Last week I mentioned that we are now in the season of Lent. The reason for Lent and the spiritual practices that accompany Lent is to strengthen our relationship with Christ and with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Over the centuries and across the cultures, meals have often been an ideal setting for strengthening relationships. Last week we talked about Jesus’ attendance at a wedding, the ultimate relational meal. To break bread together is to strengthen our bond with one another. Although we don’t think about it very much today, Holy Communion (which we’ll celebrate this morning) didn’t begin with people parading down an aisle in an orderly fashion to receive a tiny piece of bread dipped in grape juice. Communion began as a meal; the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. But Jesus transformed the meaning and the significance of that meal. As Jesus likens the bread and the wine to his body and his blood, the disciples’ relationship with Jesus is taken to a new and deeper level. Likewise, over these next few weeks, after worship each Sunday, we will gather downstairs in the Friendship Room for soup and bread, for fellowship and to study God’s Word and, as we do our relationship with Jesus and with one another will, I pray, be taken to a new and deeper level.
This morning’s meal story is the only gospel miracle that is recorded in all four of our biblical gospels. It is the miracle of Jesus multiplying five loaves of bread and two fish to feed a multitude of 5,000 people (or more). Although there are differences between the four stories, it is amazing how much they hold in common. Along with consistency in the number of people, bread and fish, all record that the crowd is rather aggressively dogging Jesus’ heels at this point. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that Jesus is attempting to have a time of respite for himself and his disciples. But the crowds don’t seem to give them a moment’s peace and I get the impression that it was beginning to wear on the nerves of the disciples: these pushy crowds and their persistent neediness. Within all four accounts, one can almost hear the frustration in their voices when they say things like, “Where are we to buy bread for these people...” or “We have nothing here…” In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the disciples are in agreement regarding the solution to this hungry multitude of people: “Send them away.” And we should not hear that as a callous response. It was a very real concern and a very practical solution.
You see, the residents of 1st century Galilee were not the happy-go-lucky folks we see portrayed in made-for-Hollywood renditions of bible life and times. Galilee was an occupied region. It had been conquered by Rome and swallowed up into the vast Roman machine. Today we bemoan the decline of the middle-class. But our modern income disparity cannot begin to compare with what 1st century Jews endured. Those peasants – carpenters merrily building tables and chairs for themselves and their neighbors; fishermen providing plenty of Omega 3 fatty acids for their kin; farmers, perhaps whistling a happy tune as they hoe their row of barley. Well, you can put an end to that mental image. Reality check: that picturesque, Hollywood view of 1st century Galilean life; well, it’s about as real and authentic as the faces of most Hollywood actresses. In truth, if you were a carpenter, you labored your days away building furniture for the well-to-do; you fished from their boats and you owed them your catch; and you didn’t own that land you were tilling. It belonged to some wealthy aristocrat in a distant city. Rome had confiscated your land and had given or sold it right out from under you. It was never the most fertile land to begin with and now, to match production requirements for that absentee landowner and pay your taxes to Rome, peasant farmers were often forced to take out loans. It was a rough, tough life.
And that, you see, is why this miracle of food multiplication for the crowds was more than a nice theological symbol. Those folks in the crowd didn’t just end the day hungry. They probably started the day hungry. Most of them were, no doubt, accustomed to living hand to mouth and loaf to loaf. I remember once in seminary hearing a professor read from a 1st century historian; he read the story of one small peasant village in the path of the advancing Roman army. It was early winter and the troops were hungry. They completely striped the village of all of its winter food provisions. Many villagers did not survive that winter and those who did subsisted on grasses and other foliage. To a people who knew the reality of shortage; who knew the reality of hunger; who knew the reality of desperation; to and for those very people a Messiah had come; a Savior who served up a bounty of bread and blessings. One who offered them more than crumbs, even more than their fair share; one who offered them such a bounty, that in this case, they couldn’t even eat it all: leftovers among a class of people who wouldn’t have known the meaning of the word.
Jesus, the one who came preaching the words: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.”[i] Well, it wasn’t just lip service or some kind of fantasy. Jesus could deliver; Jesus made good on his promises. Jesus, like the heavenly Father he came to represent, was a Savior of bounty.
