Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”
Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now, there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
The feeding of the 5000 is a familiar story. It is told in all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, But it is told differently in each. We can look at it in a number of ways. This story gives us another Opportunity to appreciate how compassionate Jesus was. He saw the great crowd and wanted to provide for them. This shows the immense love he had for his followers. We may also notice the ways in which this story shows us the connection of communion. Jesus blessed bread and shared it with thousands. When we gather as God’s people to share in what God has provided for us, God’s abundance is illuminated and relationships to God and one another are strengthened. Compassion and communion are clear messages of this story.
Another meaning that may be discovered in this passage from John is shared in the insights of theologian Kathryn Matthews Huey. She says “John is teaching us about the power of God in Jesus, and who this Jesus is. We learn who Jesus is by what he does. Don’t actions speak even louder than words? And so we have the disciples, down-to-earth and overwhelmed by the crowd, computing the cost of feeding so many people. ‘Impossible!’ they say, but we know that all things are possible with God, especially, with Jesus, who redefines what is possible.” Huey believes that “this story is just as much, if not more, about the power of God in Jesus as it is about Jesus’ compassion for the hungry crowd. God’s power, after all, is “far more than all we can ask or imagine,” as we read in Ephesians 3:20b. Huey points us to look beyond Jesus’ actions to God’s power in action through Jesus. We see that God was trying to make his compassion for us known through Jesus.
God’s power is beyond our limited human comprehension. We cannot grasp what God is truly like, but God knows everything about us, all our wants and needs. Over and over again we hear of how God has used God’s power to meet the needs of God’s people. In the story today the need is hunger. It is such a basic need. Ultimately we cannot survive without our hunger being satisfied. Wikipedia defines hunger as “a sensation experienced when one feels the physiological need to eat food. Although a healthy, well-nourished individual can survive for weeks without food intake, the sensation of hunger typically manifests after only a few hours without eating and is generally considered to be unpleasant.” If we believe that God is our creator then we can follow the line of thought that would say that God created us to have needs such as hunger.
From the very beginning God was providing for us when we were hungry. In the first book of the Bible, Genesis chapter 1 verses 29 to 30, we read “And God said, “See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food.“ As God created the earth God made plans to meet our needs and offer us what we had to have to survive.
We are also familiar with the way that God provided for the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness. In the book of Exodus chapter 16 we read “The LORD said to Moses, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God.’ That evening, quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” Moses said to them, “It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat.” The people of Israel called the bread manna. It tasted like wafers made with honey. The Israelites ate manna for forty years.” That is impressive. God provided the Israelites with food not just for a few days or weeks but for 40 years. I love that the passage said that the Israelites were grumbling. That group was good at complaining, but God did not get annoyed at them and leave them to fend for themselves. He met their needs. He did not give them more than they needed but he gave enough to be satisfied.
John W. Ritenbaugh in The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery states: “With seven hundred references to the act of eating, we can say with confidence that eating is a master image of the Bible. No biblical image combines the literal and the figurative, the physical and spiritual, more inextricably than does the imagery of eating. Both literally and figuratively, eating communicates the paradigm of a providential creator and dependent humanity.” Ritenbaugh leads us to the greater significance of hunger and eating. They touch on the literal and figurative, the physical and spiritual nature of our being. Our bodies need food and our spirits need sustenance as well.
When we delve into biblical stories of God providing food for people in need, we may find ourselves asking, are we to take the biblical examples of God giving sustenance to mean that God literally provides us with food when we are hungry? Some of you may say yes. I don’t expect that when we are hungry we can sit down at a table, say a prayer and food will all of a sudden appear, but I do think we should take time, as so many of you do, to thank God every time we eat for the food that we have. God is the source of all life and so we have God to thank for the fruits, vegetables, grains, and meat we eat. The examples of God providing physically for the needs of people are an intriguing way to get us thinking about how God cares for us. Once we recognize the most basic level of our needs being met, we can move forward to see that we have greater and more significant needs that God is also meeting, such as our spiritual hunger.
