There is a phenomenon among Southern moms and grandmas where the food being served at any given meal seems to be able to expand to feed however many people happen to show up, whether expected or not. Perhaps this phenomenon exists in other parts of the country as well, but I have direct, first-hand experience of it with the Southern side of my family. At my grandmother’s table, on the farm in the North Georgia mountains, if a cousin or uncle or neighbor just happened to show up for the big noon meal, her response was never, “Oh, we’re just sitting down to eat, could you come back later?” No, it was, “Come in and eat; we’ll get another chair.” My mother inherited her mother’s cooking skills and the ability to make a meal multiply. A recent call home went something like this, “Hi, Mom! How was your weekend?”
“Well, I was expecting four for dinner last night and we ended up with eight, and then I was expecting seven for lunch today and we had twelve!”
“Whoa!” I said, “How did you manage that?”
“Oh, there was plenty in the freezer.”
We often say to our chef, Jim, when he asks for numbers for various events, “Oh, I don’t know. Plan for 75 and be prepared to do your loaves and fishes act.” I have not inherited my grandmother, my mother or Jim’s ability to make a meal expand and would be thrown into a panic if unexpected guests arrived to a meal. But, thankfully, people don’t have the habit of just showing up for dinner in New York City. And, if they did, there’s always delivery.
Though there is a long tradition of welcoming unexpected guests to the table in my family, and we joke here about loaves and fishes when more folks show up for an event than we expect, I think even my Grammy and my mom and Jim would have their limits. Like the man in 2 Kings who brought food to Elisha, they would not know how to feed a hundred people with twenty barley loaves and some ears of grain. And like Jesus’ disciples, they would have no idea how to feed 5,000 men (plus their families) on a mountainside in Galilee. They would not have the resources to do that on their own. None of us would. And that, in part, is the point of these stories. We have limits, but God doesn’t. Unfortunately, we too often fixate on our limits, forgetting that we belong to a God who is limitless. We live out of a mindset of scarcity—there’s only so much to go around, so we couldn’t possibly meet all the world’s needs; but we serve a God of abundance who provides everything we, and all God’s creatures, need. As the Psalmist proclaims in today’s Psalm, “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.”[i]
Our brief passage from 2 Kings is one of several miracle stories in chapters 4, 5, and 6 of this book that reveal how God is working through the prophet Elisha: a widow is in danger of having her children taken away and sold into slavery because she cannot pay her creditors, and so, Elisha causes a jug of oil to miraculously fill every vessel she can borrow from neighbors. She can then sell the oil, pay her debts, save her children and have enough left over to live on[ii]. Then, Elisha tells a woman who has no son, and whose husband is old and will probably leave her a childless widow that she will have a son. She does. When the boy is older, he falls ill and dies, and Elisha revives him. Then, there is a famine in the land, and Elisha has his servant put a pot on to make a stew for the company of prophets, but someone gathers and throws poisonous gourds into it. When they start eating it, the people cry out, “There is death in the stew!” Elisha throws some flour into it, and the stew becomes safe to eat. Then, we have today’s story of a little food miraculously feeding a hundred people. The miracles continue, and, in each of them, Elisha, with God at work within him, either heals, feeds or saves God’s people. Hungry people are fed, widows are cared for, children are saved, people are healed—through the unlimited power of God. In all these instances, God is revealing God’s self to the people of Israel. Each miraculous event says, “I am your God, and I will take care of you and provide for you. Follow me and trust in my power to do so.” That is the message God gave the people of Israel over and over again—from Abraham through Moses and the Exodus, through the kings and the prophets, through exile and return. God taught them about his unbounded love and power over and over again, because they kept forgetting it and turning away.
And so, God sent Jesus, God’s very self, to come and live among us to try to get that message across once and for all. Here again, in this passage from John’s gospel, we see Jesus revealing the limitless power of God to care for God’s children. A large crowd has been following Jesus because of the signs he is doing for the sick. John refers to Jesus’ miracles as “signs”—they reveal who he is, they show God’s power at work within Jesus. The crowd follows Jesus and the disciples up the mountain. John gives us the detail that the Passover is near, the time when Israel remembers how God saved them from slavery, leading them out of Egypt and through the sea, and sustaining them in the wilderness by providing manna and quail. Something new is happening this Passover. God has sent Jesus to save them again.
