Feeding the Five Thousand

1Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4The Jewish Passover Festival was near.

5When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” 8Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9“Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” 10Jesus said,”Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

The story of the feeding of the five-thousand from John 6:1-11 is one of the better-known miracles of Jesus. In its simplest form, it is remembered as the time when Jesus took five barley loaves and two fish offered to him from a little boy. When he distributed them to the crowds, there was enough food for them all to eat.

A simple story of a miracle which is often quoted in many contexts. There are many ways of approaching this story – too many to follow them all up in a short blog post!

It may surprise you that there is so much to be found in the single miracle.  However, as I said, it’s a well-known story and the familiarity of it can often dampen enthusiasm to delve deeper. The story can be used to support Jesus’ mission in caring for the poor and oppressed. While the crowd he was talking to may not necessarily have been in poverty, at that moment in time there were experiencing both physical and spiritual hunger.

Jesus met their physical need, which also demonstrated his spiritual power. People clearly recognised this but sadly
they responded in an all too human way. They wanted him to show his power as an earthly king. They could not understand that Jesus was bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth by living and teaching God’s love.

It wasn’t just the crowds who misunderstood: even Jesus disciples doubted what he could do. Philip presented the practical option of going out to buy bread for the people, and quite understandably realised that this would be an impossibility.

Andrew tried bit harder. He found a young boy with five loaves and two fish: sadly, he too saw this as an impossible way forward in feeding so many people.

At face value, we can’t really argue with him: yet how would we react in that situation? As a church, what would we do? After all, we are Jesus’ disciples in this day and age – we are going to get the same challenges as Jesus’ disciples had back then.

Just imagine if Jesus walked into this church and said “I’m here for the day. Someone noticed me coming
and the crowds are beginning to gather outside. This is a great opportunity for mission – we don’t want to lose people, so if you get them fed I’m more than happy to spend the day here teaching and healing.”

So what would stop us grabbing this opportunity with both hands?

The amount taken in the collection certainly wouldn’t go far enough, even if One Stop and Tesco had sufficient food in their stores. We’d have to move outside as well to accommodate everyone and we simply don’t have enough chairs for those who need them. Oh, and of course, there’s health and safety: all those people who might trip on the grave stones, unattended children, lack of facilities and – heaven forbid-  anyone climbing trees to see Jesus and possibly falling out of them.

What would our church insurance say about that?

Okay, that’s a hypothetical situation – although not of course totally impossible – but brainstorming an idea like that can sometimes be helpful in showing where we allow practical obstacles to get in the way of opening up to Jesus.

Philip, if we remember, asked the rhetorical and quite reasonable question of where they could buy food for the crowds. Basically, he saw this as a dead end – Andrew, while being unable to see exactly how Jesus could do anything about it, at least offered what he could find: five loaves and two fish.

And it’s that one action I want to emphasise here: Andrew offered something. However small it seemed, however impossible it seemed in human eyes for this tiny lunch to be of any use at all, Andrew offered it.

Personally, I also like to think that the little boy offered his lunch in the first place, and this was followed up by Andrew – somehow I can’t quite see Andrew snatching it away from the boy, bearing in mind he didn’t see much use for it anyway.

Whether it was the boy, Andrew or both who offered that food to Jesus, the significant point is that was offered –
and it was transformed by Jesus.

Jesus can transform any situation. Jesus can transform our lives: we simply have to offer him what we have. In our own lives, that may be a gift to teach, a compassionate nature, space in our home, a skill in cooking, singing, listening, or material gifts to share. Nothing is too small or insignificant to offer to Jesus for him to use and transform in bringing the kingdom of God into our lives, our village, our world.

The limitations we set, be they financial, physical, human doubts or lack of confidence, these are our own limitations. We can be surprised beyond all measure by how Jesus can work with our humanity if we open ourselves up to his spirituality.

In our church life, how much do we limit the growth of our church by being a “Philip or Andrew”: do we expect Jesus to work within our limits – or do we allow him free rein to work with whatever we can offer?

I’ve probably told you before about the beginnings of what is now an international charity, “Habitat for Humanity“. This charity enables people to contribute in practical or financial terms in providing homes for themselves and to lift them out of poverty.

It started when Millard and Linda Fuller saw the need for affordable and decent housing for the working poor.
However, they were limited by only a few tools and equally few volunteers: but through their passion for justice,
their small beginnings grew and habitat for humanity has helped more than 1 million families improve the living conditions since its founding in 1976.

Cheryl John’s, a theologian, says: “when placed in the hands of Jesus, human weakness … Becomes more than enough”.

She is echoing the words of the apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthian church, when he tells them how Jesus said to him:

“my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness”.

Five loaves and two fish fed a crowd of over five-thousand. What might happen in our own lives, what might happen here at St Mark’s, if we offer to Jesus whatever we have – however small – and allow his grace and power to transform it?

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