The story of the feeding of the 5000 could not be more familiar.
Jesus is there, it’s Passover, and this large crowd descends upon Jesus. Jesus speaks first, asking Philip where they will be able to buy food for all these people. The narrator tells us that Jesus is asking a sneaky question, but his disciples don’t know this.
Philip is dumbfounded, remarking that they do not have the resources to give each person even a nibble. Always one trying to please, Andrew (the brother of Simon Peter) points out that there is a boy with five barley loaves and two fish; but Andrew concedes that is but a few drops in the ocean of need.
Jesus tells the disciples to have everyone sit down. He gives thanks for the loaves and fish, and distributes them among those who are sitting. When everyone has eaten what each wants, Jesus instructs the disciples to take up the scraps, and there are more leftovers than there were “start-froms.”
The people are amazed.
Our familiarity with this story keeps us from seeing what a troublesome passage this truly is.
Jesus is manipulative, withholding information and provoking Philip into saying the wrong thing so that the miracle would be more amazing.
Then there’s all of what Tom & Ray from the radio program Car Talk would call “obfuscation”—the obscuring of relevant information by adding unimportant details: What does it matter that the loaves are barley? Why five loaves? Why two fish? Does it matter that the place where Jesus tells them to sit is very grassy? Or that they eat while seated?
And perhaps most troublesome of all: While this is an iconic image for us, even depicted in our Laborers with Christ window in the 3:00 position, it seems this miracle brought nothing but trouble to Jesus.
The immediate result is that the people suddenly try to “take him by force to make him king,” as we read in John 6:15. The immediate result. As in, “Thanks Jesus for feeding us and doing this amazing thing, but now we are going to force you to be who we want you to be, and—oh yeah—you’re going to have to keep feeding us and our countrymen and women indefinitely.”
This is like a kid who finds a frog. He is so enamored by the frog that he decides to keep it forever, so he can eternally be entertained by this frog. So the kid puts the frog in his pocket where it dies.
These people are so impressed by Jesus that they want to possess him and have him perform at their will.
This is frighteningly similar to the way so many in our world think of God. If they are drawn to God, it is in a time of crisis or great need. If God provides that need, they decide God must continue to provide in a miraculous way or else it was all a fluke and God does not exist or care for them.
The same line of thinking happens in terms of religious experience, as well. A person has an awesome, deep, and empowering experience of God’s presence and love, and then feels betrayed when God doesn’t give them that emotional high every time they rattle off some magic words of prayer.
God doesn’t live in our boxes. And Jesus fled this crowd that sought him because he didn’t want to live in their box either.
But our story gets worse before it gets better. Skipping down a few verses, this crowd from which Jesus flees eventually catches up with him in v.23. When they ask Jesus where he went, he points out that they don’t really want to follow him, they just want their bellies full.
This is uncomfortably familiar, as well. We, like those criticized in Philippians 3:19, have made our bellies our gods. We consume, indiscriminately, rather than consider how to use our resources to advance God’s mission. We consume, indiscriminately, rather than consider that our bodies are “temple[s] of the Holy Spirit within [us]” (1Cor 6:19).
The fact of the matter is that Jesus spends the rest of John chapter 6 (and several parts of later chapters) distancing himself from this miracle of feeding, correcting their mistaken interpretation of Jesus’ provision of bread, and running away when all else fails. As John tells the story, this miracle made more trouble for Jesus than almost anything else in his ministry.
So why do we connect with this episode of Jesus’ life? Why do we immortalize it in art and literature? Why does it make it into every children’s Sunday School Series? Why do we return to our memory of it, even when we are older?
One reason, no doubt, is that we like the image of a Jesus—and a God—who provides. On the face of it, this story (especially in the other accounts) is a beautiful image of a Jesus who is keyed-in to the needs of those who follow him. He shows compassion in recognizing and responding to their hunger; and Jesus uses the power of his divinity to miraculously meet their need.
Another reason, I believe, is that we like the image of Jesus giving in abundance. We want to worship a God who desires to feed us when we are hungry. We want to believe in a God who is willing to bend the cosmos to provide for us. This is especially powerful when we are at the bottom, struggling to make ends meet, uncertain of what the future holds. But it remains powerful even when we are safe, secure, and well-fed. Our appetite never dwindles, it only ever increases. And as it increases, we expect God’s supply-chain to step-up its production as well.
But while this is a distortion of the image of abundance that God desires for us, abundance is, in a way, the primary point of this miracle. I believe that most of Jesus’ miracles—just as with Jesus’ teachings—were intended to teach us about the Kingdom of God. The symbolism of the overflowing baskets of leftovers—especially after beginning with so little—is a powerful communicator of the reality of the Kingdom of God, where small is great, weak is strong, and poor is rich. It mystically communicates something about the abundance of God’s love for us, and the “overflowing cup” of grace, spoken of so eloquently by the author of Psalm 23. The abundance of life in the Kingdom of God is the point—it is what Jesus wants everyone to understand.
But understand they do not.
Jesus has a way of being enigmatic, even in his own time. Pearls before swine? Deny your father and mother? First is last and last is first? The servant who took the safe path and did not risk his talent is condemned?
Even Jesus’ disciples had to keep asking him what the heck he was talking about.
