July 29, 2018 – 10th Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
Recently I was speaking with a clergy friend about changes in church services resulting from the fact that so many people in our communities no longer attend church. We were speaking about funerals and weddings when the Eucharist is celebrated as part of the service. I mentioned that though I try my best to welcome everyone to receive the sacrament, very few people (other than members of this congregation) ever do come up to the altar on these occasions. Agreeing that this is a common occurrence, my friend said that she had had one interesting experience that was quite different.
Last fall a friend of hers in Massachusetts died unexpectedly. We’ll call her Mary. She was an older woman who had many health problems, but nothing that didn’t appear to be successfully managed. However, she became ill, complications arose and she died. Mary and her husband had been members of an Episcopal church for many years, but in recent years had stopped participating. Her husband wanted his wife’s funeral to be at their old church. The priest was someone new whom they hadn’t known. The priest met with the man and other family members to plan the service. Her first step was to ask about Mary – what was she like, what meant the most to her?
They explained that Mary loved parties. She loved to entertain guests in her home. She loved to cook and serve food to her guests, and whenever they were invited to someone else’s home, Mary brought generous food offerings to share. She was never happier than when she was in the midst of a group of people enjoying great food and drink and one another’s company.
At the service the priest spoke about all she had learned about the woman whose life they were honoring. She concluded by speaking about how much Mary loved hosting parties and sharing good food and good times with others. Then the priest welcomed the congregation to receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist, emphasizing how well their participation in the sacred meal would honor this woman who had been such a generous host. And amazingly, almost everyone in the church went to the altar rail and took part in the banquet of the Lord!
Back to the account of Jesus feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. Jesus is the host in John’s account of this miracle. In the other gospels – incidentally, this is the only miracle reported in all four gospels – in the other gospel accounts Jesus asks the disciples to deliver the food to the people. In John’s gospel Jesus distributes the bread and the fish. We might be thinking to ourselves that this is impossible – how long would it take Jesus to make his way through a crowd of five thousand people handing out supper? Factually and literally perhaps we are right. But the point that John is making is that abundance of life comes from Jesus alone, because he is the Good Shepherd and he is the Bread of Life.
It is clear from John’s report that there was an abundance of food, enough to satisfy all the people. Not an amount sufficient only to keep people from fainting with hunger, but an amount that was enough, an amount that filled each person’s needs. And after everyone had been satisfied, there were twelve baskets full of leftover food – more than Jesus started out with!
What might the account of this miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand have to say to us? Let’s recall first that Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He was a generous host, is a generous host, and will always be a generous host, offering God’s people the Bread of Life. Like the congregation gathered at Mary’s funeral it is good for us to remember the many ways that Christ has already provided us with what we need and more. In every celebration of the Eucharist we recall Christ’s work of redemption with thanksgiving. I would invite you to think more personally about all that Christ has done for you, in your life and in the lives of the people close to you. How have you and they already been fed the Bread of Life? Might Christ somehow be offering you more abundant life now, offering you what will truly satisfy you? Will you open your hands and minds and hearts to receive his gifts with a grateful heart? Will you gladly take your place at the banquet of the Lord?
The gospel of John emphasizes the closeness of Jesus Christ and the Father. They abide in one another. Those who have seen the Son have seen the Father. Father and Son glorify one another. The Son does the will of the Father. And so on. In this miracle of feeding Jesus shows us the work of the Father, always generously giving life, offering human beings what we need to become satisfied.
That day more than two thousand years ago a great crowd had followed Jesus – a crowd of all sorts of people. Some – perhaps most – had come to receive healing from Jesus, seeking to be “fixed” so that they could return to life as they had been living it. Perhaps some were simply curious and decided to see what all this commotion about Jesus was for. Others may have tagged along with neighbors or family members who wanted company on the journey. Some may have recognized the “signs” they heard Jesus had been doing as signifying that he was the Messiah the Jews had been eagerly waiting and hoping for. People were there for different reasons, just as the people gathered in Christian churches are there and here for different reasons.
Jesus fed them all without question. He had once told the disciples that their Father in heaven “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). That day Jesus showed the people this work of the Father. The people were there and hungry, so Jesus fed them, taking five loaves of bread and two fish and after thanking the Father, feeding the multitude with an abundance of food. No questions asked of the hungry, no criteria for admission to the supper other than need, all were welcome to this outdoor banquet of the Lord.
We have all been guests at the Lord’s banquet, at this table and others. No price of admission, no engraved invitations to an exclusive guest list, no secret password, no questions asked. The only requirement is hunger and thirst – in our bodies, in our minds, and in our souls. The Lord is standing ready to be a generous host to all of us. And as we leave the table he has just a few words for each of us before we go out the door: “My friend, ‘freely you have received, freely give’” (Matthew 10:8). In Jesus’ name. Amen.