In Matthew chapter fourteen we find ourselves in the middle of a story about a massive picnic. It’s an appropriate passage to read as we worship here in the middle of the summer. When we read this story about Jesus feeding a crowd of people in the countryside we probably have a hard time getting beyond the miracle itself. The situation goes from food for one person to more than enough for 5000 in the span of a prayer. We should forgive ourselves if we imagine fireworks going off as Jesus prays, smoke rising as the bread is distributed and an end-of-the-period horn blasting as the last bits are collected. Waahmm!—times up, twelves baskets full of food left over. Jesus wins! Hurray!
It’s easy to read this story and think it is essentially a magic show. I had a student once that paid her way through school as a magician. She told me that every illusion is a story. A good trick is a story that pulls you in, just like a book or a movie. You can’t help but wonder how the rabbit got in the guy’s hat, or how the woman caught to bullet or how she knew which card you chose. A good magic trick gets you in a place where you can’t believe the story’s ending.
Jesus’ feeding the crowd is different. All of Jesus’ miracles were different. Here’s what I mean: the people who came out to listen to Jesus knew the story of God providing manna for their ancestors in the wilderness. And they knew the other stories of God’s power too. For them, how Jesus got from one lunch to thousands wasn’t the crucial part. Most of them didn’t need to be convinced that God could do stuff like that. What surprised them was that God was using the son of a carpenter named “Jesus.” And what surprised them later was that this same fellow declined to call in this power when he was being tortured. This picnic story is about how God’s power and creation come together in a way we don’t expect.
Think about this: It was the end of the day and the disciples, Jesus’ most loyal students, advised him to send the crowd home. Everyone needed to get something to eat. But Jesus turns to his students and tells them to feed the crowd. Then there is a moment of tender honesty. The disciples know they can’t do it. “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish,” they say.
“We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish . . .” That’s how some of us feel. We feel like we don’t have much to give. We find ourselves in the middle of a beautiful world that is blemished in ways we want to change. We find ourselves in relationships that demand more than we have. We find ourselves in Christ’s church at a time of unease and change. There is all this need and we have nothing—nothing of consequence anyway. We have no big-time power. We can’t fix the lives we’d like. We can’t eliminate the suffering that’s so assertively obvious.
Not long ago there was a story about a young woman from an Ivy League school who tragically ended her life in a public way. She was smart. She was a splendid athlete. She was socially connected. One journalist who looked into the story learned that students at the school talked about something they called “Ivy League Face”—something like that anyway. What they meant was that everyone there put on a brave, happy face and made it appear like they accomplished everything with little effort. Underneath the surface, though, they were all swimming like mad just to stay afloat.
I appreciate the honesty of Jesus’ disciples in contrast to that: “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” That’s nothing at all when the goal is to create a picnic for thousands. So what does Jesus do? He asks them to bring what they have. Then he hosts a meal.
Whenever we read Scripture what’s important for us to recognize is that the whole collection of books is connected through the repetition of images and character types. So, for instance, we understand Jesus’s significance when we realize that he is a repetition of the Adam character and a repetition of the Moses character and repetition of the David character.
The meals in scripture are connected like this too. The Lord’s Supper is a varied repetition of the Passover meal. It’s different but complimentary to the time God fed Israel with manna in the dessert. Together these different images create a sort of harmony that tells us about God. When we read that Jesus hosts a picnic meal, we know we have to think about the other meals to get what the gospel writer is trying to tell us. We know this is something in line with manna in the dessert, with the Lord’s Supper and with the grand, heavenly banquet we read about in other parts of scripture. All these tones fit together.
There’s a theologian, originally from Alberta, name Norman Wirzba. Wirzba writes a great deal about food and faith. One of themes Wirzba mentions quite often is the way in which food connects us. When we eat we instantaneously become a point of connection between farmers, truckers, bakers, store clerks and all those we will affect through our use of those calories. It might not feel like much, but when we eat we abide in this profound place of connection. We’re right to call it Communion. And it’s not just a mental thing: it’s an ingested thing. The very cells of our body are linked to others. Others have given, grain or animals have died—so that we can live and do something with our living.
When Jesus feeds these thousands, then, what they are experiencing as they eat is God’s provision. The way in which their meal comes to be shows that it is a Communion, not just on the horizontal plane but on the vertical plane as well. When we eat we ingest the provision of God through our connections to other creatures. The miracle in Matthew 14 and the sacrament of Communion are intended to make this clear.
This same story is told in John chapter 6, but there it’s more theologically developed. There Jesus says that it’s actually he who is the bread of heaven. Just as our bodies are enlivened and linked to others through food, so God enlivens our inner selves, our souls, through Jesus. God enlivens our souls by connecting us to the divine life. This is especially important when we don’t feel like we have much to give.
Those of you from Anglican backgrounds probably know that in 2013 that church consecrated a new Archbishop of Canterbury. His name is Justin Welby. The archbishop of Canterbury is a key symbol of the unity of millions of Anglicans across the globe. It’s a very public role. Just last year, in the spring, a British newspaper did some digging and came to the conclusion that the man who Archbishop Welby thought was his father, in fact was not. DNA tests proved that his biological father was actually a man his mother knew when she worked in the prime minister’s office. Can you imagine the shock of this? Can you imagine how it could overturn much of what you thought was true about yourself?
What would you say? In a public statement in April of 2016 Welby said this: He noted that his experience was similar to that of many people. He praised his mother, who, though she was an alcoholic as a young woman, had lived free of alcohol for decades. She had a successful professional career and had taken on several significant projects. And then Welby said this, “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.” Despite the revelation, he was and remains a servant of Jesus Christ. This, I think, is one description of what it means to be fed and sustained by God.
Like the disciples, we may have little to offer in the face of significant needs. Through Jesus, though, God invites us to offer what we have. God also invites us to simply come and eat, to be sustained.