So, what is it that you are anxious about in your life? What are the worries that awaken you in the middle of the night? Where are the situations and circumstances in your life that tempt you with despair? They are, undoubtedly, different for us today. Even the poorest of people in America today don’t have to resort to eating grass. They may not get the best of food, for sure; but it is not as dismal as 1st century Galilee. So, what is it for you? Do you ever dog the heels of Jesus in prayer about some struggle that seems insurmountable?
Or, perhaps in light of this morning’s story, a more appropriate question is, “how do we respond to the anxieties, the worries, the desperation of those who are around us?” for you will notice that the disciples are more than spectators to this miraculous bounty. Jesus draws them into this glorious event. It is the disciples who are tasked with organizing the crowd. It must have been like herding cats to get a crowd of that size to quiet down and follow instructions: “Groups of fifty please. There’s plenty of space. That’s it. Spread yourselves out. Fifty each, please, fifty each. When you’ve formed your group, go ahead and sit down, and then we’ll know you’re ready to be served.” And then, although Jesus does the blessing and the breaking of the bread, it is the disciples who are given the job of distributing this bounty. It hasn’t turned in to much of a day off.
You see, the whole reason for this desired respite, this sought out “down time” with Jesus, is because the disciples have just returned from their own mission trip. Recently, Jesus had commissioned them and sent them out to preach and to heal just as he’d been doing as they were traveling around Galilee together. Jesus had shown them how it was done and now it was their turn to try it out. These disciples have been on the road; it was their first attempt at this kingdom ministry thing. And apparently, it had been quite a success. They told Jesus all about it when they got back.
I’ll bet they were excited about that trip. It puts me in the mind of so many mission trips I’ve done over the years – with youth, with adults, with mixed generations. We return so energized and excited by what we’ve been able to do in Jesus’ name. But it doesn’t take long for that energy and enthusiasm to wane; in no time flat we develop a sort of spiritual amnesia. In no time flat, we are tired and discouraged and skeptical. “Where are we to buy bread for these people; we have nothing here…” It is not that the disciples didn’t notice the need. They’re on it even before Jesus can make mention of it. “Hey Jesus, these folks have been here a long time. I’m sure they’re hungry. Seems like the Christian thing to do would be to dismiss them so they can get back into town and get some groceries. We just don’t have the resources to take care of them.”
Or, lo and behold… well, maybe we do. Perhaps while we are busy bemoaning the deficit, Jesus has already got some ideas of his own. He’s not about to let us off the hook. “You,” he says, “you give them something to eat.” And really, what are we going to say to that?
And, there is just one more thing about this miracle that I don’t imagine we think about very much. That bread, those fish: It was Jesus who blessed and broke them; it was the disciples who distributed them; and yet, the stuff of that miracle, the “starter kit,” so to speak; well, it started with the crowds themselves. They had resources… not nearly enough, but they had them and because they shared them, because they offered them up to Jesus, he worked a miracle that day: a bountiful feast that filled everyone’s bellie
[i] Luke 12:22
Some of you have already inquired about the table that is here off to my right. What’s that about? What’s that doing in the sanctuary?
Well, as many of you are aware, we are now in the season of Lent. And with this new season comes a new sermon series: Table Talk. Throughout Lent this year, all of my sermons will examine a bible story of Jesus at a meal. Then, each Sunday after worship, we’ll be heading downstairs to the Friendship Room for a soup and bread luncheon where we’ll fellowship together and also look at another bible story, a different story. I hope you’ll come downstairs and join us. If you’re a guest or a visitor, I especially hope you’ll join us so we can show you some good Trinity hospitality. Finally, with an emphasis on the “talk” part of Table Talk, I’ve written a devotional for each week and Trinity members will take turns responding to and commenting on those devotional writings.
