“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” John 6:9
It’s the boy with his lunch that captures my attention today. While all four Gospels tell us about the feeding of the five thousand, only John introduces us to the lad with the five barley loaves and two fish. I imagine him to be ten or eleven, the age at which boys with a certain aptitude wake in the morning, throw some things in a nap sack, pack a lunch and head off for adventure. Perhaps his friends had chores to finish, so when the crowd follows after Jesus, he joins them. Thank God for that, for when Jesus appoints Philip the head of the Fellowship Committee charging him to feed the people, people who did not sign up for the potluck nor did they bring something to share, it’s only this boy who gives an offering. And it’s more than enough.
All of creation is contained in that lunch. First, the waters, about a cup and a half for one pound of bread, easily making five small loaves. Next, the dirt containing all sorts of invisible microbes which enable seeds to spout and with the light and warmth of the sun bears forth barley which is then ground into flour, three or four cups of it. Harvested at Passover, barley announces an end to the slavery of winter hunger with the promised freedom of spring abundance. For flavor a teaspoon of salt is added, mined from the earth. Then, a tablespoon of honey, a gift of the bees, gives a touch of sweetness. And of course, yeast contained in a clump of leaven, passed from one generation to the next, sets the dough rising. Everything mixed together, probably by the boy’s mother, then kneaded, shaped and baked becoming the five loaves of his lunch. Added to them are two fish, gifts from the Sea of Galilee, then dried by the heat of the sun. Bread and fish, the peanut butter and jelly of the day. While Andrew doubts if such a simple lunch will be enough for so many, Jesus says, “Tell everyone to sit down.”
Then Jesus takes the bread and gives thanks, “Blessed O Lord, Our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” John uses the word “eucharisteo” for this act of thanksgiving. Eucharist is the same word we use when we celebrate Holy Communion which we also sometimes call the Lord’s Supper. Oddly in John’s Gospel, we don’t hear that word when he tells us about Jesus’ last supper with his disciples in chapter 13. There’s washing of feet and words about betrayal followed by a long conversation with his disciples that ends with a glorious prayer, but there’s no taking of the bread, giving thanks, breaking it and giving it to his disciples, while saying, “This is my body, which is given for you.” Some scholars say that in John’s Gospel the eucharist takes place here up on the mountain, when 5,000 guests receive the bread of life, including you and me.
This gift – five loaves, two fish, a boy’s lunch – becomes Eucharist shared at countless gatherings, around altars in grand cathedrals, under a Baobab tree in Tanzania, in country clapboard churches with hand-hewn tables, in living rooms with curtains drawn for fear of the authorities and here at St. John’s in this upside-down ark of a church created from quarried stone and trunks of trees. Receiving eucharist throws us into a life of thanksgiving – of realizing that everything is gift, everyone is precious, and every moment is filled with the holiness of God. We are given the bread of life and it is more than enough. Just as it was the day the boy shared his lunch, when 5,000 were fed and there were twelve baskets of left-overs.
Here at St. John’s we know about this – whenever there’s a pot-luck supper, a pancake breakfast, a spaghetti dinner or a Sunday morning coffee hour, there are always left-overs. Sometimes they are frozen for another day, but most often small containers are filled so that the feast may be enjoyed later in the week. Sometimes when I am at an event and my husband John is not, when I walk in with a bag of left-overs he’ll ask, “So what did you bring me?” Of course, it’s not just about the food, but about the love, the eucharist, the thanksgiving of community being shared.
That’s also what’s going on when food is collected for PACS whenever canned goods, can openers, bags of rice and jars of peanut butter being dropped off on the stands in the narthex or outside of the church office and boxes of farm fresh produce are delivered right to PACS door – the eucharist is being shared. Then, too, it’s what’s happening during the daily lunch at St. Peter’s – our next one is August 17 – and when Phantom Food Packs are put together in our Church kitchen – a ministry that will resume at the end of September and when World Hunger offerings are given. In all these ways and more, the mountainside feast of five barley loaves and two fish multiplies and is shared over and over again.
But there’s a problem – and it goes back to Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness when the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” And when a lad’s lunch becomes a feast for five thousand, the economic and political possibilities are impressive. So much so that some were about to grab Jesus to crown him king. But he slips away and goes back up the mountain to be by himself. Meanwhile the disciples head across the sea by boat to Capernaum.
This night sea crossing in rough waters and a stiff wind puzzles me. It’s already been a long day. Not only have the disciples served 5,000 at the church supper, afterwards they gathered 12 baskets of leftovers. It’s time to put their tired feet up and recover. Instead they get into a boat and row and row and row. Surely, they could have camped out on the mountain and waited until morning and then all travel together. So, what’s going on here? Some scholars suggest that it’s a re-enactment of the Red Sea Crossing and that could well be. But then I remembered the two summers I was a counselor for junior high kids at Camp Mt. Luther in Central Pennsylvania. Campers arrived on Sunday not knowing one another. For some it was their first time away from home. On Thursday we planned to hike five miles across the mountain ridge and down into a valley where by a flowing creek we’d set up camp for the night. But before attempting that everyone needed to learn to trust themselves, one another and God. So, we did all sorts of activities to build trust – getting the whole group over a ten-foot wall, across a stream with a couple of ropes, up a cliff, cooking out over a fire, going on a trust walk, learning to listen, work, play and pray together. We had three days for youthful strangers to become a team who cared for one another while growing in love of God. Remembering this made me wonder, could it be that Jesus sent the disciples across the sea that night to build trust? And when he came walking across that sea, an act which initially terrified them and said, “It is I, do not be afraid” was it to let them know that come hell or high water, he would be with them? They could trust him. Just as he is always with us – we can trust him too.
Now there is a little footnote in my Bible at this point that the seminary geek in me wants to share – and that is the Greek words “It is I” is literally “I am.” This is the same I AM Moses heard God declare at the burning bush when he dares to ask God’s name “I AM who I AM.” God as verb. God as being. God as the Bread of Life. God walking on water. God ahead of us, God behind us, God with us, God in us, God.
During those two summers at Mt. Luther, by Thursday every single group of campers were ready to go on the trip. Granted some were readier than others, but all of them grew in trust of God. You see that’s what faith is – trusting that God is with us – in the bread, in the wine, in the baptismal water, in mission, with us in our living and our dying and will never let us go. Amen.
“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” John 6:9