Matthew 14: 13-21……Other than the Resurrection, the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels. In fact, Matthew likes it so much he repeats it in the very next chapter. In the second version, Jesus feeds 4,000 with seven loaves and a few fish. So what is it about this miracle that is so important that every gospel writer includes it?
Let’s look at what is happening here.
Jesus has just received devastating news. His prophet, cousin and friend John the Baptist has been killed, beheaded by Herod during an over-the-top birthday party. Heartsick, Jesus goes away by boat to a solitary place, to the wilderness to think, to pray, to be alone. The symbol of the wilderness is important. John the Baptist preaches repentance in the wilderness. Jesus was led by the spirit into the wilderness, immediately following his baptism. Wilderness is a good place to grieve, pray, repent, and fast. But Jesus’ time in the wilderness is cut short not by his own choosing, but by the crowds who follow him there.
But despite his grief, Jesus didn’t turn anyone away. Filled with compassion, despite his need for down time, Jesus healed the sick until evening.
As dusk began to fall, it had been some time since any of the crowd, including Jesus and His disciples, had eaten. The disciples knew people would need to get home in the surrounding villages soon to eat. But Jesus had other ideas. He says “You feed them.”
Now the disciples probably figured Jesus had been out in the sun too long or that he wasn’t thinking straight because he had just lost his cousin. So they tried to explain to Jesus that all they had was five loaves of bread and two fish. No way you could feed that crowd with so little food. The late Clarence Jordan in his “Cotton Patch Gospel” translation of Matthew says the five loaves and two fish was like trying to feed a crowd of thousands with five boxes of crackers and two cans of sardines.
The disciples who quite often had no clue as to what Jesus was all about, took the glass is half empty approach and said “we don’t have enough food.” Many of the churches in Matthew’s time, and today have said the same thing over and over again “We’re too small, too poor, our members are too old. We can’t do blank. Fill in the blank with anything—reach out to the community, pick up new members, start a new ministry, whatever. Churches have been crying the “we can’t” blues as long as there have been churches.
Churches especially cry the blues when you talk about the call for us to share God’s love with the rest of the world. God loves all of creation—every person, every animal, every plant, every molecule of air that gives life. He calls us to show that love and create a world different from the one envisioned by the Pharoahs, the Roman emperors and, yes, by Wall Street. God’s vision of the world is one of redistribution—the first will be last, the powerful will be brought down and the meek shall inherit the earth. One of God’s first acts is to free the Hebrew slaves from the oppressive Egyptian Pharoah. Then as they wander the wilderness She establishes a new economy, one built on sharing and on the premise that God will provide all we need. You know the one group who’s mentioned most in the Bible? It’s the poor. God talks about caring for them, the prophets talk about caring for them, Jesus talks about caring for them and Paul talks about caring for them. And in today’;s scripture Jesus tells the disciples to feed the hungry.
But when the disciples say, “We don’t have enough,” Jesus’ answer is “Sure you do. You have everything you need.”
Jesus says to the disciples what he says to us: “Bring what you have to me. Give it over to me and let me bless it.” When we give whatever to Jesus it no longer is under our control. This is key. When we give whatever situation, crisis or social problem to Jesus, it is no longer in our control. It’s in God’s hands.
So Jesus breaks the bread and blesses it—sounds a lot like communion—and gives it back to the disciples and tells them to give it to the crowd. Now this is the second key. Once you give something to God, God may control the outcome, but you have to do the work. Jesus did not make bread drop out of the heavens. He blessed the bread and gave it back to the disciples and told them to feed the people. Everyone in the crowd is fed and there are twelve baskets of food left over—enough for each disciple to have one. To feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish is indeed miraculous, but the Greek term used in Matthew specifies males, and Matthew further emphasizes the point by adding, “Besides women and children.” Many Bible scholars believe the actual number fed that day could have been 15,000—20,000 people.
People have come up with many explanations for this story of first century hospitality. Some say Jesus used magic, which would have violated all sorts of natural laws. Some say it’s just a symbolic story about the communion. Others say Jesus just inspired everyone to share the food they were carrying for a long trip into the desert. Or that the women were carrying the potluck supper with them as usual, which the disciples then helped them set up.
Maybe the “miracle” is not so much what Jesus does as what happens among the crowds in the presence of Jesus. Maybe the crowds experienced the transformative power of Christ’s presence. As the disciples distributed the food, maybe no one feared there wouldn’t be enough, and so they didn’t think of themselves and their own needs. Maybe the most profound thing Jesus does in the story is to insist that the disciples imagine possibilities for distributing food for a hungry crowd so that there is enough for everyone.
The answer to all of these possibilities is yes. We limit the story and miss the point if we insist on explaining it. Regardless of whether it is factual, regardless how it happened, it is deeply true. When we allow God to work through us in generosity and hospitality, miracles happen.
When you allow God to work through you, you change. You are transformed. When you allow God to work through you, you commit your life to God’s cause, not yours. You open the doors of your soul to a liberating, transforming love that overcomes all sorrow and brings you an inner peace and joy that passes all understanding. But we put up all sorts of obstacles in God’s way—our pride, our fears, our love of self and, as we see in today’s scripture, our lack of faith.
In the Bible, faith is not something you have, but something you practice. Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners puts it this way:
You have to put [faith] into action or it really doesn’t mean anything. Faith changes things. It’s the energy of transformation, both for individuals and society.
God’s message at this time of the year as we move towards Easter is plain, simple and direct: “ I got this. You just believe, keep on keepin’ on and don’t worry. I got this.” Despite what we see on the news every day, the good news of the gospel, the message of Easter is that Jesus has already overcome all the death, destruction and evil in the world. All we have to do is believe it and act like it.
