Loaves and Fishes - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Loaves and Fishes

John 6: 1-21

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After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias.

And a great multitude followed him, because they saw his miracles which he did on them that were diseased.

And Jesus went up into a mountain, and there he sat with his disciples.

And the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh.

When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?

And this he said to prove him: for he himself knew what he would do.

Philip answered him, Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little.

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, saith unto him,

There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?

10 And Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand.

11 And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would.

12 When they were filled, he said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.

13 Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten.

14 Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world.

15 When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone.

16 And when even was now come, his disciples went down unto the sea,

17 And entered into a ship, and went over the sea toward Capernaum. And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them.

18 And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew.

19 So when they had rowed about five and twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing nigh unto the ship: and they were afraid.

20 But he saith unto them, It is I; be not afraid.

21 Then they willingly received him into the ship: and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went.

Loaves and Fishes
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Some years ago I happened to be walking through Oxford city centre, when I witnessed a rather extraordinary event taking place.  One of the local evangelical churches had taken over part of the central shopping area and had set up a series of stalls, with a music band and an enormous barbecue.  And the point of all this, as the posters and flyers on display made clear, was that, inspired by the miracle of the loaves and fishes, which we heard in our gospel a moment ago, they had set themselves the task of feeding 5,000 members of the public.  So their barbecue was running from dawn until dusk, cooking burgers and hot dogs, all of which were given out completely free of charge to passing shoppers - who were clearly somewhat bemused by this rather unexpected act of generosity, but were nevertheless perfectly happy to shrug their shoulders, join the queues and receive their free grub.

Now, at one level I can understand what that church was attempting to do, through this rather ambitious and unusual undertaking - which I imagine was something to do with symbolizing the generosity and grace of God's love, which is also freely given.  Those church members were endeavouring to communicate that truth in a very striking and concrete way - and hurrah for that!  However, I am rather less convinced about how successful they were in achieving their aim - and my reason for thinking that takes us back to the original miracle story.

So let's look a little more closely at our gospel reading.  The first thing to note is that, unlike the Oxford event, Jesus was not surrounded by crowds of people because he happened to be in the middle of a busy city centre - on the contrary, he was out in the wilds of Galilee, up a mountain.  The reason why there were so many people around him was because they had deliberately followed him there.  And the reason why they had followed him was because they were in need: our reading tells us that they had seen what he had been doing for the sick and the suffering - and so they followed him in their droves.  It is worth noting that they were emphatically not following him in the hope that they would benefit from a free picnic - indeed, we are told that what they were seeking from Jesus was not feeding, but healing.

Because in St John's version of the story, which we heard a moment ago, It is Jesus himself who first raises the issue of how they are to be fed.  The disciples are perplexed by his question: as Philip observes, six months' wages wouldn't pay for enough bread for everyone there to receive even a morsel - and all that they had to hand were the five barley loaves and two fishes that a young boy happened to have with him.  But Jesus is completely unfazed by this.  He simply takes those paltry offerings, the loaves and the fishes, and blesses them, breaks them, and shares them, and astonishingly, miraculously, not only is there enough food to go round, but the scraps left over were enough to fill twelve baskets. 

And, importantly, when that happens we are told that the crowds recognize Jesus for who he truly is, declaring, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world".  How do they know that? Because, of course, they knew that this kind of miraculous feeding had happened before.  In the Old Testament Book of Kings the prophet Elisha feeds a multitude with a few loaves of bread, and at the end still has some left over, just as in our miracle story. In other words, part of the purpose of the miracle is that it points to the truth of who Jesus is.  But there is more.

One of the interesting things that the two crowds I have described have in common - the crowd in Oxford city centre, and the crowd on the Galilean mountainside, is that neither of them had any expectation of being fed.  But there is a very significant difference between them, too.  Because, for the Oxford shoppers, lured to the Christian barbecue by the offer of a free burger, that handout was simply saving them the cost of going to McDonalds instead.  I suspect that, once they had wiped the ketchup from their hands and returned to the really important business of the day, which was bargain-hunting, most of them didn't give the event a second thought. I would lay money on the likelihood that, by the following day, most of them had forgotten that it ever happened at all.

Whereas the relationship that Jesus has with the multitude is a very different one.  Firstly, we have noted before that they are following him because they are already aware of their need.  However, they don't yet recognize the true extent of that need.  Because Jesus knows that they do not merely require healing, but also feeding, physically, metaphorically and spiritually - as we all do.  And, as a result, they were not simply handed out the Galilean equivalent of fast food - but rather were given a glimpse of the kingdom; a glimpse of the power and the grace of God, working through Christ - a glimpse of the kind of generous love that really is the key to true human flourishing, because it feeds us. 

In the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, we witness, in a truly remarkable and memorable way, the timeless truth that the generosity of God knows no bounds.  And, more than that, we are also shown that if we offer up the little that we have, astonishingly, and inexplicably, we can find that it yields more, in bewildering abundance.  Just like the parable of the mustard seed, in which the tiniest of seeds grows into the greatest of trees.  And that testifies to the extraordinary and powerful adventure that is the life of faith.  The feeding of the five thousand is about so much more than simply the provision of an unexpected lunchtime snack for a large number of people.  Rather, it is a story that gives us a glimpse of a world in which things can, and do, happen differently.

Sometimes, particularly when we recognize that we are confronted with a situation of real need that is way beyond our own resources or our own energy to deal with - all we can do is to hand over to God the very best of what we have - however paltry or inadequate those things might seem - and then wait and see what happens.  And if you are ready to do that, wholeheartedly and faithfully, then, believe me, you must also be ready to be amazed.

Jesus spent his ministry equipping very ordinary people to do very extraordinary things; and to use the most unremarkable things of life to achieve the truly remarkable, through blessing them and using them in his service: bread and wine; loaves and fishes, and most ordinary of all, water.  Because by the power of God's love, water, one of the most basic and simple elements on earth, becomes the water of baptism - a channel of God's love and grace.  So when we welcomed Grace into Christ's family through her baptism today we were all witnessing a miracle that is in its own way no less extraordinary.

Offer to God's love the simple things that we have, and then await the extraordinary; the incredible; the mind-blowing.  Because, give it time.  It will happen.

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