We don’t appear to have that luxury. But do we understand Jesus? Especially this miracle? Do we get what Jesus is doing? What Jesus is trying to teach us?
An honest answer might be “No.” And I respect that answer more than you probably know. The truth is that “I don’t understand” is often my honest response to something I read in the Bible or see God doing in the world.
But I deeply believe that God wants us to wrestle with these questions, much like Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32. It is usually in the struggle—rather than in the knowing—that we most hear God’s voice and experience God’s presence. Where we find God is somewhere between five loaves and five thousand people, between two fish and twelve baskets of left-overs.
It is hard to comprehend the abundance of life in the Kingdom of God when we seem to be facing a surprising lack of resources in our present life. In our lives, in our culture, and in our churches, time is in very short supply. To say nothing of other more tangible resources.
A week ago Friday, I was invited to a discussion group by our region’s Executive Minister, Larry Greenfield. The topic of our conversation was a document produced by a task force of our region, whose assignment was to identify the greatest challenges our region faces. This is all part of the Transformed by the Spirit initiative of our denomination, which I expect you will be hearing far more about in the coming months.
Anyway, one of the points that garnered quite a bit of discussion was the assertion—a correct one, I believe—that a big part of our challenges have happened because American Christianity hitched it’s wagon to secular models of organization, borrowed from industry, business, and politics. To quote the document, “Our secularistic engines have failed, and now, without sails designed to catch God’s spirit as their wind, we languish becalmed in the water.”
Poetic and powerful, if you’re lucky enough to understand it.
The document argues that we have adapted and forced Christianity into compliance with, for example, models of doing business. For a while, this seems to have served Christianity well, given the exponential expansion of American Christianity in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. But that model of doing business is no longer successful for business, so it is no wonder it is failing so many churches as well.
Much of our debate that day had to do with what the appropriate response was to all of this. Do we scour our culture for new models, believing that if we find the right model—and if we can stay on top of changes in the business world—we will experience a new and lasting revival? Do we write off anything that might be learned from the business community, given the dramatic decline we have experienced, a consequence of this unholy pairing? Does our salvation come when we stay on top of the fads of the world, riding the wave like a surfer? Or is it when we disregard the “newest things,” instead focusing on the Gospel and accepting our smallness?
As usual, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.
But the one thing I am sure of is that things will never be the same. I wonder if the decline of American Christianity since the 1960’s can be compared with the economic crash that began in 2008. The expansion of the market in the years before 2008 should not have happened. While we think of that time as “normal,” it was really irresponsible and exceptional—individually and corporately. In a similar way, perhaps American Christianity should not have expanded as rapidly or as far as it did. Clearly, at least in the waning years, the core reality of the church was substituted by a not-so cleverly disguised social club.
Those expansion years are now behind us, and like so many families struggling with upside-down mortgages, job loss, and other day-to-day crises, much of American Christianity is overburdened as a result of its earlier expansion. Some “contracting” will inevitably be a part of our transformation into the future.
But what is certain to me is that things will never look that way again…because it never should have looked that way before.
But “abundance” is one of the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God, and so abundance will characterize the life of American Christianity—and our individual lives—as we adapt to the changing present and future. It will be abundance even though it doesn’t look like a thousand people on a church roll or hundreds of thousands of dollars in the church budget.
- It will be an abundance of God’s presence, as we are led in our participation in God’s mission.
- It will be an abundance of God’s love, as we embody compassion for our neighbor.
- It will be an abundance of God’s Spirit, as the flame that burns within us becomes a fire that consumes and inspires those we meet.
- It will be an abundance of God’s peace, as we are reconciled to one another.
- It will be an abundance of God’s joy, as we celebrate our newfound life in Christ.
On some level, we are experiencing that abundance right now, because I believe God has already given us enough—enough to do what God desires right now.
Sure, we I wish we had some more people in Sunday School and in the service. Sure, there are many things we could do if we had a bigger budget. But we have enough to do something right now, with God’s leading.
Look at what we have done—with just our building in the past couple years. On a weekly basis, we have dozens of adults and youth pass through our doors for support, encouragement, friendship, spiritual direction, social services, vocational guidance, computer proficiency learning, counseling, food, and so much more. They come to the Career Center, LATTE, a meeting of the Boy Scouts or Daisy Scouts, therapy, BEDS, and Bible Studies. And we’re still just talking about weekdays!
Perhaps God will multiply our contribution like these loaves and fish. Perhaps, like in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, we will be “put in charge of many things” since we have been “trustworthy in a few things” (v.23).
I don’t know.
But I do know this: Jesus was never hindered in his ministry by a lack of physical resources. Sometimes, like in our NT text, more resources appeared as if by magic. Sometimes, individuals stepped up to provide those needs. In other occasions, it turned out those needs weren’t “needs” after all.
I think our experience will be similar. In some cases, God will provide in miraculous ways. In others, people will step up unexpectedly—which is no less miraculous. And, of course, we’ll discover some of our “needs” weren’t really needed after all.
The kingdom of God is an abundant place. That is what Jesus is telling us. That is the reality God is inviting us to live into. And we’ll find God working toward that abundance—if we look between five loaves and five thousand people; if we take a peek between two fish and twelve baskets of left-overs.
Let’s feed and be fed as our Lord teaches us.