Readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44, John 6:1-21, Secrets of Heaven 9545 (see below)
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Today we consider one of the most famous of bible stories, the feeding of the five thousand, or the story of the 5 loaves and 2 fishes. This is such an important story to the gospel narrative, that it is the only miracle story to appear in all four gospels, and Mark and Matthew both manage to tell it twice! It hooks into many important gospel themes: the providence and shepherding of God, the abundance of the kingdom, the surprise of faith, and care of the oppressed.
This miracle though, as iconic as it may be, is not an innovation on the part of Jesus, he was not doing something completely new. Feeding miracles abound in the Jewish Scriptures as well, and this gospel episode evokes many of them, with two in particular. The first we heard in our reading: Elisha’s feeding of the one hundred. The language and the form is mirrored very explicitly, including down to the barley loaves. The second allusion is only touched on our reading, but is developed more fully later in the chapter. With references to Passover, and to withdrawing to a mountain, and later, to manna in the wilderness, the gospel writer means to bring to mind Moses. Jesus is being deliberately established as a great prophet, in order to demonstrate continuity with Israel’s past.
But, as clearly as the gospel lifts up Jesus as a great prophet, it is important to note what the gospel thinks that means. The crowd, being in awe of such a miracle, immediately moves to make Jesus king, echoing the demands of their ancestors for a king many centuries before. But Jesus soundly rejects these efforts. Why? Isn’t God’s king—dom, and the bringing of it into being, the whole point of Jesus ministry? The problem is that the world’s idea of kingship and God’s idea are very different. The perspective of the world will always be based on scarcity, based on who has and who has not. Even the most benevolent of governments and empires will still always be based on this earthly mathematics, the economy of hierarchy, the currying of favor, the (hopefully just, but certainly not always) distribution of limited resources and power. God’s kingdom, however, radically upends hierarchy *itself* and challenges the whole notion that there is a limited amount of righteousness, worthiness and favor.
And clearly, the crowd was looking to Jesus because of what Jesus could do, what he could accomplish within that worldly context of kingship, how he could justly create and distribute food to a hungry people. Which is of course important to be done; that’s why Jesus did it. But, an entire kingship based on such a premise would still only ever be transactional, would be still based on the power of one person, and would not overhaul of the oppressive system that allowed some people to be and remain hungry in the first place. Jesus at the head of the Roman empire might have seemed like a good idea to some, but it was the ideology of empire itself that was the problem. Jesus wasn’t looking to usurp power, but to redefine what power really was.
So we are served the second miracle in this text today: the walking on the water. If the miracle of the loaves and fishes puts Jesus in continuity with Israel’s journey of faith, the walking on the water reveals his true identity in oneness with God. Jesus not only feeds people miraculously sometimes, as Elisha did, Jesus does as God does: brings people from scarcity to abundance in a larger sense, all the time. What is translated as “It is I” in the NIV, can just as correctly be translated “I AM,” the divine name. This links not only to all the various I AM sayings in John, but to the burning bush in Exodus all those years ago, to God’s personal introduction of God’s self to God’s people. Who are you, asked Moses then? I am who I am, said God. I am being, I am creation, I am generativeness, I am everything. The point of this kind of identification is not that God is everything and therefore God has everything; casting God as benevolent dictator. The I AM is not making us human beings “other,” or “less than.” Jesus drives this home by invoking the divine name while at the same time engaging in pastoral care. He says “I AM; do not be afraid.” He allays the disciples’ fears, anticipates what they will need to hear.
