By the Rev. William Whitla
Ephesians 3:14-21 / John 6: 1-21
+ In the name of the Creator upholding us, the Word transforming us, the Spirit breathing through us Amen.
John 6: 1-21 is the only miracle that occurs in all four gospels, the feeding of the 5,000. To me, it sets out a pattern of Scarcity and Abundance. At first food is scarce— there are only the young boy’s five barley loaves and two fish. But afterwards, there is abundance—all were filled, and 12 baskets were left over.
Scarcity to us is almost a trivial thing if we think of what is scarce for most of us—time, and perhaps energy, and face-to-face encounters in Pandemic times. But for the world scarcity and abundance separate the rich and the poor nations, and the rich and poor in our own country and city. Scarcity in the world: of drinkable water for so many First Nations communities, like Grassy Narrows, abundance of water with too much in flooding in Europe, or not nearly enough water to quench the fires on the West Coast. For workers who have recently lost jobs, scarcity of money, scarcity in Cuba of medical supplies and food, scarcity of companionship in this Covid pandemic, scarcity of food, of shelter, of health – and, as we know from so much violence around us, scarcity of love.
Ephesians 3:14-21 talks about abundance: by the power working in us God is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can imagine” close to the words of thanksgiving after the Eucharist. Abundantly in Ephesians is made up of three words: huper: meaning exceedingly; ek: out of, more than; and finally perissos: abundant. Only in Ephesians are the three words written together as one word, combining all of that superabundance of what the power of love at work among us can do—that is, true superabundance.
In the Bible that abundance is set forth in the plenitude of the creation narratives; in the story of the Manna in the Wilderness, and in Elisha’s feeding of 100, in 2 Kings 4 that lies behind the feeding of the 5,000.
John tells us that a large crowd followed Jesus because of the signs that he did in healing the sick. John presupposes that those who had come to hear Jesus brought no food with them, a surprising fact. Jesus’ audience would have been almost exclusively made up of Jews. We know that most religious-minded Jews of the time would have taken the precaution of bringing with them enough bread or dried fish to insure that they would not be forced to eat food whose ritual purity was in doubt. But that is less than half of the problem.
Above all, eating their own provisions while eating with others whose moral and religious character might be doubtful would have risked moral contamination. So if there were 5,000 —that is a massive problem for everyone. Further, Jesus was known to accept the socially marginal adding to the anxiety of observant Jews. Not knowing the moral status of those nearby makes you reluctant to bring out whatever provisions you have.
But a boy comes forward with enough courage and compassion to set aside the ritual limits in the face of universal need—and his offering is accepted—and the Eucharistic connotations of this gift to be blessed and broken and shared should not be lost—and would not have been lost on John’s first readers at the end of the first century.
Jesus who takes the initiative invites the people to sit down and prepare for a meal. He says to the disciples, “Have the people sit down” — the versions we often read say “Make” the people sit down — but the verb is far more like a natural act of invitation: “invite the people to sit down”—far more gracious than a simple command. Sharing a meal together was his idea, not theirs.
Jesus’ audience probably found the idea unsettling, but he was trying to liberate them from their narrow religious constraints. Jesus is driving home the point he had been making in his preaching and healing: the important ones are the lowest and the least among those who followed him. The point of the feeding seems not to be abundance of the food, but the breaking down of religious and social barriers.
All the Gospel accounts speak of Jesus as taking the loaves, giving thanks, (and the Greek word is our word “Eucharist”), and broke them for distribution and all ate as much as they wanted and were filled—another word that is used elsewhere for the abundance of the messianic banquet.
Here, by enacting the role of the loving head of a family at a family meal, Jesus invites all, despite their differences and anxieties, into the sharing of food. That is the true miracle. Not that all were filled, but that Jesus’ message of love and inclusion overcomes all barriers between people and families, all anxieties and fears about others.
Here is not a teaching about what the new realm could be like, but an enactment before their very eyes, in their very presence, of what the kingdom is. All ate and were satisfied, all were filled—not only with the food, but with their expectations realized, their hearts opened and filled.
All who heard his message to sit down together, all who heard him give thanks, could live for a moment in the “kingdom” about which he was preaching. It is a kingdom of changed human hearts, accepting at once when they sat down the presence of their neighbours, with no further questions about them—just accepting them as neighbours. The miracle is a new kind of community, one generated by inclusion, a “new generation.” Transitory though it may have been, it remains a model for our new community, and one on which all human culture will one day have to be based. Jesus’ community inaugurated a social bond based on the breaking down of religious prejudice—and that is the beginning of acceptance leading to love.
And every Eucharist presents us again and again with that community, inviting us into it, challenging us to be part of its radical inclusivity, having our scarcity filled with that abundance that can accomplish more than we can think or imagine. Amen.