Sermon Given July 25, 2021
Today, we move from the Gospel of Mark into the Gospel of John. I can sense the shift as I read the Gospel story this morning. John lingers in stories, giving some extra details. One of the hallmarks of John is that Jesus talks a lot. In our story this morning, Jesus doesn’t have a lot to say, he has a lot to show, but over the course of this next month, we will delve into the rest of this sixth chapter of John, where Jesus shares about what it means that he is the bread of life. We will examine this group of scriptures through different lenses, and with different preachers. So today, we begin a long conversation together about Jesus as the bread of life, and it starts with Jesus coming to a hillside in Galilee with his disciples right before the Passover begins.
It’s curious that Jesus has chosen this place for Passover rather than Jerusalem. In John’s Gospel there are three Passover celebrations, one at the beginning of the Gospel, where Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers, this one, and then at the end of John, where Jesus is crucified on the same day they kill the passover lambs. There is this rich thread of Passover imagery that runs throughout the gospel, and John brings us these three pivotal lessons as Passover moments.
The Passover is not something we celebrate as Christians, it has been eclipsed with Holy Week and Easter. The moving date of Passover is why Easter doesn’t have a set date. In our tradition, Easter is our new Passover. Jesus is forever linked to this festival, and we are reminded of that every time we break bread and declare, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.”
In order to understand this feast we encounter today, in order to be able to understand the dialogue we will encounter over the next month, we have to remember what the Passover is.
The story of Passover is a story of liberation. It connects us to Moses, who was an Israelite. He grew up in an Egyptian household, the house of Pharaoh, having been saved through the waters and adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter. He grew up watching his kin, his fellow Israelites, in slavery, with all the horrors that come along with enslavement. He stood up for the rights of an Israelite, killing an Egyptian, then fled to another country to avoid punishment. But God called him back to Egypt, and God used Moses and his brother, Aaron, to speak to Pharoah. God cast plagues upon the land of Egypt, trying to show the injustice of enslavement, but they would not listen. Finally, the last plague came, the killing of the firstborn sons. God saved the Israelites from this plague through the Passover lamb. No harm befell them with the blood of the lamb on their doorpost. Because of this plague, Pharaoh finally agreed to let the people go. But even after their liberation, Pharaoh panicked when he realized that the Egyptian economy would be devastated by the loss of their slaves, so he sent armies after Moses and the people. The people were saved from the Egyptian army when God allowed them to cross the Red Sea on dry land. The people of God would wander in the desert for 40 years afterward, trying to survive in a harsh landscape as they searched for their new home and learned how to follow God. But God sent manna, bread from heaven, and quails to feed them. They were instructed not to hoard the food, but to trust that there would always be enough, and indeed there always was. This is the story of Passover, the story of God creating a way out of no way, the story of liberation and learning how to be God’s people, a people of openness, who knew that each individual could have enough and were worthy of life.
The reason why this feeding of the five thousand is so important, the reason why it is one of the only miracles that is included in all four Gospels, and even repeated in other Gospels, both as the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand. Through this story, we find our own Passover moment. We find our own liberation and redemption through this bread.
The crowd that has been following Jesus and his disciples for a long time, watching him perform miracles, and growing ever more steadily, finally comes to a mountaintop with Jesus and his disciples. It’s been a long journey, and they are used to Jesus healing in market places and villages. They’ve always been able to find food, though some wouldn’t have been able to afford food anyway. These were not well to do people. Many lived in poverty, barely scraping by. Some had just been healed not too long before. They had lived on sick beds, unable to provide for themselves, being cared for by others. While their more financially stable neighbors may be journeying to Jerusalem to give their Passover offering at the Temple, these others stayed behind.
We can see their poverty in the gifts that are offered to Jesus. A young boy comes with five barley loaves and two fish, which some commentators say were probably dried. Barley loaves were cheap. Most people ate and preferred wheat bread. Barley was the bread of the poor. Commentators say that about three barley loaves would be considered a meal for one person. These were small loaves, and small fish. This young boy also most likely didn’t carry this meal just for himself. He was probably with at least one parent, if not two, along with other siblings and other family members as well. He gave Jesus all that his family had to eat, which probably wouldn’t have filled the bellies of those whom he traveled with.
These were the people who needed liberation more than anyone else, those who were oppressed and downtrodden, who just couldn’t make it in the Roman economic system. They needed something more. They longed for something better. So hoping beyond all hope, they turned to Jesus. They flocked to Jesus because they saw his power and the signs he was able to perform. They needed a miracle.
