I am the Bread of Life (Part 1 of 4)
This morning our pattern of Gospel readings shift from Mark’s rather hurried pace to John’s slower, more deliberate telling of the Jesus’ story. Actually, this morning’s Gospel serves as an introduction to Jesus’ “Bread of Life” discourse or teaching. This is the mid-point in John’s narrative regarding the “Signs” Jesus performs in order to demonstrate that he is the long-awaited Messiah.
One thing to keep in mind as we consider this story is the size of the “loaves and fishes.” The loaves are not what we would consider loaves today – kind of like the bread we get when we sit down in some restaurants. No, the “loaves” were more like thin biscuits. As for the fish, they were sardines – a typical lunch for a working-class peasant in Jesus’ day. The intent was that the laborer, or in this case, a young child would be able to snack throughout the day.
The theme of God’s unfailing abundance, as demonstrated in today’s Gospel account of the miracle of the loaves and fish, is anticipated in the feeding of a multitude by the Prophet Elisha.
As the successor of the Prophet Elijah, Elisha’s name means “my God is salvation.” He is depicted as a man of wisdom whose deeds manifested the power of God in all facets of life as he worked on behalf of the nation of Israel during times of political crisis, as well as attending to individuals in need. The passage for today is one of a series of miracles in chapters 4-6 of 2 Kings.
It was a time of famine in the land of Gilgal (2 Ki. 4:38), and a man brought to Elisha twenty loaves of barley and some fresh ears of grain as a first fruits offering in accordance with God’s covenant with Israel. Such holy offerings were usually brought to a priest who then gave them to God. However, the Prophet Elisha ordered that the food be distributed to the people instead. When his attendant protested that there was not sufficient bread and grain to feed the one hundred people gathered there, Elisha offered assurance from the Lord that there would be plenty to eat for everyone, with food left over. And it was so: “They ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord” (4:44).
The miraculous multiplication of bread and grain comes not from Elisha but from God’s promise to give abundantly. Thus, today’s Psalm (145:10-19) offers praise and thanksgiving for the generous faithfulness of the Lord, who provides for all our needs. “You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing” (v. 16).
What we have here in this morning’s Gospel, is what I would call a revelation story that comes by means of a miracle story. It reveals both Jesus’ divine capacity to know immediately the needs of the people and his response to that need with extravagant compassion, indeed an overabundance of compassion to which the baskets of leftover bread bear witness. The word “compassion” comes from two Latin roots: “com” meaning “with” and “passion” meaning “deep feeling over the suffering of others.” In the end, Jesus will respond with compassion to the needs of the whole world by offering his body and blood on the cross. And each time we eat the bread and drink the cup at the Lord’s Supper, we taste in the miracle of the meal the real, redemptive presence of Christ in our broken world. “I am the Bread of life,” he said. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
The feeding of the 5,000 is divine disclosure. It discloses that God is not only for us; God is with us in the person of Jesus, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Now that is truly awesome.
The setting of this grand scene is the Feast of Unleavened Bread, celebrating God’s liberation of the Hebrew people from their long captivity in Egypt. Think of how on their journey to freedom, the Lord provided them manna in the wilderness, Now, Jesus, the new Moses, will free the people from all that separates them from God and one another. He provides them with nourishing spiritual food along the way, and he is ushering them into the new reality of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven.
The well-fed crowd doesn’t exactly get it. They want a king with a scepter and a crown, chariots, and horses. But Jesus is not that kind of king. He reveals that the true, transformative power of God is at its heart the power of unconditional, self-giving love. Who would have thought that back in the day? Jesus, by nature, was perhaps the greatest unforeseen possibility of all time. We still struggle ourselves to get our minds around that. I think of Paul’s words, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).1
There are several variations of the folk tale “Stone Soup,” but in the basic story a traveler arrives in a village asking for something to eat. It is a time of famine, and the villagers have hidden what food they have, even from one another. They are particularly wary of strangers and refuse to offer the outsider hospitality.
Then the stranger announces that he will make his own soup — out of a stone. He builds a fire, takes a kettle, and fills it with water. As the water begins to boil, he places a large stone in it.
Their curiosity aroused, the villagers gather around as he tastes the soup and proclaims how delicious it is. But it would be even better with some seasoning of salt, he asserts.
Immediately, one of the villagers brings salt; and another offers a carrot for further flavor. Soon other members of the community begin tasting the soup and offering their opinions as to what is needed, bringing the required ingredients to the task.
When the soup is finished, the villagers gather together and all eat until they are full. There is even enough soup left over for everyone to take some home to feed their families the next day.
The moral of the story: Whereas there may be no real secret to stone soup, one thing is certain: It takes many and all to make a great feast.
Parker Palmer, author, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal would certainly agree. He tells of his experience of boarding a 6:00 a. m. flight once on his way home from a speaking engagement.
Our departure was delayed because the truck that brings coffee to the planes had broken down. After a while the pilot said, ‘We’re going to take off without the coffee. We want to get you to Detroit on time.’ I was up front where all the ‘road warriors’ sit — a surly tribe, especially at that early hour. They began griping, loudly and at length about incompetence, lousy service, etc.
Once we got into the air, the lead flight attendant came to the center of the aisle with her mike and said, ‘Good morning! We’re flying to Minneapolis today at an altitude of 30 feet … ’ That, of course, evoked more scorn from the road warriors.
Then she said, ‘Now that I have your attention, I know you are upset about the coffee. Well, get over it! Start sharing your stuff with your seatmates. That bag of five peanuts you got on your last flight and put in your pocket? Tear it open and pass them around! Got gum or mints? Share them! You can’t read all of the sections of your paper at once. Offer them to each other! Show off the pictures of kids and grandkids you have in your wallets!
As she went on in that vein, people began laughing and doing what she had told them to do. A surly scene turned into summer camp!
An hour later, as the attendant passed by my seat, I signaled to her. ‘What you did was really amazing,’ I said. ‘Where can I send you a letter of commendation?’ “‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘I’ll get you a form.’ Then she leaned down and whispered, ‘The loaves and fishes are not dead.’Parker Palmer
In the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus saw plenty where the disciples saw scarcity. Jesus takes whatever we have — loaves and fish, stones for soup, shared airplane snacks, labor on behalf of others — even discomfort, anger, tears, and foolishness — and transforms them into blessings and abundance.
Poet David Whyte writing in The House of Belonging (N. Y.: Harper & Row, 1973) reminds us: “This is the time of loaves and fishes. People are hungry and one good word is bread for a thousand.”
Thus, we begin our exploration of the “Bread of Life.” There’s more to follow.