2 Kings 4. 42-44
Ephesians 3. 14-21
John 6. 1-21
Canon David Stranack
As the school children begin their summer holidays and as we all enjoy this summer weather with some good days out, picnics rightly become the order for the day for many if the heat is not too much. Things were slightly different in today’s Gospel story. Crowds of people came out of the towns and villages when they heard Jesus had arrived and one can imagine that in their excitement they immediately dropped everything and ran out to meet him. It seems that they didn’t even stop to make up their picnic lunch. As Jesus and his disciples arrived at the sea shore and got out of their boat, the crowd gathered round him. There by the side of Lake Galilee Jesus began to give his message and to heal the sick that they brought to him. And then, as we heard, there was the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000.
Some years ago it was my family’s privilege to go to the Holy Land and we were able to visit the traditional site for this miracle at a place called Tabgha. In 1932 the remains of a Byzantine church had been discovered there, with some wonderful mosaics of the 4th or 5th century. In 1934 a new church was built over the site and there we saw, on the floor in front of the restored altar, a beautiful mosaic of the five loaves and two fish. From the church we could look out over the lake and one could imagine the crowd gathered there on the hillside to listen to Jesus while the children were perhaps playing at the water’s edge.
The crowd had been walking a long way in the heat of the sun and then had sat there listening to his words. But Jesus was aware that they were hungry – not only spiritually but physically too. So Jesus had compassion on them. He did not send them away but instead challenged his disciples. He said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ To Philip it seemed an impossible situation. Then Andrew brings forward a young boy who was offering his own picnic lunch. But even as he told Jesus Andrew could only see the futility of the offering. ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ he said. How easy it is just to see problems rather than look for solutions. It seems a very human reaction to look, only for big dramatic actions and to belittle the small genuine and seemingly insignificant efforts that people make. And how easy it is to look down on the offerings of others.
We as Christians often like to admire dramatic and large scale mission efforts believing they will convert many, and forget that people are far more likely to be brought to Christ by the gentle loving friendship and compassionate deeds and actions over a period of time. The boy's offer of lunch is accepted by Jesus with thanks, and Jesus blessed and used his gift so that thousands are fed. It is wonderful how even a small gift can be changed to achieve amazing results when blessed by God. Many years ago, in an interview Mother Theresa was being challenged because she was only able to care for a small number of dying people in Calcutta where there were many thousands of others still left to die in the gutter. What she and her nuns were doing was being dismissed as too little to make any difference, but, as far as she was concerned, every little act of loving kindness was something beautiful for God, and infinitely worth doing. That 'little' of Mother Teresa’s has inspired so many others and has brought hope and joy to so many not only in Calcutta but in many other places in the world.
There is also a story of a beach where thousands of star fish had been washed ashore and were likely to dry up in the sun. As a young boy was throwing some of them back into the sea an older man said “there must
be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.” The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “Well it made a big difference to that one!”
Let each of us remember that anything that we offer for God to use, however small or insignificant it may seem to be, he will use for a blessing beyond our imagining. So Jesus knew that he could use that small offering of the boy to make a big difference. We can never know exactly what happened on that grassy hillside but we can look at it in three significant ways.
Firstly, as we know, Jesus as God become man has the power of our creator God within him. If he wished to take those few loaves and multiply them sufficiently to feed five thousand he certainly had the power.
And if it happened in that way it certainly showed the crowd that he was no ordinary man. Indeed they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ There are those who do regard the miracle simply as the multiplication of loaves and fishes and as I say Jesus certainly had the creator power to do just that. But the danger is that we could then feel we can leave all our problems for God to sort out with miracles. So there are those who find that way of looking at the miracle puzzling, and for them there are other ways of considering it.
A second way is to see this miracle as a sacramental experience – an outward sign with a deep inner spiritual meaning - whereby the small amount that each person was given was truly enough to satisfy. Some scholars consider that the feeding of the 5000 was a sharing of only small morsels of food taken as symbols of sharing in the spiritual food of Christ. In this way it was something like the Last Supper when the significance of Jesus giving himself to his followers enabled them to feel fully nourished and similar to what we do at every Eucharist.. We are told that the miracle took place as the Passover time was approaching when the people celebrated God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery. Jesus was to transform the Passover into a celebration of his deliverance of all humankind from the power of sin and death. We will no doubt be returning to this sacramental aspect in the coming Sundays when we will hear the next part of St John’s Gospel in which Jesus declares that he is ‘the bread of life’ that his followers are called to receive.
There is a third way of understanding this miracle which is to see it not so much as a multiplication of food but as the multiplication sharing. It is certainly an incredible miracle that Jesus could inspire such a vast crowd of selfish people to become a community of sharers. It may well be that the miracle was not so much changing loaves and fish but changing men and women. And it began when they were shamed into action by the generosity of a small boy, an action which Jesus eagerly blessed in the face of all those present. But one can easily imagine there being many in the crowd who would have brought some food with them as well as those who had indeed rushed out their homes without bringing anything. And isn’t that just the situation that troubles us in the world today? There are so many who have plenty, more than enough, while there are millions who are malnourished. Sadly that is true even in our own country which is supposed to be one of the most prosperous in the world.
The need for foodbanks even here in Sudbury shows something of the scale of the problem. It is very easy for us who have plenty to be totally ignorant of the struggle that many familieshave, even to provide one meal a day. Poverty is so often concealed behind closed doors. It takes something of a miracle for us to be woken up, like those 5000, to the real needs of the many others. We today need to be subject to another miracle of Jesus where we are inspired to think of others, not only in the furthermost parts of the world today but also those future generations yet unborn with whom we also are to share the world’s resources. We need Jesus to wake us up to the way we use or rather abuse his gift to us of this planet earth. Climate change has to be very much part of our Christian responsibility. We are to give a lead in this whenever we have the opportunity. And this too is caring for our neighbour.
Yes, we need such a miracle of sharing today – and an end to selfishness and greed and of putting self first and others nowhere. But personally I find it hard to know where to begin. The efforts such as Fair Trade, electric cars and recycling seem so very small in the context of the world’s survival. What can I do as an individual to make a difference? And yet …. and yet …. is that not exactly what Andrew was saying about the boy’s small offering of loaves and fish? ‘What are they among so many people?’ It is by the grace of God that our small efforts and our small struggles to face this present crisis can be used and transformed to make a world of difference.
One last point: in the Gospel it says that ‘when they were satisfied, Jesus told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ …. And ‘they filled twelve baskets'. Truly a sign of God’s great generosity. What God provides us with must not only be shared fairly but what is left over must not be wasted. The percentage of food wasted in this country alone is a scandalous amount. We must never forget that what we have received is of God's goodness and generosity to mankind. All his gifts, of people, of food, of resources, all are to be treated with respect andvalued by us as part of our loving response to his generosity and we too must always be readyto share his gifts especially with those who have so little. Amen.