St Barnabas and St Michael’s 12th September 2010
Reading – John 6:1-15
OK, so here’s the plan. We’re going to hold the largest picnic Plymouth has ever seen in Central Park. We’re going to invite all the people who live in the parishes of St Michael’s and St Barnabas. We’re going to invite the local schools, and all our families and friends and work colleagues. We’re going to have a top class speaker and lots of entertainment. And at the end of the day we’ll be providing an enormous picnic for everybody. But don’t worry too much about the catering. We won’t plan anything in advance. We’ll just feed everyone with the food we happen to have on the day. Are you up for it?
Well, if you think that’s a hare-brained, impossible kind of scheme, imagine how the disciples must have felt in our passage today. All day long the crowds had been streaming in to hear Jesus teach, wave after wave of men, women and children. We often call this passage the feeding of the five thousand, but if you look closely, you’ll see that was only the number of men there. The crowd was presumably an awful lot bigger. But however many exactly were present on that day in Galilee, try to place yourself in the disciples’ shoes when Jesus turned to them and said Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat? Can you possibly imagine what they thought when He asked this question?
It’s not really surprising that the first disciple Jesus asked objected to the question. After all, Philip was a smart guy and he could do the maths. Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite! Just as indeed eight months of our church collection would be insufficient to feed everyone at our picnic in Central Park. Looking at Jesus’ question in purely financial terms, it was a non-starter. Even supposing they could find a place that would be able to cater for so many people, they just simply didn’t have the money. And why indeed should they be expected to feed all these people anyway?
Now of course in hindsight it is easy to criticise Philip, to say Philip should have known that Jesus was going to do something miraculous. But if we had been there, if we’d been one of those first disciples, would we have said anything different? I guess there are few of us who haven’t at one time or another doubted God’s provision, wondered whether Jesus really has the power to change the situation we’re in.
But there was one disciple who just possibly sensed Jesus was about to perform a miraculous feat. At least that’s one explanation as to why Andrew offered the five loaves and the two small fish. It might be that he simply thought he was being helpful, like the person who offers you a small sticking plaster when you need a bandage, or it could be he was pointing out how hopeless was the situation. After all, if you have five loaves, and five thousand people, how much of a loaf does each person receive? OK, so let’s take a bread roll and perform a little experiment…on second thoughts, maybe not. And of course if you are really clever at maths you can work out the situation with the fish was even more hopeless.
Yet for whatever reason Andrew didn’t object. Rather he offered what little he had. And to his surprise Jesus received his donation. Not with a shrug of the shoulders, or a despairing sigh. But with the confidence that in His hands five ordinary barley loaves and two wee fish could become very special indeed. And I guess it is at this point that the disciples suddenly realised they were about to witness something extra special. So that when Jesus said Make the people sit down, they didn’t argue. They obeyed.
And you only imagine their amazement as Jesus began handing out the bread and fish to them to distribute. Because the food just kept coming. Every time they thought it had run out, there was still more. In fact there was so much food that in the end they had enough left-overs to fill twelve baskets. Everyone came away that day not just fed, but satisfied, unable to eat any more, replete. And in an age where people often went hungry for days or weeks on end, that must have been some feeling. There were no rumbling tummies in Galilee for quite some time that year.
So how does this story speak to us today?
First of all, it reminds us that we need to have a Big view of Jesus. After all, the reason why Jesus fed 5000 people wasn’t simply to show he could provide for so many. It was to show that He is the very Son of God able to do far more than we can ever ask and imagine. Now I guess we kind of know this in theory, but how much do we really believe in this practice? If you’re anything like me, then all too often you pray little, hesitant prayers, as if God couldn’t really give big, surprising answers. If we are to be really effective followers of Jesus, then we need to learn big, bold prayers.
At harvest time we remember the work of Shekinah Mission. It’s a charity that does a tremendous job of accommodating, training and feeding those who have nothing, and it has a national reputation. But where did this charity come from? From just a few Christians who had a big vision, and a big confidence in Jesus’ ability to provide for their needs. They had a big view of Jesus, and Jesus has abundantly blessed their work.
