When I read this oh-so-familiar story again this week, it seemed like there was nothing here. I mean where am I going to get food for my people? What could there possibly be here that we don’t already know? Is there anything filling in this loaves and fishes text?
Soon there seemed to be meaning everywhere, more than enough.
Maybe I could be clever and talk about money, you know “bread.” It looks like there is no way these 5000 families will have any money at all but then one young person opens their pocket. The rest of the crowd sees this selfless sharing and soon there is money a plenty. Sort of crowd sourcing on a Galilean hillside.
Or maybe this description of a hillside that has so much green grass points us toward sheep. Sheep eat grass. Sheep need a shepherd. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd always feeds the sheep.
Or maybe the grassy hillside where there is an abundance of bread (eventually) is in stark contrast to the desert in the Exodus story, where the people gather enough manna only for one day. In the desert if they try to save anything, except for on the Sabbath, the leftovers get wormy and rotten. Here on the grassy hillside, enough fragments are collected to fill twelve baskets, for all the tribes of Israel.
Maybe… Then I read Jesus’ words: “Make the people sit down.”
Ok. Enough of the frantic flitting around, trying to figure out how to find and gather up food in this passage. I sit down, settle on the grassy hillside with the crowd and open my hands to receive. Will there be enough? Will there be anything? What about leftovers?
It is not just the thousands of people on the Galilean hillside who are hungry. When it seems like chaos all around, when kindness and compassion are in short supply, when cruelty and violence are lifted up by elected officials as reasonable and necessary, when truth seems elusive and we are told we should not believe what we see but believe what we are told, we are hungry. We are the hopeful on that crowded hillside.
The throng on that grassy hill sees Jesus do something they don’t expect. Even the disciples are surprised. They see Jesus do something that no one thinks is possible. In an impossible situation, under pressure, in front of thousands, Jesus receives what is offered by one small child. And with a simple blessing of gratitude, Jesus somehow makes those five small loaves and two dried fish feed the whole hungry crowd. He saves the day.
Everyone eats their fill and then they watch as the disciples collect the leftover fragments of bread. The people are astounded. He can pull food out of a hat – so to speak – like the prophets of old. Elijah fed a widow and her family for a good long stretch with only a handful of flour and a small jug of olive oil. (1 Kings 17:7-16) Elisha fed a hundred people with twenty loaves and some fresh grain, and there was some left over. (2 Kings 4:42-44)
“Here is Jesus – with fewer resources, a much bigger crowd, and a whole lot left over. Are there any limits to what Jesus can do? He should be a king. He should be our king. If we can put this guy in a palace and have him work for us, doing this kind of multiplication every day, why, we’ll all be rich in no time. Definitely, Jesus is king material.”
Jesus hears these rumblings, senses the intentions of the crowd to make him their own, to domesticate him for their own use. And he runs. Without a word to anyone, he runs for the hills. He goes off on his own to regroup – have a silent retreat.
In Exodus, when the people are hungry in the desert, they experiment with gathering extra manna to save themselves the daily process of collecting the strange stuff that appears, like dew, each morning. On the Galilean hillside, the people look for a shortcut, for a way to have access to Jesus’ power whenever they want it. What is so unreasonable about holding on to something that works well? Is it so wrong that the people want a way to preserve the power they experienced? What better way to honor Jesus than to make him a king?
The problem is, it doesn’t work. God’s power will not, cannot, be controlled. It is a lesson that never gets old, since we never quite seem to learn it. The Creator’s power cannot be domesticated. Nor can the power of Jesus. Nor, for that matter, the power of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps that’s what unites the Trinity; our experiences of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, can be named, described, explained but not contained.
After Jesus flees, the hillside gathering breaks up. The disciples wait around, hoping Jesus will finish his little retreat (though some of them wonder if he is just hiding.) It starts to get dark and the disciples really need to head back across the lake to civilization. It seems strange that they are willing to leave Jesus but maybe the disciples are learning something – learning that they can’t control Jesus. They have to do what they have to do and Jesus will do what Jesus will do.
