A sermon I gave at Bethel CRC (Newmarket) on January 8, 2011.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “you are what you eat”. It means that the food you eat affects your health and state of mind. When I was a kid, my mom always had the same solution for my after school crankiness – “eat something!” She knew that an empty belly usually leads to a less than positive attitude, which, for a guy my size, meant that she had to have a well stocked fridge.
We can also see the truth of “you are what you eat” in the frightening statistics about rising obesity and the overwhelming availability of junk food both at drive-thrus and in grocery stores. In moderation there is nothing wrong junk food, but as a whole it seems that our culture is addicted to it. Constantly eating bad food will lead to bad health, which, in turn, can lead to an early death. Good food choices, along with an active lifestyle, will lead to good health. You are what you eat.
Not only is eating important for giving our body fuel, it is also an important part of our social lives. Growing up, my family’s kitchen table was the centre of our life together. Eating dinner was one of the most important ways that we grew our relationships with each other – we told stories and jokes, shared how our day went, and helped each other with and problems we might be facing.
Sharing meals together is also part of romantic relationships. When a couple begins to date, typically the first place they go is to a restaurant. When Natalie and I started dating, we got to know each other in the many diners and cafes surrounding our university. Our relationship grew, and continues to grow, as we eat together.
Because eating is an important part of what it means to be human, it is not surprising that the Bible is full of stories about food. One of my favorite stories about food in the Bible is the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. One of the reasons this story is fascinating to me is that I grew up in a small town of 4,500 people, so whenever I heard this story in Sunday School, I always tried to imagine what it would be like for Jesus to have fed everyone in my town – I couldn’t wrap my head around it then and I can’t wrap my head around it now. It is pretty amazing when you think about it. It was pretty amazing to the Gospel writers too – did you know it is the only one of Jesus’ miracles that is recorded in all four of the gospels?
The Gospel writers each tell the story differently. They do so because they are not interesting in simply recounting history. They are each trying to make a point in the way they tell and structure the story. In other words, the Gospels are sermons, each with its own emphases and points of view that paint a larger picture of Christ’s life and ministry. Today we will be reading the version of the story as told by Mark. Please read along with me from Mark 6:30-44.
In order to get a sense of just how amazing this story is, I brought some food along with me – 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread to be exact. Now, I should note that the fish is Tilapia, the most commonly caught fish in the Sea of Galilee and the loaves are as close as I could find to what people in Jesus’ day would have eaten. This isn’t much food. It would take at least one fish and most of a loaf of bread to fill me up. If I were to host a dinner party with this amount of food, how many people do you think I could reasonably feed to the point that they were full? 4-5 people. There are about 200-250 people here today. If I broke all this bread and fish into small enough pieces, there might be enough for everyone to get either a piece of bread or a piece of fish. Is that enough to feed everyone? Obviously not. If you multiply 250 by 20, what do you get? 5,000. Now imagine 20x more people than are in this building being fed by this small amount of food that is enough to feed maybe 5 people. Add to that 12 baskets of leftovers. This is the reality of the miracle performed by Jesus. If we are amazed by it, can you imagine what it was like for those who witnessed it and ate this miraculous food?
But is that all there is to this story – Jesus’ ability to do the impossible? Is that what is really important? Don’t get me wrong – Jesus’ miracles are all amazing. Yet at the same time, if you hung around him long enough, you would begin to realize that you could expect miracles all the time. So, the miracle, although important, is not the main point.
The menu is not important either – fish and bread were common staples of the day. They were the typical items that common folk would eat on a daily basis.
Neither is the number of people being fed, especially when 5,000 isn’t really the correct number. If you read the other gospel accounts of this story, 5,000 is the number of men who were present. This means that the women and children weren’t counted. So, in reality, Jesus fed far more than 5,000 people.
The most important part of the story is the feeding.
Earlier in chapter 6, Jesus sent out his disciples, two-by-two, with the task of preaching and healing. At the beginning of our story for today, the disciples have just returned from this mission and are giving Jesus their report. They are tired and hungry from their journey. But while they were sharing their stories with Jesus, a crowd started gather. So, Jesus instructed his disciples to join him to find a quiet space to get some rest. They got in a boat and headed out. But when they arrived at their destination, the crowds were there waiting.
