Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Food plays a central part in the entire Judaeo-Christian tradition, from God’s provision of manna in the wilderness for the journeying Hebrew people, right through to images of the messianic banquet at the end of time. One of the first things the world knew about Christians was that they ate together. At the beginning of every week, they gathered – rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, women and men – to celebrate Jesus’s resurrection. They (we) still do. At the heart of our service each Sunday we have food, the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
Jesus’s feeding of 5000 people is one of the most familiar miracle stories. It defies comprehension, inviting us to believe that something inexplicable happened. Many through the centuries have tried to explain it away, but the nature of the miracle is not the aspect of the story that I want to focus on this morning. Rather, let’s think about the disciples, and what the story tells us about being a follower of Jesus today. Because whether or not Jesus molecularly multiplied the bread and fish, or whether the crowds opened up their simple lunchboxes and shared their food with their neighbours, what is more interesting is what the disciples must have learned – namely that there was more available to them that what they themselves were bringing to the table.
5000 is a lot of people. It’s not a surprise that the disciples wanted them to go away and fend for themselves. They have nothing but five loaves and a couple of fish. But Jesus says, in essence, ‘I can work with that’. He has the people sit down and he takes the bread and the fish and gives thanks for them, and we know how the rest of the story goes. There’s not only enough to feed all of them; there’s more than enough.
I know for myself, and perhaps you know it, too, that we look at the smallness of our own offering, the insignificance of our abilities, the inadequacy of our treasure, right up against the greatness of whatever need we face, and we tend to think it’s a reason to feel shame. Or we act as though smallness, inadequacy and insignificance are things that would never be worthy to be brought before God. Yet so many of the parables about God’s kingdom, where Jesus teaches people how God creates something great, starts with something small. Jesus never says the kingdom of heaven is like a FTSE 100 company, full of happy shareholders. It’s always something small, over-looked, insignificant, organic – these are the things that, albeit paradoxically, reveal the glory of God.
Today we hear a story that started with inadequacy and need, as we hear of the little boy who shared his lunch. But within his story lie more than 5000 others – among them the story of the neglected orphan, the sceptical tax collector, the despised Samaritan, the curious fisherman, the struggling widow, the disdained prostitute, the wealthy businessman, the angry zealot, the ostracised demoniac, the banished leper, the oppressed slave, the repentant sinner – and ultimately the story of you and me.
It’s the story of a crowd of people who had little in common except that they were hungry – for food, for healing, for what Jesus offered them. And it’s the story of a crowd of people who were fed: no questions asked, no prerequisites demanded, no standards of holiness to meet first. It’s a story of people who were shown that what they have currently is not the end of the story.
In this narrative we see Jesus addressing the most essential, physical needs of his fellow human beings – hunger, thirst, community, and breaking down every socially constructed barrier that keeps us from eating with one another. He did the same thing, when much to the chagrin of the religious leaders, he dined with tax collectors and prostitutes, and told his more well-to-do hosts that when you give a banquet, invite the crippled, the lame, the blind, and then you will be blessed. His critics repeatedly drew attention to the fact he dined with the wrong people. By eating with the sinners, outcasts and the unclean, Jesus was repeatedly saying, ‘These are my companions, literally, the people I share bread with. These are my friends.’ It was this sort of thing that got him killed.
We come together week by week to feast on the bread of life. All who share this feast, who bring their hunger, are companions of Jesus. This is the kingdom, all of us here gathered together, not because we are worthy or good, but because we are hungry, because we long for more. This is what it is to be a disciple.
Whatever the nature of this miracle, it is found in the everyday. We talk about the sacraments of the Church, things that help us to see, things that help us to encounter the compassion, generosity and companionship of God. The bread and the wine, for sure, but also the flowers, the winter night shelter for homeless people, the pastoral networks, the Vineyard lunch, Junior Church, Eaglets, and so on. All this stuff matters, these things are holy.
Sacraments are about making ordinary things holy. Sometimes in the church we’re tempted to hide God behind beautiful things and we risk becoming hung up on these objects rather than what they point to. Learning to see God is learning to see with new eyes. When we have eyes to see, even ordinary things become holy. And when received with open hands and hearts, the signs, wonders and miracles of Jesus never cease. This is a God who never runs out of holy things: the God who multiplied wine at a wedding, turned five loaves of bread and a couple of fish into lunch to feed five thousand, with baskets of leftovers, the God who is like a shepherd who leaves his flock in search of a single lamb. We have the choice, every day, to join in the revelry, to share the picnic, drink the wine of underserved grace. To do this we need to know our hunger, our inadequacy, and that we cannot do it by ourselves. We need one another, and we need God.
History has shown that there have always been people who fancy themselves as being ‘bouncers’ to the heavenly banquet, and perhaps when we forget our own need we run the risk of becoming like this, too – people who are charged with keeping the wrong people away from the table and out of church. But the gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out; it needs a family committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors and welcoming all to bread and wine, to companionship. This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy, it’s a kingdom for the hungry.
Wherever you are in this story, you are invited to come and eat. You don’t need to earn a place: it is given. The God we encounter in Jesus is in the business of transforming the most ordinary things into holy things, scraps of food into feasts. And if God says to us, ‘What do you have to offer’, and all we can say is ‘Nothing’, God replies, ‘I can work with that’.
Feeding someone and being fed, is the most intimate of actions. It’s what we do for babies, for those too poorly to feed themselves, and for people who are dying. It is an act of extraordinary vulnerability and trust.
Some of you will know our Diocese of Southwark has a link with the church in Zimbabwe. I remember, a few years ago now, Canon Bruce Saunders from the Cathedral recalling his vivid memory of a link visit to Zimbabwe during which he was invited to distribute communion in remote rural churches, where it is the custom to receive the wafer from the priest not into the hands but directly onto the tongue. The congregations didn’t know me from Adam, Bruce said, but they allowed me to feed them. I passed along the communion rail looking down into African faces dusty grey with hardship, eyes clouded with cataracts, placing the consecrated wafer gently onto the tongues of people with cracked lips and missing teeth. They knew that they were receiving this not from me, a white priest who’d just turned up, but from God.