We press the pause button this morning on our progress through the Gospel of Mark. Being by far the shortest of the four gospels, there’s just not enough in Mark to carry us through a full year of Sunday lectionary readings. We’ll catch up with Mark again on September 2. In the meantime, we devote five weeks to chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. It begins with the story we just heard of Jesus feeding the multitude with a few loaves and fish and moves on to teaching and dispute about bread from heaven and manna in the wilderness, about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood.
Now if you do any research at all on this morning’s gospel reading, you’ll learn that it’s the one and only story of a miracle performed by Jesus to be found in all four gospels. The level of shared detail is remarkable. Two hundred denarii worth of bread – six months’ wages – would not be enough. Just five loaves and two fish available. Five thousand fed. Twelve baskets of food leftover after all were satisfied. There’s something about this story so important that folk in all corners of the early Jesus’ movement remembered it, told and retold it, and eventually wrote it down. Wrote it down between Jesus’ death and resurrection and his awaited coming again in glory, so that, in the meantime, his living presence, his lasting significance, might spread.
John’s version of the story does contain unique features. John prefers the word “sign” rather than “miracle” (6:14). Alone among the four gospels, John connects Jesus’ feeding of the multitude to Passover (4). The food involved may be different: bread and fish, instead of lamb and bitter herbs. And while the Israelites ate the first Passover hurriedly, standing up with sandals on and walking sticks ready to flee Egypt, Jesus has the five thousand sit down on the ground to feed them. But if our loaves and fish story is a Passover story, then it must somehow tell of liberation from slavery and God’s radical new alternative to an existing Egyptian economy and empire made possible by the forced labor of slaves. John alone remarks that Jesus was testing his disciples in the lead up to the feeding (6). How? Why? In Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s versions of the story, Jesus looks up to heaven, blesses and breaks the bread. In John, Jesus “gives thanks” before distributing bread and fish (11). The Greek word is eucharistesas. So our Passover story becomes a Eucharistic story. What value does that add? And only John concludes with the bit about Jesus withdrawing again to the mountain by himself when he realized the crowd was coming to take him by force and make him king (15).
But in what sense is this Eucharistic, Passover story a miracle story? The feeding seems almost accidental or inadvertent. Jesus has crossed to the other side of the sea to escape the large crowd and be alone with his disciples. The crowd keeps following him “because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick” (2). In the meantime, there they all are wanting to see Jesus the healer and yet without food in an unpopulated land. What’s the sign for us this morning in our story of Jesus the feeder? Here’s what I see.
Jesus feeds the multitude. Jesus feeds all, indiscriminately. He provides them with what they most need to survive, to live, to thrive, although it may not be what they think they need or what they most desire.
Jesus enlists others to feed the multitude. He first gathers a community. Philip, Jesus asks: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” (5) Andrew is paying attention and notices something: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish” (8-9) Together, all the disciples get the multitude to sit down (10) and later gather up the fragments left over (13). The food Jesus uses to feed the multitude doesn’t belong to him – the loaves and fish are the boy’s. Even the crowd joins in: “now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all” (10). Jesus feeds by enlisting the disciples and the boy and the crowd to feed.
Jesus and his allies feed the multitude with exactly what is at hand, nothing more and nothing less. Just the five loaves and two fish. Existing resources already in the community.
What is at hand to feed the multitude is poor food – barley loaves, rough and husky, not made of flour from the finest wheat. A couple of dried sardines. The food of the poor, a mere boy in a society where children did not count for much. Jesus feeds by raising up such a child to set before others what he had and who he was.
Jesus gives thanks for what is at hand – and who. He makes Eucharist with loaves and fish, a grassy place, the boy, Andrew and Philip and the other disciples, with all five thousand.
After feeding the multitude, giving them what they most needed to survive and live and thrive, Jesus and his community still possess abundantly far more than all they could ask or imagine (to borrow the phrase from Ephesians 3:20). For me, there’s the sign! There’s the miracle! A radically new and alternative economy. A Passover economy. A Eucharistic economy. The economy of God’s kingdom. “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost” (John 6:12). An economy in which expending resources for human surviving, living, and thriving does not deplete, but replenishes.
And there, too, lies the testing. Philip, where are we to buy food? A trick question about the old, existing human economy. Jesus “said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do” (6). Philip cannot imagine any other economy: “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little” (7). We could spend all we have and even what we don’t have and not make a difference. Andrew glimpses the alternative Eucharistic, Passover economy, but can’t yet inhabit it. There’s a boy with five loaves and two fish, “but what are they among so many people?” (9) Even after tasting the miracle performed by Jesus the feeder – new community and new economy, the kingdom of God – the crowd wants to shackle it and possess it by forcing Jesus, by trying to make him king. King of that old empire. King within that existing economy. I wonder if we would have done differently?
Fifty years ago this coming May, civil rights activist James Forman disrupted the Sunday morning worship service at New York City’s Riverside Church, occupied the pulpit, and issued a manifesto on behalf of the Black National Economic Development Conference. He demanded that white churches and synagogues pay $500,000,000 in reparations for their complicity in the enslavement of African peoples and subsequent racial oppression in America. $500,000,000 or $15 per African-American living the United States in 1969. The money was to be used, among other things, to establish a land bank for black sharecroppers in the South; four national black newspapers and four television networks; a black university; as well as to support media efforts and civil disobedience pressing for such reparations. Riverside was the church of the Rockefeller family and as close to a cathedral for white, liberal American Protestantism as you could find. Although white churches did raise $500,000 in response – almost half by Riverside itself – 90% of the reparations demanded by Forman remain unpaid to this day. Even black organizations like the NAACP and the National Baptist Convention distanced themselves from the manifesto.
A few words from James Forman seem particularly relevant for us at St. Paul’s this Sunday morning. “We call upon all white Christians and Jews to practice patience, tolerance, understanding, and nonviolence as they have encouraged, advised and demanded that we as black people should do throughout our entire enforced slavery in the United States. The true test of their faith and belief in the Cross and the words of the prophets will certainly be put to a test as we seek legitimate and extremely modest reparations for our role in developing the industrial base of the Western world through our slave labor. But we are no longer slaves, we are men and women, proud of our African heritage, determined to have our dignity.”
Bringing the Black Manifesto’s demand for reparations into conversation with today’s gospel reading raises more questions than I can answer. How on earth did the kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus in feeding the five thousand get co-opted and pressed into service on the side of American slavery and racial oppression? How did the church, and how do we still, succeed in taking Jesus by force and making him king of an economy and an empire dependent on all sorts of slave labor? And how long must we wait until all human beings are raised up to survive and live and thrive?
In the meantime, we have Jesus Christ to feed us. At hand, we have each other in this community and we each of us has a network of family and friends and colleagues. Let’s gather and enlist. There are existing resources in community – however poor they look to the eyes of the old human empire and its economy. We have a few loaves of bread and some wine. Let us give thanks for all and for everyone. Let us distribute indiscriminately. There will be abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, even after we expend what we have. Enough to fill twelve baskets just with the fragments left over.
www.nybooks.com/articles/1969/07/10/black-manifesto [includes the full text of James Forman’s demands; accessed 07/26/2018]
www.encyclopedia.com/history/biographies/historians-us-biographies/blackmanifesto [from the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History; accessed 07/26/2018]