A sermon preached online and in church at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 2 August 2020
We’ve just heard how Jesus responds when faced with a hungry crowd in a deserted place. The disciples wanted Jesus to send the crowd away. But instead Jesus suggests to the disciples that they give the crowd something to eat. Incredulous they reply: ‘We’ve nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’
This is one of the great gospel stories. Unusually it’s told by all of the gospel writers, and two of them, Matthew and Mark, tell it twice. It’s one of the stories that lodged in people’s minds and hearts. Why else would Mark, for instance, whose gospel is quite short, repeat the story with just a few variations?
These variations have puzzled many. Was the crowd 4 or 5 thousand? Were there 5 or 7 loaves? How many baskets of scraps were there, 7 or 12? And what about the fish – were there 2 or just a few?
I’m not sure these details are very important in comparison with the central features that stand out from the story.
Jesus is in a deserted place with a hungry crowd. The only food available is a small amount of bread and fish. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks the bread and gives it to them. They eat and are filled.
Why is this story told six times in the four gospels?
There are clear echoes with the story in the Old Testament that is also set in the wilderness. Of Moses, leading the people of God out of slavery to freedom in the Promised Land. There too the people get hungry, there too they are fed. And there’s another story of the prophet Elisha, feeding 100 men with just a few loaves of barley.
So by feeding a crowd in the wilderness when so few resources are available to him, Jesus is walking in the footsteps of Moses, the law-giver, and Elisha, the prophet. So that begs the question: who’s he?
Then there’s another moment of great significance in Jesus’ own ministry on the night before he dies when he takes bread and after giving thanks, he breaks the bread and gives it to his followers. The actions of Jesus at the last supper are described in a strikingly similar way.
Some have suggested that this action with bread, of taking, blessing, breaking and giving, was a characteristic gesture of his that continues whenever the Eucharist is celebrated and once again the bread is taken, blessed, broken and given.
So this story looks back to Moses and to Elisha, and also reflects the experience of the Church – we know Christ’s presence with us in the breaking of bread, and our hunger is satisfied.
If that’s something of the significance of this wonderful story, what might we take from it for us today?
The pandemic has turned the familiar features of life upside down, and we don’t know how long will this go on for.
With the lockdown we were told it would be for about three months and so it proved. Few of us though imagine that this’ll be over by Christmas. We’re in an uncomfortable and difficult place for quite a while.
In the Old Testament, the people of God going through the wilderness had left the familiarity of life in Egypt and had set out on a long and arduous journey. They too didn’t know how long it would last; they too didn’t know what life would be like at the other end.
And in this gospel story with its deliberate echoes of that journey that the people of God made, the new people of God – Jesus, the disciples and the crowd – are once again in a deserted place with scarce resources.
Our resources, emotional, material, spiritual, may feel scarce at the moment; we’re spent, running on empty.
Instead of trying to hold on to those scarce resources, perhaps we too can find a way to let go, and offer and share whatever small crumb we’ve got – who knows – perhaps there is enough.
And maybe if we can find a way to do that in this unfamiliar place that we’re now in, just maybe we too will discover the inexhaustible richness of God to see us through.