Feeding the 5000
When I was here a month ago, we were celebrating Valentine’s Day – today we are celebrating Mothering Sunday.
Traditionally Mothering Sunday was the day when children (and particularly daughters who had gone or been sent away to work, especially in domestic service) were given the day off to go and visit their mother and family.
Tradition has it that as they walked back through the country lanes, so they would pick bunches of wild flowers to take as a present for their mother which has given rise to the tradition of giving flowers or other gifts today (and I hope you’ve all been suitably spoilt).
The origin of Mothering Sunday though appears to lie a bit further back in church tradition, before the time of widespread domestic service in the 18th & 19th centuries for it was the custom in the days before widely available mass transport for people to worship at their nearest church, which was often a chapel of ease or daughter church. Once a year, it was the tradition for the daughter congregations to return to worship at the mother church.
Whilst the celebration of Mothering Sunday appears to be rooted very much in church and social tradition rather than any Biblical injunction it’s good never the less to celebrate our mothers without whom, none of us would be here.
One of the other things that made Mothering Sunday a popular celebration was that in an era when observance of the various fasting rules associated with Lent was far more strict and widespread than they are now, Mothering Sunday, coming as it does roughly half way through Lent, was the day when these rules were relaxed leading to the day also being known as Refreshment Sunday with one of my own favourites Simnel Cake being traditionally associated with today.
This association of the day with temporary suspension of the fasting rules of Lent is probably behind the choice of gospel reading for today by the compilers of the lectionary.
The feeding of the 5000 has to be one of the most dramatic and public of Jesus’ miracles just because of the sheer number of people involved. Yes Jesus had performed far more dramatic miracles in healing people of illnesses, turning water into win and would even raise the dead but they affected individuals and a close group of family and friends but this was a miracle on a mass scale.
The common description of it as the feeding of the 5000 comes logically enough from the reference in v10 when John records that ‘the men sat down, about 5000 of them’. In reality it is likely that it was a mixed crowd (we know that there was at least one young boy there and it is inconceivable that he was alone) and so, with women and children, the number that were fed was probably nearer 10 – 15 000 if not more. Never the less, feeding 5000 is a truly remarkable feat in its own right given the meagre resources on offer.
Jesus had been performing many miracles in and around Capernaum and Bethsaida at the north end of the Sea of Galilee. The sub-text is that he had headed off to the other side of the lake to escape the pressures of ministry but the crowds had followed him relentlessly.
He then withdraws to the mountainside with his disciples to find solitude and prayer but is followed relentlessly by the great crowd, who pursued him because of the miracles they had seen him perform.
As Jesus looks up and sees the crowds advancing he turns to Philip to ask where they were going to buy sufficient bread to feed the people.
Jesus is testing Philip here. Of all the disciples there with Jesus, Philip would have been in the best position to know where you could get bread from because he was from Bethsaida, the nearest big town so would have known the lie of the land and where the nearest bakers was. Philip concentrates on the human reality as he tries to think of a solution and rapidly works out that with a crowd of around 5000 men plus women and children fast approaching, even 8 months wages would be insufficient to purchase enough bread for people to have even a single bite.
In purely human terms, solving the problem was impossible – even if they could find somewhere that could supply sufficient bread, there was no way that their meagre resources could stretch to buying it. The problem appeared to Philip to be insoluble and in human terms it was but Jesus was about to demonstrate his divine power on a vast scale.
We now swing to the opposite extreme. Having just worked out the potential cost of enough bread to give each of them just a single mouthful, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother brings forward the boy with his five loaves and two small fish.
Immediately we are struck by the contrast between the vast quantity of bread and its cost that Philip is focussed on and the boys meagre offering - barely enough to feed a family. In the face of the challenge of feeding the vast crowd, this offering was seemingly totally and utterly insignificant and yet, Jesus takes what this lad is able to offer and transforms it by his divine power into sufficient to feed the vast crowds that had gathered on that remote mountainside.
There are two points that I want us to draw out here – firstly how Jesus is able to use even the smallest of gifts to great effect and secondly the overabundance of God’s grace.
I’m sure that this young boy as he offered up his loaves and fish must have realised how apparently insignificant his offering was in the face of such overwhelming need. And yet, he offered up his bread and his fish and despite its seeming insignificance, Jesus was able to do great things with it.
Sometimes we might feel that we have nothing to offer back to God – and the reality is, we can offer nothing but our lives, our hearts, our praise and our worship and yet God can work mighty wonders with even the smallest of offerings brought to him.
So let us never be put off from offering ourselves in God’s service, however insignificant we might think that the act is for God can use it greatly. Little did that young lad think that his five loaves and two fish would be able to be transformed in the way that it was as he showed them to Andrew and yet God, through Jesus was able to take and transform that gift into a deed that is remembered even now, over 2000 years later.
So do not be downhearted or put off thinking that there is nothing you can do or offer in God’s service for opportunities abound. Even the simple act of offering a cup of tea to a stranger could have repercussions that echo through eternity.
Secondly, having seen how Jesus was able to take so little and transform it, we are struck by God’s enormous, overwhelming generosity. Not only were the 5 loaves and two fish transformed into enough to feed the assembled masses, there were twelve baskets full left over once everyone had eaten their fill.
This wasn’t just Jesus acting to meet the needs of the crowd, he overwhelmed their needs. Everyone had enough to eat and there was a huge quantity left over. It’s not clear if there is any significance in the 12 baskets of left-overs being gathered up. Whether 12 here symbolises the 12 tribes of Israel we shall never know and as ever, it is dangerous to try and read into a passage things that are not there but the one thing that is clear and for certain is the overwhelming generosity of God in meeting the needs of the people.
But there is a final point that I am sure John wants us to draw from this passage. John tells us (almost as an aside) in v4 that the Passover Feast was near when the people would kill and eat the Passover lamb and eat unleavened bread in remembrance of what God had done for them in saving them from slavery in Egypt.
It isn’t obvious from John’s gospel if the approaching Passover was to be the one when Jesus was crucified but clearly in this incident, John sees Jesus foreshadowing his death on the cross when he would be offered as the perfect sacrificial lamb in order to redeem us his people from sin and in so doing to become the very bread of life.
Jesus here met the physical needs of probably 5 - 15000 people for food in a remote and desolate place. Through his death on the cross, he becomes the spiritual food for all who believe – past, present and future.
As Jesus goes on to tell his disciples in chapter 6 and v35,
"I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.
God’s amazing generosity doesn’t stop at feeding a crowd of people on a hillside but goes on to feed all who truly believe as we share together in the bread and wine of communion. Our physical needs will not be met by a small piece of bread and a sip of wine but as we eat the bread and drink the wine, we are reminded of the terrible price that was paid to free us from our sins and the wonderful freedom that we have as a consequence to know that we are saved from sin and eternal separation from God.
So on this Mothering Sunday, let us not be like Philip and constrain our thinking by earthly reasoning but be prepared for God to work in our lives. Let us remember and give thanks for the way in which Jesus was able to take such a small offering and magnify it so greatly and in so doing, let us not think that there is nothing we can offer. Let us remember God’s amazing, abundant, generosity and grace as we see that he not only met the needs of the people but gave so much more and let us never forget how this looks forward to Easter when Jesus, by his offering of himself on the cross, provided bread sufficient not just for 5, 10 or even 20 000 but for all who put their faith and trust in Him. Let us also remember and give thanks for our mothers, for all that they mean to us and without whom, none of us would be here.