Pentecost 7A – Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 145:8-9,14-12, Matthew 14:13-21
Several years ago, I took a class on Christian Spirituality. We studied lots of different spiritual disciplines in which Christians have engaged for centuries, one of which was fasting. I will confess my own lack of understanding of the discipline, although I can now appreciate its place in the Christian life. However, one of the other people in the class was even more perplexed that me. “God made food a sign of the Kingdom!” he said, “I don’t see what’s wrong with it!”
Let me say again, just for clarity, fasting does indeed have a place amongst spiritual practices. However, I have to agree with my friend. It sure does seem like God has made food a sign of the Kingdom.
A fine example of this is in our reading from Isaiah. Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters! Even if you have no money, come buy and eat! Get wine and milk without price. (Isa 55:1) God equates this wine and milk, bread and rich food with the everlasting covenant he makes with his people.
This is not the only place in the book of Isaiah we hear about the great Messianic banquet at the end of time. Isaiah also says: On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. (Isaiah 25:6-7) It isn’t just that God will give good food to those who follow him or to those he invites to some special banquet, this banquet is to celebrate the fact that God has defeated death forever.
We heard this food symbolism in our psalm text for today as well. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing (psalm 145:15-16). And it’s other places in the psalms as well. Taste and see that the Lord is good (psalm 34:8). How sweet are your words to me, sweeter than honey in my mouth (psalm 119:103). And of course, it is our Good Shepherd who prepares a table for us in the 23rd psalm in the presence of our enemies. So good to us is the Lord that our cup runneth over with his blessing.
I could go on, but you get the point. In the Old Testament, food is symbolic of God’s blessings and care for us, and it is also symbolic of the great celebration of God’s final defeat of evil.
Now, over in the New Testament it seems like Jesus is always eating or drinking or eating and drinking. He dines with the wealthy and the poor, breaks bread with friends and foes, shares a cup of wine with the loyal and the disloyal. He transforms water in to wine at a wedding celebration and even prepares a fabulous grilled fish dinner for the disciples after his resurrection. He speaks of his own body, his own self as our real food, saying that he is the bread of life. We are charged to remember over and over again his last meal with his disciples. And then there are some of Jesus’ most documented miracles; he feeds thousands of hungry followers with the small portions of bread and fish from a mere handful of food.
This is one of the most interesting of Jesus miracles because it occurs in all four of the gospels. There are also multiple incidents of Jesus multiplying food in Matthew and Mark. Not only did Jesus like to eat, he liked to share.
For quite a while, Jesus has been preaching and teaching around town, but news comes to him that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been executed and he decides to take some time apart. He seeks to go to a deserted place alone but the crowds of people that have been following him all around realize he is leaving and follow him. Jesus sees the great crowd and has compassion for them. He heals the sick and as the day moves into evening, the disciples are beginning to have concern for how everyone was going to be fed. They suggest to Jesus that he send them away so all of them can go into the towns to get a meal.
Jesus does a strange thing. He tells them: they don’t need to go, you give them something to eat.
Now, let’s get a picture here of what’s going on. There are about five thousand men in this group, and women and children in addition to them. That’s quite a lot of people. Imagine how many grocery bags of food that would be! There are around 9,000 students enrolled at Western Carolina University, so including the women and children that day, it could have approached the same size as WCU’s entire student body.
And Jesus tells the disciples that they can feed them?!?
Well, they do have about five loaves of bread and two fish. Now, there may be some debate as to how big those loaves of bread are or how big the fish might be, but no matter how large, it surely couldn’t feed that many people! But Jesus takes that little bit of food, looks up to heaven, blesses and breaks the loaves of bread (very much like he will do at his last meal with these disciples), gives this food to the disciples and the disciples hand it out to the crowd.
The whole crowd. Everyone. Everyone ate and was filled. No one went hungry. The disciples then take the leftovers and there are enough to fill twelve baskets!
Imagine what it must have been like to be one of the disciples that day. Wow! You’re handing out a miracle! You get to be a part of Jesus’ miracle! Just like the other times when God’s abundant blessing of food arrives, this too is a symbolic image of God providing for us. It is also God actually providing in a real and tangible way, too. This time, the disciples get to be a part of that blessing of God; not just receive a blessing themselves but to share God’s feast with everyone present.
How great would that be? How awesome would it be to get to hand out God’s blessing? How amazing would that be to have Jesus say to you, ‘Here, hand this out to that hungry group of people’?
Hmmm. How awesome, indeed. As far as I know, none of us in this congregation will wonder whether or not we will have access to food tonight. Some of us may struggle a bit more than others to make ends meet and some months might be tighter than others, but we are all well and truly blessed in so many ways. According to The Community Table, our local provider of meals to those in need, over half of the school children in this area are in need of reduced cost lunch and 1 in 6 people in western NC seek food assistance. As of now, The Community Table is serving in excess of 1,200 meals a month. That is a tremendous amount for the small town in which we live.
It is not just food that people are in need of either. Across our city, state, country, and around the world, people are in need of clean water, safe housing, clothing, good education, sustainable livelihood and many other things that we have. Well, we might think, we are only a small congregation. There are not many of us and so many of them. We are few and the need is great. But all things are possible with God. What if we took our little loaves and fish to Jesus? What if we turned to him and said, ‘here’s all we’ve got’? What could Jesus do with what we have? It is quite possible he could make a feast to serve a multitude! Jesus could take us and make us into a banquet of God’s blessings for many!
At the end of all this talk of banquets and eating, however, we must return to an important fact about Jesus and food. While Jesus is indeed the Bread of Life, he is not the Bread King. In one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus multiplying fish and bread to feed thousands, the crowds around him decide to forcibly make him king so that they can continue to receive this earthly food from him. Jesus runs from this. He fed them, or had the disciples feed them, because of his compassion for their need at that moment, not so that they would follow him in the hopes of more free food. He did not feed them to win their hearts and loyalty.
Way back at the beginning of his earthly ministry, Jesus goes into the wilderness to fast and pray and he is tempted by the devil who, among other things, suggests that Jesus use his power to transform rocks into bread in order to satisfy his starving body. But Jesus tells the devil, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ (Mat 4:4 ) Bread, wine, food, the great banquet, all these wonderful blessings are not the end in and of themselves. It is the One who gives these things, the One who hosts the banquet that truly feeds us and everyone else.
So as we go forth from worship today and join together in the breaking of bread and share fellowship around a bountiful table of food, let it be for us a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven, a symbol of God’s generosity and care for each of us, a reminder of the generosity we are blessed and called to share with everyone else who does not have the full table we have, and a symbol of the great banquet at the end of time when God will destroy the shroud that is over all people and swallow up death forever.