The Hungering of the 5000 (Sermon)

“The Hungering of the 5000”

John 6:1-15

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.  2 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 toward 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?”

10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.”

Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so theysat down, about five thousand in all. 11 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. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 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.”

15 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. (NRSV)

Here we go again—Jesus leading his disciples back and forth across the sea. And in the gospels, this is far more than travel. Jesus, the Word who was in the beginning with God, the one through whom all things came into being, (John 1:1-5) keeps moving over the face of the waters. Jesus’ story seems to recapitulate both the Creation story and much of Israel’s history.

Jesus passing back and forth across the sea recalls the Spirit brooding over the primordial waters.

Then God says, “Let there be light.” (Genesis. 1:3)

Jesus is the Light, says John.

Today’s passage also recalls the crossing of the Red Sea because Jesus, too, leads a wandering and hungry people to a place of promise and abundance. And in a scene that recalls Moses challenging God regarding provision for weary travelers, Jesus asks his disciples where they might find enough food for the people who’ve been following him.

       A frustrated Philip says, You’re Jesus. You tell us!

       Then, smearing sarcasm thick as butter, Andrew says, Hey Jesus, here’s a kid with five loaves and two fish. That should feed everyone, shouldn’t it?

       Back in the wilderness, the Israelites cried out for the fleshpots of Egypt. We might have died slaves, but we wouldn’t have starved to death!

       “Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for [God] has heard your complaining.”’”

And quail and manna pour out of heaven. (Exodus 16:1-15)

       “Tell the people to sit down,” says Jesus.

       To me, it seems like avoiding the issue to argue over a miracle of multiplication of resources or a miracle of the sharing of resources hoarded by fearful and selfish people. Both are miraculous. Then again, given that human cultures tend to define success as excess, the latter just may constitute the greater and rarer act of God. Still, the thing that begs attention is that after all have eaten, they have 12 baskets of leftovers. The story isn’t over! However, the greed, the fear, and the selfishness that breed human suffering—they’re not over, either.

       We want a king! cries Israel. We want to be like everybody else!

       You’re going to regret this, says Samuel. But here, Saul will be your king.

At his coronation, Saul, already showing signs of incompetence, hides in the baggage. And the painful reality begins to set in: Israel is going to have trouble bowing before any king other than Yahweh because all other kings, including David, will disappoint. They will cause suffering. (1Samuel 8:19-10:27)

       John writes that “When Jesus realized that [the people] were about to come and take him by force to make him king,” he ran away. Jesus doesn’t hide, he just knows that, as he will say to Pilate, his “kingdom is not from this world.”

While history often repeats itself, in Jesus, history takes a whole new turn. It makes another crossing of the sea. Re-creation is happening. Resurrection, which is not confined to Easter morning, is happening. It’s about more than leftovers. It’s about a New Creation The story is never over!

       Another remarkable thing about Jesus is that when he feeds the crowd, satisfying physical hunger seems to be a means to an end. I think his first concern is to create a new hunger. His Socratic banter with Philip and Andrew reveals that the picnic in the grass foreshadows the Great Banquet, not a soup kitchen. Sure, the people’s physical hunger is important to Jesus. He just seems equally interested in creating a hunger for the Kingdom of God.

       When Jesus says “whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” he’s not calling his disciples to seek satisfaction. He’s calling us to recognize within us the gift of an enduring—if not always recognized—hunger for God and for God’s realm on earth. And he calls us to nurture that hunger through contemplative living, sacrament, and service.

       The mystery deepens, because the hungrier we become for God, the less appetite we have for worldly things, and the more satisfied we actually become.

One critical spiritual hunger is the hunger for justice and righteousness. In the midst of pronouncing God’s judgment on Israel’s self-indulgent ways, Amos utters those unforgettable words: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

       Jesus reiterates Amos’ call when he, as the second Moses, ascends his own Mt. Sinai and delivers a new and more gracious law. Among the new “commandments” are these: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled;” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:6 & 9)

       With this in mind, the feeding of the five thousand becomes a kind of narrative prism that bends the light of our souls so that we recognize within us and around us the enlivening hunger for the justice, righteousness, and Shalomof God’s realm.

       Frederick Buechner wrote: “If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand…we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for…The Kingdom of God is where we belong,” says Buechner, “and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”1

       Maybe this homesickness is at the heart of all human division and violence. Maybe we’re all hungering for belonging and peace, but we’ve confused certainty for faith, power for hope, and self-satisfaction for love. And when that happens, too many interactions become competitions in which there are winners, losers, and collateral damage. And in such an environment, everyone loses.

        We do have small victories, though. And those victories don’t necessarily come when we get our way. They come when we realize that what unites us, at the deepest and the most human and humanizing levels, is our shared image of God, which is itself our shared hunger for God.

       We will gather around Christ’s table today and celebrate a sacramental appetizer of the Kingdom of God. And while I do hope you feel fed, nourished, and empowered, even more do I hope that we all leave here hungering, homesick, and hand-in-hand. For through our shared and embodied hungering for the Kingdom of God, the Holy Spirit reveals something new of her redeeming justice and righteousness, her enlivening abundance, and her ever-faithful presence.

1Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction. Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1992. Pp. 152-153.

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