When I trained for the ministry in Manchester, we went out on preaching appointments all over the north west – everywhere from Liverpool to Newcastle under Lyme. If we were in a circuit morning and evening, we had lunch and tea with members of that circuit. I remember the Liverpool couple who were proud they lived just across from the estate where Brookside was filmed – unfortunately, I’ve always been allergic to soaps. I recall the farming couple in Chester who tried to marry me off to their daughter. I remember visiting a former superintendent of mine from home who was then in Newcastle under Lyme.
Less happy are my memories of a trip to a Methodist church in Swinton, Greater Manchester. Apart from my college principal turning up unannounced to assess my service, I got a frosty welcome in the vestry. The stewards had telephoned for the hymns during the week, and when I walked into the vestry they demanded I change two of them. “We don’t know this one and we don’t like that one.” I refused. I told them they could learn the unfamiliar one, and they could put up with the hymn they didn’t like, because it fitted my theme.
What was the hymn they disliked? ‘Moses, I know you’re the man’ (this link is a PowerPoint download). And I mention that this morning, because this famous story about the feeding of the five thousand – the only story to appear in all four Gospels apart from the death and resurrection of Jesus – is full of Moses references. Let me show you what I mean – and how that is relevant to us – not by taking things in the order they appear in this story, but by taking the ‘Moses’ elements of this account and placing them in the order they originally happened in Israel’s history.
Firstly, there is the element of Passover. According to John, this incident happened when ‘the Passover … was near’ (verse 4). You’ll remember that the Passover commemorated the deliverance of God’s people when God judged Egypt for enslaving them. It is a festival of freedom and justice.
And in Jesus’ day, many of God’s people felt the need for something similar. They may have been back in their own land, but they were occupied by the Romans. Even in this reading, the Sea of Galilee is also referred to by its alternative Roman name, the Sea of Tiberias (verse 1). The Jewish people once again needed deliverance. It’s telling that after this miraculous sign, they wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king (verse 15).
But as we know with hindsight and with faith, the deliverance brought by Jesus was a different kind of freedom. Not that he was or is indifferent to the plight of those who are under the cosh of a powerful enemy, but he knew that everyone also needs a far deeper liberation, not just the freedom from the sins of others but freedom from their own sins.
And that is where Christians celebrate a festival meal of freedom and justice. We call it Holy Communion, where we proclaim that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Yet the moment you try to make that connection with John’s Gospel, you have trouble. John is the only Evangelist not to record the institution of the Lord’s Supper. The nearest he has is the feeding of the five thousand, followed by the conversation later in John 6 where Jesus describes himself as ‘the bread of life’. You also see in this story Jesus not simply saying grace before the bread and fish are distributed, but giving thanks, in language similar to that which he used at the Last Supper. It is no wonder that the nineteenth century Christian F D Maurice, when asked whether this passage was about the Lord’s Supper, said no, but that equally, there was no better place in the Scriptures to learn about Holy Communion than here.
I have always had a problem with the way we give such small amounts of bread and wine to worshippers at Holy Communion. But perhaps God intends us to expect a feeding miracle at the sacrament. As we receive small morsels of bread and take tiny sips of wine, God multiplies them in our hearts, as he makes himself real to us by his grace through our faith.
So we might wonder, especially in a well-fed western society what the feeding of the five thousand means for us, but we can immediately see one application. It helps us come to the Lord’s table with expectant faith that he will work in us.
Secondly, we have the Mountain. The disciples go up a mountain with Jesus (verse 3) after he has healed many sick people (verse 2), just as Moses went up the mountain to be with God, after God delivered the children of Israel from Egypt. Moses receives the Ten Commandments.
Now before we note what the Jesus equivalent here to the Moses parallel might be, we do well for a moment to think about the Ten Commandments. Sometimes we think these are rules for a healthy society, and everyone should follow them. Well – yes, they reflect God’s standards. But we are mistaken if we think we can commend them to others or command others to follow them and all will be well. As a young Local Preacher, I remember an elderly lady saying to me after a service, “If we could just get our country to follow the Ten Commandments again, everything would be all right.”
But it’s important to remember something about the timing of the Ten Commandments. God gave them to Israel after he delivered them from Egypt. In other words, keeping the Ten Commandments was never going to earn salvation for Israel. Rather, keeping the Ten Commandments was a grateful response to God’s faithful covenant love in delivering them. They were to keep the commandments as a sign of gratitude.
