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
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