“But what good is that?”
Message preached on
July 29, 2018
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Though Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell this same story, the version told by John is more personal and approachable, or so it seems to me. In the other gospels we read of Jesus and his nameless disciples and a crowd tired and hungry after a day of listening to story after story, teaching after teaching. In John’s gospel, we encounter by name Philip and Andrew, two of the twelve. We also catch a glimpse of a boy in the midst of a multitude seeking Jesus.
In the other gospels, it is the disciples who note the lateness of the hour and the need to send the people home, where they can take care of themselves. Jesus then changes the equation, as he looks with compassion on those who have come to hear him. He tells the disciples to feed them. Something amazing then happens, as 5 loaves and 2 fish collected from the crowd and blessed, feed everyone, with an abundance leftover. It’s a marvelous story.
But I kind of like how John tells it. As people come to Jesus, he is aware of the problem. In John’s gospel it is Jesus who alerts his disciples to this problem. It is Jesus who asks, “Where will we get enough food to feed all these people?” You can almost see the wink in his eye as he asks Philip in particular this question. Jesus already knows the answer, according to John, but he is playing a bit with Philip. Having heard and seen everything Jesus has thus far said and done, will Philip connect the dots from their need to God’s response?
Unfortunately, Philip has not yet arrived at the place where gets it. His brain can only imagine the limited funds they have. Their bag of coins can’t buy enough bread to feed all these people… Now, I could at this point hold up a partial glass of water and ask if it is half empty or half full. This is the proverbial dividing line between a pessimist and an optimist. One sees everything that might go wrong. The other imagines what could go right. But the picture painted in this morning’s gospel story is not about pessimism or optimism. It has to do with faith. An optimist has no more faith than a pessimist. Real faith is both realistic and full of imagination.
The scene shifts in our gospel story from Philip to Andrew. My original plan when pulling together this morning’s worship was to act out this story. It almost begs for us to do so. I envisioned Gary standing beside me portraying Philip, and Jeff as Andrew standing partway back the center aisle, near Rowan, who (as the young boy in this story) would be bursting at the seams to share his basket lunch. We would then have taken his basket and multiplied it into several baskets of Goldfish passed throughout the congregation, Philip and Andrew, Gary and Jeff, encouraging everyone to take a handful. “It’s both bread and fish,” they would have said.
I imagined us acting out this story in this way. But reality interceded. Too many tests and procedures in preparation for my receiving chemotherapy next week. Time was limited to make all the phone calls necessary to set up role playing this Bible story. More to the point, I lacked the energy. My cup was less than half full. And I didn’t have Meghan to help me. Sooo, perhaps you can just imagine us having acted it out, with the taste of Goldfish on your tongue.
The scene shifts from Philip to Andrew, from Gary to Jeff, and a young boy … Rowan. John’s version of this story is so beloved, I think, because of this boy. Instead of the combined resources of the crowd pooled together to make 5 loaves and 2 fish, as in the other three gospel renditions, John lays it all in the basket of this young boy. He willingly shares his lunch. One person. One young person. A child, really. What difference can one person make, a child at that?
I like what Jeff, I mean Andrew then says, “There is a boy here who has five small loaves of barley bread and two fish. But what good is that with all these people?” … But what good is that? … This is the question we often ask, wondering if there is enough to go around. Yes, enough food, but also enough money. Enough time. Enough ability. Enough energy. You fill in the blank. For me, as I look ahead to several weeks of chemo before the hip and femur replacement surgery that will get me back on my feet, I wonder if I have enough patience, enough energy, enough persistence, enough determination, enough stamina (do you catch my drift?) to make it from now until I am free of this walker and all the other paraphernalia that help me get by.
But what good is that, Andrew asked of Jesus, as he brought forward this basket containing the boy’s lunch… You know, I’ve always wondered about these loaves and fish. First, in following John’s identification of a boy as responsible for the little, which was then multiplied to many; was this just food for one child? Five loaves of bread, even if small, sound like a lot for a boy. Two fish also. Was this just his, or was he offering his family’s lunch. Were his parent caught off guard by offering, or did they encourage it? Frankly, I don’t think John had any of that in mind as he wrote. But I can imagine all sorts of scenarios, akin to Luke’s story of Jesus as a 12-year-old in the Temple.