The story takes on an added dimension when you read about the significance of mountains in the ancient Mediterranean world. For the most part, they were uninhabited and outside the cities, villages and towns. Mountaintops were known as places for communing with God—like Moses on Mt. Sinai. But, mountains, beside outside inhabited areas were also considered chaotic—humans didn’t control them, they were believed to be inhabited by spirits or demons. They were not a place for meals—people didn’t seek out the wilderness for a nice picnic in those days. This is not a normal place for people to eat or be fed.[iii] But, one of the things the gospel writers show us repeatedly is how Jesus controls even the places of chaos and the demons that inhabit them.
In John, Jesus is always in control, and always knows what is going to happen. Unlike in the other gospels, where the disciples say, “How are all these people going to get something to eat out here?” in John’s telling of the story, Jesus himself says to Philip, “Where are we going to buy bread for all these people to eat?” He knows full well what he is going to do and is testing Philip. Philip doesn’t do so well on the test. Even though he was at the wedding banquet where Jesus turned water into wine, and has been with him as Jesus healed people, he doesn’t say, “We don’t need to buy bread; you’ve got all the power of God at your disposal!” No. Instead, Philip says, in essence, “What do you mean, where are we going to buy bread?! Six months’ wages wouldn’t buy enough bread to give all these people even a little bit!” Andrew pipes up, almost a joke, “Hey, there’s a little boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish! But, what is that with so many people?”
Jesus says, “Make them all sit down.” And, the thousands recline on the grass, ready to be fed. Jesus takes the loaves, gives thanks, and distributes them to those who are gathered. Then, he does the same with the fish. And, when he tells the disciples to gather the leftovers, so nothing is wasted, there are 12 baskets of bread left over. The people see what he has done and say, “This is the prophet we’ve been expecting!” They know he is someone extraordinary, sent by God, but they still don’t understand just who he is. They are hungry for a revolutionary who will overthrow Roman rule. Jesus realizes this, and that they are about to make him their king, and so he withdraws further up the mountain.
Today’s reading ends with the story of Jesus walking across the stormy sea toward the terrified disciples in the boat—they are not terrified by the storm, at least not according to John—they are terrified by this apparition of one walking across the stormy sea toward them. Jesus uses the name for God, “It is I!” Or, “I am; do not be afraid.” And immediately the boat reaches shore. Jesus feeds thousands on a mountain, providing nourishment and order in a dangerous place of chaos; and he shows his disciples that he indeed has power over the dangerous sea, over the most chaotic forces.
Jesus multiplies simple barley loaves, the bread of the poor who cannot afford wheat, to provide enough food for thousands of people. Both Elisha and Jesus display God’s power by multiplying what is at hand, what the people themselves bring to the table—or the wilderness. We do not have unbounded power on our own. But we are not on our own. We belong to God. We are joined to God. As we say at every baptism, “You are a child of the covenant, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” There are no limits to what we can do as those who are joined with Christ—that is the mindset we are to have as we live and work as Christ’s body in this world.
Too often, we are like the man who brought the barley loaves and grain to Elisha, or the disciples who could not imagine any way to feed all those people. We are overwhelmed by the needs of those around us, and all we can see is scarcity. There’s just not enough. Not enough resources, not enough energy, not enough time. When we find ourselves stuck in “not enough” thinking, we end up hoarding what we have, cutting ourselves off from others, building walls to protect what’s ours—forgetting that all we have is God’s—or we simply feel helpless, stuck and paralyzed by what seems like overwhelming need. But we belong to a God who over and over again tells us and shows us, “There is plenty.” We belong to a God of abundance who has provided us with a world where there is more than enough, there is everything everybody needs. We follow a God who uses what we have and multiplies it. We follow a God who has power over the forces of chaos, all that would overwhelm us. When we step out in faith, open our hands and hearts, and let God use us and what we have, there really is no limit to what we can do—or, rather, what God can do through us. Jesus calls us to live in hope, to trust in the power of God to overcome every obstacle, to feed those who are hungry, welcome those who are strangers, shelter those who have no home, and care for those who are sick.
Paul prays in Ephesians that we would be rooted and grounded in love and comprehend the fullness of Christ’s love that is beyond all knowledge, so we may be filled with all the fullness of God. All the fullness of God. That’s a lot of fullness. That is fullness that makes nothing impossible. John’s telling of the feeding of the multitudes sounds a lot like communion—Jesus takes the loaves, gives thanks, and distributes them. There is enough and more. Every time we come to this table, we are filled once again with all the fullness of God, joined to Christ and sent out in the Spirit with everything we need to feed the world’s hungers. As Jenny prays at the end of each sermon, “Lord, we believe, help our unbelief.” Help us to believe what Paul says: that by God’s power at work within us, God is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. To this abundant, boundless God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all gene
[i] Psalm 145:15-16.
[ii] 2 Kings 4:1-7.
[iii] Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), p. 126.