United Methodist minister, Rev. Grace Imathiu tells a story about three young men who came to her office at the church she was serving in Nairobi, Kenya. Although cheerful, they looked tired and wore out. Dusty tennis shoes and dirty clothes. They asked her if they could sing “Amazing Grace.” They sang a cappella in parts. Then they told her their story. They were university students from Rwanda. Two of them had been medical students. When war broke out in their country, they had escaped with the clothes on their back and the song in their heart. They had walked for weeks without a change of clothes and no place to sleep. They had seen so much violence and death and cruelty that they could not find words to pray so instead they sang “Amazing Grace” as they walked.
On that particular afternoon in the pastor’s office, these three young men had come to church asking for assistance. They said they had found a room to rent for eight U.S. dollars a month. They were asking the congregation to help them with a month’s rent. Eight dollars and some money for food, a total of $12 a month. The pastor asked the three students to come back in a few days after she had time to speak with the church leadership. The leaders agreed to take on the $12 a month commitment but not without much discussion. Some said it would be a challenge because $12 each month would add up. Others suggested they do a special project or fundraiser. Then someone was concerned that word would get out that they were helping refugees and the church would be flooded with demands for assistance.
The pastor said in the discussion she learned a lot about the myth of limited resources. We often think there’s just enough for some of us. Some will have to just go without. Someone put it well, saying, “There is enough for all our needs, but there is not enough for all our greed.”
The story of feeding the five thousand is the only story recounted in all four gospels. A year has passed since turning water to wine at a wedding in Cana and this story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. The location of the story is on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. John reminds us that at least from this side it is called Sea of Tiberias. Tiberias was founded in 20 AD by Herod Antipas and named in honor of Tiberias Caesar. For the majority of devout Jews, it was considered an unclean city because it was built on top of an old cemetery. It because a transplant city for some Gentiles.
Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.
When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages[a] to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. (John 6:1-14)
The large crowd follows Jesus to the mountain and sits down. The passage seems to imply that Jesus was sort of in his own little world and when he looks up he realizes that this large crowd is following. Matthew and Mark give us more information about the timeline. According to the other gospels, Jesus took an opportunity to teach the crowd. “When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat” (Mark 6:36). In Mark, Jesus replies, “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37). The Gospel of John tells us that this dialogue happened between Jesus and Philip. Jesus says to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat” (John 6: 5)? We are told that he is asking Philip as a way to test him. But Philip doesn’t know he is being tested. Jesus asks, “Where we going to get the bread? What store has the best deal? Where can we buy by the bulk? Where is the quickest place to purchase and get back?” Philip doesn’t even get to the “where” question. He wants to know how Jesus thinks it is going to happen. Philip responds, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little” (John 6:7).
Andrew, another disciple, gets involved in the conversation, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people” (John 6:9)? Pointing to this kid with his snack, the disciples are like how is this going to help? It is a lost cause. It is barley loaves, the poor man’s bread.
How many times do we look at our resources and ask “How?” How am I going to pay the bills this month? How am I going to get through this year? How am I going to finish this project? How am I going to do make this work? If Jesus is in it, the “how” is already answered. Jesus knows how – God will provide. Where will we let our faith take us when we know the how is taken care of? When we know the “how” we won’t be surprised by the “where.” When we trust that God will provide, we will leave the other questions up to him. We are called to be faithful. A little boy with five barley loaves and two fish is all that is needed to feed a hungry crowd of five thousand when God is in it.
Jesus encourages his disciples to tell the crowd to sit down. The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus ordered the people to sit in “groups of hundreds and of fifties” (Mark 6:40). This is the size of a large banquet. He takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples to give to the people. They gave “as much as they wanted” (John 6:11). When they finished eating the disciples gathered up enough leftovers to fill twelve baskets. The disciples started with a mentality of scarcity but by the time they gather up the leftovers they discover they are working with a God of abundance. Jesus had been followed by a crowd but by the time the teaching and eating was over, he had a community.
When you are walking with Jesus, you got to throw out the expected. A hillside. A spiritual leader teaching. Hungry people being fed. It all happens near the Jewish holiday of Passover. What other biblical character do we find this episode similar? Deuteronomy 18:15 Moses says, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me among your own people.” Because John told us the Passover was near, the festival that celebrates Moses leading the people out of slavery and towards the Promises of God, Moses would have been on everyone’s mind. They would have been comparing Jesus to Moses. But Jesus wants to make it clear that he is greater than Moses. Later he says, “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51). In case all they got out of the lesson is that God is a provider of bread, Jesus is saying he is the one who sustains life.
In a former church appointment, we had a lot of fellowship meals. Every other month, we would gather in the fellowship hall after worship and feast on casseroles, potlucks, and homemade desserts. There was a family that lived near the church but did not attend. A large family who lived crammed in a house surviving on food stamps and welfare checks. Whenever we had a fellowship meal they would show up to eat. They wouldn’t come to worship but they would be right in line for the meal afterwards. One Sunday a group of church leaders called me aside and told me that I was going to have to tell this family of eight that if they couldn’t come to worship and participate in the life of the church they could not attend the fellowship meal. A little boy of one of the church leaders was sitting at the table as we were having this discussion. After it was settled that the preacher would kick them out of the fellowship meal, the little boy interrupted by asking, “Where they going to get food like this at? Don’t we have enough to share?” Yea, we let them keep coming. We kept sharing and we kept having plenty.
Jesus is the bread of heaven. He can turn a crowd into a community. When he is leader of the banquet there is always room for one more. Jesus is the bread of heaven. When he is received as the lord of our life, there is always abundance. Jesus is the bread of heaven.
In a world starving for forgiveness, Jesus sets a table of grace. In a crowded world, Jesus creates community. The gift is limitless. Jesus invites you to his table, a table where you will never go away hungry.