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 sings 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. Phillip 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 sing that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
When Jesus realized they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
The movie Forrest Gump came out while I was in high school, and to this day, it remains one of my favorite movies. I can repeat many lines from the movie with incredible accuracy, such to the point that I am usually a source of great annoyance to those with whom I am watching the movie.
Our scripture reading from the 6th Chapter of John’s Gospel reminds me of a scene from the movie. You remember the part of the movie where Forrest just started to run one day, and ending up running and running, crisscrossing the country several times over a number of years. As he ran, people began to follow him. Perhaps they thought he knew where he was going. But Forrest ran and the people followed. You all remember that scene when Forrest stopped running, turned and faced the crowd behind him, and the crowd hushed. They had been following him for years, some of them, and Forrest was about to speak. They all wanted to hear what he was going to say. Allowing the silence and drama to build, Forrest eventually says, “Well, I’m kinda tired. Think I’ll go home now.” In stunned disbelief, his crowd of followers began to wonder among themselves, “What do we do now?”
The difference in today’s Bible story is that the crowd followed Jesus because they saw signs he was doing. They followed Forrest Gump just because he was running. The difference is that Jesus never stops running. Jesus never stops healing. Jesus never says, “I’m kinda tired. Think I’ll go home now.” May we pray.
We’re told that the crowd was 5,000 people. That only counts the men, by the way, so with women and children, the crowd could easily have been 10,000 or 15,000. Don’t get caught up on these details; just realize that a whole lot of people are following Jesus.
What’s the matter with these people that they have the time to follow Jesus? Don’t they have jobs? Well, in all reality, probably not. In ancient Galilee, the unemployment rate was around 50%.
Imagine how hopeless that situation must be. Literally, never knowing where your next meal was going to come from. Wondering day-to-day how you would provide for your family. Illness was almost a certain death sentence, because you knew that you didn’t have the money to pay the doctor who might help you get better. But then along comes this traveling preacher named Jesus, with a message that brings strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, and along the way, he begins to heal the sick, and performs more signs and wonders along the journey than can be recorded in any book.
The crowd kept following Jesus because they’ve seen what he did. Wherever Jesus went, hope, healing, and changed lives were sure to follow. Jesus left evidence that he had been there – not as bait, but as evidence that he was on a divine assignment to change lives. He came to love, he came to heal, he came to forgive. This is why a large crowd followed Jesus. What he did and what he said rang true – and when they were around Jesus, people felt something stir within them that had lain dormant for a long time.
Because of Jesus, people saw a man back in Chapter 4 of this same Gospel who had been carried on a stretcher by his friends. By the time Jesus was done with him, the crowd saw the same man carrying his stretcher instead of being carried on his stretcher. Because of Jesus, even the snobbiest religious leaders came at night to see what enabled him to teach with such clarity and power. Because of Jesus, a woman got well at a well at mid-day. The crowd saw healing. The crowd saw changed lives, and they were hooked.
For some time, Jesus has been teaching and preaching, healing and loving and forgiving, and he lost track of time. I would like to point out that, on those Sundays when I preach a little long and you all are starting to get a little hungry that I’m in good company. Jesus was on the mountainside sitting and teaching his disciples, and realized that a great crowd was coming, it was a few minutes after noon, and they were hungry.
Jesus, unlike many preachers, actually glances at his watch and realizes it’s time to get something to eat. So he turns to Philip and says, “Has your committee thought about how you’re going to feed these people after the sermon? What’s your plan? Are you going to have a covered-dish supper? Are you bringing in a caterer? I see a lot of children and their families, are we having hot dogs and popcorn and ice cream?”
Philip looks around, begins to count noses and starts the math in his head – “Okay, $3 a head to feed these people, multiplied by 5000 . . . Jesus, it would take six months’ wages to feed these people! Jesus, you know we don’t have that kind of money in the budget! We’re doing the best we can with what we have, but you know what finances are like! Judas and the finance committee are never going to approve this!”
Earlier that day on the wrong side of town, a young boy was getting ready to leave the house. His mother called from the kitchen, “Don’t forget your lunch!” He grabbed the basket, not even having to ask what it contained. His family was poor. It was always the same. Five loaves made with barley flour – not the refined quality flour used in the bread of the rich, but the rough barley flour of the poor, and two pickled fish.
Andrew found this boy in crowd, looked over his meager, peasant lunch, and thought to himself, “It’s not much, especially with so many people.”
It can be tempting to look at what we have, especially if we consider it to be so little. “I have so little money – what difference does it make?” “I don’t have any skills – what difference can I make?” “I have so many personal flaws and issues – can difference can I make?” Like Andrew, we can honestly assess ourselves and our gifts, and we may consider them to be nothing, and we are left wondering, “I have so little, what difference does it make?”
And yet, something within Andrew still compelled him to bring something so little and insignificant as a peasant’s lunch to Jesus. Whether Andrew realized it or not, even what seems insignificant in the eyes of the world could become significant when it was placed in the hands of Jesus.
In the crowd are unemployed, hopeless people, people who are oppressed by circumstances of their world. But there are others – spies from the temple, curiosity-seekers, those who were for Jesus and those who were against him, those who had made up their mind about him and those who had never heard of him.
Even so, Jesus has them all sit down in the green grass in groups. In other words, Jesus organizes them into community – a place where they can face each other, where they can learn each other’s names and stories, and where together they can all face their need. Out in the middle of nowhere, this was not the time to lean on one’s status or background. Instead, this was the time to admit that they all had very basic needs and indeed yearned for the same thing, and if they were going to receive it, they were going to have to rely on a power outside themselves.
