I’ll never forget the look on his face. His dark eyes, tired and kind, rimmed with a deep sadness at the death of his childhood friend. Only one word really encompasses what those eyes conveyed: compassion. He looked out at the huge crowd. He looked back at my friends and me. Then he said those six words that changed everything: “You give them something to eat.”
We haven’t been properly introduced yet. My name is Phillip. I was one of twelve men who followed Jesus around during his three years of ministry; a student who, I think it would be fair to say, he considered a friend. I was there that day when he took five meager loaves of dry, crusty bread, and two sardines and transformed it into more than enough for five thousand men, and that’s not including the women and children who were present. But I’m getting ahead of myself. To really grasp what happened that day on that shoreline, I need to back up a little bit.
A few days before the five thousand, the twelve of us returned to Jesus from an assignment he had sent us on. Pairing us up, he sent us out to the towns and villages in the countryside to teach, heal, and spread his message of love and grace. It was a pretty incredible experience. Sure, there were some people who refused to listen to us, who mocked the stories we told and the lessons we shared, but the people who listened, who opened their hearts and their minds to God’s love… well, it was pretty incredible to see how infectious that love really is, and how life-changing it can be!
Anyway, we had all gathered back together and were sharing our experiences with the Rabbi. On the day of the five thousand, we had awoken early. Jesus knew word was spreading and a huge crowd was likely to gather. We were just putting together the breakfast fire when a young boy came running up. Peter and Thomas gave the poor boy some water as he tried to gain back his breath. Then, with Jesus kneeling down in front of him, he broke the news he had been sent to share: John the Baptist was dead, beheaded by Herod at the behest of his Queen. The boy broke down in soft sobs and fell into Jesus’ arms, whose own eyes were beginning to brim with tears. A quiet grimness fell over our little campsite. A few of us sat down in disbelief, a couple of us began to cry, and one or two became very visibly angry, calling for an immediate act of revenge. All of us wondered: are we next?
That is where we pick up our story this morning. People began to come, seeking Jesus from the surrounding towns and villages, seeking healing, strength, wisdom… sometimes just for a glimpse of the man who people were already beginning to whisper was the Christ. This went on for a few hours, until Jesus, looking at the twelve of us, and realizing we had not even had a chance to eat breakfast, told us to come away with him for a little while to get some rest.
We got into a small boat and set out for the other side of the lake to what looked like a solitary place. It was a quiet ride, and the soft lapping of the waves against the side of the boat, coupled with its steady rocking, slowly put a few of my friends to sleep. I was on the rudder, so I didn’t have that luxury, but I was able to watch Jesus in the bow. He stared straight out at some distant place on the horizon, his face tired and sad.
I cannot imagine what he was feeling at this moment. We had all heard Mary tell the story of her pregnancy, and how, while visiting her cousin Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother, both babies leaped in their wombs. Now one of them was dead, and the other would be crucified in what seems like no time. The best medicine at this point would be a little quiet from the marathon we had been running since day one.
But, as these things usually go, there was no respite from the madness. Word spread like wildfire along the seashore, from town to village, and before we had even landed, an enormous crowd had gathered, anticipating our landing spot. The beach and surrounding hillside were covered in humanity; eyes and ears tuned toward Jesus, hotly anticipating anything he may say or do. Before we even landed, Jesus turned to us and said, “Look at them. Like sheep without a shepherd.” And the look on his face told us we had had all the rest we were going to get that day. We landed, and with nothing but compassion and love for the people, he began to teach them many different things.
Now this went on for a while, and eventually it was becoming late in the day, and the twelve of us disciples began to notice that no one was leaving, despite the fact that sundown would be approaching in a couple of hours and most of those gathered had quite a ways to walk to get home. We were concerned that if we did not start telling people to return home, people would become hungry and we could have a serious crowd control problem on our hands. So we went up to Jesus and told him he should send the people away so they could go buy themselves something to eat. But then, in typical Jesus fashion, he answered us by challenging us, saying, “You give them something to eat.”
Us?! Give them something to eat? Are you kidding? There had to be at least 5,000 men here, not including women and children! To feed them would take more than half a year’s pay- and need we remind him that we weren’t getting paid for this job? Don’t get me wrong, I cannot imagine doing anything else, but I don’t exactly make six figures with benefits! Feed them ourselves?! Even if we wanted to, we don’t have that much money to spend to give them all bread to eat!
