Sermon Notes + Quotes:
Thank you very much. I also have the honor Pastor Jim has told me to read the gospel to you, and that is a joy in itself. Let me read to you from Matthew Chapter 14, and I’m reading in the 13th verse and onto the 21st.
You’ve been following Matthew, so I don’t maybe need to give you the backstory. “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew.” What had happened, as you know, was the death of John the Baptist.
“When Jesus heard what had happened, He withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed Him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed, He saw a large crowd. He had compassion on them and healed their sick. As evening approached, the disciples came to Him and said, ‘This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.’ Jesus replied, ‘They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.’ ‘Well, we have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,’ they answered. ‘Bring them here to me,’ He said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, He gave thanks and broke the loaves.”
“He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up 12 basket fulls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about 5,000 men besides the women and children.
Now, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be now and always acceptable in thy sight. Oh, Lord, our strength, and our Redeemer. Amen.
I love that passage. Pastor Jim was right. I want to frame what I have to say just by telling you about a kind of very poor experience of exegesis, if you want to call it, that I had of this passage when I was a schoolboy. We had school assemblies in those days. They were a legal requirement. But the school was secular, in fact, and I think the headmaster of the school, who was a rather dull person who was very practical and quotidian, but there was nothing kind of staring in anything he said. He was always making kind of dull and ordinary things, even duller and more ordinary than they were before.
It happened, I mean, the form the assemblies took, our school assemblies each day, it was mainly administrative stuff and then various students, or classes being given a ticking off for behaving badly and told they’re in detention and various things. And then there would be a Bible reading, a token Bible reading, and a brief moral exhortation to us as boys to try harder and pull our socks up and get on with the job. It was that kind of thing.
Anyway, our brief token Bible reading that we had on this particularly memorable day happened to be the very passage I’ve read to you now. Astonishing, extraordinary, beautiful, transformative, overflowing with the fullness, the abundance, the generosity of God speaking to us through human flesh, meeting our needs physically and spiritually at the same time and astonishing in-breaking into the ordinary order of time of the extraordinary generosity and fecundate and compassion of our God.
The headmaster didn’t say any of that. I subsequently discovered that that’s a little bit, just a little bit of what’s going on in this passage. Basically, you could summarize the headmaster’s brief formally as nothing to see here, move on. But what he said was this, he said, of course, nowadays we realize we don’t have to believe these kinds of stories, but there is something very important boys. I’m sure what really happened. You know you’re in what really happened. I’m sure what really happened was this, that everybody had already brought secreted among their long robes their own sort of picnic baskets and bits of food, but people were a bit worried that other people might have less. They didn’t really want to share.
When this boy volunteered his five loaves and two small fishes and Jesus said, “Look, what’s that?” Everybody thought, okay, fair enough and started getting out their stuff, and he turned this story of transcendent generosity of undeserved grace, of how God comes to us in our poverty and transforms it. He turned it into a nice little moral example that really you want to share your packed lunch. That was it and I was so disappointed.
I mean, not that I was particularly strongly believer in anything, but I liked a good story and I like reading the story the way the storyteller told it, not to read against the grain of the text, but to read with it. I could see that this was meant to be a story about something extraordinary having happened, and it had turned into another piece of unremarkable ordinariness with a little bit of moralizing finger wagging thrown in. So, I’m not going to say any of that to you. You’ll be relieved to hear.
Years later, when I came to read some of Saint Augustine’s commentaries on the gospel, I came across his passage. He was talking about the version of this story in John, but he draws on the other ones as well. He says, something that’s exactly the opposite of what that headmaster said to me. Instead as that headmaster did, taking the numinous, the awesome, the miraculous and reducing it to the ordinary, Saint Augustine had a way of understanding this miracle and also the first sign at Canaan, which not only made you see that this was a great miracle, but actually sent you back to the ordinary world, the so-called ordinary world, with new eyes to see the wonders.
This is what Augustine said. Augustine said, “We regard it as astonishing, when in the first sign at caner, Jesus turns water into wine as it were instantly in eyes. We regard it as astonishing when in the feeding of a 5,000, he takes the five loaves and feeds 5,000 people with them.” We’re astonished and we say ‘God is great’. He does marvelous things. And then Augustine says, “God is great. He does marvelous things, and these were marvelous miracles and signs of who Jesus was.” But do you think God is any less great when he does the marvelous things that you don’t notice? Do you think perhaps Jesus did for you upon an instant something that God and God in Christ is doing all the time.
He says, “Turning water into wine. Does he not to do that every season? Is it not the case that the rain falls, and it goes into the earth and fattens the vines and the vineyards, and the grape swells and the sun comes and out of that, the wine is pressed that makes glad the heart of man.” The water that falls from heavens becomes the wine that rejoices us season by season. And we go, oh yeah, that’s ordinary. Say what? No, it’s astonishing.
