Gracious God, increase and multiply upon us your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal, Amen
All of us have, I’m sure, at some point in our lives have been on a picnic. You gather some food as a family or with friends and head to a pleasant spot, usually where there is grass and sit down on a rug to eat. It’s a great way to spend some time together in the warmer weather. That said I guess few of us have ever been to a picnic for 5000 people. If we think for a moment of the large picnics we have been to with maybe a couple of hundred people we know it takes a good deal of planning and lots of food. But organizing food for 5000 and finding grass for that number takes planning!
The fourth gospel (for we have reverted from Mark) uses the Passover narrative and a feeding miracle (of the prophet) Elisha, (an alternative reading for today) to portray Jesus as a powerful prophet. Elisha served a large crowd (but only 100 people) from 20 barley loaves; a snap compared with feeding by Jesus of 5000 with five loaves and two fish. John wants to make the actions of Jesus seem like those of a prophet, and so the crowd says: ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world’. Jesus (like the prophets) was sent by God, performs signs, and has knowledge beyond human understanding.
Jesus is associated with Moses by first going up a mountain, the events themselves occurred at the time of the Passover, and of course by providing a meal as Moses provided for Israel in the wilderness.
Our commentator makes two points here: first that understanding Jesus as a prophet like Moses or Elijah emphasizes the link with Israel’s history. Also that the ‘life’ offered by Jesus is shaped by the ideas of the Exodus and Elisha stories. As God provided for Israel in difficult times, so Jesus too provides in times of need.
Jesus feeds the people himself, offering hospitality, offering care for those who need assistance. This links with our provision for the Food Bank and other support groups, as well as gathering to eat the bread of the Eucharist as some of us are able to do once again now.
The offering of food in the Hebrew Scripture is the way to speak about abundance and to offer hospitality. It began with Abraham and Sarah offering to the three strangers in Genesis 18.
The feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle that appears in all four of the gospel accounts. The mention of much grass (verse 10) by one commentator (Lewis) looks to one of the central themes of the fourth gospel, that of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who offers provision and abundance of life which is clearly apparent in this passage.
Here abundant life is as simple as providing the basic necessities to sustain life, grounded in intimacy, relationship and security.
The other very significant detail in John is that Jesus himself feeds the crowd. This again demonstrates the relationship Jesus has with his people. Jesus, (says the commentator), is the source of abundant life, but being in a relationship with him that is also the source; in other words, abundance cannot be separated from the source. The passage is a sign of the relationship people can have with God through Jesus Christ. Jesus then, as the Bread of Life, is not only a metaphor but demonstrates who Jesus is, and what abundance life looks like.
Walter Brueggemann the distinguished Hebrew scholar wrote a paper on the liturgy of abundance, which Len Dyer sent me some years ago. Brueggemann tells us that the Bible begins with a liturgy of abundance as Genesis 1 is a song of praise for God’s generosity. We are told how creation is good, very good. Psalm 150 with its climax: Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! This is the classic expression of God’s goodness where we abandon ourselves to God and letting go of the need to have anything under our control. And later Abraham and Sarah are blessed by God and told to be a blessing and to bless the people of all nations.
The feeding of the 5000 (where Brueggemann speaks about the gospel account from Mark, not John) is how the new world came into being. Jesus took the loaf, blessed, broke and gave it to the people. Jesus knew the world was filled with [God’s] abundance, for if bread is broken and shared there is enough for all.
In the ministry of Jesus, the people often looked for a sign and Jesus offers one by multiplying the bread and fish to satisfy the people’s hunger. In John, all signs demonstrate who Jesus is: in this case that he is the prophet who comes into the world.
The good news for us is that we believe in and follow a God of abundance. God’s creation itself with thousands of species of animals, birds, fish and insects is one sign of that abundance. God provides food for the people in Hebrew Scripture through Elisha and through Jesus in this picnic miracle.
Henri Nouwen, as he so often does has a word for us on all this … God is a god of abundance, not a god of scarcity. Jesus reveals to us God’s abundance when he offers so much bread to the people that there are twelve large baskets with leftover scraps, and when he makes his disciples catch so many fish that their boat nearly sinks. God doesn’t give us just enough. God gives us more than enough: more bread and fish than we can eat, more love than we dared to ask for.
It is always important that we remember that God is a God of abundance and not of scarcity. When we live our lives this way we are able to be grateful for the provision God provides and not worry about what we may need in the future. This should inform our own lives as well as the life of the community. For God provides us with what we require for life and ministry as today’s gospel passage makes abundantly clear. May we rejoice in all that God gives to us and use that provision well.