Now perhaps “tables” seem like an odd choice for the season of Lent; but here is the thing: the season of Lent, as it was begun by the church fathers long ago, was a time when Christian converts were taught about the faith and prepared for church membership; and, it was also a time when church folks who’d “back slid,” we might say, had the opportunity to repent of their sins and return to the church and renew their commitment to Christ and to his people. So Lent is, at its core, “fellowship or relationship” oriented. Lent is a time both to strengthen our relationship with Jesus and a time to grow our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And there are not many things I can think of that have more to do with fellowship and relationships than meals. I mean, think about it: you’ll ride a bus or a plane with a stranger seated right next to you. You’ll go to the theater or some musical production and sit adjacent to a stranger. You’ll sign up for a class or a course knowing full well that the person seated at the desk right next to yours will likely be a stranger. You’ll go the gym or the Y where you barely have enough space to walk between the equipment and pay no attention to the stranger on the adjacent treadmill. But who among us sits down next to a stranger to share a meal? Meals are, by their very nature, about fellowship. We eat meals with family and friends. Even when we have a business lunch or a working lunch, often the idea in mind is that, by eating a meal together, we’ll grow the relationship enough to seal the deal or pitch the concept. There is something about meals that binds us to one another.
And there is also something about meals that is celebrative. I have presided through the years over more funerals than I could begin to count. And most of them have been followed by a meal. Now here’s the interesting thing: no matter how much the family wept during the funeral service, it is a mighty rare and unusual thing for no one to laugh over the meal. Over that funeral luncheon, they tell stories of their loved one – fun and humorous stories. “Remember that time when…”
But, of all the meal settings we can experience, none compare to the joy of a wedding reception. It is the ultimate celebration of relationship; not only of the coming together of the man and woman to begin a new family; but also of their families being joined to one another.
The gospel of John – the source of this morning’s meal story – is a gospel enormously focused on relationship and so, perhaps we should not be surprised that Jesus’ very first miracle, or sign as they are called in John, occurs at a wedding reception.
It does, however, raise a few eyebrows (this miracle of turning water into wine). I mean, this was Jesus’ very first miracle and when you consider all of the things he could have chosen to do – causing a blind man to see or a lame person to walk or even bringing a dead person back to life, all of which do happen in John’s gospel – it seems a little odd that Jesus begins with a beverage miracle. I grew up in a part of the country where “tea-tottling” and Methodist went hand in hand. And, as a child, I couldn’t imagine why Jesus would have used his godly powers to get a bunch of people liquored up at a wedding reception. But, my interpretation of Jesus’ actions was greatly influenced by my culture, a culture very different from 1st century Palestine. In Jesus’ culture, as I’ve mentioned before, the practice of hospitality had a significant impact on someone’s reputation and character. To practice poor hospitality was to dishonor oneself and one’s family. In ancient Palestine, marriage symbolized the yoking together of two families and the joining together of those two families was celebrated by the entire village.
When Britt and I were in seminary, we became friends with an international student from Italy. About a month after his graduation, Dominic was to wed Lillianna, a young lady he had known since childhood. Britt and I traveled to Rochester, NY to attend the wedding and the reception. Now, I grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania where the typical wedding reception consisted of fried chicken, halupkis, and ravioli served at the local fire hall and followed by polka dancing. If I recall correctly, Dominic and Lillianna’s wedding reception took place at Rochester’s Convention Center and the place was packed. We were served a seven- course meal – the first I’d ever eaten; even sorbet to cleanse your palate. Each guest in attendance received a gift from the bride and groom. Britt and I were seated at a table with a friend from seminary. Sensing that I was stupefied by the whole enterprise, Tim remarked that Lillianna’s dad had begun saving for her wedding on the day she was born.
And Mediterranean culture has changed very little in the past two thousand years. Hospitality was and is of incredible importance. If one did not have everything ready and available for their guest’s comfort and satisfaction, it reflected on one’s character. To practice poor hospitality was to dishonor oneself and one’s family. To run out of food or drink for one’s guests could mean that, not only your guests, even your entire community, would shun you. Depending on your offense, you could be shamed or ostracized for the rest of your life. And, the shame might continue even through to subsequent generations. So, to run out of wine at a wedding was no small thing in Cana of Galilee in the first century.