Likewise, the few grains sew down as Jesus himself said, when it grows up, it yields 50-fold, 100-fold. There is a continual multiplication of loaves and fishes, a continual fermentation of wine going on in the God ordering of God’s creation. One thing at least that this miracle might do is make us be sufficiently astonished for a moment to begin to be astonished for a lifetime, that God is at work in all those things.
I want to just begin if I can by going into something of the power and beauty of this passage. I suppose to preface it to say the vital thing that that headmaster never said. That headmaster took it that this was a bit of an embroidered story about a person who lived long ago. He was doing what I realized afterwards, literary critics in the sort of forties and fifties had de-mythologizing. He was kind of trying to turn the extraordinary into the ordinary. But one thing he never said was that this man, Jesus, was also God, that he was fully God and fully man. Therefore, he didn’t help us understand that whereas we can read the old stories of any other historical figure and we can find out about what Caesar did and what he didn’t do, or Cicero or anybody else. We have to say at the end of those stories of historical lives and sayings and famous episodes, that was then, but this is now. That’s a finished story. It’s over. It’s in time and it belongs to the time that it’s in and it’s time is gone.
But if a fully human character in history is also fully God, and in that person in their moment in history, the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. If in them, God is reconciling the world to himself. If that person has come in that beautiful phrase in the fullness of time, then their story is not over. What it really means is that everything, and this is true of all the gospels as you read them, in every word and deed and action, Jesus is fully human and fully divine.
You can fully engage in the human story and God knows this enough to engage in it here. Jesus is exhausted. He’s depleted, humanly speaking. He’s horrified by what has happened to his cousin John. He’s in a situation of depletion, exhaustion, and hopelessness. And wouldn’t you know, just when he finally tries to get away and have a little bit of a retreat in a solitary place, 5,000 people show up wanting his time and ministry.
I see Pastor Jim grinning away there. That’s how it is when you are a shepherd of a flock and out of deep resources, deeper than anyone in that crowd at that time could know, out of his own depletion and exhaustion, he who emptied himself and took the form of a servant is able to give abundantly as God, the Father moves and speaks in God, the son by God, the Spirit and the divine, the deep divine well of the generosity of God flows through the emptiness and exhaustion. There’s a human side to it, certainly, but also everything Jesus says and does, God is doing and saying, but not just for that time.
Caesar or Cicero, it’s over and done with, that was then, this is now. With everything that you read and see Jesus doing in the gospel, you can say with certainty that what happened out there and back then can happen in here and right now. As surely as he sets his face like Flynn and walks into Jerusalem with all its conflicts and divisions and betraying and rivalries. So, he walks into the Holy city, the seething Holy city of your heart, to deal with what needs to be dealt with there and to proclaim peace.
What happened out there and back then happened in here and right now.
And when He gives the broken bread to them, He is always giving it to us. And when He gives a commandment to the disciples, He is always giving a commandment to us. And when He has compassion on the crowd, compassion, feeling with, suffering with, being on the inside, then He has the compassion likewise on us now. I don’t know if you noticed the disciples have got a long way to go in learning who he is and how to be His disciples. You can see the contrast between Jesus, even though He’s exhausted, having compassion on the crowd and wanting you to do something for them and the disciples, it’s extraordinary. The disciples are not so much interested in divine generosity as in a certain amount of the economic practicalities and the outlay and the church finances. Look, this is just too big a project for us. Why don’t you send them away, send them away so they can spend their money they can buy something? They don’t need to get food. They don’t need to go away.
And then Jesus, who is going to feed them as He is shortly going to feed us, says to the disciples, you give them something to eat. You do it. I think He says that today. I think He says that today practically to every Christian who sees the needs, the physical needs, of the neighbor. Well, those as we are hearing about in Pakistan without any means of support. You give them something to eat. But also, as soon as the disciples begin to obey Jesus, and even though they think it’s not a possible job, as soon as they start to do it, it happens. You give them something to eat. I think that’s certainly something that He still says to us.
But let’s go a little deeper. Let’s think about the whole narrative arc, not only of Matthew, but of the gospels generally. This feeding takes place and it’s referred to first as a solitary place and then as a remote place. Jesus has withdrawn into, in fact, the wilderness, into the Judean wilderness, and Matthew expects us to pick up on and get the resonances there. Something else happened in the wilderness.
Right at the beginning in the preface to Jesus’ ministry, after his baptism, he was unhungered. He felt the need. Jesus, who is fully God and God therefore understands from the inside in the flesh what it is like to go hungry. No wonder He had compassion on those crowds. He already knew what it was. And you remember after His 40 days, maybe looking at the stones out there had been out there in woody, you get these long, wide, flat stones, dry and desiccate, but you can imagine if you were incredibly hungry, man, they’d look like unleavened bread. They’d look like a piece of pita bread, so I could do with that.
