Feeding of the 5000: the fruit of compassion and blessing

In great compassion Jesus takes what little the community has, what it gives freely, blesses that and through it works to transform the world. Such is the fruit of compassion and faith, when humanity and God, work in harmony

Does anyone have any idea what the most recognised commercial symbol is in the world? McDonalds has just under 37,000 restaurants in 120 countries around the world on all continents, and apparently serves 68 million customers every day. That is a frightening amount of beef, chicken and potatoes!

And yet even in a world in which biblical knowledge is in serious decline, there is one meal that is perhaps even more famous than McDonalds. And that is the ‘feeding of the five thousand’. It’s even got into colloquial speech. There are only two miracles that are mentioned in all four gospels. One is the resurrection of Jesus. The other is the feeding of the five thousand. Whatever happened in this event made a huge impression on the disciples, and guaranteed its inclusion in the stories surrounding Jesus’ miracles and teaching.

Typically, John’s gospel places the feeding of the five thousand, and the story of Jesus walking on the water side by side, as they represent two different but equally profound signs of the divinity of Jesus, and the nature of his ministry and calling. They also come significantly, immediately after several healings in Jerusalem on the sabbath, for which the Jewish leaders had sought to kill Jesus, because he challenged the restrictive mores and limitations and the requirements of the Jewish law, which forbad even the work of healing on the sabbath.

What a different model of leadership Jesus presents. Back in his home country by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus is followed continually by crowds who are attracted by his teaching and by his healing. Immediately, Jesus’ sees their need. In Mark’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus had compassion on them, not because of their hunger, but because “they were like sheep without a shepherd”. They were hungering, in the midst of Roman occupation and religious demands that enslaved rather than liberated them, for hope, for meaning, for the assurance that faith might offer in the struggle of daily life.

John points out that it was the time of Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread. No wonder this event becomes so theologically significant. The Passover as we know celebrates the deliverance of God’s people from slavery in Egypt. This miracle then becomes a new sign of the deliverance of God’s people through the person of Jesus who will bring the spiritual and physical sustenance that they need.

Despite the apparent impossibility of feeding so huge a crowd, Jesus meets their need. I don’t believe the mechanics of what followed in this miracle are important. In our rational world, we are too keen to try and provide explanations. But what is important is the action of Jesus which emerges from his compassion, which emerges from faith. The disciples are clearly concerned about the practical implications of so huge a crowd and apparently the impossible demands it makes on their resources. But Jesus takes what is available, what is there amongst the people themselves, blesses it, and shares it – and it is sufficient for all. The resources of the people, working in harmony with the will and the blessing of God, provide for all that the people need. Such is the fruit of compassion and faith, when humanity and God, work in harmony. Not only is there sufficient for all, but there is an abundance left over, and nothing and no-one are abandoned. All are gathered and saved. What a difference to the judgemental requirements of the law! And no wonder the people then say: “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” But because his messages and actions challenge everything they had previously heard and been told, they also incur the wrath and opposition of the political and religious establishment.

John follows the feeding of the five thousand with the story of Jesus walking on the water coming to his disciples. Each gospel speaks of Jesus bringing calm and peace and having command even over nature. In this instance, we are told that the disciples did not recognise him initially and were terrified, but he identified himself with the words: “Do not be afraid.” How often do we not recognise Jesus when he comes to meet us? How often have we actually not known of his presence because of our lack of recognition, or our disbelief perhaps that, (like Jesus meeting his disciples in the middle of the lake) he could not possibly meet us in a particular place or a at a particular point in our lives? And how often has he identified himself in ways that we have not recognised? One of the skills of discipleship is to be alert to the presence and approach of Jesus when and where we least expect it. Are there times when his divine presence is moving amongst us and we do not recognise that he is trying to guide us, but we reject him because our own hearts and wilfulness are blind to his presence in the things – or the people – who are around us? This is where the need for constant openness of spirit through prayer, spiritual discernment and worship, helps us to be aware of God’s presence when we are least looking out for or expecting it.

It is because we so often struggle to believe the amazing possibility of God’s working in the world and in our own lives, that our New Testament reading from Paul to the Ephesians is such an inspiration cry to us all in our discipleship. It is a passage that is sometimes read at weddings, and speaks not just of Christ’s unbreakable love for us, but urges us to live our lives rooted and grounded in the love of Christ. The passage deserves reflection.

Paul is speaking to the Christians at Ephesus, the thriving cosmopolitan centre of trade in the eastern Mediterranean, a crossroads of empire and culture, but where the small Christian community is struggling as a small and persecuted religious minority with issues of unity, particularly between the new Jewish and Gentile Christian converts. In his letter, Paul celebrates the faith of this small community, and reminds them of the wonderful mystery that was revealed to him on the road to Damascus, to bring the news of the Gospel, not just to the Jews, but to the Gentiles.

He continues: “For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name..” He praises God because he is as he puts a prisoner for Christ Jesus – not just actually, but metaphorically – he is bound to Christ, to preach his love and salvation for all people, in his context, not just for the Jews but for the Gentiles as well. All followers of Christ Jesus are part of God’s own family… there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, insider or outsider. All are part of the family of God. This is the one of the wonderful things when you attend a Church service in England, or Africa, in South America or Asia or the Middle East, we are reminded in our fellowship and worship that we are part of a family in Christ.

Paul then prays for the Christians in Ephesus in their struggles, that they may be strengthened “in their inner being with the power of his Spirit”. This is not just about becoming stronger. It is about allowing our hearts and souls to be rooted in Christ…. To allow him to make his home in us. By so doing we will come to know the breadth, and length, the height, and depth of the love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge. This is an all-encompassing, all-embracing love. A love which does not take away the inevitable struggles and sufferings of life, but helps us to navigate our way through them and to minister to others in their need amidst them.

Of course this is something we cannot do in our own power. Have you ever been in a situation where you have suddenly realised or realised through time that you cannot continue in your strength alone, but it is only through the grace of God and the support of others around you, that you can hope to carry on. But in God’s power so much is possible.

So often things seem helpless, and hopeless. Let us not forget that it was from the courageous ministry of 12 disciples, that within the space of a few generations, the Christian faith was being lived and taught from Britain to China. So many ministries have blossomed because of the inspired witness of faithful individuals. Mother Theresa started her work in Calcutta with 13 nuns. Her order is now worldwide. The Mothers Union began in Old Alresford Place with a Rector’s wife, but now, whilst in decline in this country, it continues to plays a vital role in ministry and has millions of members in the Church in Africa. And in small Christ-inspired acts of love, individual lives are transformed each and every day by ordinary people like you and me without us even knowing the impact that our faith, when lived out, is having.

That is why Paul completes his prayer with the final recognition of whose power is at work in this. It is God who is “able to accomplish more abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” We may admire McDonalds for its global achievements, and occasionally enjoy the fleeting pleasures it offers. But of course its interests are purely commercial, and also has a devastating environmental impact. But how much greater is the life-long, life-transforming overwhelming power and love of God, which feeds, and changes lives for ever, when we open our hearts, our minds, our souls to him.