Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Welcome back to my blog. Today we look at the multiplication miracle and why it may be so important for us to fully understand its true meaning.
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Sermon No 69
Feeding the Hungry
9th Sunday After Trinity
A sermon preached by Roger Laing (Parish Evangelist) on Sunday 29th July 2018 at the 8 & 10 am Eucharist Services at St. Paulinus Church, Crayford, Kent. (Based on 2 Kings 4:42-44, Psalm 145:10-19 and John 6:1-21)
May I speak, and may you hear in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning and I’m glad to see that you have all survived the flash floods and the ‘blood-moon’ from Friday evening, when there were reports that the world might have entered Armageddon! So good to see you all!
Today, we have the opportunity to look at that quite famous gospel reading that tells the story of the miraculous event of feeding five thousand people with just five barley loaves and two small fish.
You may see hanging from the pulpit/lectern this morning, something I picked up from the Holy Land when I went on pilgrimage back in 2011. And it is a representation of the 5th century mosaic floor tiling from the ‘Church of the Multiplication’ in a place called Tabgha (pronounced – tab-ger) and is the earliest example of Christian Art floor mosaics anywhere in the Holy Land. You might not be able to see it from where you are sitting but as well as the two fish, it depicts only four loaves in a basket, when the bible records five.
Well, tradition says the fifth was to be found upon the altar next to it. And hopefully you will consider the implication of that mystery as we go a little deeper into that over the next two weeks as we work our way through John’s gospel?
The nameTabgha itself derives from an Arabic mispronunciation of the Greek word ‘Heptapegon’ meaning the seven springs. And in 384 AD a visiting pilgrim nun called Egeria described the site in these words, ‘Not far away from 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 the two fishes. In-fact the stone on which the Lord placed the bread has now been made into an altar.’ (Cohen, D.,The Holy Land of Jesus. Doko Media Ltd).
And so, we have these various other non-canonical texts such as this that support the claims of the bible quite accurately. And indeed, if you visit the site today you will see the altar in the church at Tabgha built over a stone from that period.
This miracle of the multiplication I find always ranks quite highly in popularity with people that I meet, regardless of what their biblical knowledge might be.
And I think one possible reason for this, is that people might visualise it not in its truly miraculous expression, but relate it to a more familiar picnic scenario, where a shortage of food might prompt a generosity of spirit, and in turn, encourage an act of sharing between one another?
And this explanation is used by many people outside the church who argue against the truth the bible contains. As the theologian EP Saunders noted in his book ‘The Historical Figure of Jesus’…. ‘Group psychology has often been used to explain the feeding miracles. Actually, everyone had brought food but was afraid to take it out for fear of having to share it. When Jesus and the disciples started sharing their food, however, everyone in the crowd was encouraged to do the same, and there was sufficient to spare’ (Saunders E.P,1993. The Historical Figure of Jesus. Penguin Books,).
However, this gospel story is much more than that, and we need to be clear that it is not merely highlighting a good will gesture between strangers, as they gather together sharing their packed lunches. This is a creative miracle, where Jesus produces something that was not there before. And that is what we need to have at the forefront of our mind when unravelling the text in understanding the significance of the message it contains.
For this is the only miracle, other than the resurrection, that is recorded in all four gospels, and so by John including this one, at the same time supplementing what is already recorded in the synoptic gospels, (i.e. Matthew, Mark and Luke) he shows that this miracle, in particular, is worthy of a special mention.
For it is only Jesus who can use this creative power to provide food in abundance, just as He did in that first miracle where He changed water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and He did this not only to avoid embarrassment for the families concerned, but to highlight His divinity to those that were prepared to look beyond the surface of merely supplying a shortfall of wine. So again, hold these thoughts of the significance of the wine in that miracle and the bread of this one over the next two weeks.
So, what is so special about this miracle? Well lets first remind ourselves with what we heard in our Old Testament reading from second Kings. For on the face of it we have what appears to be a similar feeding miracle, but this one occurring some six-hundred years earlier.
We have one of the great prophets of God called Elisha having returned to a place called Gilgal which was enduring a time of famine and drought and Elisha as the ‘man of God’ being looked at by the people, to provide a ‘way out’ from the hunger they were suffering, and so Elisha is provided with a small number of barley loaves and some grain by a man from Baal Shalisha. We are not told in the text who this man is, but we are told where he is from. Now modern scholars are not sure where this town would have been located but the Latin version of the name identifies it with Bethlehem, which if true is symbolic in itself, for you may recall, Bethlehem, literally means ‘house of bread’ a place that should be known for its provision. (https:www.workingpreacher.org.A commentary on 2 Kings 4;42-44, accessed 28.07.18)
So, Elisha commanded his servant should, ‘Give it to the people, that they may eat.’ (2 Kings 4:42) Yet Elisha’s servant immediately questions his master, how such a small amount of food could feed such a large number of men.
But Elisha, faithful to his LORD, repeats the same command, but added the words, ‘For thus says the Lord, they shall eat and have some left over’ (v43). It was in those words ‘for thus says the Lord’ (v43) that the words become no longer those of just Elisha alone, but of God Himself speaking through him.