I have also wondered about this food. The bread is one thing. People can break off a piece and eat it as is. The fish are another matter. I’m not sure folks in that area and time were into eating raw fish. This was the mid-east, not the far-east. We’re not talking sushi. And I can’t quite imagine folks biting into raw fish, like the character Gullum in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” No, I think fish would have been cooked, but there is no mention of it being pre-cooked or smoked (a possibility), nor any talk of campfires in the story. Again, such a detail would not be considered important by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
The focus is upon a small amount being multiplied to feed many, specifically 5,000 … with leftovers. Not only is there enough, there is more than enough to go around. Think about that for a minute. It doesn’t matter if you are a half-full cup pessimist or a full cup optimist, this story breaks wide open our usual approach to things to emphasize that God is not miserly when it comes to providing for our needs. God is not a tightwad who only gives just enough, but no more. No, in the realm of God cups overflow, there are baskets aplenty of leftovers.
This story tickles us to remember the children of Israel as they wandered through the wilderness, hungry and thirsty and wondering if there was enough to get by. God provided them every morning with Manna, a “what is this?” bread to sustain them. There was always more than enough to feed all of them, though they could not save it up for the future, except for the day before Sabbath.
Whenever we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we are harkening back to that Exodus story. As we pray, we remember that God provides more than enough to meet our needs. But we live day by day in this providence. The story of loaves and fish fits into this remembrance. “There is a boy here who has five small loaves of barley bread and two fish. But what good is that with all these people?” Well, God works through boys and girls, men and women, through all sorts of people and situations, to provide more than enough to meet today’s needs.
“Will there be enough?” we wonder. Enough money. Enough time. Enough ability. Enough energy. God answers: there is more than enough for today. Simply trust that this is so. We need to remind each other of this, every day. I am here as a preacher to remind you. But this preacher needs you to remind me. For you see, I am not just preaching to you. I am trying to sneak that awareness deeper into my being. I have my doubts as to whether I can make it from point A to point B. As I tell my wife often, “I want my leg back. I want my body back. I want my life back.” Do I have it in me now to travel this extra distance, for I am growing weary of the journey. Perhaps some of you know personally exactly what I am saying. God promises us, myself included, that we will have enough to get by for today. Tomorrow God will also provide. The same with the next day. Don’t worry. A little boy’s basket multiplied to feed everyone, and then some. Live out of that boy’s generosity, for it mirrors the generosity of God, and then some.
As people of the fish – which is how early Christians identified themselves, the symbol reminding them of this very story, and of the gracious providence of God in Jesus Christ; as people of the fish, we are called to remind each other that God will give us what we need, our bread, every day – and then some. I remind you. You remind me, also.
Speaking of bread, John’s gospel tells the same story as Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with a few variations, but goes on to make it a springboard for something bigger. You see, unlike the other three gospels, John tells no story of communion in an upper room. Chapter 6, which this story begins, is as close as John gets to talking about a table where bread is broken and wine is shared in remembrance. Later in John chapter 6, Jesus goes on to say, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (6:35).
In a way, that little boy (the son of someone) generously giving his lunch so that everyone in that crowd of 5,000 might be fed, foreshadows Jesus, who is the Son given to the world by God who dearly loves it, “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3:16). In Jesus’ sacrificial giving of himself – his body broken, his blood shed – all who believe (who figuratively eat and drink in this awareness, trusting that Jesus Christ is more than enough for today) will be raised up on the last day of this earthly journey (6:54), which will be the first day of God’s new heaven and earth.
But what good is that? … Well, the answer is up to each one of us to decide. We may not have passed the baskets full of Goldfish this morning, but is there a foretaste of the kingdom of God on your tongue?