Lent 4 2011

John 6:1-15

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The boy has five loaves of bread and two fish. That is a not an insignificant amount. It is grocery sack full of food. Think of how many peanut butter sandwiches you can make with five loaves of bread. It was certainly more than enough for him and his family. Still, what is that among so many? He might have enough food for 30 or 40 people, if they all eat just a little, but there are 5000 men plus women and children.

Of course, it is a child, not an adult, who shows up with the food. The Lord is into children. And, of course, the food is not pomegranates or figs, mutton or beef, but bread and fish. The Lord is into bread and fish. It could have been shelter or clothing, that they needed, but it wasn’t. It was food, because the Lord is into feeding.

But how does Andrew know the exact contents of the boy’s grocery sack? Has he been out looking for food already, taking a survey, making a list? And what do they do with the leftovers? Does the boy get them, at least five loaves worth? I don’t know.

Some liberal scholars have read this as a miracle of sharing. It is not that Our Lord multiplied the bread and fish, but rather that the people saw the boy’s generosity and were so moved by it that they all started pulling out the food they had hidden away and kept for themselves. The miracle is that they learned to share. But if that were the case, and this is no miracle at all, despite the fact that it is called a sign by St. John, then why are they given as much bread and fish as they want? That is not the way to share. If the message here is that we should all share resources and stop hoarding, so that no one is rich and no one is poor, then it is a fable meant to teach constraint and moderation, maybe even self-sacrifice. But this is described as a feast. Each has much as he wants, and there are leftovers behind that can barely be contained. Sharing doesn’t make a feast.

The liberals are, however, on to something. The Lord does use bread from creation, from a boy, to feed all the people there, even the evil people. He does not provide there in the same fashion that He provided for the Israelites in the desert. In this case, He does not create from nothing, but He multiplies what is there. It is sort of a cross between the widow’s oil with Elijah and the Mannah in the desert with Moses, both of whom, show up at the Transfiguration – no mere coincidence that.

John reports that when Jesus asked Philip what to do, that He Himself knew what He would do. That certainly means that the Lord was not in doubt about the fate of these people. He knew He would provide. I am not so sure that it has to mean that He knew about the boy’s bread and fish. I suspect that He proceeds as a reaction to what the disciples say and do. Andrew has found some bread, but is in despair. “What is it among so many?” he asks.  So the Lord shows Him what it is among so many. By grace, it is plenty, more than enough, a feast with leftovers.

Here is the point. The boy is a historical figure, but he is also an allegory of the Christian. The Christian brings his offerings to God and God does great things with them. The apostles also historic, but they are, at the same time, an allegory or type of pastors. The Lord is not exactly teaching us to share, but He is showing us that we have a part of His kingdom, that He includes us, that He blesses and uses the works of our hands, that our good works are in fact good and by them He provides for the world, for church and for neighbor. He knows what He is going to do. He is going to feed the people. Depending on what the disciples say and do, what the people give or hold, will determine how He feeds the people. If the boy had had a flask of wine with him, there probably would have been wine at this feast, and plenty for everyone.

If there is a stewardship lesson here it is not that if we do not share and cooperate we will starve. Neither is it that the Lord will multiply whatever we give back unto us, so that if you give a dollar you will get ten back or at least get ten dollars’ worth of blessing. As far as we know, the boy went home without any leftovers. He gave away his bread and fish, and though he got enough to eat, got nothing else. It didn’t make him rich. If there is a stewardship lesson here, it is that the dollar you give in faith, out of love for neighbor, will do more good given than it will in your pocket, and that what you do for, and in the kingdom, God will multiply and bless.

But more significantly, in terms of stewardship, the reality is that the Lord gives you a choice and freedom in these things. The crowd isn’t lectured about sharing or preparing. No wild promises are made about how their lives will go if they only behave better and give more. The boy simply moves out of love, in freedom, because he wants to, and the Lord blesses it, multiplies it, and provides for thousands. The boy, though unnamed and mainly without honor for his gift in this life, played a most significant part, more significant, to be sure, than the apostles.

Your part in God’s Kingdom is also significant. Your service to neighbor, in family, state, and church, is seen and blessed by God. He multiplies your prayers, efforts, and gifts in order to provide for His children.

But neither is that the main thing here. This miracle, like all the miracles, is Eucharistic. We pray for daily bread not to remind God that we need it, but that He would lead us to realize that He is the Giver and that we would receive it with thanksgiving. That word, “thanksgiving,” happens to be the English translation of  the Greek word, “eucharist.”  Apart from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, there would be no mercy and no providence, no bread for hungry people. It is only because the Father has reconciled us to Himself in the Son and declared us righteous that He loves us and anyone, believer or not, has anything close to what is necessary for this body and life. The Lord never just gives bread, the bare necessities and nothing more.  That is why bread brings pleasure and is subject to abuse. Bread is not simply vitamins and nutrients, it is food. So also do flowers and the landscape display beauty. They are not just practical. Words bring not only knowledge, but also laughter. This is the character of Our Lord. He is generous. He is merciful. He is loving.

Food is more than simple practicality, base necessity. Food is fellowship and pleasure. The Lord doesn’t only provide on the mountain for the hungry and unworthy. He also provides for Himself. He joins them. He who did not eat when the devil tempted Him with bread in the desert eats bread in the desert with sinners. Again: He who did not eat when the devil tempted Him with bread in the desert, eats bread in the desert made lush and full of green grass with sinners made saints.

If there is some stewardship stuff, some vocational examples, mixed into all this, that should be no surprise. This is simply who God’s people are: they are His stewards and officers in this world. When the Scriptures speak of them they are described as such. But the real thing here is that the Lord loves, welcomes, feeds, and eats with sinners. And as He did then, so He does now, and so He will do forever. The Lord welcomes, feeds, and eats with sinners.

It doesn’t matter so much how the bread and wine got here today for our communion, who paid for it, who prepared it, and so forth. But if it doesn’t matter much, it does matter some. Some of you gathered here today are responsible for it: you did it. You gave the money that paid for it. You went and picked it up. You counted out the bread and measured the wine and set out the sacred vessels. Others just showed up – like people who followed Jesus on a three day journey into the desert. That is not just okay, that is blessed by the Lord. For what matters is that the Lord provides. He knows what He will do. He has gathered you for Himself. He will feed you with His Body and Blood and thereby bestow His forgiveness and blessing upon you.

Thus do we have joy, and even a feast, in the midst of the fast, as sinners cleansed, loved, and fed in a desert made lush with grass.

In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.

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