The boy and his family could have said that what they had was insignificant, not enough for even them, and held back. They could have been convinced, like the disciples, that their offerings were far too little. But instead, they handed what they had over to Jesus. Jesus took what was provided, all that they could scrape together and he blessed it. The Greek word for blessing here is eucharista. Jesus eucharisted the bread and the fish. Then he gave it to them all. What started out small and insignificant became a feast. It was like the manna from heaven. There was enough for all. They were all provided for with the bread of life.
But this bread is even greater than the manna that came down from heaven in the wilderness. While the Israelites in the wilderness received just enough manna for themselves each day, Jesus provided more than enough for all. The remnants are brought in in twelve baskets. The number twelve is often used to refer to Israel, which was formed of twelve tribes. In this action, Jesus shares that he not only has enough for all of Israel, he has even more, enough for the rest of the world. We can all be included in the Eucharist, the blessing that Jesus provides.
But the people don’t understand. They see these connections to Moses, the great prophet, who liberated and redeemed Israel, but they think that Jesus will be their liberator from Rome. Jesus sees that they are about to come and try to make him their king and he flees. That is not his job. His job is to liberate us all. He knows that governments come and go, but if we are freed to see our neighbors as equal to ourselves, if we are able to envision the bigger and broader Kingdom of Heaven that is within our midst and yet not fully realized on earth, if we can dream of what God has in store for us, then we can do infinitely more and infinitely better than overturning any government could do. This Kingdom is larger and more expansive than any government ever could be. His power is greater than Rome and able to provide for us, long after the empire has fallen. Jesus’ way is a way that liberates by refusing to participate in oppression. It’s a way that subverts power by claiming equal power for all. All get fed. All have enough. In fact, with Jesus, there is more than enough to go around.
We can see this power at work in our world today, if we can open ourselves up to the miracles that happen all around us, if we see God at work in our world, even though our world often doesn’t look like God’s dreams. If we can be present with each other through the nightmares, we can find the sparks of healing that can only come from God’s hand. We’re so much better at creating suffering than God ever could be, but God’s great at teaching us, even despite ourselves sometimes, what true peace and wholeness looks like, giving us glimpses of the Kingdom on earth.
As I was preparing my sermon, I kept on thinking of the story of Angel’s Attic, how this congregation, with nudges and God’s interventions, helped bring about a thrift shop that helps a clinic provide healthcare for those in this community without insurance, and has grown to provide for even more ministries. I felt the need to hear the story again, so I sat myself down in Rose’s living room and listened as she recounted not only the story of Angel’s Attic, but of how shelter for victims of domestic violence came to Murray, and our former ministry to women in prison. It always started small, something that could have easily been dismissed as being too little.
For Angel’s Attic, it started with rain during a conference that led Rose into a workshop on thrift shops combined with a small house the diocese happened to own. For the domestic violence shelter, it was a priest’s commitment to keep an apartment in his house open for those who needed it until they could make the trip to Paducah. The prison ministry started when a woman in the prison reached out to local Episcopal congregations, seeking communion. These are the five loaves and two fish. Because we were willing to offer ourselves, to not hold back, to work with any who wanted to help out, so much has happened. Our offerings were eucharisted into great feasts, some which still endure, some which have changed and even some which have ended as circumstances change. We gave what we had and it was blessed. Christ was present within us and through us.
When we are wondering how God can make a way out of no way, when we aren’t sure what to do or how to move forward, Jesus comes, walking on water, like the people of Israel treading through the Red Sea. He helps move our boats to the other side, where we can find the answers we long for. The answers are never hidden, we just can’t always see them quite yet. They are the shoreline when we are still at sea. If we can trust that the choppy waters aren’t the end, but the beginning of something greater, we can endure through the nights when we’re not sure what we even have to give. God comes to us during those hours, creating a way out of no way. God makes all things possible.
We can hold onto the Eucharist of life, giving all that we have over to God, knowing that God will give what God has back to us. Jesus is our Passover feast of victory, sharing God’s Kingdom with us, inviting us to give what we have over to God so God can create possibilities beyond our wildest dreams with them. Through God, liberation is possible. Life can be lived in abundance, with enough for all.
Today the Eucharist of Christ comes to us again. Jesus blesses the bread, and shares the abundance of life in him, not just spiritual abundance, but also providing for our real physical needs. There is enough for all at this table.
May the Eucharistic feast of this day not just be for us, but for the whole world, as Jesus works in us to provide for all. Amen.