What are you hungry for? Really hungry for? Stop for a moment, right now, wherever you happen to be--in your car, at your kitchen table, at a computer screen -- wherever you are hearing or reading these words, stop for just a moment and ask yourself this question: "What am I hungry for? And how hungry am I?"
Whatever your response to that question, God cares about your answer. God cares about your hunger, your desire. God cares about whatever it is you are longing for, hunting for, hoping for. If there's one thing to be said for certain about today's Gospel reading, it is surely this: God cares about your hunger.
It's important to God, this hunger, and the early church apparently knew it because this story of the feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle story of Jesus that gets told in all four gospels. There is no other story like that. Every single one of them -- Matthew, Mark Luke, and John -- recount this story and two of them even recount it twice. For those early Christians, it clearly got to the heart of something they knew was important about this Jesus, about who he was and what he was up to, and what he found to be important.
Perhaps one reason for this is the obvious one. Hunger is a universal experience. From the moment we are born we are faced with it. It is a part of what all of us confront. This is not so true of the other stories about what Jesus was up to and what he did for people. The other stories don't necessarily connect to what our own particular stories include. Not all of us are blind or deaf or plagued by spirits or unable to walk. Not all of us are grieving for our dead child, bent over in pain, or stuck in a sinking boat. Jesus attended to all of these needs and so many more.
But perhaps those needs feel apart from our needs, apart from what our own days are filled with or where our own hearts struggle. But hunger, hunger, now that's another thing. We all feel it. We all know it. It is incessant. It returns. It propels us to the things that give us life, or at least to the things that we think will give us life, to the things that quite literally we can't live without. We spend time and effort and energy of every kind on making it go away, on filling ourselves with something, on staving off our hunger and keeping it at bay.
But where is Jesus in all of this? And what does this story say? In John's version, Jesus has been in Galilee healing the sick. The people have noticed the signs he's been up to, so a crowd follows him to the place where he's gone with his disciples. There are so many of them, and Jesus looks at Philip and says, "Where are we to buy bread for all these people? They're hungry. So what are we going to do?" It's telling that in John's version Jesus asks the disciples, while in Matthew and Mark and Luke it's the other way around. The disciples ask him. In this case, Jesus looks at his followers, looks at the likes of you and me and says, "So what are we gonna do here? How are we going to deal with this problem of hunger?"
It is clear that Philip reaches for the usual kinds of categories and expectations. He begins to calculate how much money they need to buy supper for all these folks. He begins to work on logistics. "Half a year's paychecks won't do the trick. Our budget just isn't big enough. Our resources are just too few." But Jesus knows that conventional answers aren't what's called for here. Aren't what's really needed.
At this point, Andrew walks up. "Well, there is someone here," he says. "There's this kid with some barley loaves and a couple of fish." Andrew looks at who's around. Who's on hand? Looks at what's available. And what's available is the lunch of a boy who is clearly not a power broker, clearly not someone with rank. Because barley flour is the flour that poor folks used for their loaves, not what the rich folks used. It's a little detail that only John mentions. Andrew sees that perhaps real needs aren't necessarily filled by the folks that we've often looked to to meet them.
But Jesus is saying more than that. Jesus is saying that the hunger goes deeper. The way John tells the story, it's clear that Jesus is the One who can end real hunger--of every sort, not just the kind that makes for growling stomachs an hour before lunchtime. Because John changes another detail in the story: He makes Jesus the host of this meal, the one who distributes the food. In the other gospels, it's the disciples who take up the work, and those stories say important things too. But, here for John, there's something else going on. Something else we're to hear and see and know. In this version, it's Jesus who hands out the food.
Because in John, it's Jesus himself who will become the real food; Jesus who will say to us just a few verses later, "I am the bread of life. Those who come to me will never hunger." Here in John, as in the other gospels, the crowds eat till they are filled, till their hunger is gone. But in John, Jesus also adds, "Gather up the fragments, that nothing may be lost," because Jesus' real purpose is to keep things from being lost. To keep us from being lost. From perishing is what the word means. His real purpose is to provide sustenance that lasts, that keeps us truly alive, that won't feed us one moment then leave us hungry the next.
Jesus is saying, "I am the real food. The most important food. Don't spend your lives on food that spoils. Don't stock the shelves of your life with perishables. Put me there instead. Make me your staple, the food that's going to last. When you're hungry," says Jesus, "then reach first for me."
It is strange food, this food called Jesus. We consume it, take it into ourselves like ordinary bread. We begin to digest it, till it becomes part of us. But then this bread of life does something else, something the ordinary bread doesn't do. This bread, this food, this Jesus begins to consume us, begins to make us part of him. We are used to consuming our food, but now our food consumes us. And in that consumption, we ourselves become a non-perishable. We ourselves become food for the world -- living loaves.
You are likely hungry today and that matters. And you can spend your energy on food of all sorts, but Jesus reminds you now to be careful what you buy and to be careful what you count as a staple because some foods will fool you and leave you starving in the end. It's the real food that matters, the real food that counts. It's Jesus who can fill you and who is ready, right now and always, so reach out for this food and eat up!
Let us pray.
Gracious God, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world, evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.