Jesus said: They need not go away: you give them something to eat.
In the evening his students surround him and say: Teacher, send all these people back to the city where they can get something to eat.
The teacher replies: You can feed them right here.
But we barely have enough food for ourselves! (Sounds like some vestries I’ve worked with in the past—not here—when discussing funding outreach projects.)
The teacher takes what bread they have, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it back to them. There is enough for them to share with thousands of people, and no one goes hungry. The kingdom of God is like this.
The miraculous transformation we typically focus on in this story is the transformation of the loaves and fishes, from a small amount of food into an unbelievable amount of food. It has been said that what actually happened was that everyone pitched in the little bit they had, to transform crumbs into a generous meal. A big huge potluck of leftovers. Everyone in the story is transformed by their own simple acts of generosity.
Jesus is not so much performing a miracle as modeling for us God’s abundance that happens every time we share. Jesus does not create bread out of thin air, he takes what has been offered to him and transforms it into more than enough for everyone.
Then there is the transformation of the disciples. In the beginning they are members of Jesus’ inner circle, gathering around him and saying “it’s getting late—send all of this riff-raff away.” I’m guessing we’ve all been in situations where we don’t like a crowd. This scene reminds me, sadly, of so many small churches I know, whose words say they want to grow, but they don’t want their church to grow so much that everyone doesn’t know each other’s name or, heaven forbid, that someone else sits in their seat.
Jesus is having none of it, and says: “You give them something to eat.” “We don’t have enough,” they say. “Give it to me,” Jesus says. I picture him rolling his eyes and muttering: “Do I have to do everything?” He takes the bread, blesses it, and gives it to his disciples, so that it is indeed they, not he, who do the feeding.
With the bread Jesus has blessed, the disciples turn outward. They are no longer the inner circle around Jesus, but are sent out to do the work of the kingdom. They are transformed from passive followers to ministers of the gospel.
How do we get transformed from being passive followers of Jesus into ministers of the Gospel? Sometimes our personal attachment to familiar community—a nearly universal human trait, I think—gets in the way of what it means to be a faithful Christian.
Our baptism is our commission to do kingdom work. The five baptismal promises are our “instruction manual” for the Christian life, if we ever need a refresher about doing the work of the kingdom.
But what about our own experience? Think about a time when you have been taken out of yourself, beyond your own understanding of your Christian identity? Jeanne has a story about driving around Portland in the snow with a pot of homemade soup, looking for someone to give it to, and how that experience has formed and shaped her sense of connection with the needs of the world. I remember years ago, long before going to seminary, talking with a rather difficult, unhappy woman on the phone and saying—you know, the way we do—“I’ll keep you in my prayers.” She said “I want you to pray for me right now, out loud!” That was not what I expected to hear, and it was humbling and good. I changed the way I looked at being an emissary of Jesus. James told me about the first preacher he consistently listened to in college, whose words made him feel that he was not doing enough to further the kingdom of God. The preacher pushed him, every week, to go out and connect with the world in deeper ways.
I came across a blog post recently about body image and fitness (because I read that stuff in my spare time J) and the refrain of the post was “You are enough.” We all love to hear this, right? You are enough. And we are. But in this gospel, I think Jesus is saying something different. I think Jesus is saying “It is not enough for you, my inner circle of faithful, beloved disciples, to sit at my feet and be nurtured by me in the holy intimacy you never seem to get enough of. Don’t you get that this is not what this is about? You give them something to eat.”
This conversation is—I hope—a defining moment in the life of each of the disciples. It is also a defining moment in the life of their community, a moment when together they saw their identity as a community in a new way. Some of us had that experience last week when we moved outside for Gospel on the Grass. Because of Linda’s very fine reflection that invited our reflections on the Kingdom of God, some of us began to imagine our calling as a community not just to discover the kingdom around us, but to be the Kingdom of God.
Today’s gospel story is a story about the Kingdom of God unfolding before the disciples’ very eyes, unfolding before our eyes, and it is also a Eucharistic story. The bread that Jesus shares with his disciples, and that they then share with thousands, becomes this amazing abundance because it is blessed (a holy word for given thanks for), broken, and shared. Jesus doesn’t just give them something to eat, he gives thanks for gathered crumbs, breaks loaves into pieces, and gives them to the disciples, commissioning them to become themselves givers. Small, simple gifts like loaves and fishes turn into extravagant abundance.
Just as scarcity becomes abundance for the disciples in this morning’s gospel, it can become abundance for us. Are we willing to offer to God the only thing we have left? Sometimes this means giving up the crumbs of our crowded days, our broken relationships, or our whole lives. Are we willing to give thanks for those gifts, break them open, and share them? This is what it means to live Eucharistically: to allow our broken selves to be a blessing to others.
As we pray together, and as we share holy food and drink in this intimacy of this holy table, I hope you’ll pray and come to the table with these questions: who needs something to eat? What broken thing can I share with them?