Deuteronomy 8:3 says “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” Our bodies need nourishment, but so do our minds and spirits. We can survive with food, but we will not thrive without soulful sustenance and yet we frequently forget about this need of ours. We eat and snack several times a day but do we feed ourselves spiritually as often as that? I will be the first to admit that I don’t, and I will also admit that I suffer for it. When I am not nourished spiritually, I become more pessimistic instead of optimistic. I am less patient and more selfish. I forget what centers me, and I spin away from being grounded in God. I am hungry, spiritually hungry, and far more often than I would like to admit I’m too tired or too stubborn to get the nourishment I need. I am hungry for God’s wisdom. I am hungry for God’s love. I am hungry for God’s peace. I have had some great meals lately but I have not been doing a good job of nourishing my spirit.
Isaiah 55 says that there is a spiritual food that nourishes the inner person and fills one’s life in a way and with abundance that all of a person’s material things cannot. This food cannot be purchased with material wealth. The “food” in Isaiah 55 can be bought only by means of the way one lives one’s life. By praying, studying, meditating and living God’s Word we become energized by God’s spiritual food.
Jeremiah 3:15 provides us with clear Old Testament evidence that the principle of feeding the mind with the correct instruction leads to good spiritual health: “And I will give you shepherds according to my heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” God clearly states that a mind fed with the right things can produce wisdom, holiness, and happiness. We must choose to secure the best diet for the mind. The world produces an almost overwhelming amount of spiritual junk food and it takes concerted effort to avoid it.
We try to satisfy ourselves in so many different ways. The Bible provides ample evidence that just as a mature adult needs good, solid nourishment to maintain his vitality, the spiritual parallel follows.
So how do we make sure we are spiritually nourished? I think we all know what we need to do; we just don’t always make the time to do it. We need to make time in our schedules for quiet reflection and prayer, time to “be still and know that I am God.” We need to go to the sacred texts for wisdom and insight. We need to cultivate gratitude for all of our blessings. We need to actively love God by loving ourselves and our neighbors. We need to take a walk in the beauty of God’s creation. Breathe. Just breathe. Most important of all, we need to acknowledge our need, our hunger for God. What if you did any one of these things or a combination of them each day as often as you have a meal? I think you would start to see a real change in your life. Even if you did one spiritually nourishing thing once a day, I know you would start to see a difference. We draw strength from the physical food we eat, and we draw strength from the way we feed our souls.
In her book Hungry for God: Hearing God’s Voice in the Ordinary and the Everyday Margaret Feinberg reminds the reader that only God can fully satisfy our spiritual hunger. She asks some interesting questions. She writes, “Is it possible to dine on an intangible being? How do we feast upon something we cannot see, touch, or taste?” Those are reasonable questions to me. I have had similar questions when searching for spiritual fulfillment. Feinberg continues “Over the last several years, I’ve learned that God’s voice is the only entrée that can nourish our ethereal cravings. Hearing and experiencing, rather than eating, assuages spiritual hunger. The moments in my life when I’ve been the most spiritually hungry and the most spiritually satiated share a common trait: God’s voice. My spiritual hunger grumbles loudest when I feel furthest from God. Though I cling to the mental assertion that God is everywhere and he promises to never leave nor forsake, I’ve encountered days, weeks, and months, where I still wonder, where are you, God?” From what Feinberg has to say, our spiritual hunger comes from our sense of separation and distance from God. She feels sustained when she hears God’s voice and feels closer to God.
You may or may not hear God so this could or could not be the way you are nourished. If listening for God is not something that connects with you then I would ask you, what are the ways that you do feel closer to God? I don’t think there is one way to feel close to God. Just as each of us is unique, God responds and connects with each of us in different ways. So what way does God connect with you? I invite you to take the time to let this question simmer. Open yourself to discovering or rediscovering your connection with God, and when you find what it is that makes the light bulb go off in your head and say “Ah hah!” then practice doing what got you there on a regular basis. I can give you lots of suggestions, as I already have a few minutes ago, but to make sure you yourself are truly nourished, you are the only one that can find that source of sustenance and open your spiritual mouth to take it in and digest it. I can’t force feed you and I wouldn’t want to. If you search, I promise there is a soulful banquet awaiting you.