The feeding of the multitudes. This is a very familiar story about Jesus: perhaps not the most famous of the miracles. That would probably be walking on water. But feeding the multitudes is right up there. All of stories of the life of Jesus record this event. And it takes on a different meaning in each of the gospels.
In Mark, the first gospel written, the placement, context, wording, and tone of story all remind the church that as we try to care for all the sick people around us, we will be overwhelmed by the needs of everyone. But as we work on our mission, we will have the resources we need to get it done. The miracle is the assurance of logistical sufficiency even when it appears we do not have enough. We will do what we can with what we have, and that will mysteriously be enough. This logistical sufficiency is also the sense of the earlier Elisha story in Kings.
In Luke, the placement, context, wording, and tone of the story all suggest an economic implication. It becomes the miracle of sharing. We have enough in our abundance. We need to share. This sharing of resources in an economic way is one of the deeper messages of Luke and its companion volume Acts.
In Matthew, the placement, context, wording, and tone of the story all give it an educational perspective. In Matthew more than anywhere, Jesus becomes the great Rabbi or teacher. And in this miracle we learn about the power, grace, and abundance of God. But we also learn about learning. How the little insights, broken open and shared, become a great stream of wisdom. Here it is the miracle in the class room when young people, given just a few things small things, discover a great thing as they acquire knowledge and wisdom.
But we do not have the story in Mark, Luke, or Matthew. We have it in John. And in John, the placement, context, wording, and tone of the story becomes (as it usually does in John) more mystical, more mysterious, and more profound in a philosophical way. It is here that the story becomes a picture of the sacrament of bread. It is the mystery of the bread of Holy Communion broken and shared, the small taste of a feast yet to come, that satisfies the deep longing of the human heart. Here is the miracle of the Bread of Life, the Lord’s Supper. And here is John’s vision of the meal we will share together in this room this morning.
—–See how the meal of mystery in John is shared in a sacred space. Notice the setting of the mountains. There is a grassy valley, large enough for thousands to gather. In this beautiful park-like natural setting the meal becomes a spiritual feeding. The stage is set for the feeding of the soul.
—–See how the mystery meal is misunderstood. At first it seems that the feeding is about the actual food. But John moves beyond that very quickly. The people misunderstand the miracle as a physical thing. And they want to make Jesus king so that he can just feed them day after day. But John moves the meal into mystery. Communion is not about the food we eat. Holy Communion is about God feeding our souls fully and completely.
—–See how the mystery meal is a memory of the Passover. Only in John this meal takes place on the Passover. It is the reminder that Holy Communion is the Christian Passover, the last night of the life of Jesus, the Last Supper, the angel of death passing over us and all creation, as the blood of the lamb is smeared on the posts.
—–See how the mystery meal feeds us for the journey ahead. The sanctuary setting, as wonderful as it is, is temporary. Everyone moves on. Everyone moves into the world again out onto the waters of time. In the mystery of word made flesh, and real presence in bread and wine, we are nourished for our journey. We do not remain in this room. We move.
—–See how in John the mystery meal is part of another mystery, another miracle, the miracle of walking on water, of Jesus coming to us through the storms of life, of the wind and waves and creation itself listening for the divine voice. Jesus is present with us in the bread, in the wine, on the journey, in the storms of life, in the wind and waves, and in the natural order of things.
—–See how the mystery meal blows us into the deepest recesses of our fear and hope, into our deepest understandings of the love of God, into the boat where we sense what it is God is trying to do as we journey across the lake and through the decades. And there is just a hint of the depth of this lake we are rowing far and how far the wind will blow us.
This mysterious mystical John writes in Asia Minor, or modern Turkey, where Ephesus is. Where Ephesians is written. And these ancient Christians in this part of the world are traveling over a deeper philosophical ocean than we might suspect.
For these ancient mystics, Jesus did not die on the cross to save us from our sins. Nor did Jesus die on the cross to save humanity. No, in Asia Minor they began to get the notion that God was really, really big: that Jesus died so that all creation, the cosmos, all things, might be returned to God. They sensed that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we are mysteriously connected to all, yes all, life, suffering, pain, death, and renewal. In Jesus we experience the deepest suffering and death reflected in the suffering of creatures as life finds its way into new life. The paschal mystery of the suffering Jesus becomes the mystery of how all suffering by all creatures is nature’s evolving new life. Not only in ways we can see, but in mysterious ways we cannot even comprehend. For God is vast, mysterious, and beyond knowing in Asia Minor. And God is still beyond our attempts to reduce God to one who fills our stomachs, solves our problems, and gets enmeshed in our guilt which still keeps us focused on ourselves.
You know, it is almost a sad thing that we are reading Ephesians these weeks one little bit at a time. Because when we do that, we miss the impact of this grander vision of God bringing all creation, all creatures, and all things back home into the waiting arms of grace through the suffering and death that is part of life. And as the universe passes over into the grace of God, we have this mystery meal, served outside, in a grassy mountain valley, to creatures who are hungry for something more.
So, in memory of John, it is now time to eat, to break the bread, to share the meal and the memories that lead us over the waters, through the storms, into our future: a larger, greater future planned for us and all by the waiting God.