The operative words in today’s Gospel, John’s account, of the Feeding of the 5000 are “Make the people sit down.” Now first a little background is in order. The feeding of the multitude is a miracle that occurs six times in the four gospels. The feeding of the 5000 in each gospel and a more intimate feeding, only 4000, is Matthew and Mark. Some New Testament scholars by shear volume call this the greatest of Jesus’ miracles. This, however, befits the shaky scholarship of the Jesus Seminar and too little of grasping the larger picture and deeper meanings.
Now I want today to look at what specifically makes John’s story especially significant. First of all, John is the most Jewish of all of the Gospels, with its paradigm being the Passover. I know both Judaism and the Gospel of John and can affirm this completely. It is why this account is about the coming of the Passover. I also want to say that as whole the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel is much of the heart of our Eucharistic theology, but today’s story is about what precedes our understanding of the Eucharistic, the Covenant. Now this is also why baptism precedes the Holy Eucharist.
When God delivered God’s people from slavery in Egypt they went to Sinai and there were given the Covenant that is theirs to this day, that God is their God and they are God’s people. We must be absolutely clear that the Covenant God made with Israel is as binding today as it was at Sinai. But now Jesus is calling people into a new covenant, not to replace the older one, but to expand God’s plan for salvation.
So back to the mountain. The people are gathered and they are hungry. They are told by Jesus to gather and be seated. His disciples protest that there is not enough to feed them all, but Jesus moves on and distributes the bread and the fishes until all are satisfied John’s gospel is unique in that the people see that Jesus is a prophet and he worries that they may think he will be an earthly king. This is critical because the gathering is about Jesus as Messiah. The operative words here are: “make the people sit down.” It may seem obviously practical, but it is more than that; it is that Jesus is calling the people into fellowship, bound with him and with one another. The deepest significance of Passover is binding of God and God’s people.
No Gospel puts more emphasis on what an overused word is often, community. There are other words: fellowship and fraternity (which is gender neutral by the way). Critical is that our relationship to Christ Jesus is about being bound in fellowship, community and fraternity.
In any number of places, we find that the loss of community is legion in American culture. You might think that we people constantly on their smart phones, on line, texting, doing Twitter or Facebook that we are better connected. Nothing could be further from the truth! These devices are not the cause, but a symptom of what the sociologist Robert Putnam calls a society that: “bowls alone.” Attendance in worship, in civic work, clubs and societies is diminishing. Yet rather that moan and move one we need to reclaim that is its God’s intent that we “sit together” and be related.
If our technocratic society is working against community, look at how we value things and people. I am reading an excellent book; Cents and Sensibilities: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities. One of the authors, Morton Shapiro, is the President of Northwestern University. They postulate that recovery of humanities with its emphasis on human actions and behavior is essential for truly executing economic decisions. I have long lamented the decline of the humanities, in fact classics is disappearing, as a sign of a culture and a society driven too much by utility. Value has become too much about what we possess and not about who we are. Further it is about how God wants, and frankly needs us, to relate one to another.
Finally, we need only look at the increase in addictions, even in suicides as The New York Times noted a few weeks ago, to see as a society we less bound together and not more. Now this is not about filling the pews in churches! It is about the reality that Jesus calls people to “sit down,” to covenant with God and with one another. This is God’s plan! We need to see our mission and ministry to build up fellowship and being together! We are too quick to label the other, judge people and dismiss people. The multitude were not fed individually, but as a community gathered and sitting down.
I have long said that there is not an Episcopal church that does not believe it is “warm and friendly,” and has great “fellowship.” Yet; far too often we behave more club like than in fellowship. We need to show a world spinning so fast what it means to relate; to cry, laugh and support. We need to show a divided world that God’s will is that we life and move in communion.
After I was with you all for a couple of Sundays; needless to say, I was asked at St. David’s about what is going on at Good Shepherd. Now this is not to win favor, but I told them I saw a lively community with good holy energy! So, keep it up!
Even when we speak of love we speak of what is in it for me! What about mercy, forgiveness and sacrifice? St. Francis believed that there can only be community when we can be in communion with the least of our brothers and sisters; so, he wants out among the lepers!
John’s account of the Feeding of 5000 is rich because it moves on to our Eucharistic theology, but it is just as rich because it calls us to remember the Passover and how God delivered God’s people and called them into communion as God’s people; bound to God and to one another. God feeds us as God draws us into community and into fellowship; binding us to God and to one another. Amen.