"Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted."
Wow! What a miracle! Imagine it: 5,000 unexpected supper guests. As the story begins, Jesus and his disciples are totally unprepared for such a hoard of hungry mouths, and there they are with no "order out" restaurants nearby. It almost seems that Jesus enjoys the growing anxiety among his disciples. "So, Philip, where are we going to buy food for this crowd anyway?" he queries. "You've got to be kidding... Have you looked at our organizational balance sheet lately?" is the worried response he gets. The question not uttered but undoubtedly equally felt by Philip, "How in the world do we handle such a ravenous mob?"
And how does Jesus respond to this anxiety? With a response that doesn't seem very helpful at face value. Andrew notices that a young fellow has five loaves of bread and a couple of fish. So Jesus takes this small amount of food and asks all those people to sit down on the lawn. ("Good heavens, Master, this is not a time for symbolic teaching. It's time for a table for 5,000, if you please.")
But Jesus does the miraculous, the unbelievable, the wondrous. He takes the loaves, prays the ancient Hebrew prayer of blessing, "Berekah, Adonai, Eluhenu," and says to his disciples, "Now guys, you be the waiters. Distribute this food." He does the same with the fish and has it distributed. And by God, literally by God, all 5,000 hungry folks are fed, and there are baskets of leftovers to boot.
I'll say it again: What a miracle!
Now there is an immediate danger in hearing this story, and it is this: We can get so caught up in the culinary aspects of this great miracle that we miss the real point. This is more than the greatest catering story ever told. It is a miracle and demonstration of just how God relates to us. It is one of the rich and wondrous "signs" as they are termed in John's Gospel, one of the powerful and poignant events revealing who God really is and how God truly operates in Jesus Christ. It is one of those magnificent and mysterious occasions manifesting the very essence and purpose of God.
The real point of the feeding of the 5,000, I believe, is that God fed the people, and the number of hungry mouths that showed up for dinner is quite incidental when you look at it from God's perspective. This miraculous story reveals a compassionate God, who recognizes that people are very, very hungry, and then responds to that hunger by feeding them. It depicts the abundance of love and compassion that God has for people in their hunger and need.
The story itself is mirrored and summarized by a comment found in the Letter to the Ephesians which forms the epistle reading paired with the Gospel miracle story in the set of readings appointed for today. Just listen to the words: "God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us, made us alive together with Christ." Notice the words used to describe who God is and how God operates: "mercy, love, grace, kindness." This is the God revealed in the miracle of feeding 5,000 hungry people, a God who is rich in mercy and love, a God who is abundant in kindness and grace. This is a God who sees the hunger and need of human beings and then proceeds to feed them.
Jesus of Nazareth recognized the incredible physical hunger of the people who gathered there, and he satisfied that hunger. But Jesus also recognized something more. He witnessed the incredible personal, emotional, spiritual hunger of those people who gathered there, and he fed them with God's mercy, love, grace and kindness. It was the nature of his mission to feed the hungry with God's grace of healing and wholeness, with the Good News of God's inexhaustible love for them, with the hope of life that would sustain them beyond this earthly existence into eternity. He fed them with himself; he fed them with his presence, his love, his forgiveness.
I'll say it again: What a miracle!
This Gospel miracle speaks directly to us today, because we human beings are hungry in two very important ways. First, a great proportion of people in this world are physically and literally hungry. It's true in our own country, where men, women, and especially children go to bed hungry much more frequently than we want to think about. And it's true in this world where famine, starvation and want are daily experience for millions upon millions of men, women, and especially children. Physical hunger gnaws at far, far too many of God's children. We are hungry!
And there's another kind of hunger that gnaws at God's children too: the hunger of the spirit. We are hungry for so many things even in a society where most of us do have enough food to eat. We hunger for community, for purpose and for love. We are ravenous for meaning, direction and depth in our lives. The spirituality of the 21st century is so often described as hunger and thirst, as search for meaning and substance in our lives. We are hungry!
God acknowledges human hunger in both of these ways, and the Gospel we have heard directly applies to both hungers, physical and spiritual. The good news of that Gospel, the good news of our God, is that God feeds us with mercy, with grace, compassion, and love. "For God who is rich in mercy, for God who has loved us, has made us alive," that is the witness from the Letter to the Ephesians.
This has three profound effects on us. First, it prompts us to be instruments of that love and mercy by working diligently and faithfully to eradicate physical hunger in this world. And make no mistake about it; it is possible to do this, whether it is through the local food bank or feeding ministry, or through our efforts to engage public policy so that feeding the hungry is a priority in our country, or through participation in the international movement supporting the Millennium Development Goals in their purpose of conquering hunger and deprivation in the world. We can do it. God does feed human beings, and God uses us as God's instruments to feed the hungry.
There's a second effect of the feeding that God does for us in our lives. And that effect is fulfillment. We can be full, satisfied, abundantly filled, if we will open ourselves to God's feeding. The truth is that spiritual food is abundant. God richly provides love, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and all we have to do is to sit down and eat. It is a feast of community and spirit, a feast of learning and enlightenment, a feast of praise and transformation. God's nourishment is effective and powerful, and all are invited to that nourishment.
All are invited, that's the third effect. God's feeding prompts us to be a people who invite people far and wide into that love. It's time for the church to wake up; it's time for us to wake up to the fact that our mission, our purpose and our work are to invite people to satisfy their hunger in our communities of faith. It is to intentionally recognize that people in our world, our culture and our own daily experience are hungry and then to respond to that spiritual hunger by inviting all to the table. The truth is that we have been lulled into complacency and timidity assuming that people will naturally find their place at the table, instead of actively inviting and saying broadly and boldly, "There is food for you here. Come to the table. You are invited."
God fed people in God's land 2,000 years ago. God feeds us in our own time and place. And God does this because God is abundant in love, in mercy, in compassion. That's the message for this moment, a message for you and for me. This is a time when the compassion of God speaks most powerfully and poignantly to us, a time to emphasize that compassion in a direct and bold way. How hopeful it is, how hopeful it is. God feeds us with God's compassion and love. That's the message that speaks to people who are hungry, a message that must be shared.
The story and miracle of the feeding of 5,000 hungry human beings offers a multifaceted invitation to us. First and foremost, this story and its miracle invite us to be fed by God in our own souls. "Sit down and eat." "I will feed you with my love." "Your life and heart and soul can be filled." That's what God says to us. It is a deeply personal invitation to know just how much God loves us, an invitation to taste the compassion of God.
It is an invitation to two other things as well: to feed those who are hungry for daily bread in this world, to join in the solidarity of service and advocacy to feed the hungry. And it is the invitation to welcome others to the table of God's grace and mercy, to become intentional about and committed to the invitation and welcome of people to come to the table, to enjoy the food which God offers.
What a miracle, what a miracle, that God feeds us abundantly, that God calls and equips us to feed others, that God invites us to invite other hungry human beings to God's love. What compassion, what mercy, what grace. "Come and get it."
Let us pray: Gracious Creator 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 the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.