There are several bizarre local laws on the statute books in America:
For instance, it’s illegal to slurp your soup in
a restaurant in New Jersey.
In Oklahoma it’s unlawful to get a fish drunk,
or to try to catch whales in a river or lake.
In Pennsylvania, cafés are not allowed to sell ring
doughnuts, while in Massachusetts they are not permitted to serve coffee to
In Lexington, Kentucky, you cannot carry an
ice-cream cone in your pocket.
In Waterloo in Nebraska, barbers are prohibited
from eating onions between seven o’clock in the morning and seven in the
Finally, the most ambitious law must be the one
in Kirkland, Illinois, where bees are forbidden from flying over town!
Well, so long as no one bans the consumption of apple pies
in Chelmsford, at least one member of this congregation will be happy!
Food. Lots of it. More than enough for five thousand men,
plus women and children. What are we to make of this miracle? It was so
important to the Gospel writers that it’s the only miracle to appear in all
four Gospels apart from the Resurrection.
But what do we make of the story? We can debate whether the
miracle happened. I say it did. If all that really happened is that a crowd of
people was inspired by Jesus to share their packed lunches, I doubt that four
evangelists would have recorded it.
But we have to get beyond basic issues like that. Because as
well as the transformation of the bread and the fish, we find in this story
three transformations of the human heart.
If I know anything as a father of young children, it’s about that sense of
permanent tiredness. I have a particular low point around 6:30 to 7 pm each day
that coincides with bath and bedtime for them. Debbie will tell you how I drift
off, almost to sleep, while we are in the bathroom with them. Sometimes the joy
of getting the monkeys into bed reinvigorates me, sometimes it doesn’t.
Jesus appears to be tired in this reading. He has just heard
the news of John the Baptist’s execution. It has had some kind of draining
effect upon him. He wants to withdraw. But the crowds come, and he responds by
The disciples may not be tired, but they are certainly
stressed. They want to send the people away for food, because they can’t cope –
not with just five loaves and two fish at their disposal. But Jesus tells them
to give – just as he gave to the crowds when they ruined his plans for some
Jesus was drained. The disciples were impotent. Yet this was
the time to give. This is the first transformation of the heart – people
apparently with nothing give what they have, and God does something miraculous.
In fact, God does something extravagant with limited giving.
Food for thousands, with doggy bags to spare.
In fact, the American Methodist bishop Will Willimon believes
that this extravagant giving is characteristic of Christian discipleship. He
says it’s why we make such big promises to each other in our wedding vows. It’s
why a friend of a friend of mine, who has a PhD in Theology from Aberdeen
University, returned to his native India, where he runs a ministry that
provides children’s homes for orphans. He could have a flourishing and
rewarding academic career in the West, but he lavishes Christian love on these
After all, it’s just what Jesus talked about in his
parables. The father bestowed this same extravagant love on the prodigal son
when he returned. It’s the generosity of the Good Samaritan in paying the bills
of the injured man.
Why should God choose to use those who are weak and weary,
who feel they have nothing left to give, in order to give lavishly? Perhaps
these are situations that God deliberately wants to place us in: when we are
drained of our strength, we have no option but to trust in his power, rather
than taking pride in our own gifts.
Perhaps you’re wacked out. You feel the need for a rest. And
maybe that’s right. But if God puts some people across your way at such a time,
don’t be afraid to give. God might be setting you up for something quite
miraculous to happen in the lives of those who cross your path. God is like
that. The first transformation, then, is in giving.
In the wake of the Chelmsford Christian
Festival, some ministers have received a nasty, critical letter from some
extreme Christian organisation somewhere in Essex. I haven’t received one: I’m
probably beyond salvation as a Methodist! But Baptist, Anglican and URC
ministers have all received this letter damning the festival, for – amongst
other things – its emphasis on fun. ‘Did Jesus die on the cross for us to have
fun?’ asks the letter.
You wonder how selectively such people read the Gospels if
Jesus is comprehensively associated with misery. Jesus was, in the words of one
scholar, a ‘party animal’.
A glutton and a drunkard, his opponents called him.
