“God’s Abundance” Colchester Federated Church, July 25, 2021, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (John 6:1-21)
Today’s Gospel story is probably familiar—it’s the feeding of the five thousand. When contemplating this story, one often hears arguments about the nature of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. Namely, did Jesus miraculously take 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, look up to heaven, bless them and break the loaves, give them to the disciples to distribute among the crowd and all ate and were filled? Or did people sit down on the grass as Jesus commanded and feel so moved by sharing from scarcity that the crowd all scrounged up whatever food they had to share with one another in order to feed everyone gathered? And that’s the miracle of the multiplication?
Some might take that view specifically from how John tells us the story. Because in this version of the feeding of the five thousand we can read Andrew saying, “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?” Well, if folks saw this young child willing to share what they had, maybe it would inspire others to share what they had too. Generosity multiplies. It’s why in fundraising one generally begins a capital campaign for instance by securing larger donations from a few individuals. So that when the campaign is announced to the wider community, there is already funding that has been secured. Universities, non-profits, churches do this often. For example, the Smith family has promised our university $1 million for a new scholarship fund, and we are hoping to fundraise for the rest that we need. In this way, the young child is almost like that generous donor who was willing to give a large donation to inspire more generosity. Five loaves of bread and two fish were a great deal for that child to give, especially if that child came from more modest circumstances.
The point of these wonderings is to be willing to ask the question—is the multiplication miracle in our Gospel story from John about Jesus alone feeding all these folks? Or is the feeding of the five thousand about ordinary people sharing with one another and the miracle that results from generosity multiplying? Both interpretations are good and worthy of being contemplated. Who knows, there might be even more interpretations we haven’t thought of yet.
It’s also interesting to think about the order of events. Before we get to the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus was off healing people. He withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself with the disciples. That’s what we contemplated last Sunday when Jesus commanded his followers to rest a while after their mission to those who were lost and hurting. The crowds hear that Jesus is on the move. So they follow him on foot from the surrounding towns. Jesus goes back ashore and finds this great crowd waiting for him.
It would have been easy for Jesus to be annoyed. Yes, Jesus was God-with-us and he was a human being. Jesus had just wanted some peace, and seems to have gotten it only to find masses of people clamoring for his attention as soon as he crosses the Sea of Galilee. Though here’s what’s amazing—before we get to the miracle, Jesus looks at these people gathered on that mountainside and has overwhelming compassion. He asks Philip, “Where will we buy food for these people?” Jesus’ compassion compels him to act.
Jesus healed people and fed people because he cared about them. It matters that Jesus looks at these hungry people, these sick people, these hurting people and he feels compassion in our Gospel story. It matters that he heals and ensures that those who are sick are made well before he feeds them. Whether Jesus’ compassion helped him do the miracle of multiplication with God’s help or his compassion resulted in the miracle of multiplication with participation by everyone, the compassion comes first. Compassion compelled Jesus to action. Compassion has a way of showing God’s abundance.
Jesus was known as a healer, and focused on healing people in body, mind, and spirit. How we take that knowledge as Christians and apply it to our own lives is going to vary. Though Jesus cared about people who were unwell, and there’s no way we can read the Gospels and not encounter stories about sickness and healing.
Because Jesus healed people who were sick and cared about people who were hungry. We see both areas of Jesus’ concern today in this one story of the feeding of the five thousand. Hunger remains a pressing issue in our world. A well-known organization that focuses on hunger for the most vulnerable is the United Nation’s World Food Program. This humanitarian organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020. Because every year, the World Food Program delivers 4 million tons of food to nearly 138 million people. Those are staggering numbers about world hunger to even fathom. 4 million tons of food. 138 million people who need help to not starve. It can make us ask some questions: how can a child grow without enough food? Let alone learn on an empty stomach? How do countries with limited resources and infrastructure respond when a natural disaster strikes? How do innocent civilians living in a country at war feed their families? Right now the United Nations World Food Program relates that there are emergency situations of hunger in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen, the Sahel region, and Syria. Let alone all of the emergency situations that have arisen around the world because of covid-19.
As individuals we can do what we can to support initiatives that aim to end hunger. That’s when one of these interpretations of the miracle can really inspire us. Because you and I don’t have the power to take five loaves of bread and two fish, bless them, break the loaves, and feed thousands of people. But together we can each share what we have. In so doing, our small individual gifts multiply. We can be like that child in our story who gave Jesus the five barley loaves and two fish. Remember that we have a food bank right here in our own backyard. And as Christians are reminded from the Letter of James—“as the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead.”
At the end of the day, even though this is a Gospel story about the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth way back in the First Century there are parallels today. Jesus’ compassion led him to action, and so can ours. Sick people in need of healing and hungry people in need of food are still with us. Our Christian faith can inform our lives, can inform how we respond to this lived reality for too many people. The ministry of hospitality, feeding people not just in body but in spirit matters. Because there’s something so wonderful about people actually feeling seen when we gather together. There’s something so compelling about Jesus feeding hungry people, knowing that we can be part of that miracle too. So thanks be to God for this miracle of multiplication, for God’s abundance. What we offer God here in love can become so much more. May it be so with us. Amen.