After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going. – John 6:1-21
This story of Jesus feeding the multitude is the only one of his miracle accounts that appear in all four of the gospels. Here, in John’s gospel, it’s one of the miraculous signs that John sets forth as proof of Jesus’ divine identity; that he really is the eternal God of the cosmos in the flesh. This story of Jesus apparently creating bottomless baskets of bread and fish is the same kind of out-of-nothing creation that John’s original audience knew was the kind of thing that only God could do.
But there are other meanings layered into this story, too. On one level, it’s a recasting of the Exodus story where through Moses, God provides food for the people by sending them manna that they find on the ground every morning, and all the extra was to be collected up in baskets so nothing went to waste, just like in this story, where Jesus is seen as a new, improved kind of Moses. And there’s the Passover connection that John points us toward when he comments that the Passover was near when this event happened. This meal, then, becomes seen as a kind of Passover meal. One part of the Passover observation is the meal being seen as a forerunner to the Great Feast that the Hebrew prophets said the coming of the Lord would be like; God hosting a great banquet on a hilltop that all people would flock to – and now, here’s Jesus doing exactly what those prophets had described. And of course, we can see symbolism paralleling our sacrament of the Lord’s Supper here, too.
But I think that most times when we hear this story, we don’t think about those levels of symbolism. Instead, we focus on this idea of the miracle. We ask if it could be actual fact. Could this have physically happened the way the story tells it? Some people say that this was just the code of a pre-scientific culture; stories like this were the way they ascribed divinity to someone; but now, we understand that the laws of physics govern the universe in a kind of closed loop that makes these kinds of stories impossible. Some people read this story and say that once the people were seated, after hearing Jesus’ teaching, they pulled out whatever food they’d all brought with them, and Jesus’ actions simply set off a big, first-century version of Stone Soup – everyone sharing what they had and there ultimately being more than enough for everyone.
On the other hand, other people say that God does indeed intervene in the world at times in ways like this. That the God who created laws of physics is beyond them and can break them if so inclined; or if not break them, bend them a bit, or apply them in ways that they are somewhat different from the way things usually occur. They would say that for a God who created the entire universe out of sheer will and a few words, this kind of miracle would be child’s play.
So a lot of attention gets focused on the question of whether or not a miracle actually occurred here. But to think about that question, you first have to ask just what a miracle actually is.
There’s a story about a politician in the South during the days of Prohibition, who was running for election. A large number of the voters in his district were hard-core Fundamentalists and members of the Temperance movement, and they asked him where he stood on the question of whiskey and other alcoholic beverages. Of course, he knew what they wanted to hear, but he also knew that the woods all around them were full of stills cranking out moonshine for an awful lot of customers, and which was keeping food on the table for a lot of people, and they were just as big a voting block. So when they asked what he thought about whiskey, he said, “Well… if by “whiskey” you mean that wicked drink that numbs the senses and causes family strife and personal ruin; that leads men and women alike to all sorts of immorality and vice… I’m against it. However… if by “whiskey” you mean that golden elixir that brings people of good will together; that warms their hearts and lubricates their souls to instill joy and merriment and brotherhood and sisterhood; and which creates a thriving market for so many of our good, decent, hard-working, church-going farmers… I’m for it.”
When it comes to miracles, maybe we have to think about definition of terms, too. Do we say we believe in miracles, if by “miracles” we mean a big, supernatural intrusion into the laws of nature? On the other hand, do we say we believe in miracles if by “miracles” we mean something extraordinary, uncommon, and of God, occurring all the time, all around us, in the most ordinary and common of things and experiences? Or, just as with the politician’s answer, can they both be true at the same time?
Let’s look at this gospel story again. Regardless of what you might believe about the physical, literal aspect of the idea of Jesus producing food from nothing, let’s go past that for a moment and think about what else was happening. Something like 10,000 people, once you included men, women, and children, came together – all with different backgrounds, different problems, different reasons to want to see Jesus, different experiences and beliefs. And as they gathered on that hillside, they listened to Jesus teach about the Kingdom of God, and a new commandment for them and the world – that they love one another just as he and God loved them. That this new commandment has the power to change the world, and was already changing the world, forever. They listened to him as his disciples spread out in their midst, making sure that everyone, young and old, were having their needs met. And all these very different people, with all their different prejudices and motivations, passed and shared the baskets. They set aside their differences. They enjoyed the breeze blowing in off the lake and the coolness of the grass, and they laughed at each other’s children playing together and doing all the things children do. They all sat close in to each other so they could as close to Jesus as possible, and their guards dropped, and they didn’t mind the stranger bumping up against them as they listened and laughed and ate and learned about love and lived it out; and there, in that place, on that day, in that briefest or moments, the Kingdom of God kissed the earth.
Regardless of anything else, that’s a miracle. A miracle that you, and I, and our very divided, very un-peaceful, un-reconciled world, can find hope in.
And the good news for us is that we can share in that same miracle. We can recreate and relive it, every Sunday, every day, because as much as this story symbolizes anything else, it also symbolizes the very church itself. And the same Jesus calls us together to share in the same Kingdom; to encounter one another, to set aside our differences, to receive and to give, to love and be loved. In short, to experience the miracle of the Kingdom of God; to see God in all the common things of life all around us – bread, juice, water, each other, ourselves. This is what the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was talking about when she wrote:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God.
And only he who sees takes off his shoes –
The rest sit around and pick blackberries.
Because Christ dwells within us, and because we dwell within him, we all have the ability, when we want, to see past the berries and experience the miracle of God in our midst, and in each other. And for that, we can all say
Thanks be to God.