Feeding People (2 Kings 4:42-44; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-14)
After worship, today we will share some food together. We sometimes joke about one of the Baptist distinctives being food around tables, but there is a serious side to this eating together business. First, taking physical sustenance is often a biblical symbol for taking spiritual sustenance, as in our Gospel Lesson. Second, it is together that we eat and drink, thus symbolizing that spiritual sustenance normally happens as we are together, rather than as so many little self-contained units. In our culture where we lock ourselves up with the internet so much of the time, this physically corporate dimension of presence to one another is crucial, both to affirm and to experience. Electronic communication is a wonderful boon for its purpose, but it does not take the place of being here together, “in this very room.”
Today’s Epistle Lesson deals with spiritual sustenance for the saints together. All the verbs in the passage are plurals. They do not refer to what we do on our own, but what we do together. This passage a prayer for the hearers and readers of this Epistle, that explains that what is said is the reason to “bow the knee” before God (or worship God). The apostle prays that several things will happen in the communal life of these early Christian folk, to nurture and nourish their spirits. The goal of it all is expressed at the end (down in verse 19): “So that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.”
It is a prayer that all this spiritual sustenance will simply make these folk as much like God as is possible for humans to be in this world. The word “godly” is a shortened form of God-like. Although we sometimes devalue the word “godly” to mean someone whose talk is super-pious and sweet (and makes most of us uncomfortable), it really means to be as God is and act as God acts in the world, to the extent that we are able. Now, we cannot simply do this for ourselves, or by ourselves it is something that is God’s gift. The purpose of this prayer is to receive such a gift. Here are some specifics in the prayer.
First, that they will be strengthened inwardly (together) through God’s Spirit. As I have just said, people don’t just “whomp up” the strength from somewhere inside, it is a spiritual gift of God. Second, that Christ will inhabit the innermost core of their beings as they trust God to make that gift of strength operative among and through them. Third, that the strength they receive will enable them to get their heads and hearts around the overwhelming dimension of Christ’s love (literally, that they would know how broad, how long, how high, and how deep it is). And fourth, that they would know that love of Christ that actually goes well beyond what we can know. In the end, all our talk of God (including of God’s love) falls short of reality. The prayer is that we would somehow know the humanly unknowable.
Now, how might we clothe these grand thoughts about spiritual sustenance and how and why it comes in a practical way? This is where our Old Testament and Gospel Lessons help us. The Feeding of the Five Thousand is as famous a story as exists in the Gospels. It’s well-known that it’s the only miracle story in all four Gospels. We may not be as familiar with the biblical story that gave shape to the Gospel story, however. And that’s the little story of Elisha who fed 100 people with 20 loaves of bread, with food to spare. That’s one loaf for every 5 people. The loaves, then, were much smaller than ours, more like a dinner roll than a loaf. It was a mighty feat. One way to take the Gospel story is that if Elisha could do it, Jesus could do it better. He fed 5000 people + with five loaves and a bit of fish relish to spruce up the blandness of barley bread (which is what the two fishes really are). That’s one loaf for every 1000 + people. Wow, what a miracle. However we choose to read what happened, we have to admit that all the lessons Jesus draws from it deal with spirituality rather than physicality. The “wow-factor” doesn’t come into Jesus’ or John’s words at all. Today, however, I want to listen to the story as it addresses both physical and spiritual matters in the work of church communities.
The first point, is that, it is God’s design that hungry people be fed, and when God feeds hungry people, they have as much as they want. The Gospel says that they had “…as much as they wanted,” and that “…they were satisfied.” The Old Testament reads “they ate and had some left.” The Bible commonly uses images of food and banquets to talk about God’s care of people, both spiritual and physical. When God feeds (or brings sustenance to) people, it’s a feast. In Ephesians the apostle prayed that his readers or hearers would be empowered to be and act in as godly a way as possible. That meant providing physical and spiritual food for hungry people. How does that happen?
