A Picnic with Jesus. I think you’d agree with me that some of the most positive, memorable experiences in our lives have to do with eating. The right combination of food and company can make all the difference. I know it’s a generalization, but isn’t that true? How many good times with your friends can you remember when all you did was get together, but no food? It might be possible, but not often. And likewise, think about that truly amazing meal you had somewhere – the food was so good. Most likely, you were with someone, and that made all the difference. Churches rate themselves on the quality of their food – isn’t that true? Strawberry festivals, chicken barbecues, potlucks…
I haven’t traveled the world as much as some people, but there is one interesting thing I’ve noticed. If you’re traveling with a group of Americans on a tour, the food might be mostly American style, no matter where you are. Hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza (which is mostly an American food), pasta with meat sauce. Even in Luperon, in the Dominican Republic, where I’ve taken groups to build houses many times, a remote place with almost no American tourists, there is an American style restaurant named “Steve’s.” This place caters especially to the people who dock their sailboats at the end of the street, but don’t go any further into town.
I know that, especially with a tour group, it’s about avoiding complaints, but if you’re in a foreign place and you don’t sample the food, you’ve missed a big part of the culture. You also might get this idea implanted in your head (and your children’s’) that other cultures are supposed to serve Americans American food out of obligation. This is why I never make special arrangements with regard for food when I take the youth group out of the country on a mission project. For those who are picky eaters, the mission project veterans (who are recovering picky eaters themselves) will give them encouragement. Try the rice. Okay, now try the chicken (chicken and rice is the universal meal). It will be okay, really. And they almost always really love the food, much of which they probably wouldn’t have tried at home.
What did you eat for breakfast today? If you were in….
France– French bread and preserves.
Puerto Rico– French fries and a panini-style sandwich.
In the DR – scrambled eggs with peppers & onions, with pineapple or mango.
Middle East– hummus, flatbread, yogurt, etc.
South Africa– fish, if you’re on the coast.
Zimbabwe– bread & butter and cold baked beans.
When someone advertises a “full English breakfast,” do you know what that is? (Bacon/sausage, toast, fried eggs & fried tomatoes, tea/coffee)
As I think about it, I don’t think I’ve been to a place that eats quite as much for breakfast as Americans seem to. Stacks of waffles & pancakes, etc.
All these differences must be a huge challenge for the organizers of the Olympics this week!
Today’s gospel reading is one of the most powerful stories about Jesus in Scripture, and it’s one of the only miracle stories about Jesus you’ll find in all four gospels. It’s about a meal with Jesus. It’s about being fed by God. It’s about eating what God is serving. And it’s about helping God serve that food to others.
John 6:1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Seaof Tiberias.* 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages* would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 10Jesus 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. 11Then 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. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When 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.’
15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles,* they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, ‘It is I;* do not be afraid.’ 21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.
The Setting. John wants to be sure that we get certain details fixed in our minds so that we understand the full meaning of this miracle. The first four verses set the stage:
v.1) The story takes place by the sea of Galilee up in northern Israel – a place where there nearly everybody made their living from farming or fishing. If you lived inJerusalem, you would have thought ofGalileeas “the boonies.” The people there are common, rural people.
v. 2) A crowd is following Jesus, and growing all the time. These people have basic needs and they are finding out Jesus can meet those needs. Like health – Jesus heals. They also have a crowd mentality. Jesus is unusual. He does strange, miraculous things and they like to watch. So don’t get the impression that they have all come to Jesus to get a deeper understanding of the mysteries of life.
v. 3) “Jesus went up on the mountain, and there sat down with his disciples.” That’s supposed to mean something special to the Jewish person reading this. What else happened on a mountain in Jewish history? God spoke to Moses in the burning bush and sent him to save the people ofIsrael. God gave Moses the ten commandments on a mountain. So when John says Jesus went up to a mountain, he wants you to compare him with Moses. Jesus is about to do something that saves people.
v.4) The Passover was near. Part of the reason there is a big crowd is that it was a national holiday. What happens at Passover? The Hebrew people celebrate their release from slavery. A lamb is sacrificed. We gather our families and share a simple meal together made up of food that reminds us of our slavery. It was also a celebration. It’s feast time. We are glad that God brought us out of Egypt.
For early Christians, John says, look at what is happening when you have Jesus with you: this is the Christian Passover. It’s a meal shared by everyone with Jesus at the center. Jesus is the Passover Lamb himself, leading us out of our slavery to sin; leading us to new life. Our Passover meal is usually called what? Communion. For some people, Eucharist. Come to the table! For everyone who believes, there is enough for everybody, no matter who they are. With Jesus at the center of the meal, there will be leftovers. If you have faith in Jesus, if you let God use what you’ve got, there will be more than enough to go around – with plenty to spare. We’re not just talking about food here.
The Faith of a Child. I can picture the early church sitting around telling Jesus stories and somebody saying, “Hey, remember the time Jesus fed all those people…; yeah, Matthew, John, write that one down!”
[The picture goes fuzzy and then refocuses on a hillside overlooking a lake. It’s an aerial view; the ground seems to be moving and as the scene gets clearer, we see that the hillside is covered with people, mostly milling around, but there is a crowd near the top of the hill. We zoom in…]
It’s springtime and it’s a sunny day. It’s a beautiful place; lots of green grass. A slight breeze. The lake is a deep blue.