The gospel writer of John doesn’t tell us this but we know from the other gospels that at least some of the disciples are experienced fishermen. So they get in the boat and start rowing. They row for three or four miles. Not a big deal for this crew. But then the winds start to blow and the water gets choppy and there they are, in the dark, in a storm. Suddenly, through the dark and the mist, they see something and they are afraid. “It’s me, don’t be afraid.”
And then they see, it’s Jesus and they are relieved. Now they will be safe. They will be saved. They reach out to help him into their boat. Or are they now reaching for Jesus’ power? Before they can get him into the boat, they arrive at the shore. Once again, Jesus eludes the grasp of those who would hold him. He will not be controlled; Jesus will not be owned.
(John’s gospel reminds us again, near the end, that Jesus cannot be contained. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Mary, in her astonishment and joy, reaches out for Jesus when he appears to her at the tomb. Jesus says, “Don’t hold onto me.”)
This story about feeding a crowd of people from a small amount of bread and fish appears in all four gospels, sometimes more than once in the same gospel. Clearly there is something important here. Each gospel writer probably has their own purposes for including it. And we the readers, two thousand years later, are left to try and figure out what those purposes are.
So what is the bread that feeds us this time? Is John proving that Jesus is part of a long line of prophets? Or are we pointed toward the power of generosity? Or is this miraculous sign showing us Jesus’ power so we don’t have to have any more questions, about anything?
We usually tell the story so that it ends at verse 13, So they gathered up the leftovers and filled twelve baskets with the scraps left from the five barley loaves. In Matthew (14), Mark (6) and Luke (9) the story ends there. But in John, we get more information, as if the the story is not over, the important part is yet to come. In John, the morsel to chew on is not so much the way the bread multiples miraculously; it is the way that Jesus refuses to be controlled. Jesus runs off to the hills so he cannot be made king by the people. And he will not even let the disciples carry him in their boat.
We sit with this story in a time when truth feels fragmented, when it feels like hate is emboldened; insert your own disturbing trends here. With uncertainty rattling us to the core, the temptation is to hold tight to certainty. Who better to hold onto, with certainty, than Jesus? Hold tight and be reminded that if everything else seems to be shifting, at least Jesus and God are constant. As the song says, “Fresh as the morning, sure as the sunrise, God always faithful, you do not change.”
But what if it is still true that the attempt to hold on makes Jesus flee to the hills? What if holding onto unchanging certainty is not what we are striving for, in ourselves or God. What if what we are looking for is faithfulness? And what if faithfulness is fresh, not exactly the same every time?
Even just saying that, makes my head spin just a little. If we can’t grab onto God as a constant in a changing, mixed-up, unjust world, then what do we have? How can we depend on God or Jesus or the Spirit if we don’t know what faithfulness looks like – in the Holy or in ourselves? We need something to hold onto.
What do we know of God’s faithfulness? Can it look different, fresh, depending on the situation? In Exodus, in the desert, God is faithful and the people get enough food for one day. In John, there is more than enough food and it doesn’t spoil. Two different responses to a hunger problem. Is God faithful in both times and places?
What if our faithfulness can shift too? Sometimes faithfulness looks like self-preservation, staying out of harm’s way so we can keep spreading love and peace. “Live to fight another day” is the slogan I have heard many times at non-violence trainings. And sometimes faithfulness looks like speaking loudly in places where whispers are preferred. Sometimes faithfulness might look like risking arrest so others have a chance at understanding freedom. My friend Art, who seems to risk arrest for a living, says, “Ministry starts when you get inside the jail.” Is that faithfulness?
We are just beginning to gather the fragments from this story, they will continue to nourish. In our hunger we may try to hold tight to the crumbs we catch, and keep holding on lest we lose the truth somehow. But when we hold tight, there is hardly room for the mystery of Jesus to surprise us, even frighten us, as he walks through the storm toward us.
Don’t be afraid, it is Jesus right there. And before we can grab hold of him, we have landed on the shore.