That’s the second thing I want you to notice. God satisfies hungry people with physical resources that are not adequate to the job. It is a mistake that we’ve been making since at least the days of Elisha in the mid 9th century before our era, to let the obviously available resources limit our idea of what God can do through us. We always need to be good stewards, but, in the end of the day, it is a mistake to allow the obviously available resources to limit our vision for ministry in God’s name. Money or other physical resources must never be allowed to become the gatekeeper of what we envision or attempt. They’re wonderful servants and horrid masters. In Elisha’s day, the word was “feed 100 people with 20 loaves.” The first response was “How can I set this before 100 people?” In Jesus’ day, it was, “feed these people.” And the first response was “Where are we to get bread for these people to eat? Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” In my experience in both academic and church contexts, there never are enough resources for the task. So, the first point is that God in Christ expects disciples to feed people. The second is that we never have enough to do it, so Ephesians reminds us, it comes from God through us. How?
Next, God feeds people through or in spite of the inadequate resources. The Old Testament lesson is rather straightforward. Elisha, more or less, said to his very practical servant, “What about ‘feed these 100 people’ didn’t you understand?” Our Gospel is more subtle. One of the disciples said to Jesus, “We have nothing with which to do what you’ve asked” (and he was right). Andrew, on the other hand had a foolish plan: “Here’s a boy with five barley loaves and a little fish relish.” Andrew starts out with a deeper vision than his friend who simply said there wasn’t enough. Period. “Here’s a boy’s lunch.” But, then he caves in, “But what’s that among so many?” A little boy’s lunch. In Jesus’ day, women and children were not serious parts of the community for important matters. Although the other Gospels say that there were women and children present at this miracle, only John’s note about this lunch tells us there were at least a few. Understanding the role of women and children outside the home in Jesus’ day helps us to grasp how unlikely Andrew’s suggestion really was. This boy was an unimportant person with an unimportant lunch. Although some churches see a similar non-role for women and children today, here’s a wonderful, subversive thing Jesus did. He turned to this supposedly unimportant non-person and made his gift the centrepiece of the feeding strategy for an overwhelming hungry crowd. Never, never do we want to make the mistake of thinking that only good, clean, regular, adult people are the vehicles of God’s work. Or that it takes a huge army of people to minister to the world. Look at what Jesus does to emphasize the importance of what and who we might consider unimportant. For many years I’ve heard dozens of special lectures on mobilizing the church, and re-making the church for our world. Most of the examples are taken from churches of several thousand people. Only once or twice did I ever hear someone use – at least as a positive example – a congregation with a few people, like ours. What we try to teach ministers it seems (except in Milwaukee) is, if you do it right, you’ll have a mega-church (at least eventually). But look at the lesson: The ratio there is 1 boy’s snack : 5000+ people fed. We tend to get it turned the other way where it takes 5000+ to feed 1 hungry boy a little snack.
What I said before about not letting physical resources be the gatekeepers on ministry, I’m only saying again, with regard to human resources. Don’t let the fact that we’re small be the determining factor in what we attempt to do. If we don’t have the money or the people, how do we do it without spending money or enlisting numbers of people for a task? If Jesus could feed 5000+ with just one little lunch, what could we do if we gave God the little we have? Especially if we give him our ingenuity! So, when God feeds people, they are satisfied. When God feeds people, there are never enough physical or human resources for the job. And, quite often, God feeds people, through the “unimportant people” and the “unlikely gift” for the job, if people are bright, wise, and entrepreneurial enough to seize the opportunities.
There’s one more feature this story, and that is, that, when all the people were satisfied, the fragments of food, when gathered together, were enough to fill twelve (what is traditionally called) baskets. The actual word used here is the one that means the pouch that a person used for good on a journey. Twelve pouches full – one for each of Jesus’ disciples. Just in case we think we’ll exhaust ourselves and our resources by being engaged in ministry – there’s enough left to feed us too.
This story was not told by all four Gospel-writers just because it happened once, but because the early church found that it still was happening. God was still feeding people. And I daresay, it is an act of faith to believe that it still happens now when God’s people allow themselves to be the channels of God’s grace to feed hungry people, or minister in Christ’s name. And I don’t just mean physically hungry people, of course.
Whatever our problems in mission, whether it is size, lack of resources, energy, or whatever, if we, in our limitedness, can begin to grasp how broad and long and high and deep Christ’s love is, we will receive the power we need to offer our own little child’s lunch and watch and work as people are fed, satisfied, and give praise to God.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.