“Nourishment and Some Food, Too”

July 25, 2021

John 6:1–15

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 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. 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. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 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.’

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.

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As the pandemic dragged on last year, people became increasingly creative in devising ways to gather with others outside their “pod.” With ingenuity and increasing passion for human interaction, we made our driveways and garages into spaces for book clubs, happy hours, campfires and more where friends joined together. One family I know opened the fence gate between their patios, planned a menu, set their own tables and shared food and drink while talking and laughing together. Gathering together in safe and satisfying ways will be a lasting memory of this pandemic.

The Gospel this week centers around a shared meal that been remembered for generations. It tells of Jesus’ mysteriously multiplying some fish and bread to feed five thousand. Interestingly, this Jesus story appears six times across the four gospels, more than any other, which tells us this event meant a lot to the early church. I also wonder if it might mean a lot to us this year, too, after the long isolation we’ve just endured.

For the first time, I’m seeing this miracle story not for how so little food fed so many people, but rather I’m struck by the divine regard for people together.

As John describes the scene, Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee, and takes his disciples up a mountain. Immediately he notices a large crowd following them — a crowd filled with hunger and hope. Now here’s the interesting part: Jesus’s vision, his first thought when he sees the throngs of people approaching is, “How can we gather them, provide food and the nourishment they need?”

In other Gospel accounts of this story, the disciples want Jesus to send the people away to find food elsewhere. Mark records this: “When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’” Their instinct was to scatter the people to send them off to fend for themselves and resist the work and responsibility of meeting their needs in community.

Maybe, after the past year, we are in an especially good position to appreciate Jesus’s vision. We, too, have been scattered. We have known the loneliness of the empty table, the unused guest room, the locked-up church building, the fast from the Lord’s Supper. We have discovered anew how sacred and life-giving it is to gather, and how much we ache when we’re denied the means to do so. We have experienced in ways unknown just how much our humanity depends on proximity. On eating together, and finding nourishment together.

Consider how many of the Jesus stories we love center around meals, feasts, and dinner tables. The gospels are full of references to Jesus eating and drinking with others. He multiplies wine in Cana to keep a party going longer. He accepts the dinner invitation of Simon, a Pharisee, and invites himself to the home of Zacchaeus, a reviled tax collector. His last act of love for his disciples before his death is to gather them around a table, and feed them bread. His own body.

When Jesus feeds the five thousand, he does more than fill their stomachs. He encourages hungry, needy, weary people to sit down together, to notice and attend to each other, to take pleasure not only in the possibility of their own fullness, but in the fullness of the whole. The point is not simply satisfied bellies. The point is to enjoy abundance in community. To learn that in God’s kingdom, there is enough. Not just enough for one, but for all, together.

Again: not just enough for me, or for my family, or for my “pod,” “people,” or “tribe,” but enough for absolutely everyone. With more to spare.

When Jesus feeds the multitudes in one place, at one time, he acknowledges that we are physical and communal beings, with physical and communal needs. We are not disconnected spirits; we have bodies — both individual and collective — and those bodies themselves are gifts from God. Gifts worthy of honor and care.

Maybe this past year has reminded us of a primary aspect of life — our needs for nourishment together, for companionship, for proximity. The good news is God sees these needs and has a vision to provide and satisfy them. May our mirroring this vision in generous and compassionate action be to others a blessing in the ways of Jesus.

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.