There are so many people. Hear the noise of the crowd. People talking, children yelling, a baby or two crying. For a few seconds, a group of middle-aged people off to the right laughs hysterically at something. It’s like a stadium – a high school football game before the band or the players come on the field. All sorts of people, but mostly working people; average people. Families. Groups of friends. Young people. Elderly people. All come to see Jesus. But many of them don’t know exactly why they are there. You don’t know why you are there. But you are.
There’s the town character (you know who I mean; every town has one). There’s Mrs. Jones. You know she hasn’t been well. I’m amazed she’s out here; the walk can’t have been too good for her. There’s Jack – haven’t seen him at the synagogue since last year, ever since that accident. There’s Ralph. What a guy – came over in the middle of the night to fix our roof last week. I hope he and his wife straighten things out. I thought I saw her here somewhere. Oh, speaking of whom…
“Hi, how are you? Great. Isn’t this a beautiful day? That water! Almost makes me want to be a fisherman. Oh, I don’t know, the neighbors were coming down, and it’s a hike from town, but I heard he turned some water into wine and healed somebody over inCanaand I just wanted to see him for myself. Didn’t have anything better to do today. Me and Martha and the kids kind of needed to get away anyhow, so here we are. Yeah, this miracle, healing, religious stuff is okay for some people…”
[The scene changes to a conversation between two or three men in the middle of the crowd at the top of the hill.]
“Philip, it’s feast time. How are we going to buy bread so that these people can have something to eat?”
“Jesus, what do you mean we? We have to feed these people? Who do you think we are? Royalty? It would take months for us to earn enough to feed a crowd like this. We didn’t ask them to come out here. They can take care of themselves. Why do we have to give them anything?”
Andrew doesn’t think Jesus is serious (Jesus has a sense of humor and has been known to joke around from time to time). So Andrew says, “Hey, Jesus, there’s a kid here with five barley loaves and two dried fish!” And he starts to laugh. Barley is what the poor people eat.
Jesus motions toward the boy and he steps forward. Average boy – fromCapernaum, the nearest town by the lake. About ten years old. Maybe you’ve seen him. He usually hangs around with Peter’s kids.
Jesus asks, “Is that your lunch?
“If you give it to me, you’ll see something amazing happen here.”
(Shrugs his shoulders) “Okay.”
“Everybody sit!” The fish and bread are in a sack. Jesus is the only one standing when he says the traditional Jewish blessing: “Blessed are you, O God, for You make bread come forth from the earth.”
Then Jesus walks over to the nearest group of people, and starts pulling bread and fish from the sack one after the other. The disciples of Jesus can only sit and watch in amazement at first, but then they begin to help Jesus pass the food around.
After a few minutes, something even more amazing starts to happen. The people farther down the hill think that the people on top of the hill are sharing their food and that they should do the same. So they begin sharing the food they have with them (don’t forget that many of these people were on their way to a Passover feast anyway).
Soon, all Jesus has to do is walk around and give bread or fish to those who don’t have anything to eat. Within a few minutes, this huge crowd is eating together. Families, friends, people who don’t know each other, people who don’t like each other because they know each other, all sharing a meal.
As he walks around handing out food, you think, who is this? There’s something about him that’s magnetic, something attractive, something indescribable. It’s more than just the free food. You know you need whatever it is he’s got. Suddenly he’s standing over you. “Hi. You look hungry. Would you like some bread?” Before you can answer, he smiles, puts it in your hand, and walks on.
For most of the crowd, it was just a picnic. But some people are weeping. Maybe it was the first time in a while they didn’t eat alone. Maybe it was the first time in a long time they had been treated with respect and love.
Afterwards, Jesus supervises the cleanup – leftovers enough to last him and the disciples for two or three days. A few people walk by and shake his hand.
“You’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed it. Oh, it was really no problem. Did you get enough? Please, take some home, there’s plenty more where that came from. He turns to Philip and Peter and says, “Thanks for the help, guys, but none of this would have happened if that boy hadn’t given us his lunch.”
We pan over to the boy with the lunch bag, now more full than it was before lunch, a stunned expression on his face which says, “Mom is never gonna believe this.”
[The scene fades to white and we are back home.]
Superficially, this story is about getting: a crowd of people gets free food. But the story’s really about giving. A boy giving his food to Jesus so Jesus can give food to hungry people. You give, God gives. You’re gift is small and insignificant? You’re just the kind of person God is looking for. And God depends on you.
The greater message of the story is the gift of Jesus. The question for the crowd is not, “How can we get more of this free food?” It’s “Who is this man?” or “Why is he doing this?” or “What does this mean?”
Almost as an after-thought, the story says that the one who made this happen is the one who walks on water. He is the one who feeds you.
When the crowd finds him later, Jesus tells them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” (v.35) Just as the loaves and fish multiply throughout the crowd, Jesus gives himself to those who believe. And we pass that faith around.
There are so many of those situations like for each of us and all of us. The need seems so huge, and our resources seem so small. So here we are on the hillside, each with our own needs, our own reasons for being here. All God needs to start the miracle is one person’s faith. And we’re just a gift away from that miracle.
God, you take us as we are. You know us and understand us better than we know or understand ourselves. You take the smallest gift we have to offer and do miracles. But it’s hard to believe. Help our unbelief. Send your Spirit to flow through us. Help us let go and give ourselves to you. Give us new ideas; show us how you can live in us and through us in new ways. Make each of us a new and renewed person; make all of us a new and renewed church.