And so Jesus, who is himself the bread of life, feeds the crowd. He makes no distinction among those in the crowd – he doesn’t try to figure out who is with him and who is against him, who understands him and who has more to learn, who is a member and who is not, who tithed and who didn’t – Jesus just feeds them all. And the food keeps coming. Everyone keeps eating, and the disciples keep coming around the crowd with baskets brimming with seconds and thirds, and finally, they’ve all eaten until they’re full. Jesus sends the disciples back to collect the leftovers – not the pieces that were nibbled on and discarded, but the pieces that were never even touched – and the disciples come back with 12 baskets.
Some people have tried to explain this miracle away by saying that once Jesus started to distribute the food, other people in the crowd pulled out the food they were hiding and shared it with those around them. The miracle, they say, was that everyone shared with each other, and the result was more than enough food. I don’t buy that one. I think Jesus performed an honest-to-goodness miracle here. It’s a miracle of abundance. With Jesus, there is always enough to go around.
However, let us not forget that this miraculous feeding is a sign. The meal points beyond the meal. Bread and fish point beyond themselves, and a greater truth is being revealed through them. The feeding of the multitude is the only miracle contained in all four Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all consider this story a family favorite for the family of God. Sharing food in community is one of the most important things we do together, because when we come together and break bread, we point to a reality beyond the meal.
Consider our fellowship dinners, our meals after worship, our meals in each other’s homes, the invitation to a newcomer to join your group for lunch, cookies and lemonade on the front lawn – why do we do these things? Is the point to have a snack? Is the meal, or the reception, or the food itself the point? Of course not. The food is a sign – it points beyond itself to what happens when we gather and share food together. Relationships happen, hearts are opened to each other, we participate in the gracious acts of giving and receiving. Food is not the point. Community-building that happens by sharing food is the point.
But when we share, we also receive. Those of you who volunteer at the Men’s Shelter, who build our Habitat Home, who go on mission trips, who do things for others know that you are blessed by those you serve in ways that are often greater than what you give. And by receiving from the very people we have gone to serve, we do something important. We allow them to be human, just as capable of giving as receiving, worthy of dignity and not disgrace. These meals reveal a greater truth than the food itself.
Or, think about what I do up here on these steps every Sunday morning. I bribe your kids with candy from the basket. Now, I realize the thing that keeps some of us coming back each week is the chance to get a piece of candy from the basket. I realize that may be what it takes to get some kids to come up. But that candy is a sign that points beyond itself. I get to tell them a truth about God, so they can experience God. I want their little heart to be touched and changed in some way – maybe not even discernible today, but I want God to make his home within them so they can celebrate the presence of God in their lives. Candy is a sign. It points beyond itself. But, my hope is that through candy, your children will have an experience with God that changes their hearts.
Back to our story, why does Jesus feed the 5000? What’s the point of this story, you’re asking? I think the key to understanding this miracle lies only four chapters later than today’s story: in John 10:10, Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
When Jesus feeds the crowd, it is a sign of the abundant life God intends for us. Jesus doesn’t want the crowd to focus on one meal provided in a desperate time. Jesus doesn’t want the crowd to see him as a divine vending machine and stop there, because there’s so much more to Jesus, and this magic meal is but one sign among many pointing to who Jesus is and what he intends to accomplish in the world.
In the moment, the crowd was desperate for something to eat, and so they turned to Jesus to provide a meal for them. Sure enough, Jesus did. Many times, we are like the crowd. In our times of desperation, we call on Jesus for help, and time again, he sees us through it. But how often, once we are through the crisis, do we pull back from Jesus, go back to looking after ourselves, and know that we can leave Jesus alone until the next crisis comes along? Jesus is great in the pinch, but are we developing our relationship with him even in the good times? If we are, we are working on that abundant life Jesus desires for us all.
I have a friend from high school that I only hear from when his life is about to fall apart. He often calls at about 3am during the middle of the week – sobbing, slurred speech – classic drunk dial. But here’s the thing – he only calls during the crisis. Since high school, my relationship with him has been centered around the crises in his life. While I’m glad he has me to lean on during difficult times, I also feel like saying, “You know, I’d also love to hear from you when things are going well in your life.”
Jesus says to same thing to each of us. He’s used to hearing from us when we’re desperate and things aren’t going so well in our lives, but he wants us to keep in touch through the good times, as well. He carries us through the desperate times, but he wants to spend time with us in the good times, as well. He came that we may have life, and have it abundantly, but when we only come to him in the crisis, we deny ourselves the opportunity to develop that more abundant life.
Jesus feeds the crowd, but he wants more. He desires a relationship that is more-developed than simply meal-to-meal or crisis-to-crisis. Jesus isn’t just offering a one-time meal of bread and fish to a crowd of people on the side of a mountain, as miraculous and wonderful and awe-inspiring as that is. Jesus is offering more.
Jesus is offering himself as the bread of life, he is offering himself as a staple in our diet, he is offering himself as food that does not perish, that does not leave us hungry. He is offering himself as the key to a life that is abundant and rich, a life in which we feast on everything Jesus has to offer.
Friends, Jesus is the bread of life. He fed the crowds that day not as a one-time meal ticket, but to point to the reality that he is the one who satisfies every need of every heart. Jesus isn’t about a one-time fix, he’s inviting us to a lifestyle in which we feast on him every day, and find everything in life made richer in the process.
You are likely hungry right now, and that matters. But what are you hungry for? Spend all the time you want looking at the menu, but let me tell you about our specials. Around here, we’re known for serving up abundant helpings of the bread of life, and there’s more than enough to go around. If you’re hungry, you’ve come to the right place.