Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
So, here we are: this is the summer.
I don’t know whether it’s something to do with the street I live in but this time of year seems to me to be characterised by the smell of barbeques.
I must be deeply anti-social or I have some other personality defect but I don’t find chasing paper plates around someone’s garden, while balancing a cup of cheap beer and avoiding ketchup stains and salmonella, a recipe for unbridled fun.
But that’s just me.
This time of year always puts me in mind of my Auntie Doreen in Barnsley. Have I mentioned my Auntie Doreen in Barnsley before? No? Well, you know the phrase “glass half full, glass half empty”? It makes no difference to her, she’ll drink it anyway. So, I called round one day and she was in a bad mood having bought two barbeque packs from B & Q.
“There” she said brandishing one in my face. “Look at the picture.” The picture showed a barbeque, all set up, with succulent food cooking nicely.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“Well, look for yourself.” She said brandishing the open box again. “It’s a bag of charcoal. There’s no food.”
I explained gently, not wishing to make her feel stupid that it was just the cooking element of the barbeque she had bought and that no food was included what with B & Q not generally selling food.
She took it well, I thought, and then turned on her heel and headed for the kitchen. “I’d better get the other one out of the freezer, then.”
Today’s Gospel, though not exactly describing a barbeque on the Galilean hills, tells of Jesus meeting the needs of his hungry followers.
I don’t know whether you had realised that there is a second miracle of feeding the multitudes. This comes a couple chapters later in Matthew’s gospel – and in Mark’s Gospel too.
Jesus asked them, “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him “Twelve.”
“And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of pieces did you collect?” And they said to him “Seven.” Then he said to them “Do you not yet understand?”
Jesus poses a very important question, “Do you not yet understand?” and that question is for us today as much as it was for his followers then. Do we understand?
How we understand the miracle stories of Jesus is real problem to some people as if there was only one answer. This is one of the best known of the miracle stories of Jesus: it’s in all four Gospels. Most of us have heard it before and most of us have heard it countless times and because of that most of us believe we understand it. That can make us lazy, “Oh, I know this one. Nudge me when he’s finished.” But the question of what we understand from this event remains important.
Christians have argued down the ages about the true meaning of these feeding miracles. One approach is that everything is to be taken at the plainest level of meaning and must have happened exactly as it is written. The response to this miracle is to say “Well, it just goes to show that Jesus is God, doesn’t it?” To some people, doubting that a miracle story happened exactly as it was recorded in the Gospels is as good as doubting the divinity of Christ. If God exists, then anything is possible surely? If Jesus is the Son of God then we shouldn’t be surprised by such a miracle. That’s a perfectly reasonable understanding of the story.
The problem with this way of looking at the story is that it ignores any symbolism at the story’s heart.
The approach other Christians use is to strip away any of the supernatural bits of the miracle accounts to reveal the morals behind the stories. In this case those Christians have understood the moral to be that when Jesus fed the five thousand he and the disciples shared out what they had and their example encouraged others who had been holding back their own food to share theirs too. The “real” miracle, then, was that everyone discovered the importance of sharing with others and caring for them. This approach isn’t to deny the power of God because, as we’ve said, if God exists then surely anything is possible but in this way of looking at the story we see the power of God at work in a much more subtle way: we don’t need great signs and wonders, possible as those are, when God touches the hearts of people to care for each other.
That too is a perfectly reasonable way of looking at the story.
But the problem with looking at the story in this way is that it hardly sounds like good news and certainly not a tremendous demonstration of God’s overflowing generosity to his people.
Does it matter?
Really does it matter?
If we can take something away with us from a Gospel passage about the nature of God, does it really matter that you’ve taken one point and you’ve taken another and that we haven’t agreed? We’re all at different stages in our growth as Christians and the Holy Spirit guides each one of us differently. How you understand a passage of the Bible today isn’t necessarily how you’ll understand it in five or ten years’ time. Is it realistic to expect that someone who has been a follower of Jesus for most of their adult life will understand in the same way that someone who has just become a disciple does?
So I ask again, does it really matter providing that we each feel that God has spoken to us in some way through that passage?
So, for what it’s worth here’s what I took from the story – and this is where seeing this story of feeding the five thousand on its own without the other one which comes later, feeding the four thousand, – doesn’t help us to see the full importance of either story because they need to be understood together.
The first miracle takes place in a Jewish area near the Sea of Galilee while the second takes place in an area called the Decapolis, a largely Gentile area, the Gentiles being anyone who isn’t Jewish: you and me.
Why is that important?
I think it’s important because these two stories taken together reflect Jesus’ mission: they reinforce what Jesus was all about. He came for ALL people.
In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus say to his Jewish audience, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” So the good news Jesus brought wasn’t just for his own people, although they heard it first.
St. Paul takes that thought further in his letter to the Romans where he writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile.”
These two feeding miracles are the mission of Jesus to all people acted out, first to his own people, the Jews and then to the Gentiles, everyone else.
So, take your pick: a story about the miraculous power of Jesus revealing that he is God; a story where the example of Jesus shows people the importance of caring for one another or a story which acts out Jesus’ mission to bring salvation to all people.
And, do you know what? I don’t much care which one you go with. Are they not all valid understandings of this Gospel passage? The question each of us needs to ask is, “What is the Holy Spirit teaching ME this morning?” Not, “What’s the Holy Spirit teaching him … or him, but what’s the message for me in this passage?”
The bottom line to all these approaches is found in John’s Gospel where Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. I am the living bread that came down from Heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
That’s what we’re moving on to here this morning in our Communion service.