+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
When Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.
What happened next turned out to be one of the most enduring stories found in Scripture, the only one of Jesus’ miracles to appear in all four of the gospels. That story is well worth the time we’ll spend on it, but I’m convinced that to truly understand the importance of the feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness, we have to circle back and come to terms with just what it was that Jesus heard that caused him to head out to a deserted place.
It turns out that what Jesus heard about was an event that has gotten much less airtime than the miracle that follows. If you’ve ever heard anyone demand someone’s head on a platter, that person was either knowingly or unknowingly making reference to the news that Jesus had received: news about the brutal death of his cousin John the Baptist at the hands of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Judea and Galilee. John had been arrested by Herod because of his insistent preaching against the powerful and connected, especially Herod himself. The event that led to John’s death had, in fact, been a celebratory dinner, thrown by Herod for his friends and associates. At that banquet, the host had been so entertained by a dance performed by his daughter-in-law that he had offered to grant her anything she desired. At the urging of her mother, she’d asked for… well, I think you get the picture.
Jump back to today’s reading, and you can see a striking contrast. Far from the center of power, Jesus wanted nothing more than to get away from everything. He was worn down by his grief, looking for silence and solitude so that he could deal with the pain and sadness of John’s death. When he arrived, however, he was anything but alone. In fact, the crowds had heard about his plans to leave town and beat him to the spot, getting to the other side of the lake by foot before he could make it there by boat. Despite his grief, Jesus was deeply moved by the sight of the crowds who had traveled miles to seek him, and he spent the whole day with them, healing their sick and proclaiming good news to troubled hearts. As evening approached, the disciples had seen enough. They knew how badly their teacher needed rest, and they insisted that Jesus needed to send the crowds away so that they could fend for themselves and he could finally take a break. To their surprise, Jesus turned the tables on them, demanding that they feed the hungry people gathered there by the lakeshore. Incredibly, the five loaves of barley bread and two fish that they brought to Jesus became more than enough when he took over as the host of the meal. By the time dinner was finished, not only was everyone stuffed, but there was more leftover than there had been when the meal began.
With apologies to Charles Dickens, what we have here is a tale of two meals, and the differences between them couldn’t be starker. The meal hosted by Herod – attended by the powerful and featuring an abundance of food and entertainment – descended into brutal violence and resulted in the death of a man whose only crime was speaking the truth about those present. The meal hosted by Jesus, on the other hand – attended by people on the margins of society and featuring a spread that would have barely fed five people, let alone five thousand men plus women and children – was a reflection of God’s will for life and refreshment and renewal and abundance for all people.
I mentioned before that this miracle is the only one recorded by all four gospel writers, and I don’t think that’s an accident. I believe there’s something about the meal Jesus hosted with his disciples that continued to speak to God’s people long after the crowds disbursed and Jesus finally got to rest. For the earliest members of the church, what happened on that lakeshore seemed to happen again and again whenever they gathered for worship. Those first Christians, often drawn from among the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, saw in their gatherings a multiplication of God’s blessing and God’s abundance. That blessing was especially apparent in the celebration of the Eucharist or Holy Communion, in the breaking of the bread that united them with one another and with their Lord Jesus. No matter their station in life, their family connections, their status in society (or lack thereof), the ordinary things they brought – hunks of bread and flasks of cheap wine – became much more in the presence of Christ. Those earthly gifts were capable of bearing the grace and love of God, broken and shared for those gathered and for the sake of the world. In the pattern of the feeding of the five thousand – bring, bless, break, and share – they saw a pattern for how God continued to act in their midst each Sunday.
So it has been for centuries. We who gather today do so in the expectation that it is in the decidedly ordinary – bread, wine, water, and word – that God promises to give us nothing less than the extraordinary gifts of love and grace that are ours in Christ Jesus. We gather, not at the table of a tyrant like Herod, whose precious honor led him to do the unthinkable, but at the table of the one who even in weakness and grief looked to the needs of other before his own, and in so doing revealed the character of God in an unmistakable and unforgettable way.
Brothers and sisters, this weekend we celebrate again the truth that, in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, the finite is capable of bearing the infinite. We will soon gather around the table of our Lord and receive the very body and blood of Jesus, the ultimate sign of his compassion for you and me and the whole creation. We will also bear witness and join our voices in prayer and praise as Addy comes to the font and by common water and holy Word will be cleansed, claimed, and commissioned for a life of loving relationship with God and loving service in the world. As we prepare to receive and call to mind these precious gifts, let us pray that we might be strengthened through them and inspired to go out this week and, in the midst of our own trials and struggles and griefs, serve our neighbors with compassion so that all might come to know God’s love. Thanks be to God for ordinary gifts and extraordinary grace! Amen!