August 29, 2018
After all, a meal takes time to prepare. You know it. I know it. The disciples know it.
So why doesn’t Jesus know it?
The disciples are very matter-of-fact. It would take six months’ wages to buy enough bread just to feed each person a small bit of bread, cries one. Another disciple points out that the only person in sight with food is a kid with merely five loaves and two fish. It’s not much, and that’s the point they try to make.
For the reader, the gospel writer offers a little aside: Jesus asks about feeding the crowd to test the disciples. He knew what he was about to do, but did they have the faith that could see such an impossible challenge met so readily? They see the problem at hand and worry about the last-minute nature of things. How in the world can we do anything with so little time, so little preparation and so little food?
In this story, we learn God’s response: Jesus provides. His disciples distribute the provision. Baskets of leftovers remain. End of story.
Wishful thinking? Fanciful tale? Such questions linger in the minds of the most faithful Christian believers. We live in a world in which food doesn’t magically appear (unless you are streaming an episode of “Star Trek”). We live in a time in which such stories appear woefully out of touch with our global village and in which few enjoy an abundance of food and find all other needs met. How can we read John 6 and similar Gospel narratives in good conscience with knowledge of 21st-century global challenges?
Jesus makes the bread and fish multiply. The text does not say much about how it happens, but I believe Jesus does, indeed, create abundance out of his divine power. He recalls another time when God intervenes, creating manna in the wilderness. While Moses’ people grumble and Jesus’ disciples are dumbfounded, the two stories chasten believers into being just that: believers.
Conversely, I concede the skeptic who looks askance while reading such texts. Why on these occasions does God make abundance appear? Why so long ago and not since? Many today struggle with malnutrition and outright starvation. Neighborhoods in somewhat affluent areas can struggle with food insecurity because of other factors and challenges that prevent basic human needs from being equitably met.
Believers who hear such stories are offered a challenge. Are we to hear the story, consider it and then move on? Or, despite having no divine power ourselves, are we to be part of the solution of multiplying abundance in our own limited human ways?
Many congregations look at their resources and worry about what they could possibly do to make a difference. In a previous article, I shared word of churches becoming creative and collaborative around issues of food access and availability. In my exuberance, I later realized that I did not note that most of the cited churches are tackling these opportunities as smaller membership churches or congregations in which the volunteer initiative is run by a few dedicated individuals. They know their resources are smaller, yet out of their hands, they can increase the abundance.
As a member and later pastor of small-membership congregations, I affirm the ingenuity and generosity of congregations that risk for the sake of their communities. Indeed, when able to rise above one’s own sense of limit and lack, great things can happen.
In August 2018, the Revised Common Lectionary revisits parts of John 6. It can be a helpful series of Scripture readings for a sermon series at most any time of year. It’s a time to explore the contours of faith in the midst of a hungry world, where we learn of lack, doubt, abundance, astonishment and, yes, leftovers to take home.