Now put that into this story. We might be grateful for a
‘party animal’ to provide a lot of food, but it wasn’t so simple for devout
Jews, however much they enjoyed feasting (and they did). Their maxim was, ‘You
are what you eat’ – not in the sense of diet and nutrition, but in the sense of
wanting to ensure they ate proper kosher food.
There were only two ways to ensure your host prepared kosher
food. One was to go into the kitchen and watch every step of the process.
However, they could hardly have done that in this circumstance: there was no
kitchen to enter! The crowd doesn’t know where this food comes from!
That leaves the second option: trust. That’s what the crowd
does. They trust Jesus. A miracle like this, happening in a deserted place, had
considerable overtones for a Jewish group: it would remind them of the manna in
the wilderness. Is this the ‘one greater than me’ whom Moses prophesied would
Then, there are messianic overtones in the text. When Jesus
tells them to ‘sit down’ in the text, we just have a vision of the people
sitting around on the grass. What he actually tells them to do is ‘recline’,
which carries connotations of a banquet. Who would provide a banquet in the
wilderness? The Messiah would.
Not only that, it’s a miracle involving the forces of
nature. Is there something divine at work here?
Put that all together and it becomes quite a big picture of
whom the people might be trusting here.
And for us, we take heart here: this is not just a
trustworthy person, this is the Messiah, this is even God Incarnate who is
trustworthy, even in extreme situations.
So where is it we feel stretched? Jesus is trustworthy. Let
him give us energy. Where do we feel weak? Let Christ give us strength. Where
are we hungry? We can look to him to feed us. He is able. By virtue of who he
is, he has the ability, the resources and the love to provide all we need. And
if he can do all this for us, what is stopping us trusting him with our lives?
The second transformation is in trusting.
To understand the third transformation that happens in this famous story, we
need to return to the question of how the crowd might have used their Jewish
traditions to come to terms with what happened.
Not only did the tradition hold the stance I described a few
minutes ago of ‘You are what you eat’ in terms of keeping to the kosher laws,
they also took a similar attitude. You could call it, ‘You are who you eat with.’
On the surface, this is another matter of purity. Not only must the food be
prepared in a ritually pure way, you must also keep yourself from contamination
by association with the wrong kind of people. Not only were people known by the
company they kept, they could be spiritually tainted by contact with defiled
Now see a problem. The bread and fish come from the
disciples to Jesus, back to the disciples and then out from person to person.
Who knows what kind of person might have handled that food at some point in the
process? That’s more than a question of hygiene; it’s a matter of honour: what
if by eating this I associate with an unworthy person? I am reduced to their
But in this miracle, all these distinctions between morally
superior and inferior people are cast to the four winds. In the work of Jesus,
there is an acceptance across boundaries and divisions. It is a foretaste of
what would happen when the Gospel broke out beyond Jewish borders and reached
Gentiles, and after much agonising the baby church realised that all who were
in Christ were one.
So here is a basis for unity. Good and bad, rich and poor,
black and white, female and male, weak and strong, powerful and oppressed.
Under Christ, all may be made one. It isn’t simply that we are one, because we
are all human, because sin has caused our divisions and that sin must be
addressed. Which it is in Christ and his cross.
But this gives us the motive for reaching across boundaries.
It means that serious questions have to be asked about churches where everyone
is from the same background. It means that if we live the faith at this point –
not that we have any option – then the church will be a prophetic sign to a
divided, broken world.
Where, then, is Jesus calling us to live out this third
transformation of the heart, the transformation of reconciliation and unity? As we share in The Peace with one another
in a few minutes’ time, to whom else will we want to offer the peace of Christ
who is not part of our body?
So – I find it sad when Christians reduce the feeding of the multitude to
saying that Jesus just enabled people to share their picnics. Such an account
is barely worth inclusion in the Gospels.
But I am also disappointed when we don’t get beyond
defending the reality of the miracle. There is so much Jesus accomplishes here
as he transforms people through the action of the miracle. We may not be coming
to a feast, but to a table where small squares of bread and sips of grape juice
symbolise the coming banquet of the Messiah.
Might it be, then, that as we come to the Lord’s Table this
morning, he might work his transforming power in us:
That we might be able to give, even when we have
That we might trust Christ to feed us in every
And that the unity we find in him might spur us
on to be reconciled with one another, and across the divisions in our world.