The Eucharist today is using our Fishes and Loaves communion set, to commemorate the Gospel reading of the Feeding of the 5000!
Sometimes a preacher gets lucky! Today is one of those days!
There have been three distinct and clear sets of readings for the first several weeks of the Pentecost season. There were those Genesis stories of the early Jewish lineage (including last week’s soap opera tale about Jacob working 14 years as it worked out to obtain sister wives Leah and Rachel), the tough to read and understand Romans readings about sin and how to deal with it through the Holy Spirit, and Matthew’s Gospel story of the start of the ministry of Jesus. The three weeks just before this were all about those pesky parables (or more positively--presents, as Corby called them last week in her sermon).
I happily I did not get one of those parables, but instead I got the great and most familiar miracle story about Jesus and the Feeding of the 5000. There are commentaries and discussions that won’t end about this story, and I looked at many of them for this sermon.
Lorraine (one of our priests) said at Bible study on Wednesday that the night before she watched Jeopardy, and the Final Jeopardy Answer was: “This story appears in all four of the Gospels, and is about the ministry of Jesus". Question--"What is the Feeding of the 5000?” There are slight differences among the Gospel accounts, but the main elements in the story are all the same. This story is even referenced in 1 Corinthians 15 by the apostle Paul—it is THAT central to the telling of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
From several of the accounts the story setting was in a remote part of the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and has been cited to be on the west and near north side near Capernaum, or at present day Tabgha, which is still fairly remote. From John’s account we learn that this story took place near the Passover and from the other Gospels that there was green grass (so it was in the Springtime). To place the story in the ministry of Jesus, from Matthew’s Gospel just before today’s reading Jesus learned about John the Baptist’s death by beheading at the hands of Herod. This story starts off a series of miracles performed by Jesus, the very next one being Jesus (and Peter!) walking on the water.
Our pilgrimage to Israel in 2008 took us to this area on the Sea of Galilee and the likely site of this event. I’ve prepared a sheet with a map and pictures of a church and of the wonderful art seen there on our visit. (Tabgha Church and the Jesus Trail)
The earliest building at Tabgha was a small chapel built in the 4th century A.D. The earliest recording of a church commemorating Jesus' feeding of five thousand is by the Spanish pilgrim Egeria (circa 380); he wrote: "Not far away from there (Capernaum) are some stone steps where the Lord stood. And in the same place by the sea is a grassy field with plenty of hay and many palm trees. By them are seven springs, each flowing strongly. And this is the field where the Lord fed the people with the five loaves and two fishes. In fact the stone on which the Lord placed the bread has now been made into an altar. People who go there take away small pieces of the stone to bring them prosperity, and they are very effective. Past the walls of this church goes the public highway on which the Apostle Matthew had his place of custom (which would be the collection of taxes). Near there on a mountain is a cave to which the Savior climbed and spoke the Beatitudes (the Sermon on the Mount)." You can see these places on the map.
The church was significantly enlarged around the year 480 with floor mosaics also added at this time. These renovations are attributed to the patriarch Matryrios. In 614 Persians destroyed the original Byzantine church and the exact site of the shrine was lost for some 1,300 years. In 1888 the site was acquired by the German catholic society which was associated with the Archdiocese of Cologne. An initial archeological survey was conducted in 1892, with full excavations beginning in 1932. These excavations resulted in the discovery of mosaic floors from the 5th century church, which was also found to be built on the foundations of the much smaller 4th century chapel. The current church was built to the same floor plan as the 5th century Byzantine church. Since 1939 it has been administered by the Benedictine order as a daughter-house of the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem.
One of the main highlights of this church are its restored 5th century mosaics. These mosaics are the earliest known examples of figured pavement in Palestinian Christian art. One of the mosaics found in front of the altar depicts two fish flanking a basket containing loaves of bread.
On the back of the handout is the map, not only of the Sea of Galilee site for this story, but of a new trail just opened to commemorate the possible route of the start of Jesus’ ministry. I found out about this while doing research for this sermon.
The Jesus Trail is a 65 km (40 mile) hiking and pilgrimage route in the Galilee region of Israel that traces the route Jesus may have walked, connecting many sites from his life and ministry. The main part of the trail begins in Nazareth, which is the largest Arab city in Israel, and passes through Sepphoris, Cana (Kafr Kanna), the Horns of Hattin, Mount Arbel Cliffs, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Tabgha, and the Mount of Beatitudes. The trail encompasses areas of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Druze dwellings. The Jesus Trail is located entirely within the pre-1967 borders of the State of Israel. It was founded in 2007 by two hiking enthusiasts, Maoz Inon, a Jewish Israeli entrepreneur who has established hostels and guesthouses in Israel, and David Landis, a Christian American hiking specialist. The actual marking of the trail took place in 2009. It is currently managed and promoted largely by the work of volunteers, and is a non-profit project. Pretty cool, huh!