Secondly, we need to be Ready to do whatever Jesus asks of us. Now I guess there are few of us who are called to set up a large project to feed the homeless, or go overseas to help others in need – although wouldn’t it be tremendously encouraging if just one person this morning received such a call? But for most of us Jesus calls us to be faithful in all kinds of other ways, to give generously whatever we have, to be a quiet, but constant witness at work, to spend time with a neighbour in the need. The only trouble is, there is probably more of Philip in us than we care to admit. We might have this sense that Jesus is calling us, but we then think of 101 reasons why we couldn’t do what He wants. I couldn’t possibly increase my giving, not in the current financial climate. I couldn’t possibly spend time with that difficult old man, even if he needs help. I couldn’t make a stand at work, I want to fit in. We maybe lose sight of the fact that Jesus doesn’t call us to where He cannot keep us. Paul reminds us the one who calls you is faithful and he will do it (1 Thess 5:24). Do we really believe this?
Thirdly, we should Expect Jesus to take and use whatever it is we are able to offer Him, even if it seems very little. You see, we all have a part to play in God’s kingdom. Christian service isn’t only something for other people who are obviously more gifted than me, or for grown-ups, or just for young people. We are all part of the body of Christ. We need to encourage our children to discover and to use their gifts, to value and recognise the contribution everyone makes, no matter how small it is. Because it is when we all play our part, then this church is seen to be part of God’s kingdom where ordinary people perhaps doing very ordinary things show something of the extraordinary power of Jesus to change lives.
And fourthly, we need to remember Jesus’ promise in John 14:14: You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. For although Jesus isn’t physically with us, in the way that He was with the first disciples, His presence is still as real to us today as it was for them. And He longs that we get used to recognising the presence of His Holy Spirit with us, that we find out what He wants for our lives, and that as we step out in faith, we are willing to ask in His name. There are many theories as to why there were twelve baskets of food left over after the feeding of the 5000. But surely one reason is that when we ask, Jesus gives far generously and far more abundantly than we ever realise. After all, we worship a good God, don’t we? And when we pray in Jesus’ name, our Heavenly Father wants us to give us good things. Yet for whatever reason we seem so slow to learn this lesson. Jesus tells again in Matthew 7:7: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. Let’s really learn to take Jesus at His word.
And finally, don’t forget to give Jesus the credit for what you do. I wonder how you answer when someone asks you, for example, why you are so involved in the local church. “Well, I enjoy meeting people”, “It’s a good place to make friends” “I happen to be the vicar”. They’re all perfectly good answers, but they miss the main point. We should whenever we have the opportunity to gently, lovingly point to Jesus and show that He is the reason that we do what we do. It is Peter in his first letter who tells us to always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (1 Pet 3:15) and it’s a verse that well worth taking to heart. Somehow despite our fears and our awkwardness we need to learn not to give an embarrassed cough, or go off on a preach, but simply and gently point to the one who has called us and saved us – Jesus Christ.
We need a big view of Jesus
We need to be ready to serve Him.
We should expect Him to use us.
We should ask in His name
And don’t forget to give Him the credit.
So what do these five points spell? The answer, of course, is bread. The feeding of the 5000 leads to a big long discussion with the crowd where Jesus makes the claim I am the bread of life. We’ll be thinking in a couple of weeks’ time what that means. But for now, the point of this passage, the reason why Jesus tested Philip all those years ago, is to ask just what our faith means to us. Is it a passive faith, a matter of our own private prayers, and dutiful attendance at church? Or is it an active faith, where we feed off Jesus day by day, as we step out in faith, as we look for Jesus to work in us and through and as we seek to glorify His name?
As we celebrate Harvest it seems to me that Jesus wants us to offer far more than just a few tins from the back of the larder, or some packets we remembered to buy yesterday from the supermarket. He wants us to think what it means to offer ourselves in His service. So that those vast numbers of people around us in our parish discover that their deepest hunger, their deepest longing is met only in Jesus, who is indeed the bread of life, who was willing to be broken for you and for them upon the cross, so that we could indeed have life in all its fullness.