And here’s one more thing to add to the mix… that really, in fact, becomes the key to the whole story. A group of close friends within your village would provide you the things you needed for hospitality on an occasion like this. And, you would be expected to do the same for them, to reciprocate. What I mean is; the burden of expense for this wedding reception did not fall solely on the shoulders of the couple’s families. Such feasting would have been too expensive for a peasant family to afford. So, things like food and wine would have been sent ahead by a close circle of friends, likely peers of the groom. And, when their time came to wed, they could call in a favor, so to speak.
Now in the case of this morning’s story, the provisions were obviously inadequate. There wasn’t enough wine. There was an obvious deficit. But the deficit wasn’t really about wine. The lack of wine revealed a lack of hospitality. The lack of hospitality was due to a lack of friends. And, the lack of friends meant a lack of honor or good reputation. So you can see that the crisis in this story is really all about relationships. And perhaps that is why this miracle is kept on the down-low. Jesus’ mother, his disciples and some servants are the only ones who know what’s transpired. In fact, the chief steward – the head caterer – compliments and praises who? Why, the groom, of course. The key concern here is about a shortage of friends which would have been seen for what it was when the wine ran out. This story is about relationships, friends with whom to celebrate this most joyous of occasions. Let me say that again. The key concern of this story is not really about a shortage of wine. It is about relationships; it is about table fellowship; it is about celebration. It is about Jesus stepping into the role of friend to provide for this couple on their wedding day. What a friend we have in Jesus; the one who cares about our gladness, our celebration, our relationships.
So, although this story might seem rather trivial to us, it wouldn’t have been trivial to a first century Palestinian. And, because of that, it wasn’t trivial to Jesus either. Jesus steps in as friend to this groom to provide exactly what he needs. To provide something even better than what he needs.
You see, Jesus is not a savior in the abstract. Jesus came to live among us and to celebrate with us. Jesus, in all his divinity, cares greatly about things like receptions and celebrations; relationships and community.
In the Russian novel “The Brothers Karamazov,” the story of Jesus’ miracle at Cana becomes the focal point when the character Alyosha is grieving the death of his spiritual father and mentor, Father Zossima. The body of Zossima is being kept in a small room while prayers and various rites are pronounced over his deceased body in preparation for his burial. Alyosha returns to the room late at night, distraught over Zossima’s death. And then, as if it couldn't get any worse, he is devastated by the grief that Zossima's dead body is producing quite the stench. You see, at that point in time, people believed that saints did not give off a stench at death. So, the fact that Father Zossima's body is starting to smell, calls into question his holiness. Aloysha is heartbroken. But nevertheless, despite his grief and shame, Alyosha returns to be near the body of his mentor. He sits and prays and meditates. And then, in the background, he hears a priest begin to recite the story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. Suddenly, Alyosha’s mind is captured by what he hears.
And when they wanted wine, the priest read, the mother of Jesus saith unto him; “They have no wine…”
“Ah, yes,” Alyosha thinks to himself. “I was missing that… Ah, that miracle. That sweet miracle! It was not men’s grief but their joy Christ visited; he worked his first miracle to help men’s gladness… for ‘He who loves men loves their gladness, too…’
The priest in the background continued to read: Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what has it to do with thee or me? Mine hour is not yet come.
His mother saith unto the servants: Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it…
Aloysha reflects: “Gladness, the gladness of some poor people… [who] hadn’t wine enough even at a wedding. But Jesus' mother knew that he had come not only to make his great and terrible sacrifice [on the cross]. She knew that his heart was open even to the… simple merrymaking of… [those] who had warmly bidden him to come to their poor wedding. ‘Mine hour is not yet come…’ he said. And indeed was it to make wine abundant at poor weddings he had come down to earth? And yet he… worked his first miracle to help men’s gladness… For the one who loves us, loves our gladness, too."
Friends: that is gospel. It is good, very good news, that Jesus wants us to experience times of gladness and celebration. And he reminds us that he is no less present at a dinner party than he is in a hospital room. Jesus delights when we can gather around the table and celebrate the blessing of our fellowship with one another. Jesus loves, he delights in our gladness.
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