Our passage this morning opens and closes with Jesus’ very human need to be alone to pray and to grieve. He has just learned that his friend and relative has been beheaded by Herod. John the Baptist had been the prophetic forerunner of Jesus’ ministry, and now John has been senselessly murdered. Jesus needs some space. He needs some time alone to grieve the loss of his friend, to spend some time in prayer, and to be comforted and instructed by his heavenly Father. Death is always with us, and even though we know that it is never permanent for those who believe, suffering the death of a loved one seems to always bring trauma, grief and anger to us. Death is a regular part of our lives, but it is never a welcomed guest when it comes to visit. And it wasn’t for Jesus.
And so, filled with grief and loss, Jesus has gotten himself into a boat. And he’s in search of a deserted place so that he can be alone for a while. He wants to be away from the crowds that so frequently followed him from place to place. He needs a day off.
But the ever watchful crowds can see the boat crossing the lake, and they have guessed at his destination. They’re a determined lot, and they’re going to get there before he does. They will greet him when his boat comes ashore. I have often wondered, as Jesus crossed the lake, if Jesus could see the crowds as they made their way along the shore on their way to greet him. And how did he feel, knowing that as soon as he came to shore that he would be greeted by throngs of hurting and needy people, when, at this moment in his life, he could count himself among them?
Perhaps it was his own need and his own hurt that helped him to have compassion for them. The Greek word for compassion means to be deeply moved, it means to have an altered state of the heart, it implies change. And I imagine that as Jesus neared the shore, and saw the crowds gathered there, he realized that he he had a profound unity with them; that he shared their griefs and sorrows, and their hurts and pains. And so out of his own brokenness and pain, he reached out to them and cured their sick. That tells me something important. It tells me that we don’t need to be in perfect shape in order to do effective ministry. We don’t need to be strong or cured, or well organized or expertly managed, we don’t need a carefully crafted 12 step plan before we engage in ministry. We can be broken and hurting and tired and weary. And out of our brokenness we can nurture genuine compassion. And out of that compassion comes ministry that is real. It does us good to remember that in the realm of the Gospel, we are really nothing more than beggars who have found bread and who are moved to share that bread with other beggars.
Well, the day wore on, the sun was going down, and the disciples, who always seem to know what’s best, have decided that the party’s over. Its time to send everyone home. They’re out in a deserted place, there’s no food anywhere, and people are gonna start getting hungry. I’ve got a feeling though, that part of the reason that the party is over, is that the disciples themselves are starting to get hungry, they’d like to head back to town to get something to eat. And the crowd hovering around Jesus is becoming a major impediment to their plans.
But there is, apparently, no need to send anyone home, at least as far as Jesus is concerned. He, at least, is anticipating a marvelous banquet.
I think we are all familiar with the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Our favorite version of it is probably the one in the Gospel of John, where the little boy steps forward and very willingly shares his supper of five little loaves and two small fish. That’s the one that we learned in Sunday School, and our teachers pointed out how wonderful it is when we learn how to share our stuff with others. And that’s a great Sunday School lesson, and its good for grown-ups, too. Even grown-ups have trouble with that little four letter word that’s spelled M-I-N-E.
But in Matthew’s Gospel, the little boy who shares his supper doesn’t seem to be that important. Matthew doesn’t even mention him. And perhaps that’s intentional. What’s important to Matthew is something that we’d really rather pay no attention to and maybe even out and out disbelieve. And I’m not talking about the actual miracle. The actual miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes has suffered enough over the years. Lots of more liberal biblical scholars seem bound and determined to disbelieve that it could actually have happened. One scholar that I encountered recently said that it was preposterous to believe that it actually happened. Other scholars want to go back to the sharing thing, and they say that once someone made their own supper available, that others were moved to share theirs too, and so what we end up with is one big happy sharing party where everybody gets enough to eat and no one goes home really hungry. I suppose we could call it the first pot luck supper ever, and that this event spawned the long and glorious tradition of covered dish meals that we still enjoy today.
