Sharing lunch (John 6.1-21)
When I was a little boy, every morning before I left for school mum would give us kids our lunches, packed in plastic lunchboxes. I knew that inside my lunchbox would be a couple of rounds of sandwiches with whatever my favourite filling was at the time – I’ve never been very imaginative about sandwich fillings – I remember for a number of years I thought that tomato sandwiches were about as good as you could get – and there’d be a piece of fruit and maybe a biscuit – now that I think about it, that’s rather a labour of love for four children – wouldn’t you think you’d be saying ‘here’s your lunchbox, make your own’? Anyway, as I remember it, mum used to make pretty much what I wanted to eat for lunch – but when the lunchboxes came out at Wilson Park Primary and I sat in a row with Robby Gamble and Michael Stanley – that’s when the trading would start – for some reason the sandwiches my mates mums made were always more interesting – so maybe I’d swap my soggy tomato sandwich for a Vegemite sandwich that’d started to curl up at the corners. Lunchtimes were the great leveller, even though some of my mates came from homes where I now realise there probably wasn’t enough to go around, when it came to lunches we all swapped and shared and more or less got enough.
Partly it was about curiosity and wanting to make sure that if somebody else had something you didn’t have you were going to get your share, even if it was pretty ordinary. Partly I think it was because it didn’t really occur to us that lunch wasn’t for sharing. Kids, I think, generally get this right.
Which of course brings us to Jesus and the great miracle of crowd that all gets enough to eat from one little boy’s lunch. Have you noticed that this week we’ve swapped over from Mark to John? Even though in Mark’s gospel, the feeding of the 5,000 is what happens next in the story, I think there are probably some good reasons for the lectionary writers deciding that we should hear John’s version of the story. As they always do, the different gospel writers pick up the same basic stories that have probably been passed down by word of mouth for years and years but in the way they tell them the emphasis is a bit different. For Mark, there’s this deliberate doubling up of the story – first Jesus miraculously feeds 5,000 Jews and then he feeds 4,000 Gentiles – which emphasises how the people who used to be thought of as outsiders are now part of God’s plan – for John, the story is made to say something fundamental about who Jesus is and how Jesus’ relationship to God is revealed.
But we can’t help finding it all a bit unlikely, no matter which gospel we read it in. One little boy’s lunch simply doesn’t feed a crowd, no matter how imaginative the caterers are. And I don’t know if it’s the same for you as it is for me, but I look around myself at the world I live in and I think, that’s not actually how it works. Right now, there are people in Sudan – to name just one place – where it doesn’t matter how much people pray – the misery just seems to continue and men, women and children all go without enough to eat, without clean water to drink, without basic medicines or security from predatory militias. Even right here in the middle of Perth, today there are children who aren’t getting enough to eat. They come through our very own doors, here at All Saints. So on one level it actually seems a bit shocking to base our faith on stories like this in which Jesus casually multiplies a little boy’s lunch. That’s not the way it works, not in the first century and not in the 21st century.
And so there’s the temptation to rationalise a bit, with stories like this, and without denying the general miraculousness of the event to wonder whether perhaps the real miracle might not have been the opening of hearts and the opening of lunchboxes that – in the adult world – all too often stay shut when we know we’ve got a hot soggy tomato sandwich in there that – when it comes down to it – we’d rather save for later than give it to someone who really should have brought their own. Could the real miracle have been the renovation of the human heart? When you think about it, that’s the sort of miracle we desperately need today, isn’t it? The sort of water into wine miracle in which the hardness of human hearts is dissolved. The sort of miracle in which the well-equipped army of Israel stops shelling fleeing civilians. That’d be the sort of miracle worth having. And so we get versions of this story in which little Johnny pulls out his lunchbox and hands it up the front – and then one or two other kids remember they’ve got their lunchboxes as well, and even a couple of grown-ups pull out their own little packets of squished tomato sandwiches. And it turns out there’s enough for everybody. That’s a good sort of miracle, and the very best thing about it is that it’s a miracle that we’re all invited to be a part of.
Well there’s more to it than that. John, in particular, doesn’t let us get away with taming Jesus, or rationalising away what seems irrational or improbable. All the gospel writers, it must be said, seem perfectly happy to believe that the miracles of Jesus were just that – miracles – but I think for us, reading these stories with minds formed by twentieth century science and scepticism – maybe we just need to learn to stay with the ambiguity of the story. Certainly we need to notice that the miraculous feeding stories in the Gospels are packed full of symbolism and echoes of much older stories from the Hebrew scriptures, like Elisha’s miraculous multiplication of barley loaves in the Book of Kings, or the miracle of manna in the desert after the escape from Egypt. Stories that for Jewish people are automatically going to rise to the surface when they hear this – does Jesus mean the same thing for us as these stories that tell us who we are? – a people Yahweh can’t forget, that Yahweh provides for and loves? Above all, the most important thing about the miracles is that they point us to something deeper that’s going on. John calls them ‘signs’, and by that he means that the miracles of Jesus have got a sort of deep meaning that point us to who Jesus is. So, for example, straight after this story when Jesus comes walking across the pitch-black surface of the Sea of Galilee at night, we’re not just meant to be impressed, we’re meant to be reminded of the One who hovers over the heaving waters at the dawn of Creation, the One who holds back the death-dealing waters of the Red Sea. In the one who reassures his terrified disciples with the words, ‘I am’ we see the presence of the One who speaks out of the burning bush to tell Moses his personal name: ‘I AM’.
For the rest of chapter six, John’s going to be talking about bread, like Jesus saying, ‘I am the bread of life’; and so we begin to get the point that the bread that Jesus miraculously provides out there in the desert is also a sign that stands for the true bread of Jesus own body – the bread that we break and share in the miracle of the Eucharist. Not only is the miracle something impossible that becomes possible because who Jesus is, it has a deep structure that shows us the deep meaning of Jesus as the one who embodies the character of God – the character of being given – the character of being broken and poured out as the gift of life itself.
John takes stories from the remembered tradition about Jesus and uses them in ways that help us understand what Jesus means. John uses stories about everyday necessities like bread and fish, water and oil and light as a way of repeating, over and over again, the basic claim that it’s in Jesus that we can find our deepest needs. That God’s gracious provision for our deepest needs comes to its fullest expression in Jesus.
Children, next time you’re out in the desert with a whole lot of hungry people, share your lunch. Your soggy tomato and your dried-up Vegemite taste all the better for breaking in half and sharing with the hungry one sitting next to you. That’s an OK moral to get from all this. You want to be God’s people, learn to be like the one who tells us he is bread for breaking and sharing.
That’s how you find out who God is. That’s how you find out who you are. Share your lunch.