And by those words the miracle occurs, and the small amount of food provided by the man from Baal Shalisha gave enough sustenance for all that were present and even had some left over just as He had commanded,
So here we have another example, as I regularly point out, of that connection between the Old and New Testaments and the danger of thinking we can read the New Testament stories in isolation, and not taking into account the storey of our whole history. The bible is a collection of some 66 books, in most versions at least, with each book being equally important as the next. And indeed, you will find, the Old Testament generally providing a reflection through prophecy, of what is to come, and so it is with this little story from almost six hundred years earlier, it anticipates the messianic ministry of Jesus that was to come. ‘They shall eat and have some left over’ (2 Kings 4:43)
But before we leave Second Kings, notice what the servant said to Elisha when the very idea of feeding such a number with such little food? ‘What? Shall I set this before one hundred men?’ (2 Kings 4:43) and by questioning his master he becomes that man who has little faith, and is not prepared to believe in the creative power of God, even though he has probably already seen God at work through his master before on numerous occasions. It is something that we all tend to be like to be like when actually put to the test, no matter how faithful we might be, or appear to be to others. And we will look again at that weakness of faith shortly in Johns account.
But before I do, let’s turn momentarily to the account of the same miracle in Matthews gospel, for the ‘multitude’ (v2) as described in John is numbered as the ‘five thousand’ in Matthew, and if we read that complete passage in Matthew, then in verse 21 we read, ‘Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children.’ (Matthew 14: 21)
So, by comparing the gospel accounts, we learn that the multitude spoken about in John’s gospel are just the men that are in attendance, so as well as the five thousand men we know about, there were probably going be wives also present, which may number at least the same as the men and perhaps other women too, and in addition, there would likely be children accompanying their fathers and mothers. So infact, this miracle could have been an even greater miracle than what we first thought, with upwards of fifteen thousand people being fed that day? Which by my research is more than the average home attendance at Millwall Football Club on a Saturday afternoon (13,368) !! or Charlton Athletic (11,162)!! According to Wikipedia at least!
So, turning back to Johns account, this is not just a story about miraculously feeding lots of hungry people on a hillside by a lake. For what often gets overlooked is what drew the crowds to Jesus? Jesus by his acts would have been something equivalent to the celebrity status of a Love Island contestant. And the reason they followed Him was because they had seen ‘the signs which he performed on those who were diseased’ (John 6:2) Jesus was healing the sick and the infirm, and that is why they followed Him. They wanted to see more miraculous signs by this man.
But again, when reading the bible we have to understand the context in which the story is set. They were an expectant crowd, and a race that were waiting for their Messiah to come, and therein lay the problem. The crowd could see the physician and a worker of miracles, but totally failed to perceive that He was the actual Son of God, the Saviour of sinners and the true Messiah., as prophesised by Moses in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 18:15-19). For even after all they had seen, they still just wanted to crown Him as their own political-king to escape the persecution of the Romans. They had not understood the true kingdom of the anticipated Messiah was not to be just of this physical world, but of their internal spiritual-self too.
And we see the same thing going on today. People enthralled by charismatic evangelists, ministers and faith healers, cramming stadiums seeking a show, but few are really searching for the real Christ, the only One who can redeem them from their sin. (Mahan, Henry T.,1987. Bible Class Commentary: Gospel of John, Evangelical Press, pp.56-57)
But the point in this story that hits me, is when Jesus puts His friend Phillip to the test. Now Phillip, bear in mind is a disciple that has been with Jesus since the start of His ministry and has seen Him already change water into wine and heal the sick, yet when they are faced with a crowd that simply requires feeding, Phillip seems unable to believe that Jesus can actually deal with the problem. Jesus says to Phillip, ‘Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?’ (John 6:5) and what does Phillip reply, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them’ (v7) Of course Jesus already knew the answer Phillip was going to give before he had even answered, just as He knew Judas would be the one to betray Him. The question was put to test him, and Phillip failed the test as soon as he looked to himself and his own strength to solve the problem. And even the apostle Andrew shows no stronger a faith either, for he says, ‘There is a lad here with who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?’ (v9)
So here we have exactly the same going on as we had in that account of Elisha, we have the servants claiming to be faithful to their masters but unable to believe that they will provide – And so I ask myself, would I be any different to Phillip?…… Would you?
Yet, even with His own disciples letting Him down, Jesus doesn’t rebuke His faithless apostles, he just simply says, ‘Make the people sit down.’ (v10) And just as before, after giving thanks Jesus distributed the bread and the crowds were filled sufficiently with plenty left over, and in this case a whole twelve baskets full of food. The amount remaining is really unimportant here, for all we need to know is that in our own strength we will always be lacking, but with God then nothing is impossible.
However, even after recognising what they had just witnessed as another miracle, the crowd still failed to see what Jesus was truly about. That is why the crowd excitedly said in verse fourteen, ‘This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world’ (v14), yes they saw and witnessed the man and His miracles, but could still only see an earthly King and leader, but not the Sovereign Christ of all.
In recognising this blind enthusiasm by the crowd and fearing that the crowd might take Him by force before His appointed time, Jesus departed and escaped to the mountain to be alone
Our gospel reading then continues and gives an account of Jesus walking on water reinforcing His sovereign power, but I will end there this morning, so that we can reflect on the all-powerful creative nature of Jesus and how that nothing is impossible through Him.
Remember, Jesus takes the small, the weak and the insufficient and makes them great and resourceful. Jesus is the creator God that makes all things and creates them new. Jesus is the God that sees our weaknesses and gives us strength. And Remember, Jesus is the God that feeds us with all we need and more.
And finally, in the words of Psalm 145, ‘The Lord is near to all who call upon Him in truth. He will fulfil the desire of those who fear Him; He also will hear their cry and save them.’ (Psalm 145:17-19).