This is the only miracle that appears in all four gospels. The only one. That’s kind of amazing when you think about it. For some reason, this picnic captured the imagination of all the gospel writers. What was it about this story, I wonder, that made them all make sure to record it?
Maybe all the gospel writers just liked picnics. Actually, there is so much going on in these verses that it is hard to narrow it down for the purpose of this writing. We could talk about John’s clues hidden in the text. For example, whenever there is a mountain in the scenery, it is a sign that something important is going to happen. Mountains are where divine-human conversations take place. But here, Jesus sits down, a sign that this is a teaching moment. He’s got something to get across, something important. And also, John says “the Passover was near,” another signal that this is an important moment in Jesus’ life and death.
We could talk about the fact that three of the four gospel writers link the feeding story to the walking on water story. There is something important there too, it seems. Perhaps it is that hunger and fear are two needs that are universal in our human experience and meeting those needs is important for Jesus.
We could even talk about the fact that both stories end with attempts to control Jesus - failed attempts at that. This is a reminder that Jesus doesn’t come to us on our terms. but on his. And just in time.
There’s even more; but instead of all of that, I want to talk about the picnic. It’s more than a picnic; it is a pop quiz. Jesus tests Philip. Jesus asks, “Where?” and Philip hears, “How much?” Bzzz. Thank you for playing. Andrew stumbles on a boy with lunch but is pretty sure it won’t be nearly enough. Bzzz. Another one bites the dust. Their vision was limited. Their seeing was misdirected. They, as usual, didn’t understand. And what, exactly didn’t they understand? The physics of fish division? The parsing of barley loaves?
Like the disciples, we get caught up in the limitations or in the “how.” We want to explain how it happened. Maybe, we say, maybe when Jesus started, people fessed up and shared what they brought; it was a miracle of sharing. Maybe. But that seems to diminish the real direction contained within the story. This was a story of a who and not a how—a couple of whos.
The first who was Jesus. “Where will we buy the bread?” he asked Philip. From you, was the right answer. When he scares the dickens out of the disciples by walking on the water, he says, “I am, don’t be afraid.” “I am?” Doesn’t that sound familiar? “ I am sending you,” said a curiously combustible bush a long time ago. The who is Jesus, the meeter of needs, the worker of miracles.
The second who is us, or them, the 5,000 hungry ones on the side of the mountain. Who are us too, by the way, John says with an elbow to the ribs. Get it? We are hungry for something we can’t provide for ourselves. But we are invited to a picnic. Jesus says, “Have the people sit down.” But the word used for sit down really means “take a place at the table.” “Sit down to dinner,” we might translate: Jesus says, “Have the people pull a chair up to the table.” We are guests at the Lord’s table. That’s the gospel, the miracle here. Then Jesus says to gather up the leftovers so that nothing is wasted. That’s a sure sign of the kingdom, of the new community; there are no leftovers - food or people. Nothing is thrown aside; nothing is not valued. We are guests at the Lord’s table, not afterthoughts or nuisances. Welcomed, invited, included. Part of the family.
But there is something that stands out from this family picnic on the grass—something that is memorable, at least to John if to no one else. So, we have the meal miracle; then we have the walking on water miracle (and we can save that one for another sermon, don’t you think?). Then we have a waiting crowd, hoping to catch a glimpse of the miracle worker, hoping to get another slice of that bread. If we keep reading beyond our text for today, we find Jesus getting a little peeved with them for the bread thing, since he thinks they are missing the point. But maybe John is the one who got the point. And we know that by how he describes the event. Did you see it? It’s there in the final verse of our text. The people were hanging out in the place where it happened. The miracle place. But John doesn’t call it a miracle place. He says that it is the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.
Really? That’s the description? Not where an amazing thing happened. Not where the unexplainable took place. No, where they ate after the Lord had given thanks. Think about it. That’s what John wants us to remember: that this meal, this miracle happened after gratitude was expressed. Gratitude for the abundance that didn’t look like abundance. Gratitude for the satisfaction that came out of hunger. Gratitude becomes a way of seeing and a way of being in the world. We give thanks to God for what is about to happen. We give thanks for what we might not yet see, but what we trust God will provide.
This series has not been about a stewardship campaign, though it might accompany one. Instead, it is about the spiritual discipline of gratitude. Like any discipline, it is one that we choose and then work at until we become better at it. We live, because of that choice, grateful to God first of all for the abundance that surrounds us. But gratitude spills over into the rest of our lives as well. We are grateful for those in our circles of care; we are grateful to those who help us live in the manner to which we have become accustomed. We recognize that none of the benefits we enjoy come without effort on someone’s part, and we learn to be grateful to those who help make our society run smoothly. If we were to make a list of all those who provide for us, who care for us, who stand with us, we would probably never get to the end. We are truly woven together in a human tapestry of love and caring. Jesus invites us to become more aware of that reality and to live gratefully every day.