And you remember the devil appears and says, “If you are the son of God, turn these stones into bread.” And He says, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He says a ‘no’ to that. He puts the priorities right. Jesus is later going to say, “Seek he first,” and again in Matthew, “seek he first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added onto you.” We can’t enjoy the bread or any of the other good things of life, unless we put this thing first.
So, Jesus says no to a miracle involving bread in the wilderness. And the point about this is to understand that that little ‘no’, that necessary refusal of what would’ve been an entirely private self-feeding, self-consuming, self-serving little miracle. That’s what the devil wanted him to do. And he says, no, but is that because God doesn’t want the hungry to eat? Is it because he doesn’t want us not only to have bread, but to have enough of it to be satisfied? Does that temptation of the flesh in the wilderness mean that God is against bodies and against the flesh and against the good things and the places of this life? Not at all.
Jesus needed to, and as in his fully human self, to get those priorities right. Put God first and then the bread. CS Lewis said, “Put first things first and you’ll get the second things thrown in. Put second things first and even those will corrupt and tend to ashes in your mouth,” as we know in the story of the manner.
In that very same wilderness in which He’d said that little ‘no’, He hears and speaks to the hungry God’s enormous ‘yes’ to our prayers, and he feeds 5,000 and He does a far greater miracle for a far greater number and in a much deeper and more beautiful way than that solitary thing would’ve been.
If you think about it that’s true of the other temptations as well. When he says, the devil takes him up and says, fling yourself off and the angels will. He’s not going to do a piece of stunt, look at me, showmanship, but the devil cannot invent a single pleasure. All he can do is twist and corrupt the good things that God has made. He tries basically to get us off track with a bit of spiritual junk food, that’s just going to be empty calories to try and stop us from getting to the feast. Throw yourself and an angel will catch you. Jesus says ‘no’, but later he will be exalted up to heaven.
At the name, he will be lifting up. Fall down and worship me and I will give all the world to you. He has more than all the world, but in the end at the name of Jesus, everything he will bow, and every tongue confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord. Each of those knows that He says to a false or corrupt or premature or distracting version of one of God’s good things is getting ready for the enormous ‘yes’ that God will say when He gives him the real thing, and that’s true of all our temptations.
I think CS Lewis got it beautifully right in the beautiful narrative structure of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe where you remember when Edmund gets Tumnus tempted. What are the two things that the White Witch claims to offer him? Something delicious, Turkish Delight, and then he can be king and Lord it over his brothers and sisters. Now, what is the point and purpose, the narrative arc of ever? These four children have been called into Narnia to sit on the four thrones of Cair Paravel and to feast at Aslan’s table. All the Witch has done has taken the really good thing that God has in mind for them and try to give a twisted perverted version of it to distract them. But in the end, it’s seen through and they get there. We see in this miracle of Jesus turning the bread into wine, the good thing that was being prepared for by that little ‘no’.
Now, I reflected on this when I was writing the sequence of poems in Sounding The Seasons and we came to Lent and I wrote about the temptations. I’d like to read you now a poem in which I tried to think about Jesus hungry in the wilderness. And to think that the Jesus who was hungry in the wilderness was God himself, God, the Father, God, the son and God, the Spirit are three in one. They’re co-eternal. They inhabit one another. So the divine is experiencing emptiness and of all things, of course, Jesus is the word. Jesus is later to say, “I am the bread of life,” and give himself. And yet, he knows what it is not to have.
So this was what I wrote in my poem. It’s called Stones Into Bread and I hope it gives you some sense of that earlier episode to which our text today is the answer.
Stones Into Bread
The fountain thirsts, the bread is hungry here.
The light is dark, the word without a voice.
When darkness speaks, it seems so light and clear.
Now he must dare with us to make a choice in a distended belly’s cruel curve.
He feels the famine of the ones who lose.
He starves with those whom we have forced to starve.
He chooses now for those who cannot choose.
He is the staff and sustenance of life.
He lives for all from one sustaining word.
His love still breaks and pierces like a knife the stony ground of hearts that never shared.
God gives through him what Satan never could; the broken bread that is our only food.–Malcolm Guite
And that giving of the bread in the poem I wrote on the temptation there, in its conclusion, arches forward to perhaps what is really going on at the heart of this feeding of the 5,000. This takes place before he says those words of institution, when He takes the bread and gives thanks and breaks it and says, “This is my body.” But Matthew and Matthew’s community know that He is going to say those words. They know that that giving of Himself is the full bread of life. Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God, Jesus had said, but Jesus is The word who comes from the mouth of God and now he’s going to complete that cycle, and the word is going to become flesh in Jesus and then bread in the communion.