When Jesus sees the crowds, he has great compassion on them. The Greek word used to explain Jesus’ feelings about the situation is “splagchnizomai” – let me hear you say “splagchnizomai”. It literally means to have one’s guts be torn apart. Jesus is deeply moved by the needs of the crowd. It’s like the feeling a parent has when they hold their newborn child – the emotional connection and heave of love and care is overwhelming. This is what Jesus felt toward the crowd.
They were sheep without a shepherd – lost and wandering in the wilderness. There are a flock that needs care. So, Jesus foregoes his rest and begins to teach them.
The disciples come to Jesus asking him to send the crowds away so that the people may get some food. This is the disciples’ way of saying to Jesus “we were promised food and rest and now these people are preventing us from taking a well-deserved break. Get rid of them so that we can relax”. Although Jesus’ care for the crowds is evident, the disciples seem ignorant of this, preoccupied with their own needs.
Jesus turns to them and says “You give them something to eat”.
This is not an instruction. This is an accusation.
Earlier in chapter 6 when Jesus sends the disciples out, he tells them “take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, and no money in your belts”.
Now, when Jesus says “You give them something to eat”, the disciples are incredulous and immediately begin giving excuses – “It would take almost 8 months wages to feed everyone here! We don’t have that kind of cash with us”. The implication is that the disciples have money with them and Jesus is calling them out on this.
This leads to Jesus’ next question – “how many loaves do you have?” To which the disciples reply “We have five loaves of bread and two fish”.
The disciples have just returned from a mission on which they were to bring no food and no money. And yet, here they are, having just come back and what do they have? Food and money.
Jesus is being sharp with his disciples. He is saying – “why are you asking me to do something about this when you have food and you have money? You do something about it!” In other words, he is saying “You didn’t trust me to provide for you before, and now you’re running to me to fix your problems? Why don’t you trust that God will provide?”
And yet, the disciples, like so many other times, seem incapable of even the smallest amount of trust. Their responses are pragmatic – we don’t have enough money and we don’t have enough food. This attitude leaves them unable to see the possibility that God is always able to provide.
So, out of his deep compassion for the flock, Jesus tells everyone to sit down on the green grass. In that time, people would recline when eating a special meal. The irony is inescapable – although they are in the middle of the wilderness, Jesus is getting ready to give a feast. This immediately brings to mind the words of Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures…He prepares a table for me.” The sheep now have a shepherd.
Even though the provisions are meager, Jesus gives thanks, breaks the bread and the fish and instructs the disciples to give it to the crowd.
They all ate and were satisfied.
This crowd that followed Jesus, once spiritually and physically hungry, is now full.
Everyone ate her fill and there are leftovers.
Most people don’t like leftovers. But in this story the leftovers signify God’s abundance and generosity. God gives and when we receive in faith, there is always enough for everyone with more to spare. Not to mention that perhaps the 12 baskets of leftovers were Jesus’ way of saying to the disciples – when you trust me, I will always provide for you.
Not only is the feeding important, but so too is the history and symbolism in Mark’s telling of this story. We need to be aware of this to get the fuller picture of what this story is all about. Mark frequently uses symbolism in his gospels to add layers of meaning to the stories.
Twelve was a very important number for the Israelites. Not only are there 12 tribes, there are also 12 disciples. The number of loves and fish also bear symbolic importance – the five loaves of bread correspond to the five books of Moses, and the two fish represent the law and the prophets. These details underline the deep connection between food and scripture. “Food and scripture are rightly tied together because there can be no strict separation between body and soul. The words of scripture are the words of life, every bit as essential for our ability to live as bread and fish”. God is the provider of everything we need – physically and spiritually – and precisely because these needs overlap, there is no clear separation between them.
This story echoes that of Elisha in 2 Kings 4:38-44. There is a famine in the land. A man brings Elisha 20 loaves of bread. Elisha tells his servant to feed the 100 men who are with them. The servant scoffs saying “How can I feed one hundred men with this?” To which Elisha responds: “Give it to the people so they can eat! This is what the Lord says: ‘Eat and there will be leftovers’”. The servant gave the men the bread, they ate it, and there were leftovers. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Mark is also alluding to God’s provision to the Israelites in the desert following their exodus from Egypt. The feeding of the 5,000 is essentially a re-enactment of God’s feeding of the Israelites in the wilderness. In Exodus 16, the Israelites begin complaining to Moses “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve us to death” (v.4). To which God replied: “At twilight you will eat meat. And in the morning you will have your fill of bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God” (v.12b).
