by Philip Jones
Scripture - Luke 9: 10-17
One of my favourite television programmes is QI in which Stephen Fry and his guests discuss unusual and quirky facts. One of the things I learned recently from this programme is that only human beings have the in-built perception to recognise one object as a pointer to something beyond itself.
If I use my arm to point in a particular direction, a cat or a dog will look at the end of my finger: only a human being follows the direction of the finger and looks to where it is pointing.
And I think the same holds true for some of the stories we encounter in our scriptures: we can either look at the story, especially if it includes a miracle or other dramatic event, or we can lift our sightline and see where the story is pointing.
In fact, the more we look at the component parts of a miracle story, the more we are likely to tie ourselves in knots about the reality of the event and the sheer practicality of what we are being told. Yet, if we can think about what we’re being shown by the story rather than simply what we are being told – by looking where the finger is pointing rather than gazing at the finger itself - we can still find a truthful message with a contemporary significance.
The story of the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle which features in all four of the gospels. Its message was clearly important to the early church as those communities began to record their oral tradition from around 70AD and onwards into the early years of the next century. It has entered our consciousness as a memorable part of the Christian heritage. These facts all make it highly tempting to visualise the crowds of people, and the loaves and the fish and the baskets of left-overs, whenever we bring the story to mind. Those are the eye-catching features of the story; they are probably what we would paint if we were asked to represent the scene for a typical illustration in a children’s Bible.
But I want us to go today and get alongside the disciples who were caught up in this event – those people whose shoes we fill in the here and now. What did they see? How did they feel? And, most importantly, what did they come to understand about it all?
If we piece the story together from all four gospel accounts, this is the picture we get.
The disciples have returned from a mission. They are both exhilarated and exhausted. Words tumble out of them as they tell Jesus the whole story of their actions and adventures. They need a rest, a break from the multitudes. And Jesus, too, is dealing with grief. He has heard of John the Baptist's death and burial and asks the disciples to join him in a solitary place where they can rest and regroup together.
But the crowds learn where Jesus is, and they follow him. So there Jesus is in this deserted place along the shore of Lake Galilee, far from any town, and for hours and hours Jesus teaches and heals in this lonely place and speaks from his heart to the huge crowd about his Heavenly Father and the kingdom of God.
The disciples come to Jesus at the end of a long day and ask him to close the meeting so the people can get something to eat before they begin the long journey to their homes. This has been no planned gathering. It has been spontaneous, spur of the moment. The crowds have given no thought to provisions or distance. Their only thought has been to hear Jesus and see him heal others. Now they are miles from home, their stomachs beginning to send hunger signals, and the sun is beginning to go down. Surely it is time to close, the disciples say.
Jesus's reply is startling! "You give them something to eat."
Faced with such an odd response, the disciples protest. It would take a staggering sum to buy bread for all these people, a sum way beyond what Jesus's circle are carrying with them.
But Jesus pushes the disciples even further: “How many loaves do you have? Go and see." In other words, “You don't have bagfuls of money, but what DO you have? Check your resources and tell me what you DO have”.
There is some heated discussion among the disciples at this, and they go scurrying about looking in bags and asking people close by. They find some food that a boy's mother has packed as a lunch for him, and he is willing to let Jesus have it, so they bring it forward; "We have only five loaves of bread and two fish -- unless we go and buy food for all this crowd", they say.
Now here is where we look at where the finger is pointing rather than focusing on the fingertip itself. Did Jesus need the disciples' pitiful five loaves and two fish? If a miracle is going to be the answer to the problem Jesus faces, does it matter what he starts with? Will the outcome be any different?
Well, yes: it does matter where we start when we consider our task as disciples of Jesus. There are some very simple principles of ministry around how the disciples were called to respond to the realities of the situation by Jesus. And the principles still apply:
1. Our first stage is to recognise that our own resources are often woefully inadequate to meet the need we face.
2. Our next step is to take inventory, and bring what resources we have to Jesus.
3. Then we place them in his hands to do what he wishes with them, and in the process, release control to him.
4. And He, in turn, blesses them and places them back in our hands, multiplied, more powerful than we could have imagined.
And all of this is a faith process, a faith experience.
Too often we are overwhelmed by the vastness of the need and give up. Or we belittle our resources to the point that we never release them to God, but selfishly hang on to them because that is all we know and all we have. We are inadequate, we know, but we refuse to let go. Or we insist that God should perform the task as solo effort, without our participating in the process even in a tiny way.
Perhaps, when the disciples sat down together at the end of that exhausting day when the multitude has somehow all had their fill, and the left-overs have been gathered, and another remarkable day with their Master is over, perhaps they understand – and we understand – that we must release our resources to Jesus in trust. Their smallness in our eyes must not be an obstacle.
He is leading us a on a journey of trust, and it must be accompanied by our learning to trust him by doing what he asks, even if we have no idea where he is going with it.
And so when he says to his disciples down the ages “You give them something to eat” perhaps that is when the Kingdom of God breaks into the here and now. The feeding of the multitude has come down to us a miraculous event. It was certainly a remarkable lesson for those who journeyed with Jesus in trust. They learned the joy of being basket-bearers of Jesus’s food to the multitudes. And they were there to pick up the left-over pieces and marvel at the weight of God’s abundance.
Following Jesus in trust, feeding his people no matter how poor our resources may seem, and marvelling at God’s abundance, are all lessons that you and I face repeatedly in every dimension of our faith.
Perhaps this story of the multitude, so widely known wherever the Christian heritage reaches, shows us some essential lessons in this school of discipleship where each of us here is hard at work, and where the signs of our trust are living examples for each of us.
Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost
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