Sermon text: John 6: 1-21
When I was sixteen I went on a servant adventure camp with a number of other youth from Zion. We traveled south to Camp Mar-Lu Ridge and did all of our service projects in the Metro DC area, including a day of service at the Capital Area Food Bank. I’m a little fuzzy on some of the details of that day. I remember one of my jobs was to stomp down the cardboard boxes that were overflowing the massive dumpsters. I remember the distinct smell of bulk produce filling the air. I remember staff members giving us a tour and telling us their mission. But what I remember most clearly is the enormous scope of the operation—a gargantuan warehouse stacked with crates and pallets of food to help fight food insecurity. We’re talking an average of 88,000 meals that are distributed each day. 88,000 meals. There was a mindboggling amount of moving, perishable parts that went into feeding the hungry in our nation’s capital. Jesus could work here all day, every day, distributing bread and fish.
Later that day our group stopped by the FDR Memorial, just off the Tidal Basin. Personally, I love the FDR Memorial, with all its bronze vignettes telling the story of American life during his presidency, including the Bread Line: five statues of men waiting outside a door—hungry, desperate, hoping to find a hot meal. With an unemployment rate peaking at 25% during the Great Depression, how many people would have flocked to Jesus great banquet on the grass?
Perhaps one of my most vivid memories from that day was when our group returned to the church van. In an ironic twist, because our meal schedule had been thrown completely off, we were now famished after volunteering in a warehouse full of food and viewing a memorial that paid homage to bread lines. Beef sticks, crackers, and cheese whiz out of a can, that was our manna for this meal. I’m sure there were a few other staples, but that’s what my brain remembers, and never has such highly processed, cheap, preservative laden food tasted so good. Our stomachs were grumbling and we had a package of carbohydrates and a can of “cheese” that seemingly had no end. Miracle of miracles.
Stories of food surround us. Food is a universal experience, it’s part of our identity, part of our survival. That’s part of the reason why the Feeding of the Five Thousand is one of the most iconic scenes in the gospels. In fact, it’s the only miracle, aside from Jesus’ resurrection, that is recorded in all four gospels. Sunday School teachers effortlessly taught this story with coloring pages and felt boards. Its imagery is scattered through hymns and prayers and liturgy. We know this story.
A crowd of thousands of people follow Jesus into the middle of nowhere and they get hungry. The disciples are a little panicky and at a loss for how to solve the immediate problem. Jesus takes a little boy’s lunch, five small barley loaves and two fish, and he multiplies them and distributes them until the massive crowd eats their fill. From scarcity Jesus creates abundance. No one goes hungry.
Just at face value the miracle is impressive. If you’ve ever fed a large group of people you have to have appreciation for what goes into the meal. You know the pressure of having a hangry mob waiting for you in the kitchen, ready to mercilessly attack you if there’s a delay or a problem. The largest group I’ve ever cooked for was 75 cyclists who we hosted at Zion a few years ago, and I had a fantastic group working in the kitchen with me.
I mentioned that all four gospels share this story, but of course, John being John, he has a few unique details. A slightly different twist. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke the disciples are the ones distributing the bread, but in in John Jesus is the sole actor. He’s working the kitchen all by himself.
Why is this important? What is John sharing with us? John is making a statement about who Jesus is. He is letting us know that Jesus doesn’t simply multiple food, he is giving of himself. He radiates this power and abundance from his person so that we might have our needs met. This scene acts like the Lord’s Supper in John as Jesus gives his body.
What’s more, this scene is set in a deserted location, away from towns and markets and fast-food restaurants. There’s not even a Sheetz on the Exit Attraction sign of the interstate. It’s in this setting, as people huddle in the wilderness, that we are reminded of the other iconic feeding story in the Bible, in the book of Exodus, as the hungry Israelites are given manna to eat—bread from heaven—a sign of God’s presence and providence. In Jesus we see that God will continue to give of himself in order to meet our needs with compassion.
And just in case there was any doubt about who Jesus is, another miracle immediately follows after the feeding; Jesus walks on water. While the action is certainly impressive, Jesus speaks a word that again connects him to the Exodus story. When he calls to the disciples on the boat he says “I AM. Do not be afraid.” Because Jesus is God he has the ability to speak the name of God given to Moses at the burning bush.
Jesus is the great I AM. Here we see him meeting the most basic of needs using the meanest and simplest of tools. Barley bread was the least expensive bread around. It was also believe that the Messiah would renew the miraculous manna that the Israelites had eaten under Moses. But as Jesus feeds, as he multiplies, as he gives of himself, he points to a better, life-changing meal. He points to himself. As the bread of life, he will nourish his people far better than any miraculous meal.
That’s the promise that we continue to receive today: Jesus will nourish us. Jesus will sustain us with spiritual manna to help us make it through our hungry times in the wilderness.
So if residents of DC have the Capital Area Food Bank, if the Greatest Generation had bread lines, if sixteen year olds have cheese whiz, and Galileans have loaves and fish—how is Jesus providing for your hunger today? Sure, all of those groups have physical needs of sustenance, and perhaps you do too, but every one of those circumstances also contained a spiritual hunger as well. Our souls hunger just like stomachs. How are you being fed? In what ways are you keeping from being spiritually malnourished?
With the manna from heaven the Israelites found their way to the place of their promise. God leads them home. With the same courage and confidence may we continue to ask for and receive Jesus’ meal of mercy. May we share the same sign of Jesus’ miracle. May Jesus, the bread from heaven, be our source of everlasting sustenance so that we may continue in God’s promise and into the future God has for us. AMEN