To see God at work, watch the movie “Selma,” which chronicles the 1965 march by hundreds of civil rights activists from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery. We all know how they were met at the Edmund Pettis Bridge and were brutally beaten–women, children, elderly—everybody. But they did not give up. They went back to church, prayed and regrouped. Then they marched again. Their victorious march led to the passage and signing of the Voting Rights Act.
Where would we be today if the Selma marchers had followed Jesus’ disciples’ gloomy outlook: “We don’t have enough. We can’t do it”? Their faith gave them hope.
Just as God called Martin Luther King Jr. and the marchers in Selma, She is calling us today. The God who fed the multitudes with five boxes of crackers and two cans of sardines is calling us to feed the hungry. In Maryland, one of the richest states in the richest nation in the history of the world, one in eight of our brothers and sisters and one in five children goes to bed hungry each night. Jesus is saying: There is enough food. You feed them.
The God who said “blessed are the peacemakers” is calling us to stop the killings on our streets and across our world. Jesus is saying “you have enough. You feed them.” The God who healed the sick and drove out demons is calling us every time a family is torn apart by poverty or domestic abuse or a life destroyed by drugs. Jesus is saying “you have enough. You feed them.”
About a month ago I visited Cuba. For more than 50 years, Christians in Cuba have been suppressed. Religion was discouraged. But many Cubans never wavered in their faith and hope that things would change. They were only allowed to worship in the privacy of their homes and inside church buildings. Three years ago, things began to change. The Castro government began to allow religious groups to worship in public. And on December 17, President Obama opened the door to a new relationship with Cuba. While I was in Cuba, we worshipped along with our Cuban partners in several outside services. Many of the workers at the hotel where we were staying asked the Cubans what they were doing because they had never seen anyone pray or sing hymns before. God is moving in Cuba. God is moving around the world, and He is calling you to join the march.
True faith breeds hope, not doubt. A few years back Paul Hernan taught a class here in the church that examined the world’s religions. After the class ended he told me the most important thing they learned was that Christianity was the only religion built on hope.
Jim Wallis says hope is believing in spite of the evidence and then watching the evidence change. He says his favorite story of hope comes from a moment he shared with South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu. A political rally at St. George’s Cathedral in Capetown, had been canceled by the white apartheid government, so Tutu called for a worship service instead. The government had posted riot police and armed soldiers around the church. Police stood around the walls of the church openly taping and writing down every comment made from the pulpit. When Tutu rose to speak he confidently proclaimed that the “evil” and “oppression” of the apartheid system “cannot prevail.” He pointed his finger right at the police who were recording his words and said “You may be powerful, indeed very powerful, but you are not God! And the God whom we serve cannot be mocked. You have already lost!” Coming out of the pulpit, Tutu smiled and said since the police had already lost–as he had just made clear—“we are inviting you to come and join the winning side.” A few years later, they all joined the winning side as apartheid fell.
Sometimes we let our faith falter and give up hope because God doesn’t respond the way we would like or in the time we have set for Her to act. Cubans would have liked for God to act sooner to loosen the bonds of oppression. South Africans would have preferred to have apartheid ended sooner. And I would like to see racism and violence and hunger end today. But God is working and change will come. We may not see it, but it will come if you believe and keep pushing. As one of my favorite spiritual writers Stevie Wonder says:
They say that heaven is ten zillion light years away
But if there is a God, we need Him now
“Where is your God”
That’s what my friends ask me
And I say it’s taken Him so long
Cause we’ve got so far to come…
But in my heart I can feel it,
Feel His spirit……
Let God’s love shine within to save our evil souls
For those who don’t believe will never see the light
“Where is my God” – He lives inside of me
And I say it’s taken Him so long
Cause we’ve got so far to come…
If you open your heart you can feel it
Feel His spirit,
Feel it, feel His spirit, wow oh wow…
I opened my heart one morning And I sho enough could feel it,
Feel His spirit
You can feel it, yeah, feel His spirit You can feel it, yeah, feel His spirit
I have to tell you that I played that Stevie Wonder chorus three or four times as I was writing this and I cried for a good 10 minutes. In that moment God spoke to my heart. For more than 40 years I have been on the frontlines fighting for justice and peace. I always believed God and good would prevail. But I cried because for the first time in a long time I knew in my soul that God’s got the world in Her hands. I didn’t go to the mountaintop like Moses or Martin Luther King, Jr., but in my den at 7:05 p.m. last Wednesday night that voice of God which is in all of us whispered to my soul and reminded me that it’s not all on my shoulders to win the victory over death and evil because Jesus has already done that. In that moment, I knew, not just believed, I knew that one day all God’s children will be free and there will be no hunger, no poverty and no war. It may not be in my lifetime, but I know, I know that day will come. And this morning all I can do is to thank God, I praise God and I proclaim the power of God despite the death, destruction and pain we see all around us. I pray that one day we all can have the joy of knowing in our soul of souls that God has got this.
God has freed us to be the best we can be; and we have everything we need to do it, and more. God has promised to give us everything we need to do what He asks us. All we need to do is believe it and act on it. “You have enough. You feed them.”
I leave you with words from the award-winning song “Glory” from the movie “Selma.” The song speaks of God’s promise to all those who fight for justice and peace:
“One day when the glory comes It will be ours, it will be ours Oh one day when the war is won We will be sure, we will be sure Oh glory (Glory, glory) Oh (Glory, glory)
“Now the war is not over, victory isn’t won And we’ll fight on to the finish, then when it’s all done We’ll cry glory, oh glory (Glory, glory) Oh (Glory, glory) We’ll cry glory, oh glory (Glory, glory) Oh (Glory, glory)
“Oh glory (Glory, glory) Hey (Glory, glory)