A Morsel Which Sustains Us
I have been working this week on the “welcome” materials for incoming students. They will be here two days after I get back from the alumni trip to Germany. Realizing that we may only get a paragraph or two of introduction, it is important to craft a message which covers both aspects of what we seek to do.
Here is another way to explain to you what I mean. You may have already experienced it, if you have come to the communion rail, and knelt next a small child on one occasion and then on another next to an adult friend who struggles with a persistent problem.
When a small child comes to the rail, one who is not receiving the bread and wine, a blessing is given to them. I don’t have a prescribed text, but I do try to follow a formula. I tell the child that God loves them. And I assure the child that God will protect and care for them. That is the message I want them to hear, and that they need to hearl.
All is well and good, until I finish these words of assurance and turn to the next person. When that person is someone who has had a long and difficult struggle with a chronic illness or someone whose life has been disrupted by a tragic event; when that next person in line isn’t some adorable little child but a real-life survivor of the world’s harshness; I stumble even over the simple promise that in this morsel of bread, God is promising to be with you. The young child has been assured that everything will be just fine. The adult is given a bite of bread and the hope that maybe this will be enough to tide you over.
I guess it isn’t a full blown inconsistency. But it is at least a stark contrast. And every time it happens I ask myself over and over again, “Which is the truth?” I struggle to determine whether both can be true.
This gospel lesson forces us to think about this dilemma. A miracle occurs in these few verses. Jesus takes a few loaves and a couple of fish and he feeds a hungry crowd - 5,000 in number. This gospel lesson supports the blessing offered to those children at the communion rail - God does provide! But, even as we make our initial reading of the text, powerful symbols break through and help us to see that there are multiple levels of meaning here. God is providing for hungry children; God is doing something more meaningful that filling a couple of thousand bellies. They are filled, not as a result of the bulk of food consumed but rather from a blessed morsel - the morsel which comes from God’s hand.
Let’s start with the confident assurance that God does indeed provide.
The Feeding of the 5,000 is a miracle story. There are lots of miracle stories each of the four gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all include a number of miracle stories. But, this story, the feeding of the 5,000, is the only miracle story contained in all four gospels. Mark was written first. Matthew and Luke came next and as they were being written a copy of Mark was available to the writer. John comes last and he certainly had access to the other three versions of the Jesus story. These last three knew what Mark had included. Perhaps figuring their readers could know about this or that event in the life of Jesus from the other versions, some parts were left out. But none of them wanted to leave out this story of 5,000 being fed with a few loaves and a couple of fish.
Perhaps they deemed this story as important because in it God is meeting such a basic human need, a need that is persistent and continuous. People were hungry then, people are still hungry today. Wherever and whenever the bible was read, there would be hungry people somewhere within the region of the reader. Perhaps there is no better example of God’s providing than to acknowledge God’s gift of food. God gives that which we really need. God gives that which we will continue to need.
Jesus feeds those who follow him. Jesus has compassion upon them and provides for them. It has been (and still is) vitally important that believers see Jesus as one who will not forsake them but will provide for them. A God who cannot satisfy my need is no God at all.
This story, in the bible, in all four versions of the Jesus story, makes it clear that Jesus is God - that Jesus is able to satisfy our needs.
In writing about this story there is a theory as to what really happened. Sometimes referred to as the “lunch basket” theory - it proposes that there was plenty of food in the pockets and purses of the 5,000. It just wasn’t equally distributed. Such a situation would lead to hunger (starvation) for some, gluttony for others and the very real possibility of social unrest when the have-nots saw the abundance of food among the haves. And so, this little boy shares his lunch basket, sets an example for the others who then share their baskets and all are fed. It is a good theory - I have even preached a few sermons suggesting such a progression of events. I am sorry that I did. It may be a very rational explanation for what happened on that grassy knoll and while the ability to engender the courage to share one’s bread would be very Christ-like; it misses an important point to the retelling of these events. This story must communicate the truth that in Jesus the world has one who has the ability to meet our needs.
