A Funeral Celebration
The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, the Feeding of the Five Thousand is a well known gospel story. So well known that we often get stuck on the loaves and fishes and the miracle that they represent. While we should not ignore this aspect of the reading or the implications towards the Eucharist that it represents there are other elements at play.
- Why did the crowd follow Jesus?
- Were they aware of John’s death?
- What can we learn from the actions of Jesus?
Text: Matthew 14: 13-21
A Funeral Celebration
What is this news about John?
I imagine that many of you have been the bearer of bad news. Information needed to be shared, but the sharing of it would break people’s hearts. The most common occurrence of this I can reflect on is when the news that a loved one has passed needs to be shared. There is no easy or simple way to share this news and everyone’s reaction to it is different.
We lament, we mourn. Some seek solitude and some seek the company of others. There is no one way to deal with the loss of a loved one or someone that you cared about. Even the passing of a work colleague or casual acquaintance can have a profound effect on us.
This is the news about John that Jesus has heard. John has been killed while in the custody of Herod. A scandalous story. The death of his cousin must have weighed heavily upon Jesus. Jesus decides that he will take some time alone, to recover from this news and to grieve. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him.
What the text doesn’t say explicitly is what the crowds heard. Was it simply that Jesus was withdrawing for a time? Or that his cousin John had died and he was withdrawing for a time? As we move forward this morning we are going to draw upon the later assumption, that the crowd did know about the death of John and chose to follow Jesus.
What follows is the gospel story known as the feeding of the five thousand. This story is unique in the gospels, because it is the only story to appear in all four gospels. What, I wonder, makes this story so important that all four gospel writers felt the need to include it?
Frederick Dale Bruner suggests that this miracle may tie-in to the Lord’s Supper. Jesus brings a small sampling of food in and feeds a large crowd. When we take communion, it is not just bread and wine, body and blood for the church, but for the whole world. Like the paltry amount of bread and fish the disciples initially discovered, so the food of the Lord’s Supper looks paltry and not up to the task of giving this hurting and broken world what it needs. But this story tells us it is sufficient and that this is precisely what the world needs. Maybe that is why–theologically, sacramentally, and ecclesiastically—the four evangelists knew that this story had to be included.
We should also note that the Gospels are all very careful in relating this story to remind us that the place to which Jesus withdrew was not just quiet, remote, serene, or even “lonely” as some translations put it. No, it was an eremos place in Greek: it was the desert, the wilderness, the place that biblically is always a symbol of chaos, of the devil’s realm, of the place that takes life. Yet Jesus came to transform the wilderness back into a life-giving place. In fulfillment of the prophets’ words, when salvation comes, the desert will bloom, streams will flow in the wilderness, myrtle and flowers will grow instead of weeds and thorns. Jesus’ mass feeding in the place of death prefigures the transformation of the whole world from chaos and back to the cosmos God intended “in the beginning” (reference).
We know the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Five loaves of bread and two fish. The gospel tells us that this food fed 5000 men, plus women and children. I think it might be fair to say that Jesus and the disciples fed the equivalent of the town of Cobourg that morning. Often when we reflect on this story it is on the miracle of the loaves and fishes which multiply. That is the big miracle that demands our attention, what we often miss is the subtle miracle of hospitality that we find.
Let’s remember what is happening here. Jesus is mourning the death of his cousin, John the Baptist, widely regarded as a prophet. The disciples also mourn that loss and so too does the crowd. During all this Jesus showed compassion and cured the sick. No doubt also speaking about the kingdom of God. When I look at the feeding of the five thousand, what I see is a massive funeral celebration. Of people mourning with Jesus over the loss of the John the Baptist.
As happens so often when we face death in the loss of loved one, we question our own mortality, we re-affirm our relationships, setting wrongs right. In short we engage in a process of healing. Grieving, alone or with others, is a form of healing and what I believe we witness in the feeding of the five thousand is that communal process of grieving and growing together as a community of faith.
We all know that after many a funeral there is a time to talk and express our condolences. Most often there is also food present. It seems that as a church we like to pair food with the other things we are doing. We find examples of this in scripture, in the Old Testament with its dietary laws. You might be surprised to learn about some foods that you eat on a regular basis have a religious background.
In the mid-1800s there was a group of people in America known as the Millerites–a Christian sect firmly convinced that Jesus would return sometime late in the year 1843. He didn’t, thus setting off what was called “the Great Disappointment.” At least some of these folks, however, made the best of the situation by declaring that as a matter of fact Jesus had returned but that it had turned out to be an invisible, spiritual advent. Believing themselves to be living in an already-present millennial kingdom, these Adventists decided that as part of this new identity they should invent alternative foods as a sign of their not being fully in this world. So one preacher named Sylvester Graham invented a new kind of cracker for his congregation to eat–yes, the Graham Cracker. Peanut butter was also invented at this time, as was a variety of cold breakfast cereals, including something called a “corn flake,” perfected by Adventist devotee John Harvey Kellogg in a spiritual community located in Battle Creek, Michigan (reference).
Food and spirituality have long been yoked, but aside from observing occasional periods of fasting, no religious group has ever said it would never eat anything again. We all know we must eat and drink to live. If we go much more than three days without water or a month or so with no food, we will die. Many organizations nobly work every day to get food to this world’s starving. The fact that thousands of children die of starvation every day is as vivid, and utterly tragic, a sign of this world’s broken condition as anything.
We know that right now famine and starvation persist in the world. There is a crisis in South Sudan which Presbyterian World Service & Development has been working to alleviate. Yet, this is only one of many places where people need food, they need help. They need a miracle of loaves and fishes to help sustain them. That is where we come in, as that miracle, providing the help required.
In this gospel account Jesus is surrounded by friends and strangers. All who are mourning the death of John the Baptist. Yet, within the story we see Jesus go out to the wilderness, to where things are wild and untamed. While there, in the midst of grief, Jesus brings healing, comfort, compassion and hospitality to all those who have joined him. In many places in the world today people similarly mourn and lament. Here in Cobourg and across the globe in places like South Sudan. We lament that people are hungry, we mourn those who have died due to hunger and malnourishment. Yet, in our gospel reading we find hope. A gospel reading which I believe was a large funeral celebration for a prophet, in it we find hope. We find healing, we find an alternate way to go forward.
Jesus brings healing and restoration to the world. That is the promise of the new covenant we have from God in Jesus Christ. Restored life, the promise of a new creation. Where hurts and pains will be tended. We are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and offer the same level of compassion. With the understanding that our actions are the work of God, that they bring about the kingdom. Amen.