July 24, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – John 6:1-2, 5-14 (NRSV)
Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. . . Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
Was it a miracle? Was there a rational explanation? I cannot answer that question. But Jesus himself is the bread of life. And God is extravagant.
Mark is a short Gospel—only 16 chapters to Matthew’s 28, Luke’s 24, and John’s 21. In my (Episcopal) tradition, we read continuously through one of the Gospels at church each Sunday in Ordinary Time (see my previous devotion for more on Ordinary Time), in a three-year cycle: Matthew in Year A, Mark in Year B (which we are in right now), and Luke in Year C. But when we’re in the year when we read through Mark, it’s too short to fill all of Ordinary Time, so we hear bits of the Gospel of John in the summer as well. (We hear the rest of John at other times of the year.)
That’s why, in the middle of the stories from Mark I have been telling you, we have this Sunday one of the most famous stories from John—the Feeding of the 5000. (Or, since Matthew 14 and Luke 9 tell us that 5000 was just how many men were there, the Feeding of the More Than 5000 When You Count Women and Children.) The outline of the story is fairly clear to those of us who remember it from Sunday School—Jesus, as he is so often, is trying to get a little peace and quiet when a large crowd shows up because they have heard of his reputation. Especially, they have heard of the “signs that he was doing for the sick” (John 6:2). In a society that really had no medical care for the poor, that was no small thing.
Jesus didn’t always offer to feed the crowds that followed him, but in this case he announced that it was his responsibility. According to John at any rate (6:6), he already had the whole thing mapped out in his head, but the disciples were understandably perturbed. Where were they going to get enough bread? And yet, simply because of a boy who offered his five loaves and two fishes, they did have enough—and twelve baskets left over.
I’ve heard all sorts of explanations of this miracle, mostly proposing that the other people did actually have food with them but refused to share it until this kid spoke up. Jesus couldn’t actually have miraculously produced enough food for 5000+ people. Could he have?
My mom (you remember her from yesterday) once was on a retreat which included a communion service. At that communion service, the pastor, whose name was Alan, presented to them a loaf of bread at the time of the confession of sins. He asked the attendees to break off a piece of bread, think about a sin or sins in their life they wanted to experience forgiveness for, pray over it, and put it in a basket. About half of the people did so—which meant there were twenty people and ten pieces of bread.
Pastor Alan took the bread and the cup and prayed the Eucharistic prayer over them—a prayer that deliberately, by the way, echoes the language here and in the descriptions of the Last Supper of Jesus taking the bread and giving thanks. After the prayer, Pastor Alan offered everyone the bread and the cup. My mother was worried. If there were only ten pieces of bread, how could everyone take communion?
Then she went up to receive communion and looked in the basket of bread. There were more than ten pieces. There were far more than twenty pieces. There was so much bread that, when the service was over, Pastor Alan had to eat the leftovers. (This story was referred to in our house for years as “when Alan ate our sins.”)
Was it a miracle? Was there a rational explanation? I cannot answer that question. But I will remind you that we learn in the rest of John 6 that Jesus himself is the bread of life (John 6:35, 48-51). And we know—because my mom told us, and because the Bible tells us so—that God is extravagant.
Have you ever experienced a miracle of abundance?
Where have you seen God’s abundance in your life?
How has Jesus been the bread of life to you?
The great chorale “Deck Thyself, My Soul, With Gladness” uses the imagery of John 6 in its final stanza. (You can read all the stanzas here.) Listen and ponder how much Jesus loves you, and think about how you can show his love to the world.
“Jesus, Bread of Life, I pray thee,
let me gladly here obey thee;
never to my hurt invited,
be thy love with love requited:
from this banquet let me measure,
Lord, how vast and deep its treasure;
through the gifts thou here dost give me,
as thy guest in heaven receive me.”
Jesus, thank you for being the bread of life to us and to all the world. Amen.
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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