Borrowed bread and fish are a feast in the hands of Jesus.
John writes, “Sometime after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee.” The “after this” refers to Jesus’ healing of the man at the pool of Bethsaida. There with a word, He told a paralyzed man, to get up, and he did. It was a Sabbath, and so the religious confront Jesus. “My Father is always at his work to this very day,” Jesus told them, “and I, too, am working.” He said He was the Son of God, and He had the works to prove it. The confrontation ends with a question to those who would follow Moses: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”
On this question, John hangs the next thing, this morning’s Gospel. Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee to the far shore, and a great crowd of people follow after Him. They had seen the miracles, how Jesus healed the sick, and they wanted more. Faith in miracles always needs another miracle to keep it going. You can pack a stadium full of people that way.
Jesus goes up to a mountainside with His disciple. Watch when Jesus goes up to a mountain. Sermon on the Mount, the mount of transfiguration, Mt. Calvary. God’s holy mountain. In our reading from Exodus, Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and the seventy elders of Israel saw God, and they ate and drank, and were not destroyed. Keep that one running in the background.
Jesus sees the mob coming toward them, and He tests one of His disciples. “Philip, where are we going to buy bread for all these people?” He says this with messianic tongue firmly planted in messianic cheek. He knew what He was going to do. He wanted to hear what Philip would say.
Philip fails the test. He thinks only in terms of dollars and cents and work. “Two hundred denarii, the wages of eight months’ work, would not be enough.” Philip can see only so far as his own work. Jesus has nothing whatsoever to do with it. And so we, in our practicalities, and our Monday through Saturday Christianity that has little if anything to do with Jesus. He’s for Sunday, when we have the time. The rest of the week is for work. He can heal the sick on occasion, but feeding a mob of five thousand hungry people is another matter.
Andrew has his solution. He co-opts a little boy bringing lunch home to his mother. Five little cakes of barley and two dried fish. How far can these go among so many, Andrew wonders. He fails the test too. Borrowed bread and fish in the hands of Jesus go as far as needed. And even more.
He has them sit down. John, who was there himself, notes that there was much green grass. Why the grass? Perhaps John was thinking about Psalm 23, the psalm of the sheep boasting of his good shepherd. ‘He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” Good Shepherd Jesus is there to feed His flock, to prepare a table for them in the presence of their enemies.
Jesus takes the borrowed bread into His own hands, gives thanks, breaks it up and distributes it. Sound familiar? It should. It happens every Sunday here in church. What He did with borrowed bread there, He does here for us, and so much more. Instead of multiplying it, He amplifies it, gives more than we ordinarily receive with bread – His body sacrificed on Calvary for your sins.
He takes the bread and begins to distribute it, and the bread keeps on coming and coming. Bread in abundance, like manna raining down from heaven. He does the same with the fish. In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread to feed Himself. Jesus refused. To serve Himself was not why He came. And to destroy one thing to make another is not the way of God. He made the stones, and He makes the bread. He loves them both, and will not destroy one for the other. In feeding the 5000, Jesus multiplies the bread and the fish. That’s God’s way.
The rabbis said that when Messiah came, he would feed His people with bread from heaven. That’s the sign of this miracle, what this miracle is intended to show. The age of Messiah had come. The Son of God in the flesh had come. Bread in abundance. More bread than they could possibly eat. A perfect twelve baskets full of leftovers, doggy bags for the disciples. And fish too. At the Sabbath meal, you always ate some fish in Jesus’ day. (That’s how we later got fish on Fridays, by the way.) It was said that when Messiah came, the people of God would feast on the flesh of Leviathan, symbolized by a great fish. (Think Jonah here.)
What a day it was! The Lord on a mountain, green grass, five thousand eating bread and fish with God to their contentment. And twelve baskets full of leftovers.
The people said, “This is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” They got that part right. We’ll give them a B- on that. Jesus was indeed the one of whom Moses wrote in Deuteronomy chapter 18: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers.” Jesus is that Prophet, and more. That part the people got right. The next part they got terribly wrong. They wanted to make Jesus a king by force, and so Jesus withdrew again to a mountain by Himself.
If you want to co-opt Jesus for your own cause, if you want to call the shots with Jesus, you will do it alone. Jesus will have nothing to do with it. He knew what they had in mind for Him. When they heard “Prophet” or “Messiah,” they were thinking revolution, an armed revolt against Rome. They were thinking a Davidic king sitting on the throne of Israel. They were thinking, like so many deluded people today think, that God would restore the nation of Israel to its former greatness, establish the throne in Jerusalem, and reign over the world through His chosen Messiah. And they were willing to push the agenda along, if necessary. Make Jesus king by force. Take up swords and clubs and storm the gates of Jerusalem. Jesus knew what was on their minds, and He wanted no part of their plots.
The people wanted a bread king. We do too. On the promise of a chicken in every pot, universal health care, the end of world hunger and poverty, peace in the world, we would put most anyone in power, including even the devil, were he a candidate. Think of all that could have been accomplished by putting Jesus into temporal power. The end of hunger in the world. Bread for everyone. The end of disease. No health care crisis. No worries about AIDS or bird flu or whatever pestilence makes the headlines. Global warming? No problem when the Son of God is in charge. War in the middle east? The Prince of Peace can settle that.
We expect that of our religions too. We expect a solution to our problems, a quick fix to our hungers, fulfillment of our needs, a bandage for broken marriages, a chastity belt for our kids, chicken soup for our souls. That’s what we expect from God, and there are plenty of religious hucksters out there peddling you the snake oil of health, wealth, and prosperity all in the name of Jesus. And when we don’t find them, we move on to other congregations, other religions, other gods.
The sign of the bread and fish was a stepping stone to yet greater things. Jesus was indeed a king, but not the bread king the people wanted. A beggar king. Riding atop a borrowed donkey. Wearing a borrowed purple robe. A crown of thorns. Bearing your sin in His body on the cross. Behold your king. In Hebrew, Latin, and Greek nailed to the cross above His head: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. That’s how it is when the Lord is King.
What Jesus offers is not fast food, not a quick end to your hunger, nor a religious pill to pop when you are feeling bad. He offers to you a bread you can have from no one else but Jesus. The bread of His body broken for you in your brokenness; His flesh offered up for the life of the world. He offers you a cup of wine you can have from no one else but Jesus. The wine of His life’s blood poured out for you; cleansing you from all your sins. Borrowed bread and wine are a feast of salvation in the hands of Jesus.
When you leave here this morning, what will you say to each other? What will you remember? What will you think about on the way home? The hymns were hard? The church was stuffy? The organist dropped a couple of notes? Pastor didn’t bring his A-game this morning?
Try this: We ate and drank with God on His holy mountain, and He did not lift His hand to destroy us.
In the name of Jesus,