The Feeding of the 5,000
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, July 22, 2018 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA
“…the heart is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception. Its primary function is to look beyond the obvious…and see into a deeper reality.” - Cynthia Bourgeault
I begin with this quote today because if we are not spiritually perceptive, the Gospel of the feeding of the 5,000 may seem to be nothing more than a simple miracle story of the feeding a whole lot of folks with just a little food. It is so much more than that and to see it we have to take some time, do some study, and reflection. And then, the most important part comes where we invite the story to live in us and speak to us.
One thing we must not do is impose our own meaning on scripture. We must always be open to God's voice, ever receptive to being surprised, and to changing our minds. There are many layers of meaning, and, depending on the level of our emptiness, that is, our openness and willingness, we receive what we at any given time are capable of receiving. But there is more. Always more.
Remember the Lord's admonition to the Pharisees, “You search the scriptures thinking that in them you find life, but the scriptures speak of me.” He is the deepest of all mysteries.
Here are a few things you may not know or may never have considered about the feeding of the 5,000.
1) The number 5 in the Bible is the number of God’s goodness and grace.
So, this is a story about the abundance of grace that God pours out on his creation. There is so much abundance that there is not just enough to satisfy the crowd (really well over 5,000 since women and children were not counted), but 12 baskets are left over. The grace and goodness of God are superabundant and he shares it with everyone without condition. The people he was feeding were, in the eyes of the religious of the time, poor and sinful, like Untouchables.
2) This is a story about the Compassion of God for all his creation.
Jesus was afraid that the hungry people might faint on the way home. He cared for them and loved them, so he took notice of their simplest need and did something about it. The Father of our Lord and Savior, is the All-Compassionate One, and Jesus is his perfect image.
3) This story is prophetic.
Does this remind you of a story from the Old Testament?
Jesus goes into the barren wilderness presumably to pray as he often did, and the people followed him. There he fed them with bread and fish. This is reminiscent of the feeding of the people of Israel as they sojourned in the desert. Remember manna, that mysterious bread-like substance that covered the ground in the morning that was given by God to feed the Hebrew people. The faithful Jews in the crowd that day would hardly fail to notice and connect the two events. Therefore, that Old Testament event was prophetic.
Looking at this Gospel at prison last week, one of the men had a revelation. “Maybe this was the first Mass!”
In a very real sense every meal and partaking of food is Eucharistic which is why in Orthodox tradition every meal begins and ends with prayers of blessing and thanksgiving. Why? Because all of life is sacrament!
It takes only a short leap to connect the feeding of the Hebrews in exile and the feeding of the 5,000, with the Eucharist. From the barrenness of this world we are invited to experience God's all-pervasive grace by receiving the New Manna which is the Lord's body and blood. One of the overarching themes of the feeding of the 5,000 and of every miracle is this: God is here and now and cares for us. He connects with us through the material of this world. This miracle, therefore, is also sacramental.
4) Every teaching of Jesus and every miracle he performed has a social element.
So does this one. He says to his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” He says the same to us. “Feed the hungry clothe the naked, welcome strangers, visit those who are sick and in prison.” In other words, “Do as I do.” I like the Dalai Lama’s prescription for the ending of world hunger. It is simply this, “Share.” Thus, this miracle has an ethical dimension.
"Bread for myself is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one." Nikolai Berdyaev
Finally, we may ask, “How did he do it?” It is, as all things are, a mystery. We will never know, of course, but our belief is that the whole of the cosmos is shot through with grace. “The entire cosmos is one vast burning bush,” writes Metropolitan KALLISTOS Ware, "permeated by the fire of divine power and glory.”
If this is true, then nothing is impossible. The feeding of well over 5,000 men, women, and children is a demonstration of this truth. It reminds me of a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh that “because you are alive, everything is possible.” Because God is the glue that holds everything together and energy that courses through and gives life to everything, in the hands of the Son of God a few loaves and fishes was more than enough to feed them all.
Finally, the overall message to us is this: God and his kingdom are here and now, he loves us and cares for us unconditionally, and if we recognize our very real spiritual hunger, he will feed us abundantly. The proud cannot be fed for they won’t admit their poverty, the arrogant will not open their mouths because they cannot admit they are hungry. If we are humble and poor in spirit, God will always feed us.