When the last scraps were picked up and the 12 baskets yet brimmed with bread, the 5000 people reclining on that grassy hillside in Galilee probably thought… “So that is what it means to be full.” No more fish…no more loaves could be consumed. For once, their bellies were distended because of abundant resources. All that was left to do was rest and recover, the way one does after feasting so profoundly.
I imagine that the 5000 fell into a sort of post-Thanksgiving meal stupor…except instead of recliners, couches, and American football games to accompany them, they had the soft grasses of the hillside, the gently blowing breeze that carried the smell of the sea northward to them, and the blue sky above that darkened and gave way to the pinpricks of stars as day turned to night. Content they slept. And yet Jesus and the disciples decided to go further during the night.
While the 5000 wrestled with visions of a miraculous meal and processed the ebb and flow of their daily lives in dreams, Jesus walked on water toward the disciples who were rowing upon the Sea of Galilee.
Maybe the storm that whipped up the waves and troubled the disciples also woke some of the 5000, or maybe they were still so full from the feast that they didn’t notice it. What they did notice was that the miracle working man, and his hardy gang of 12 were nowhere to be found in the morning. And they started to feel that familiar twinge in the pit of their stomachs…that pang that told them to get up and look once more for a meal.
Today’s section from John’s Gospel illustrates what happens when these 5000 finally search out and find Jesus. There are several aspects of the reading that are noteworthy. The one that most grabs my attention is Jesus’ comment to the 5000 that they are searching for him not because they saw and recognized signs, but because they ate their fill of the loaves.
For years I considered Jesus’ response to be purely pejorative…basically a “What’s wrong with you people, you only like me because I fed you” type of statement. However, today I don’t think his energy is meant to chide the 5000, but rather to present them with an alternative. I now hear Jesus saying to the 5000 and to us, “You think this thing we are doing is about loaves and fish and meals, but that’s only part of a larger picture…this is about big things…about God’s redemption of the universe, and I want you to see those signs and be a part of it.”
It’s a subtle difference, but one that makes a big difference when we apply it to our own seeking and following of Jesus, and our attempts to carry out ministry in his name. Think bigger, have a bigger vision. It’s a call that I want to explore here at St. Paul’s over the next months and year, and one that each of us should explore in our personal lives as well. So often in ministry and in our own lives, we get a taste of something special and good, and we think that merely replicating it is the highest value.
We have a powerful experience during a special church service, or we get that sense of satisfaction from helping a neighbor in need, or we feel especially connected to God because of a set of prayer practices. Just like the loaves and the fish, these are good things, and there is no denying that they satisfy us!
The problem is that too often we equate this daily bread, the means, with the end, and we suffer because as helpful as these things can be in service to the larger goal, they are poor substitutes for the real thing. This is what Jesus seems to be teaching the 5000 who have come out looking for him. Loaves are necessary, just as manna in the wilderness was necessary.
But they cannot eclipse the larger goal of freedom from slavery, and the deep redemption in which Jesus is involved. We need fuel for the 40 year sojourn through the wilderness, and bread and fish and their spiritual analogues are good and necessary waypoints on the journey of following Christ in Galilee, to the cross, and beyond. But the promised land is the goal…throwing off Pharaoh’s yoke for the freedom to worship God without fear is the goal…a life of resurrection and the fruits of the eternal kingdom on earth as it is in heaven…that is where our focus and drive should always lie.
As with most things, proper discernment is the challenge. It can be difficult to know when we have fallen prey to the allure of accepting a waypoint as an endpoint…and our very nature fights against the constant need to sacrifice security and predictability for the blessed, but vulnerable life of the journey.
Just to get real personal and less theoretical, I find myself wrestling with the need to provide a level of safety and security for my family, which requires that an income of “bread and fish” be more constant, and question whether this stance causes me to fall short of seeing the signs that Jesus is speaking about today.
As a parish, I want to lift up the meaningful assistance we provide to refugees and to those who come to this church seeking refuge from the storms of life, and yet I worry that we might “settle” for only being providers of such ministry and miss our call to be involved in a larger moment and struggle to change lives.
And on the level of the big C Church, I sometimes get concerned that we’ve traded the big promises of God in Jesus Christ for a lesser, and yet more palpable, institutional church. When we seem to invest more in that structure’s survival than in the larger mission for which this Body was created, then I think we die a little each day, rather than live into the future to which we’ve been called.
I suspect that if you spend some time today and this week reflecting on your own personal, local and global perspectives regarding this question, you will better be able to discern what aspects God might be calling you to let go of in order to embrace something larger. Like the 5000, maybe the next time you feel especially filled with God’s goodness and abundance, you will ask yourself, “How can this goodness be used to further the greater mission of God in Jesus Christ?”
Jesus says that the work we are called to do is believe in him, and I think trusting that the waypoints on the journey are good, but not the end, is a large part of what it means to truly believe in this one who was sent by God. Less a set of creedal affirmations, and yet a perspective that brings meaning to those same statements, belief is about trusting Jesus enough to be thankful for loaves and fish, and yet clear looking beyond them to where Jesus is leading.
As you leave this sacred table today, where we taste the goodness of the Lord once more, will you let this food propel you to the great beyond? Will you have the courage and faith to search for signs of God’s redemption in the world?
Believe in something bigger this week my friends.
Believe in the bread of life.