And again, the location in the wilderness and the feeding is resonant of the earliest story. It’s resonant of the story of the children of Israel, wandering in the wilderness at a time of great physical need, but a time that also brought them into closer communion with God and the prophets keep saying that. Couldn’t you be close to God like you were in the wilderness, but your love has gone away like the morning dew. And that closeness was expressed in this extraordinary gift of God when the manna fell, the way bread, the bread for the journey, and that was an anticipation, that was bread you could only eat for one day, and that was bread that came from heaven.
In John’s version of this story, they challenged Jesus. And they say, well, “Moses gave the people bread from heaven. What are you going to do then, ay? How are you going to top Moses?” It’s that sort of attitude of the crowd. You’re only as good as your last gig or the gig of the person who was there before you. And Jesus of course gives the great saying, I’m not just going to send you bread. I am the bread. I am the bread that came down from the heaven. The manna was always about the final promise that God would come and said, I am the one.
So, when he takes the bread here and gives thanks and breaks it, it’s not just that he has compassion, and He meets a physical need. He knows, even as the bread breaks in his hands, what that is going to cost him just as he knew when his mother said they’ve run out of wine. They have no wine. Do you remember? He says, “My hour has not yet come.” He knows that that wine is only going to flow at the price of the pouring out of His heart’s blood. And He knows in the end, we are only going to be fed if he gives himself and dies on our behalf and breaks; is broken and feeds us.
And so, I’m going to think about that art forward. And I don’t know if you’ve ever had the sense when you’re reading, particularly when it’s a great story like this, one of the wonderful transformative archetypal moments in the scripture, famous the feeding of the 5,000. Have you sometimes thought, golly, I wish I could have been there. How good would it have been to see that? I wonder what would it have looked like when they kept breaking? Could you have seen the moment when the small became the more and the one became the many and then all the many were united in having shared the one thing. Wouldn’t it be great to have been there?
Well, you don’t have to ask. You don’t have to get in a Tardis or a time machine and go back. You are there. You are there because Jesus is here. The feeding of the 5,000 is not over. Now, the spiritual commentators have a great time with the numbers because next chapter, there’s going to be a feeding of the 4,000. Why does everybody preach on the 5,000? What about the 4,000? Yeah. And of course, the numbers meant something incredibly important in the day that it happened and the days that Matthew wrote about it.
The key numbers in this wilderness, but on the Judean side within the kingdom of Israel, five is an important number because it’s the Pentateuch. Twelve is a very important number because it’s the tribes of Israel and the gathering up the twelve basket-fulls of the broken is saying not only have I come for you and I’ve come for the whole world, but there’s also enough even in the leftovers of God’s generosity to fill and fulfill all the tribes of Israel, whom he is called. Five and twelve are the significant numbers in Judaism.
The feeding of the 4,000 happens on the other side of the lake in the Gentile territory, in a place of Greek and Roman culture and 4,007 basket-fulls are the significant numbers in the Greek mathematical and mythical world, mystical worldview. I can meet all that was there for you in your philosophy, in your mathematics. There’s enough and left more for the Gentiles. There’s enough and more for the Jews that those numbers were important, but that was then, and this is now. We don’t need to worry about the numbers because we are coming in and through this Eucharist to a multitude, which no man can number.
We are there because he is here. When we take the wafer and we intent it, we are participating as truly, as actually, as factually, as physically, as well as spiritually, as anybody who was gathered, sitting on the grass in that place at the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The multiplication of the loaves and fishes is not yet over. May we, in some sense, as we come to receive this, get the sense that we belong to and are gathered into that multitude.
So, I’m going to conclude with a poem and a prayer. Here’s the poem I wrote on that saying I am the bread of life, reflecting on the story again in a new way, and it’s perhaps answering the poem that I read earlier about the temptation.
The Bread of Life
Where to get bread? An ever-pressing question that trembles on the lips of anxious mothers. Bread for their families, bread for all these others.
A whole world on the margin of exhaustion.
And where that hunger has been satisfied.
Where to get bread?
The question still returns.
In our abundance, something starves and yearns.
We crave fulfillment, crave and are denied.
And then comes One who speaks into our needs,
who opens out the secret hopes we cherish,
whose presence calls our hidden hearts to flourish,
whose words unfold in us like living seeds.
Come to me, broken, hungry, incomplete.
I am the bread of life, break me and eat.–Malcolm Guite
We’ll say a prayer in a minute. When I was administering communion in my church at St. Edwards, I used to sometimes play Over The Rhine’s song, “All My Favorite People are Broken” and make that the invitation to communion.
Let’s hear Christ’s gracious invitation to us now and pray. Risen Lord Jesus. We thank you for your presence in the midst of us, and especially for the promise you have given that you will be present to us when we receive the bread, which you have consecrated and the wine. Come into us bodily, come into us spiritually. Find what is broken in us and make it whole, that we may find what is broken in our world and make it whole. In your name. Amen.
(Edited for Reading)