St. John 6:1-15
March 6, 2016 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our first parents sold themselves into the slavery of the devil for a small pleasure of the flesh. They gave themselves up to everlasting death for a bite of fruit when they were not hungry. By one man death came into the world and with death hunger, hunger that cannot be satisfied by fruit or bread or meat.
Thus did God institute the Passover. The lambs slaughtered in Egypt did more than give strength for a hasty journey, more than their flesh for food. They gave their blood to mark the doorposts and shield the people from death. More than that even, the flesh and blood of those lambs pointed to the Lamb of God, the Bread of Life, the Ransom that takes away the sins of the world.
So it was that at the time of the Passover, on a mountain, outside the promised land, in a grassy place in the wilderness, the Lamb of God found Himself with a hungry crowd, 5000 men plus women and children. That crowd was bent on miracles. They were willing to seize Jesus. They recognized Him as a Prophet like Moses and gladly took His bread but they were at least partially blind and confused and evil. There was a pious boy, willing to share his five loaves and two fish, there in the grassy place, and finally, the 12 incredulous disciples, one of whom would betray Jesus in the worst way possible, on the verge of despair. There were all there toghether, with Jesus, in the wilderness. Brothers and sisters in Christ: I present to you the Church.
The first thing to notice is that this is more than simply the Lord exercising His power. When He wants to show His Divinity, He does it not by miracles, but by teaching, and ultimately by dying. This is a sign. It shows us who we are as much as who He is. That it happens at the Passover makes it a liturgical, sacramental action. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in the context of Israel’s history and in the context of Israel’s worship and as a foreshadowing of Israel’s future. The Lamb of God who feeds the 5000 is the One who will be killed the next Passover when the lambs are being killed in the Temple. He gives Himself as food in the Holy Supper that the true Israel might wrestle with Him there. There we partake of His death in His risen Flesh even though we are at least partially blind. Even though we are not as grateful as we should be, there He forgives our sins and shield us from death by eating, so that even as death and slavery entered into the world by eating so life and freedom come by eating.
The next thing to notice is the character of the disciples, of the Lord’s ministers. The apostles are not equal to the task. They want the people sent away. The Lord asks them from whence the bread might come to feed these people and they do not say “from heaven, as the Manna of old, for You are the Prophet like Moses who will lead us not only out of slavery but also into the promised land.” Instead they are tempted to despair.
Yet the Lord still works through them. He establishes a banquet in the wilderness. He has caused the grass to grow for this purpose. The ministers are told to have the people lie down. Our translation says “sit,” but the text says lie. They are to recline and eat not as the first Passover was eaten, in haste, as refugees about to depart, but like Roman emperors. They are to recline for a feast. The manna came from heaven and they had to go and gather up. But here the bread is brought to them. They are waited upon.
Despite the apostolic weakness, they are put to the task nonetheless. The Lord works through earthen vessels. He takes the bread and gives thanks and breaks it and gives it to the apostles to distribute to the people. The Lord doesn’t use angels to distribute the bread or proclaim His Kingdom. He uses fallible men.
The crowd is not so pious as we might wish. They have come for the miracles. Afterwards they still don’t get who He is. They like the restoration of creation. They like bread for their bellies and being served as though they were royalty, but they aren’t so interested in the Passover. They want the flesh of the Lamb and they want to be free, but they want to stay in Egypt and they aren’t that concerned about the angel of death. Repent. They are an example for us.
The Lord provide for them from His mercy. Just as significant, He also joins them. He would not turn stones to bread to feed Himself in the wilderness, but He multiplies loaves and eats with sinners in the wilderness. He has fellowship with them even if they don’t know what it means.
The piety of the boy should not be overlooked. He is also an example. He is the picture of faith in contrast to both the disciples and the crowd. He gives generously, not knowing what Jesus will do but that Jesus will use it for good. He is as faithful in stewardship as the widow in the Temple. Again: the Lord uses means. He doesn’t call bread to be from nothing, He multiplies what the boy gave in faith and love. Through it, as it is distributed by the Apostles, He satisfies the deeper hunger of men. He is there as the Bread of Life and the Living water. His fellowship with them reconciles them to the Father and re-opens heaven.
We ought to think some also about the broken pieces gathered up. Nothing was left of the Passover lambs at the Passover. It was all consumed or burnt. But the remaining pieces at the feeding of the five thousand are more than abundance. This is a sign of the eternal presence of Christ in the Holy Sacrament.
There is something of His generosity here. The Lord provides what faith needs forever. Jesus didn’t grow up in the depression. He isn’t worried about being a good steward. If He was, He wouldn’t have given to everyone as much as they wanted. He would have rationed out his gifts so that no one over ate, so that nothing was wasted, and everyone got as much as he needed. It is much the same at the wedding of Cana. Jesus gives good wine to unworthy, even drunk men. Here He gives as much as each glutton wants and still there is more. More significant than generosity or abundance though is the eternal character of Jesus, the Bread of Life. The Body and Blood of Jesus given for the life of the world upon the cross and given to the Church to eat and drink can never be consumed so that nothing remains. Rather we are consumed by it. He doesn’t become part of us, but we part of Him.
The Lord tells the disciples to gather together the broken pieces so that none perish. Our translation says “are lost.” This isn’t about waste. This is about Hell. The word translated lost is the same word Jesus uses in John 3:16 and which is usually translated as perish or be destroyed. God sent His Son to death in order that whoever believes in the Son would not perish but have eternal life. The broken fragments gathered up symbolize the new Israel which will be gathered out of sin and darkness lest they perish and they will be made one. This filling of the 12 baskets is a significant part of the miracle, part of the multiplication, the sign that Jesus did. It shows what sort of King He is. He is the sort of King who not only feeds the hungry but also gathers the broken so that they do not perish.
The crowd is half-right in wanting to make Him King, except that He is already King and that He has not come to set up a political order on earth or re-establish Israel as a kingdom among men. He is the King named and enthroned on the cross. He is King for the sake of His new citizens. His Body and Blood shield His people from the angel of death. His Body and Blood initiate the passage out of slavery to freedom, out of death to life, and out of Egypt to the promised land. Men, women, and children partake of His Flesh and are washed in His Blood so that they do not perish but obtain the right to become the children of God.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.