He does feed us! God does provide! This is what has to be said - this is what must be understood. We can talk all we want about “how” he does it. But unless and until we firmly understand that he is the one who does do it - there is no point to the story at all.
I believe, and I trust in the affirmation that Jesus is the one who will provide for me. This he does as no one else can. He is Messiah - he is the One who has the ability to meet my needs.
So, when I place my hands on the heads of those little children, kneeling at the communion rail and I tell them that God will look out for them, that God will protect them and that God will provide for them - I am not lying. I believe this to be true and I have experienced this to be true. Unflinchingly I announce that God has the ability, the desire and the trustworthiness to do this.
And then I move on to the next person. To the person who has not been protected, the one for whom God has not supplied every need.
You know the hurts and pains to which I refer - you share them with me (or another pastor) regularly. Parkinson’s disease first took from Marvin Dooer the ability to play the organ on Sunday mornings and has now restricted him to a wheel chair. Gail Paul knew she was having “foggy” days and now her dementia robs her of the ability to know her pastors and even family members. The child-becoming-adult caught up in alcohol and chemical abuse still doesn’t seen the destructiveness of his actions. These are very real needs. They are evils which any one and any God would want eradicated from our midst. And yet they continue.
I have lived through a few of these myself. Times when I wondered “What’s the bother in praying? God is going to do (or not do) whatever it is that God wants to do. How can my words have any effect?” In the midst of such needful situation I have to fight the temptation to slap away the hand which is extended in order to offer me that dry chip of bread.
Sometimes, too many times, a warm smile and a promise are not enough. I want to know why God hasn’t already responded to my need. I want to know why God allows my pain to continue.
Here is where we come to those subtle parts of this gospel reading. Here is where we start to deconstruct and see the hints of a deeper resolution.
I mentioned earlier that the feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle contained in all four Gospels. True as this is, it is important to note the slight variations in each of the accounts. Only John places this miracle on the calendar. Verse 4 tells us “Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.” This is significant for two reasons:
First, the Passover coincided with the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, which, according to Joshua 5, commemorated not only the flight from Egypt but also the first food from grain eaten by the Israelites when they reached the promised land. Eating this grain meant that God would no longer send frost-like substance called “manna.” This bread which appeared each morning kept them alive for years. Now that they could gather grain and bake their own bread, God would stop sending “bread from heaven.” Ah, but God is about to resume the practice of sending this bread from heaven. It won’t be on the morning ground, it will come from a loaf that Jesus will bless and break and give to us. This bread, like the manna of old, will support us as we journey to the promised land.
A second significant aspect of dating this feeding at Passover is the manner in which it ties this offering of bread to another giving of bread. It is at a later Passover observance that Jesus will take the final loaf of bread, bless it, break it and give it to those assembled. He will call that bread his body and the cup they share he will refer to as his blood. The feeding of the 5,000 is eschatological - it connects the events of this life with the fullness of God Kingdom.
Jesus takes a few loaves and a couple of fish and he feeds the multitudes. They are satisfied.
Were their bellies full? Who can say. They may have only had the smallest morsel, but that is enough. Jesus has given them enough of a taste of the future fulfillment. They can now continue on their journey. But don’t be concerned if you missed that initial feeding - twelve baskets are full of the remainder. Twelve being the multiple of three and four - these twelve baskets are enough for all those who dwell within the four corners of the earth or the three levels of the universe. There was enough, and there remains plenty to spare.
Those chronic illnesses don’t go away. Our wayward children are yet to return to the fold. There is still brokenness and hatred. God hasn’t given us everything. But yet, we are able to hold on. We do not lose faith. We do not turn from this God and go in search of another. The morsel we have received is enough to affirm our trust in Jesus and to quiet our spirits as we wait for the fullness of God’s gifts.