Then, as usual, Jesus turned us upside down on our heads one more time. “How many loaves do you have?” he asked us. Well, the twelve of us sat down and started going through our bags and pockets, turning out every piece of clothing we had. We had 5 loaves of bread and 2 sardines amongst all of us. Now, for 4 or 5 people, that would be a pretty decent little meal. But we were faced with the needs and hunger of five thousand men, not including all the women and children!
Well, that’s when Jesus did something we would see again the night before his crucifixion when we gathered around a simple table and a shared meal: he took those loaves, he blessed them, he broke them, and he gave them to us to divide up among the people, who we had sitting down in groups of hundreds and fifties. And that’s when the amazing thing itself happened. Somehow, that bread and those fish stretched out and fed every single person there, with twelve heaping basketfuls left over! That little bit had expanded into food enough for an enormous, hungry crowd.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about that day, and what exactly happened there. I’ve heard lots of people talk about it, too, and give their interpretation of exactly what happened. Most people say it was some sort of miracle. Now, I’m not discounting that explanation. I was with Jesus for three years and I saw miracles. I watched him raise the dead and heal the sick. He calmed tempests on the sea and walked on water. Is it possible that as he took that bread, blessed and broke it, and then gave it to us to disperse among the people, that it continued to multiply in our hands to satisfy the grumbling bellies of five thousand with more than enough left over? Yes, absolutely! We believe in a God that can, and does, work miraculous wonders in our world!
Yet, I keep coming back around to another way of thinking; another way of looking at things. The people who were there that day were hungry. Not just physically hungry, but spiritually hungry. Jesus himself said they were like sheep without a shepherd. Sheep like that run crazy and amok, and often get themselves into tight, troubling spots. So when Jesus told us to give them something to eat, he wasn’t talking about their physical needs, but their spiritual hunger.
So we gathered up what little bit we had. And in comparison to all the people that were there, it was crumbs! Yet what the Messiah did was display a Spiritual generosity that I watched spread through us, his students and disciples, into the massive crowd that was there. As the little bit we had was shared, others were drawn to share. They saw us give up everything we had to satisfy their hunger, and maybe they remembered they had a third of a loaf of bread in their knapsack or a few pieces of dried fruit. Suddenly, the community is being fed, not just by the ones bringing the bread around, but also by the community itself.
See, in all my travels with Jesus, I saw some pretty miraculous things. But I also saw some disheartening, terribly sad things. I encountered so many people living in poverty- material poverty and spiritual poverty; I met children who would go to bed with holes in their stomachs where food should have been; I touched the hands of people so sick, their own families deserted them.
And that is where Jesus went. He showed that he was genuinely concerned about the lowest of the low: the infirm, the hungry, the outcast, the poor. And we too are called to be concerned about them. In the simple act of taking bread, blessing it, breaking it, and giving it to us, he shows us that in creation, the creator is working here in abundance! The world is filled with abundance! On that day on the beach, there was enough left over to fill twelve baskets! When the Christ shows us how there is enough bread, we realize that we have enough bread to share with our neighbors! The bread of compassion, the bread of new life, bread for the crowd, bread of abundance and leftovers!
That evening on the hillside by the sea, we didn’t know it, but we had gathered at his table to partake in what happens at the table: we are fed, we are nourished, we are raised to newness of life, and we take our place in the community of abundance. In a world that tells us we don’t have enough, or that we have to hoard up and save, Jesus showed us instead that we already have enough if we are open enough to give it all away. He showed it to us time and again whenever we sat down to supper with people the rest of the world would just as soon throw away: the poor, the crippled, the blind, the prostitute, the tax collector; people that seem irredeemable; people like me and my friends. But at his table, we have a place, and it’s too exciting to not want to invite everyone we know to join us!
Was it a miracle he worked that day? Maybe it wasn’t a miracle in the strictest sense of the word, but he taught my friends and me one of the most important lessons of our tenure with him: when we are in a community, when we join in fellowship at the table, there is always enough. When we are in a community, when we eat at this table, there is always enough. Friends, we have more than enough. Who are we going to share it with? Amen.