Jesus Feeding People (August 2, 2020)
Matthew 14: 13-21
Jesus Feeding People
We begin today with the feeding of the 5000, which is a miracle that appears in every single one of the gospels. This is clearly an extremely important miracle to the disciples, and therefore should be an extremely important miracle to us. But I think that we need to really get an understanding of just how big this miracle was; we need to get a sense of the scope of what Jesus did. That’s why some of the translations in recent years have begun to make sure they translate that it was “5000 men plus women and children.” Now I don’t know the Greek for sure, but I don’t believe “plus women and children” are in the Greek, but it is man in the Greek and presumably there were women and children there as well. Probably not 5000 of them, but 1000 to 3000 probably. So Jesus is probably feeding closer to 7000 or 8000 people here with this miracle. I need you to get a scope of just how big this miracle was.
So Jesus sits the people down and teaches the crowd on the plain. At some point the disciples say, “so look, it’s getting late Jesus. These people are hungry. They need to be sent back to their homes so that they can get something to eat.” But Jesus turns around and says “you feed them.” They ask how on earth they can feed this many people, how on earth is it going to happen; and Jesus asks what they have. The disciples find five loaves of bread and two fish. One of the commentaries as I read this week said the disciples had “2 1/2 fish sandwiches,” which really brought it home to me. Jesus says “bring them to me.”
And Jesus does something you should recognize: he takes the bread and the fish, lifted it up and gave thanks to God, he breaks the bread, he gives it to the disciples, and he says “take and feed.” You notice the words that are used there are the same as communion, except instead of eating they are to feed. The disciples take the bread out in their baskets thinking there’s no way, but they take the basket with the little piece of bread that’s in the basket, the little fish that’s in the basket, and they start heading out to the people that are sitting in groups of 50. And they start giving out the bread, and they start giving out the fish, and they keep going, and keep going, and keep going. At the end we were told that all 5000, plus women and children, have been fed.
How did this happen? What is the miracle here? What I will say is that the Scriptures lead very heavily toward one interpretation of the miracle, but I’m still going to give you two. What the Scriptures lean heavily toward is that the food itself multiplied, that these five loaves of bread and two fish multiplied into enough food to feed all 5000 people. This kind of an idea harkens back to a couple of Old Testament stories surrounding the prophet Elijah and Elisha. Elijah at one point prophesied a famine, and during that famine he goes to visit a widow for some food. The widow says “all I have is one loaf of bread, and I was going to feed that to my son and then we were going to starve to death.” Elijah says “give me the loaf of bread, and your jar will never run out.” And she gives the loaf of bread to Elijah, and low and behold every time she reaches in for more flour there’s more there. That story is in 1 Kings 17. This would be what the Scriptures are leaning toward, the disciples put their bread in their basket and then went to the people; and when they reached in for bread, every time they reached in for bread or even fish, there was some there to give.
This also is alluding to Elijah’s successor in prophets: Elisha, who does this same thing that Jesus is doing, albeit for 100 not 5000. He feeds 100 people with two loaves of bread. This happens in 2 Kings 4. So this idea of feeding 5000 people, plus women and children, with five loaves of bread and two fish is certainly something that is within God’s capabilities. So this is not a miracle that is teaching us something new about God, we knew this from the Old Testament.
But I want to bring up another option. I don’t think this is how this miracle happened, although it could have, rather I think this is how a miracle like this would happen today. This is how God works in our world today, so it might’ve been the way God works back then too. In the gospel of John, when they bring up this story, they don’t say the disciples had five loaves of bread and two fish, but rather they say that a little boy was there who had five loaves of bread and two fish. A little boy walks up and offers his lunch to the disciples; a meager offering, but he offers his lunch to them, he sacrifices for himself and offers his lunch to Jesus.
And I wondered if maybe the miracle happened like that. Within the 5000 people were lunches. Some people had brought food, and within those 5000 people there was enough for all. And this little boy offering his food to the disciples, and the disciples going out into the group; I wonder if as they came upon these groups of 50 people and they started offering food to them, sometimes they would offer bread to them and then someone said “no I have enough, but here is some of my lunch. Give that to the next group.” So some would take food from the disciples, but others would give food. Within the 5000 there was enough food, it just wasn’t in everyone’s hands, and when everyone offered what they had to Jesus there was enough. Reality is there is enough in this world, and if we look out for our neighbor there is enough. There would not be scarcity if we all just cared about the person next to us.