Now when Jesus invites the disciples up the mountain in this story and he is then joined by the large crowd (verse 5), what is the Son of God looking for? He looks for a response to his saving acts. The crowd know he has been healing people and the disciples know he has been performing wonders such as turning water into wine (2:1ff) and has been referring to himself as ‘the living water’ (4:10), relying on food from his Father (4:33). In other words, they know some amazing acts and statements of deliverance from him. Do you not think that he too looks for some grateful obedient faith?
And just as Moses didn’t get a great response from the Israelites – you’ll recall that a golden calf was involved – neither does Jesus. When he tests the disciples with the question of what to do about the problem (verses 5-6), Philip responds that six months’ wages would not be enough to feed everyone (verse 7).
Andrew does a little better, though. Just as in an earlier chapter he brought his brother Simon Peter to Jesus, now he brings a small boy. ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ (Verse 9) He doesn’t sound full of hope. Just a boy in a grown-up world. Just five loaves – and barley loaves at that, the food of the poor. Not only that, but the two fish are not fresh fish but dried or pickled fish – again, elements of a poor family’s diet. There’s not much, and it’s not of great quality.
Yet that is what Jesus uses. It may not be much and it may not be good, but he performs the miraculous sign with it. Just as Andrew’s faith was not much. Just as our faith may not be much.
What is God looking for? He is searching for grateful obedient faith in response to all he has done for us in Christ. We may not think we have anything much to give, but the challenge then is not to reject God like the Israelites, nor to be faithless like Philip, but to offer even the meagre faith of an Andrew. Even a response like that is enough. It puts us in God’s hands, at God’s disposal. That’s what we need to do.
Thirdly and finally, this all happens in a withdrawn place (verse 3 cf. verse 15). There may have been ‘a great deal of grass’ on which to sit down (verse 10), but it was clearly remote. It was the equivalent of the Wilderness. This story is about food being provided in a wilderness. So not only does it resonate with the Passover, it also makes connections with the provision of the manna.
You’ll remember that when God supplied the manna to the children of Israel in the wilderness, he did so after a bout of complaining. They were missing the home comforts of Egypt – a rich claim from a group of people who had been forced to make bricks without straw, but they were fed up with the plainness and simplicity of their desert life. They hardly had the best of motives. Yet God provided for them.
And here, you could say that the crowd didn’t entirely have the best of motives. I’m sure there was a certain amount of genuine human need mixed in as they followed the Healer to his mountain hideaway, but there was a clear element of going for what was in it for them – hence they label Jesus as the prophet they had expected (verse 14) and try to make him king by force (verse 15) to serve their purposes.
Yet just as in the wilderness where God provided for an unworthy bunch, so he did the same in Christ here. That may be revolutionary to us in a society where our welfare state is based on the idea of the ‘deserving poor’, but grace doesn’t simply give to the deserving. It wouldn’t be grace then. God in grace gives blessings to the undeserving.
Before I studied Theology and then trained for the ministry, I was a civil servant, working in what was then known as the Department of Health and Social Security (or the Department of Stealth and Total Obscurity, as some frustrated wags called it). I remember being on a Christian holiday one year, where a rather Hyacinth Bucket type woman asked me what my work was. Replying that I worked for the DHSS, she said, “Well at least you are on the right side of the counter.” That’s the kind of attitude that doesn’t understand grace.
No – the grace of a God who blesses the undeserving in the wilderness looks very different. It may be something apparently trivial, like the story of Steve Chalke who first went to church because that was where the pretty girls were, only to find himself bowled over by Jesus Christ. It may be someone who tries to strike a bargain with God – “If you do this for me, I will follow you.” It may be somebody in desperate straits that are partly or completely their own fault. In a book I recently read, Neil Cole said that you can ask the non-Christians in a street who most needs the Gospel, and they will usually be right. They will point you to the person in the most terrible situation. You can visit that person, and often they will be open to the Gospel. It may even be a heinous sinner who has become a social outcast, the modern equivalent of a Zaccheus. Whoever it is, the gracious God who in Christ blessed undeserving people in the wilderness wants to do the same today, through his Son who went to the wilderness of the Cross on our behalf. It is our privilege to be his ambassadors, introducing this reckless and extravagant love to a suspicious world.
And that means we too shall need to learn the habits of recklessness and extravagance if we are to model that grace. May God lead us willingly to the undeserving. For we were – and still are – ourselves among their ranks.