Last week the Gospel told the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people with five barley loaves and two fish. Afterward, I began thinking about those people, who had ventured out to find Jesus, motivated, as we are told, by “the signs that he was doing for the sick.”
I’ve tried to put myself in their shoes. How were they feeling when they left in search of Jesus? Hopeful maybe? Curious? Desperate? Ready to try anything? Wondering if the stories were true, was Jesus a prophet? Maybe some were skeptical. Maybe some questioned if he was a charlatan. But surely, they were searching for something. Five thousand of them wandered up a mountain to find Jesus. Something in their soul told them to go.
How did they prepare for that journey? Maybe some were well stocked. They had snacks for the kids, meals packed for multiple days on the road. But I bet many did not have time to prepare adequately or did not pack the resources necessary to follow Jesus up a mountain.
When they arrived, I can imagine that they were tired. Many had probably traveled a great distance. They were hungry. I’ve certainly been on trips anticipating something great at the destination, just to arrive in a terrible state. Sometimes the journey just takes it out of you. You get to where you are going, and the trip has drained you, depleted your resources. You are annoyed, your stomach is grumbling, you are hangry. Not exactly in a state of mind to learn, expand your thinking, hear the Word of God.
Jesus recognized that. He knew that their physical bodies would need to be nourished before they could focus on anything else. He had to feed them with food, before he could feed their souls. So he took five barley loaves and two fish, gave thanks, shared them with the people, and they all ate until they were satisfied. More than satisfied. There were leftovers.
The people caught up in the moment, and the miracle that has just happened, forget the reason they came—that they were seeking something spiritual. This guy just fed 5,000 people. We should make him king. I mean, it’s understandable. Here is someone who has met their physical needs, who has shown great power and compassion. We elect politicians for less.
So Jesus leaves. His kingdom is not of this world, he did not come for political gain and to sit on a throne.
The next day, a smaller group sets off in search of Jesus when they realize he’s no longer with them. This group, having experienced a miracle, are driven to seek him out again, to follow him wherever he goes. They are basically turning into groupies. What’s the next show? What’s the next miracle he’s going to perform? What more can he do for them? Here is a man that has fed them, and they are desperate for more.
When they find him, they are full of questions, but the wrong questions. First, they ask, “when did you come here?” But Jesus is now ready to teach—he’s fed their bodies, and now he wants to draw their attention to something greater.
He responds to them, “you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” He’s calling them out—they witnessed a miracle, but they did not understand the full significance of it. But Jesus is patient with them. He knows their hearts, and he loves them.
So he tells them that he has more for them than physical food, he has the food for eternal life. But unfortunately, the people continue to ask the wrong questions. They ask, “What must we do?”
They are preoccupied with the physical world, a world that’s probably taught them their value is only as good as the work they perform. They think they have to do something to be worthy of whatever gift Jesus is about to give them.
And at this my heart truly goes out to them. Because today, maybe even more than in Jesus’ day, the message that our worth is based on the actions we perform is reinforced at every turn.
What have we made? How much money did we earn? How many books have we written? How many conferences have we spoken at? Do we have a side hustle that we are working on outside of our 9 to 5 job? How many scholarships or academic awards have we won? For the athletes among us, how many competitions did we win?
We measure and quantify our output, judging those that are most productive, who hustle the hardest, who work the longest, train the hardest to be worth more than others.
But Jesus loves us unconditionally. Our value is not based on what we do. We are worthy of God’s gifts because God loves us. Because God calls us.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he begs them to lead a life worthy of the calling to which they have been called. He tells them they are not worthy because they did anything special to earn it—they are worthy because God’s call makes them worthy. Each of us is worthy because God calls each of us.
Paul urges the Ephesians to live up to and into their calling. God has showered them with gifts that will build up the church, or, as he puts it, the body of Christ. Using those gifts will help the community grow. This isn’t a growth in numbers. It’s growth that will help them be better equipped to love.
And all we need to do to receive the fullness of those gifts is accept them from God, accept God’s love, believe.
“Ok,” the people say to Jesus. “What are you going to do to make us believe? Moses gave the Israelites manna in the wilderness. Can you do that?”
I mean, these are the same people that just saw Jesus feed 5,000 people. But that’s not enough for them. They ask for another sign, a sign like one from the past. They’re stuck in the past, basing their beliefs on stories of old, not imagining something new—the incredible Kingdom of God that Jesus is telling them about in the present moment.
They are a little like the couch critics in all of us, those who tune in every 4 (or 5 years) to watch the top athletes compete at the Olympics. Ok, we saw so and so get gold in the last Olympics, but what amazing feat are they going to perform at this Olympics to make us believe that they are the greatest of all time? Can they flip higher? Can they run faster? Can they score more points? Michael Phelps won 28 medals. Can they win that many too?
Jesus again, redirects the people. He’s not Moses or Michael Phelps. He’s the Son of God. He’s the Olympic medal. In the bread analogy, he’s the manna from heaven.
Jesus says to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
All of us are seeking like those people who followed Jesus back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, but so many of us are seeking in the wrong places, just like them. We ask the wrong questions and lack imagination, when what we need to do is believe and accept the love of Christ—love that is unconditional, love that will support us, and love that will sustain us.
This love will build the Kingdom of God. A kingdom where all are equal. A world where no one goes hungry, where all physical needs are met, because we share with one another freely. A world where we value each other’s differences, the gifts each of us brings.
This world means we have to fundamentally reimagine how society operates, but it is possible. All things are possible through Christ. The first step is believing.
Preached by Jacqueline WayneGuite, vestry member