So, let’s get down to this miracle story and what it means to us today!
The central elements of the miracle are:
the 12 disciples,
a really large crowd of people (5000 men, not counting women and children),
a boy carrying enough food for about 2 poor people for a day--5 barley loaves and 2 small fish (probably sardines), Sorry, but not tilapia, named St. Peter’s fish--the main fish then and now eaten by folks there, and
Jesus had heard about the death of John the Baptizer, and possibly his disciples had just returned from doing some ministry work directed by Jesus, and they had withdrawn to discuss all of this. But many people (probably mostly poor) around the area had heard about the healings performed by Jesus and wanted to hear about and see more from him. Maybe even some of the crowds had been followers of John and felt the need to gather to mourn him, along with Jesus. So, he had been teaching them, and as the day was ending the disciples suggested to Jesus to tell the people to go back to their towns and homes to get some food to eat (basically to send them away hungry). Instead Jesus told the disciples—“you give them something to eat”, and dumbfounded, they responded—“what, there is little here for them, just these loaves and fishes”. Jesus had them all sit down in groups, thanked God and blessed the food and it was distributed. In the end after all were well fed, the remnants were gathered up and filled 12 baskets in all.
Some people theorize that Jesus pulled a trick on the people, that he had a large cache of food hidden away in a cave nearby, had some disciples hand the food up to the others, and planned this stunt all along to get their attention and following. Other interpreters have suggested that the Holy Spirit enabled everyone to be satisfied and so not much food was actually needed. Many more say that the people themselves had the food (their lunches, so to speak, or their planned provisions, since they were traveling in a remote area) and were hoarding it (seems a lot like today’s mindset in the world!). They were so moved by either Jesus’s teaching or the boy’s offering of food that they gave in and shared what they had with the others.
While this last theory would seem to work out well for those scientifically or practically minded, and many theologians actually make a case for this so they can then talk about our call to not be selfish and help others, it seems to belittle the power of God and the real ministry of Jesus to relegate this miracle to the practical realm. The ending for this story pretty much debunks these theories, as it says nothing about the crowd realizing anything about what had occurred as miraculous or even special. In fact, the verses right after this reading go right on to the story about Jesus walking on the water. One preacher wrote that the real miraculous aspect of this story is that the people would eat food given to them by someone else, without knowing where the food was from or how it had been prepared—due to their strict Jewish food laws. Yet another interesting theory brought up was that the 12 baskets of leftovers were like backpacks, one for each disciple, and represent God also providing what the disciples needed.
Many theologians agree there are two aspects to this story: 1) the total lack of readiness and inadequacy of the disciples to deal with the situation (which they compare to us also as followers of Christ today), and the 2) Eucharistic practice and the overwhelming abundance Jesus showed in dealing with the loaves and fishes—previewing the Last Supper and our Communion worship service of today. Talk about moving from scarcity thinking to abundant action! Last, it was even pointed out that the 12 baskets of leftover food can be compared to the remaining bread and wine at our own Eucharists each week—an abundance blessed by God.
We only need to look at our last three monthly potluck meals at St. Mark’s to see how this principle of abundance works. Our May potluck was on the Memorial Day weekend, and one would expect a small turnout for worship and the meal. Instead, we had a nice size group and a monster potluck, with maybe enough food for three times the folks there. It was even pointed out that if we could contact some needy folks right then we could provide them this extra food. In June, with confusion about the date for the potluck or even whether to have one we had a small group that day, but there was still adequate food for the meal, and no one left hungry. Last Sunday our potluck for our group was again more than just plentiful—with 2 main dishes, 2 salads, a large fruit bowl, a large bowl of wonderful squash, 2 desserts (I probably missed some things!)—more than we could eat, and we all did really eat!
And these are what you might call “Holy Spirit” meals—no signups, no coordinating what to bring, just show up with what you want to offer. And it works out—all are well fed! It is sort of like how we are in our church community at St. Mark’s—bring yourself as you are and what you offer and see how you can contribute to the well-being of our faithful Christian community and also grow in your own love, faith and sense of belonging. And that’s the message we can use for those we encounter to invite to join us!
Sharing a meal is a primary means of creating and maintaining community. We do it each month with our potluck meals. And, we do it every Sunday when we share the Eucharist. When we gather to break bread together, we remember and repeat Jesus' words and actions. Christ in our Eucharist satisfies our deepest hungers, heals our brokenness, binds us together as if one body, and strengthens us for service in the world.
Jesus demanded that the disciples should feed the crowd; it is his demand for us too. The proper response to the abundance we receive is our own generosity in giving to the people of God and the church of Christ. God provides and fills the people with life. As believers in Christ, we look at those surrounding us and, when they are hungry, we share our resources for the sake of the larger body of all God’s people. AMEN.