One thing that I noticed this week as I went through the story is that the disciples doubted Jesus. I’ll say that again, the disciples doubted Jesus. Jesus says to feed them, and they say “all we have are five loaves of bread and two fish, and what is that to this many people?” In other words, they doubt that Jesus can do anything with just five loaves of bread and two fish. They have doubts, and that is OK. I imagine them giving this to Jesus and stepping back from the table as he does his thing, and kind of looking at each other like “well, this was a fun run. 5000 people here, and what is he going to do with five loaves of bread and two fish? He’s going to try and feed them, and he’s going to fail, and that’s going to go all around and Jesus will be done before we know it.” To doubt is OK. To doubt is to be human.
But, importantly, even though they doubted Jesus in this moment, they followed his guidance. He said “bring them to me,” and they did. To doubt is to be human, and to doubt is to be Christian. But if you’re going to doubt as a Christian, you have to doubt as a Christian while still following the guidance of Jesus. It is OK to doubt, it is OK to bring something to Jesus even while you’re saying “I don’t know what you’re gonna do with this, I don’t know how you can do anything, but here it is.” It is OK to bring something to Jesus even if you don’t think Jesus can do anything with it, as long as you still bring it. Because let me tell you from personal experience, you pray that prayer and you bring something to Jesus saying “I don’t know how you’re going to do anything with this, but please please help if at all possible,” even if in your mind you’re still screaming it’s not possible, Jesus will surprise you. It is OK to doubt, because you are human and you are not perfect. Still, even in doubt, go to God. God loves you, and all God wants to do is give you a big hug and reassure you that it’s going to be OK. Take it to God, you just might be surprised.
I want to go back and I want to mention that I said at the beginning that we need to understand the scope of this miracle. That Jesus fed not just 5000 people, but5000 men plus women and children. Except that’s not all, because after he fed 5000 men, plus women and children, with five loaves of bread and two fish, they pick up 12 baskets of leftovers! We started with only seven baskets of food: five loaves of bread and two fish, and at the end we wound up with 12 baskets left over. So not only did God multiply the food to feed 5000 people, plus women and children; he multiplied it so we wound up with more than we started with at the end! There were leftovers.
What do we do with the leftovers? If God blesses in the world, and God will bless us in the world, there’s going to be leftovers. That’s the way God works, so what do we do with the leftovers?
This is communion Sunday today, and you see the bread and the wine before us. My hope is that this food blesses you. You get a little piece of bread, you got a little bit of grape juice, and my hope is that that multiplies within you, like the feeling of the 5000. And let me tell you something that I didn’t know for a while. When we do communion, we will hand you the bread and we will hand you the grape juice, and then there’s leftovers. We always make enough. Now,I long for the day when I run out of communion, that will mean that there’s so many people here and it’ll be an amazing day, but in all likelihood there is going to be leftovers.
United Methodist tradition is that we are not allowed to throw out the leftovers, and we cannot save them for tomorrow because of the verse in Exodus about the manna from heaven not being saved until tomorrow. And we can’t throw it away because it’s blessed, the whole thing is blessed including the leftovers. So what do we do with it? We have to return it to nature by sunrise tomorrow. Whether that means that I consume it, or one of you consumes it, or more often that we are dumping the grape juice at the root of a tree so that the sugar can bless the tree, and that we are putting the bread down in the grass for animals to come and eat.
When I was in college at Emporia State University, I was in the campus ministry program there. And after a service with communion, I was hanging out with the campus minister afterwards. and he had to do this, and so he taught me this tradition that we return the elements to the earth. So he brought the bread outside, and there’s a little bush out in the parking lot; and he brought the bread out and started ripping pieces off the bed and throwing them into the bush. And then all of a sudden there was a little paw that reached out of the bush, grabbed that bread and retreated back into the bush again. Again, and again, and again. There was a little kitten, scared and probably hungry, who was hiding in the bushes. As we gave the food that had blessed us back to the earth, that little kitten was able to eat. It was an image of the way in which we can bless others through how God blesses us that I have not forgotten.
What are you doing with the leftovers of what God does for you? When there is a miracle in your life, what do you do? When you receive that cancer diagnosis, and then you wind up in remission, what do you do with the extra years? How do you bless God with the leftovers? When you have material blessing, so much that you have extra financial resources, what are you doing with it? How are you using your financial resources to bless other people? What are you doing with the leftovers? How do you use the leftovers to feed the world around you? What are you doing with them this week? Amen.