Sermons That Work

From Five Loaves of Bread…, Proper 12 (B) – 2006

July 30, 2006

“So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves … they filled twelve baskets.”

Isn’t that amazing? From five loaves of bread, the disciples gathered fragments enough to fill twelve baskets, and that’s even after feeding about five thousand people. John doesn’t tell us how much of the two fish were left over — perhaps none — still, it’s an amazing story.

It’s a Gospel we love. It has all the elements of a wonderful story. Jesus is a terrific main character. He has people following him by the thousands because of his teaching and preaching certainly, but mainly because of the signs they see him doing. There are the disciples — willing enough, but still unsure of this very different leader. And there is a little boy with his small lunch that miraculously ends up feeding thousands — with more to spare. It’s a story with a happy ending.

It’s also a mystery of sorts, because we desperately want to figure out just how Jesus did that magic trick. If we could figure it out, if Jesus would just let us know how to take that little amount of food and multiply it to feed thousands, we could feed all the poor in our own time, couldn’t we? If God would just give us the directions, give us the words, give us the actions to be able to do this, we would be able to do what Jesus did. The walking on the sea in the middle of a storm would be a neat thing to be able to do, and don’t we wonder about that, too? But the best part of the story is really the feeding of the five thousand, and that’s what we should be trying to figure out, isn’t it?

Of course not. It’s intriguing, and we can be sorely tempted to focus on the how, but this isn’t about a magic trick. The how doesn’t matter. The if it really happened this way doesn’t really matter either. What matters is what this account teaches us about Jesus, and who he is, and what that has to do with us, and how we relate to this Gospel story. It also has to do with how we relate to the person of Jesus, and finally how all of this fits into our living together as a worshipping community here and in the world.

So we look at the passage again. The people on the hillside were filled with food. In fact, they ate until they all had enough, and even then there were twelve baskets left over. But that wasn’t all that Jesus wanted to give them. Verse 15 of this chapter says, “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.” They hadn’t gotten the point that Jesus wanted them to see much more than food. He wanted them to be fed not just with something physical, he wanted them to be fed with spiritual food: the truth about the kingdom of God, the truth about the God who sent him, and the truth about what it truly meant to be his disciples. This story doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Jesus, the teacher, knew people needed to experience the truth as well as hear it. They needed to be filled with the word and to experience what this life with God was all about.

So, it might have been a good idea to include most of Chapter 5 with today’s gospel reading, because in feeding the people, Jesus was actually showing them what his words meant. In Chapter 5, Jesus explains who he is. He describes who God is and exactly why God has sent him. Jesus also explains how the people will fit into the life of God if they listen to his words and what the consequences will be if they don’t. We read: “For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he himself does, and he will show him even greater things than these, works that will astonish you … whoever listens to my words, and believes in the one who sent me, has eternal life.

But he also warned, “You search the scriptures, believing that in them you can find eternal life; it is these scriptures that testify to me, and yet you refuse to come to me to receive life! … You have no love of God in you.” These were tough words, but hopeful ones. Jesus was telling them that they needed to do some serious soul searching.

Then, like any good teacher, Jesus gave them a glimpse of what he was talking about. He didn’t let the people go away hungry, for anything. Even when they didn’t listen, he fed their spirits and their bodies. Maybe with the hope that in time it would sink in.

So, what about us? We’re asked to listen to the scriptures, examine our lives, and take seriously our response to God’s invitation. Just like the Israelites, we are nourished with the word as well as with the bread and that should be pretty filling. If we take that seriously, we’ll be well satisfied.

We need to take a good look at Jesus’ words in Chapter 5. We often gather together to “search the scriptures.” We all believe that in the scriptures we can find eternal life and that they testify to Jesus, but we also have to examine whether or not we’re coming to receive life. Our lives are bound up with the whole people of God as well as with our communities. We are called by our baptism to continue spreading God’s message through our faithfulness to God’s word.

Then there is that feeding of the five thousand to deal with. Jesus showed his followers exactly what he was talking about. He fed them with food — real food. And again we’re so tempted to ask, “How’d he do that?” Lots of scripture buffs try to figure it out, but we’ve already said that’s not the point. It doesn’t matter how it happened. The important thing was that Jesus was preparing them for the gift of his own self that would carry them on when he was gone.

He does that now each time we gather to share the Eucharist with each other. We’re fed with real food, the sacrament of his body and blood. And that’s a much more impressive miracle as far as I’m concerned. We’re the inheritors of the promise he gave to his followers that day, and we’re still constantly filled to overflowing with both word and sacrament. So, in the end we have been given the directions, the words, and the actions to do what Jesus did.

But remember, we’re also the inheritors of the apostles’ ministry. Jesus is saying to us, “What are you going to do so these people can eat?”

There are lots of hungry people right here in our own communities. Summer, when so much food is visibly growing right before our eyes, is a good time to reflect on how we’re helping Jesus feed them.

And what are we doing to feed people with more than physical food? Jesus has given us more than enough food to be fully satisfied in body and spirit and to strengthen us as we continue his work. We only need to open our eyes to the richness of the word and sacrament that is already an intimate part of our lives and let it empower us in love and service to others.

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Christopher Sikkema