But what’s the problem with just saying it was a miracle, that Jesus really did multiply the loaves and fishes that day, and that everybody had enough to eat, and that there were twelve baskets of something left over? Miracles are no big deal, they’re nothing out of the ordinary, at least not in the hands of the sovereign creator of the universe! Water into wine, enough food to feed well over 5,000 people from one little supper of five loaves and two fishes, that’s just what God does! It’s reminiscent of the absolute abundance of provision that God provided in the wilderness as the Israelites wandered from Egypt to the Promised Land. And don’t miss this: Where are we today? We’re out in the wilderness, in this story, and in our lives. We Christians are wanderers these days, we’re no longer a settled and established people, we’re exiles. We live in a deserted place, where there is no food and no provision, lest God provide it. And so, please don’t disbelieve that Jesus took five loaves and two fishes and fed all of these people until they were fully satisfied. That’s just the kind of God that we have. God delights in creating abundance out of nothing. Look at our own lives in terms of salvation: Doomed and dead, bound for hell; and what are we now? Alive, eternally, forever! That’s abundance out of nothing, and it’s active every day in our own lives.
So, what is it then, that is so easy to disbelieve, what is it that we’d rather disbelieve about this story? It’s what Jesus says to his disciples in verse 16. The disciples are all anxious to send the people home, and Jesus just looks at them and says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
Now, wait a minute: That’s not how it happened, it was Jesus who pulled off the miracle, not the disciples. In the other Gospels, when Jesus says this, the disciples get all kinds of worked up. Holy cow, Jesus, it would take a million dollars to feed all of these people! That’s impossible! And here, the disciples respond by saying, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” Emphasis on the nothing. There is immediate disbelief on the part of the disciples that anything can be done with what is at hand.
But there is even more disbelief in terms of their own involvement in what Jesus is challenging them to do. Jesus is very clear in his challenge. “You give them something to eat.” And when Jesus issues a clear challenge, I really believe that he expects that challenge to be taken up. There is not the slightest bit of doubt in my mind that if the disciples had put their hearts and minds into it, that they could have fed all 5,000 of these people. Jesus would not have said, “You give them something to eat, if he didn’t believe that they could have done it. Jesus does not issue impossible challenges. It is only our disbelief that makes them impossible. How often do we hear ourselves saying, “We have nothing here but”…and then we go on to fill in the blanks, describing the nothingness that we have, even though it is right there in our own hands.
It is obvious, however, that Jesus’ disciples did not rise to the challenge that Jesus gave them. Eventually, in this and the other Gospels, Jesus will chastise his disciples for their lack of faith, and it will not be until after Jesus’ resurrection and the coming and empowerment of the Holy Spirit that the disciples will break out into faith that has feet that will run. At that point, they will receive the challenges of ministry that come their way, and they will fulfill them, often with the giving of their own lives.
But for now, Jesus will not chastise them for their lack of faith. Instead he will give them a pattern for ministry. The language of this pattern for ministry should sound very familiar. It is the language that we use every time we gather around the communion table to celebrate the real and miraculous presence of our Lord among us.
Jesus took the bread and the fish and he blessed it. He gave thanks for it. Please notice the profound difference between the way that Jesus received the bread, and the way that the disciples received it. The disciples said, “We have nothing here:” Jesus, on the other hand expressed profound gratitude for it. He gave thanks to God for it. What miracles would we find in our hands in this place if instead of belittling the gifts of God, we gave thanks for them? What miracles would be ours, if instead of grumbling and complaining about our lack and our paucity, we developed a sense of gratitude for what God has already put into our hands?
When Jesus had given thanks for the bread, he broke it, and he gave it to his disciples. And therein was the miracle. As the bread was passed from the disciples to the people gathered there, it was wondrously multiplied by God, who absolutely delights in creating abundance out of nothing.
Jesus performed a glorious miracle that day. Like his Father in the days of old, he brought bread to the wilderness, he provided nourishment and abundance in the wastelands of human existence.
And yet, a far greater miracle occurs when the followers of Jesus hear and believe Jesus when he says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Do we believe Jesus when he says that to us? Do we believe that we have received the very power of heaven and the very indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit to conduct an abundant ministry from this place? I pray that we do, because that is the primary function of one who would call him or herself a follower and disciple of Jesus Christ. How easy it is to disbelieve and say, along with the disciples, “We have nothing here but…,” How blessed it is to respond like Jesus with gratitude and thankfulness. For it is an environment of gratitude and thankfulness that miracles occur.
In the Gospel of John, in perhaps the most comforting and familiar chapter of that Gospel, Jesus is discussing faith and belief. And he has this to say: “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask for anything, I will do it.” (JN 14:12-14) Do we believe that? If we do, we will witness the abundance that is produced by being faithful and obedient and believing followers of Jesus Christ.