fast-forwarding time to do in a short period what he normally accomplished over a much longer season of time. In other words, God is always multiplying loaves and fishes, but normally it is through the slower process of seeds producing an abundant crop, or fish producing thousands of eggs to birth a next year’s school of minnows. On this day in the wilderness, Jesus just pushed the fast-forward button and sped up that slow miracle of abundance into a quick one. And of course, only God controls the remote, or winds the clock. We don’t have that kind of control over the natural order. But we do have a role to play, nonetheless. We are more than spectators to the work of God. He calls his followers to participate in the miracle of life-giving and sustaining grace God wants to offer the world. Jesus did not say to his disciples, “Sit down, boys, and watch this!” He told them flatly, “You give them something to eat!” And when they objected that their resources were hopelessly outmatched by the need, Jesus instructed the disciples to manage the crowd into groups of 50 each, and enlisted them to help distribute the baskets to the crowd as the miracle unfolded. And then at the end they were instructed to be in charge of the collection of the left-overs, a basket full for each of the twelve disciples to haul. What are we to make of this? It is this: we have a job, in partnership and obedience to God, and we must go into the world, roll up our sleeves, and occupy ourselves in service and witness to the love and blessing of God. That way we get to be part of the miracle too. We come today to the altar to be reminded that the body and blood of Jesus is always enough. And we leave the altar to go out into the world and tell this good news, to be part of the miracle God still wants to do with us and through us.