Not only does the feeding of the 5,000 recapitulate God’s feeding of the Israelites in the desert, it also anticipates God’s feeding of the church through the Lord’s Supper. In these meals, God is providing spiritual and physical sustenance. He is displaying his compassion and care for humans through simple yet lavish means. But he is also reminding us that we do not live by bread alone, but also by the words of God. Like the manna and quail in the desert and the food for the 5,000, God provides a feast for his people, the church, a feast that we call the Lord’s Supper.
The question for us today is how do we eat this feast?
There is a wonderful movie called Babette’s Feast that is an apt description of both how we often approach the Lord’s Supper and the effect that Lord’s Supper should have on us. The movie tells the story of a very strict Christian sect that avoids all the sensual delights of this world. Fleeing from the revolution in France, a woman named Babette comes to live with them as their housekeeper and cook. After she wins 10,000 francs in the French lottery, rather than return home, Babette decides to spend it all on preparing a marvelous and extravagant feast for the aging members of the sect.
Although the congregation shuns all sensual luxury, they agree to eat the meal. However, before eating, they decide amongst themselves that they will not take any pleasure in the food and will not talk about the food during dinner. I think that this is often how we approach the Lord’s Supper – as a somber and solemn affair despite the richness and abundance of food being offered. Like the sect members, we often equate reverence and piety with a detached austerity. Rather than celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and his triumph over sin and death, we act as though we are at his funeral.
However, in the film, as the feast progresses, the guests cannot help but be overcome by the meal. As they eat, their hearts begin to melt and they begin to understand that, despite their resistance, that God’s grace cannot be contained by our piety precisely because his grace is lavish and infinite. They slowly begin to realize that creation is a gift given to us by God to be enjoyed and celebrated. The meal is a reminder to them of the richness of God’s creation and redemption.
Someone once said “the Church has nothing to say to the world unless it throws better parties”. In other words, the Church has the best news offered to the world – that Christ is risen, that sin is forgiven, that death and hell are defeated, that Christ is returning to establish his heavenly kingdom on earth and that when he returns we will be feasting with him for eternity. This news should be cause for the type of celebration that causes us to want to get up and dance, to shout from the rooftops, to celebrate with a sense of reckless abandon because we know that Christ is Lord!
So the question is – do we allow the meal to become truly transformative of our lives in such a way that it is a celebration of the new lives we have because of Christ? In other words, in our consumption of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, do we allow Christ to completely consume us?
When we feast with Christ at his table, we are participating in his kingdom and we are anticipating when that kingdom will be fully established on earth. But, our waiting is never passive. Like he did to his disciples, Jesus also turns to us and asks us to feed the hungry sheep – to be their shepherds on his behalf, to show the kind of gut-ripping compassion he shows to us.
This also means that we when pray “Give us our daily bread” that we use this as an opportunity to open ourselves to the reality of our spiritual and physical hunger. Every day I require food. When I do not get the food I need, I become hungry. The stuff of my life is hunger, need, and lack, which opens me to the reality of my complete and utter dependence on God. However, technology and affluence blind me to this truth; I live in a country where food is readily available and in a culture where food is an idol. I seek to sate my hunger with all the wrong things and, as a result, I am always left hungry and empty. And yet, a single day without food is enough to remind me of the truth of what I am – a creature who depends on the good gifts of his Creator. A sheep who needs a shepherd.
God is our provider – he provides us with physical food and spiritual food. It is in the Lord’s Supper and the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 in which we are reminded that when we feast with Christ, we will always be satisfied. We taste and see that the Lord is good. We learn that God is not a miser – he spared no expense in the meal he gives us. Indeed, it cost him everything to ensure that his sheep are feed. This is provision. This is abundance. This is grace. This is something worth celebrating.
When we feast with Christ, our faith is established, our hope is nourished, and our love becomes extravagant.
 Stanely Hauerwas, Matthew. Brazos Publishing: Grand Rapids, 2006, p.139.