Meditation on John 6:1-21
Merritt Island Presbyterian Church
July 29, 2018
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.
11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
It was a sweltering 95-degree day last month in Birmingham, Alabama. Austin was handing out chicken sandwiches to homeless men. The red satin cape he wears, the 4-year-old says, makes him go faster. “It blows in the wind,” he says with a smile, in a June 2018 article at CNN online.
He is met with high-fives and pats on the shoulder at the homeless shelter. He has become a familiar face to the homeless men and women gathered on the sidewalk outside the Firehouse Ministries’ red brick building. His dad, TJ, helps him drop off meals every week. It all started when Austin and his dad were watching an animal show on TV. A mother panda left her cubs and Austin was worried what would happen to them. TJ said the cubs would be homeless. Austin hadn’t heard that word before. He learned more about “homeless” when his dad took him downtown to the city shelter after that.
“He said, ‘Can we feed them?'” TJ says. “I didn’t expect to feed homeless people that day. But when a 4-year-old asks you, what can you say?”
They went to Burger King and bought chicken sandwiches. Austin agreed to use his allowance to buy food for homeless people instead of a weekly toy. Austin, who has an older brother with autism, has learned sensitivity, acceptance and compassion for people, though they may be different in appearance or behavior.
He soon became a local celebrity. His passion to help people in need—and possibly all the media attention—stirred Burger King to give him a $1,000 monthly allowance for a year so he could fulfill his mission. The mayor calls him “the city’s ambassador.” In a time when we often hear criticism of young people for being too “materialistic” or lacking people skills— here’s evidence that some young folks do “get it”—maybe more than adults! Austin, the mayor says, understands the importance of helping others—not just with material assistance, but by showing love.
Love has the power to transform–especially when the source and acts of kindness are unexpected—through a small child, wearing a superhero costume, emblazoned, “# Show Love.”
Austin reminds me of the child in our gospel reading today—the boy who gave his lunch to Jesus and a multitude ate until they were full. This is an amazing thing to happen in a time and place when the average person never had enough food to eat, let alone feel full. Though we don’t know much about the boy—not even his name—he has the typical food of a poor person—five barley loaves and a couple of dried fish—neither of which were as large as we might imagine them to be. Wheat bread was more commonly eaten; barley loaves were cheaper and only eaten by the poor.
Today’s reading begins with a problem that isn’t really a problem, but an opportunity to reveal God’s power in Jesus Christ—and care for people in need. Jesus has crossed the sea to get away from the crowd, but is still being followed by them. People have seen the “signs that he was doing for the sick.” They want to see some more!
Jesus doesn’t evade them long. Actually, I think he is purposefully leading them up the mountain so that he can do another sign—and test his own disciples’ faith. For this passage isn’t really about what Jesus will do for the crowd. It’s encouragement for his true followers, the ones who have heard and answered his call, to let go of all doubt and fear–and learn to trust in him for everything!
Now this is different from the Matthew 14 account of the feeding of the multitude, when the disciples bring up the subject of eating first. They are exhausted after a day of ministering to the sick. They tell Jesus, “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.”
But in John 6, Jesus is the first to mention the people’s need for food, revealing more of his divine character. The one who heals is eager to provide for His children, knowing their needs before they ask! As the crowd approaches, Jesus turns to Philip. “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip seems surprised by his question. Though he was quick to respond to follow Jesus at his invitation in John 1:43, he is also a down to earth, numbers guy. Where to buy bread, indeed! The real problem is they don’t have enough money!
“Six months’ wages,” he says in the NRSV translation, “would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” What he really says is “200 denarii would not be enough for each to have a mouthful.” One denarius is a day’s wage in Matt. 20:2.
Andrew interrupts then to point out the boy offering his lunch. “But what good is that for so many?” Andrew says. He is asking the question every church asks, at one time or another. How can we possibly meet such a tremendous need around us with such a small offering? With an aging membership? With so few people? With so many needs of our own? How can what we have be enough to do the acts of love that Christ urges us to do?
Andrew’s question immediately precedes another “sign.” Jesus tells everybody, then, not “sit down,” but “recline”—the usual position for eating a meal. After giving thanks to God, Jesus himself and not the disciples in John’s account serves the people, passing first the bread and then the fish to 5,000 men—plus women and children!
After studying this passage, I’m left puzzling over 2 questions. First, was the boy really the only one with food in the crowd? Or was the real miracle not one of Christ’s provision, but His love unleashed in the crowd that stirs them to acts of generosity and kindness? Did they have more than enough food for a feast all along, but fear that there wouldn’t be enough held them back from sharing what they had with others? Through the boy’s tiny but significant gift, a multitude is fed, with 12 baskets of bread left over!
And the second question is, who are we in the story? Are we in the multitude, trying to follow Jesus wherever he goes, but only for personal reasons– looking for our own wants and needs to be met? Are we wrestling with fear and doubt, like those closest to him on a mountain, wanting to help people and do compassionate ministry in Christ’s name, but thinking it’s not possible with our resources? Have we embraced a gospel of abundance—or not? Have we forgotten, like his 12 disciples, that Jesus is the source of everything we will ever need?
Are we like those same disciples, gathered in a boat, tossed about by storms, seeing Jesus, but in our fear, not recognizing the one who has the power to walk on water and calm every storm in our lives? The one whose love is unconditional and never ends?
May we all be more like the child of hope and faith.
About 5,000 men, women and children will pass through the doors of the shelter in Birmingham this year. Many will be touched by Austin and TJ’s acts of kindness and generosity, bringing hope and faith that lives can change!
People CAN change! God’s love transforms our hearts!
One homeless man tells Austin on that sweltering June day—95 degrees in Birmingham, “It’s because of you that I want to be a better person. You’re showing love, everywhere you go, right?”
“I am,” says Austin, handing him a paper-wrapped sandwich and a cold drink, superhero cape fluttering in the breeze.
He explains to the adults who might not “get it”– like he does.
He says, “Show love means you care about someone no matter what they look like.”
Let us pray.
Holy One, we want to be more like you—always thinking about the needs and cares of others, before we worry about our own. Forgive us, Lord, as we struggle with fear and doubt, thinking we never have enough resources to do all that we are called to do—showing your love through acts of compassion, kindness, and generosity. Give us the faith and hope of a child who, though he was poor in material possessions, was willing to give up all that he had to eat—some barley bread and a few dried fish—so that a multitude could be fed! Thank you, Lord, for your unconditional love, for washing away our sins with your work on the cross, and for being the source of everything we will ever need! Amen.