And so we see that we have a moment of glory tempered by a moment of grace. We learn that the sheer multiplying power of the feeding miracle cannot cannot be the end goal. The purpose of abundance is not so that there might be much for much-ness sake, but so that *need* might be met with *fulfillment*, this is the actual miracle. God’s glory is solely for the purpose of meeting our need with love. The walking on water episode moves directly into John’s well-known discourse on the “bread of life.” And now Jesus works hard to explain how it all hangs together. He says “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures for eternal life…it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” It is not about the bread alone, no matter how multiplied. What the abundance of the Bread of Life means, is that whatever needs are created by the living of life, the emptiness, the yearning, the loneliness, the worry, the brokenness, these needs will be met with nourishment and care by God. This is why, as we are told in our Swedenborg reading, that bread corresponds not only that which nourishes us physically but also spiritually, corresponds to the goodness of God’s love and to God’s very self. God will give of God’s very self so that we might all be filled. And that is something that empire can never do, because to empire, giving something away breaks down the whole enterprise; the whole point of empire is to get more, more power, more resources, more control. To empire, people are chattel, valued only for what they can produce, and need is a weakness. To God, people are beloved, valued for who they are, their need a means to connection.
And yet, we struggle to believe it. One of the most potent of human fears is the fear of being left out, of finding oneself outside of the circle of care and perceived worthiness. It is a survival impulse buried deep within our DNA, as once upon a time, separation from the safety of the tribe likely meant death. We are hardwired to desire assurance that we are part of a community that can sustain us, hardwired to seek relationship, knowing that we are safer together than alone.
We feel these anxieties all the time when our safe communities are expanded; families welcoming in-laws, churches welcoming new members, classes welcoming new students or teachers. On the world stage, these anxieties are played out as countries grapple with immigration, amnesty for refugees. Many times, when this anxiety is not processed or examined, when reflection is rejected, the temptation towards xenophobia, to the practice of making some human beings “other” is irresistible. The hells convince anxious people that hatred and lack of empathy is the only balm, the only assurance of survival and worthiness.
But this is not the Word of God. This is not what God would have us understand about the universe. We must remember Elisha: This is what the Lord says! “They shall eat and have some left.” The Lord says this, clear as day. Divine love is ever-giving, and God’s vision for us is to live into the abundance of divine love. We are assured that there is something in the universe that is inexhaustibly loving and good, something that is generative and creative and giving. In this knowledge, and only in this knowledge, we can let go of our grasping and draw a deep long breath. We need not fill ourselves; we need only open ourselves up and we can be filled with the I AM. God will never ever leave us, and God’s love will never, ever run out. And when we believe that, we can be fearless in our compassion and welcome to others. God’s assurance is that expansion grounded in love draws its marvelous elasticity from the great I AM. It doesn’t and cannot come from us. It has a much more consistent and durable origin. Thank the Lord!
As we anticipate joining together in our own meal of celebration today, we remember then that the central sacrament of our faith is celebrated around a table. Many times, that table has been used for the opposite of God’s intention, to convince some that they are not worthy, they are not included, they are outside of God’s love and care. But, as Jesus exemplified, the sharing of God’s abundant love and truth, symbolized in the bread and wine, powerfully enacts the invitation that is central to God’s character; that all may come and be fed. “They shall eat and have some left.”
2 Kings 4:42-44
42 A man came from Baal Shalishah, bringing the man of God twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe grain, along with some heads of new grain. “Give it to the people to eat,” Elisha said. 43 “How can I set this before a hundred men?” his servant asked. But Elisha answered, “Give it to the people to eat. For this is what the LORD says: ‘They will eat and have some left over.’ ” 44 Then he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the LORD.
1 Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near. 5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” 8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. 12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. 14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. 18 A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” 21 Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.
Secrets of Heaven #9545
‘Put the bread of the Presence on this table to be before me at all times,” (Exodus 25:30) means the Lord there in respect of celestial good. This is clear from the meaning of 'the table' as the receptacle of celestial blessings; from the meaning of 'bread' in the highest sense as the Lord, and in a related sense as the good of love that springs from Him… 'bread' in general meaning all heavenly food or the food that nourishes a person's spiritual life, and from the meaning of 'Presence', when the word refers to the Lord, as everything that springs from Divine Love, such as innocence, peace, and joy, thus heaven itself present with people on earth and with angels.