by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Consider for a moment all the ways we feed people at Grace…
…pancake breakfast and GLOW, heat respite and during Grace Room distribution, fellowship following traditional worship, stewardship brunches, past pig roasts and Oktoberfests, the Reformation and centennial celebrations, funeral lunches and WELCA Bible study goodies, snacks shared when hungry people appear at the office door, council snacks and occasional luncheons like the WELCA Christmas concert luncheon, not to mention all the other groups who serve food from Grace like Native American Urban Ministry, Trevor's Vision, Oasis Church, and anyone who holds their wedding reception or engagement party or renewal of vows reception here. At first glance, you'd think we were in the business of feeding people!
Turns out, Jesus was in the business of feeding people. In today's gospel, followed by a large crowd seeking healing, Jesus and his disciples set about to feed the 5,000. When Jesus asks the disciples how they will feed the crowd, Jesus' disciple Andrew declares: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” What are they? Enough. Jesus instructs the disciples to have the people sit down. He takes the five loaves and two fish, gives thanks, and distributes them, as much as anyone wants—with twelve baskets left over. The miraculous multiplication of bread and fish not only feeds people but convinces them that God sent Jesus as a prophet. In my investigation of the gospels, the feeding of the 5,000 is the only story besides Jesus' baptism, death, and resurrection that appears in all four gospels.
Each of the gospels was written at a different time and for a particular audience and thus contains emphasis, theologically, on certain themes. The earliest gospel, Mark, was written in 70 of the common era, about 40 years after Jesus' death and resurrection and is the least “theologized” gospel meaning the stories are brief, raw accounts without a lot of embellishment or explanation by the author. While Mark clearly believes that Jesus is the Son of God, Mark contains no miraculous birth narrative and no post-resurrection appearances, thus suggesting Jesus was not God, just the Son of God, a belief that was perhaps commonly held in the church of the time.
Likely ten years later, Matthew writes his account of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection for Jewish-Christian communities (people who converted to Christianity from Judaism), evidenced by the ample number of Old Testament quotes and an introduction that contains a genealogy, connecting Jesus to King David and Father Abraham. For Matthew, Jesus is a teacher for this gospel contains the Sermon on the Mount and numerous parables. In the end, Jesus' death fulfills the ultimate sacrifice the Jews had come to believe God expected.
Around the same time in history, about 80 of the common era, Luke writes his own account—but for Gentile-Christian communities (people who had converted to Christianity from what we would call paganism). Numerous times throughout this gospel, Jesus' ministry expands beyond the Jewish circle. Luke's gospel highlights the women of the early church and a special concern for anyone marginalized, such as tax collectors and prostitutes. In Luke, Jesus' death is evidence of injustice within the Roman Empire, an empire that puts to death an advocate of justice and non-violence.
Finally, around 100 of the common era, the gospel of John emerges. Matthew, Mark, and Luke read similarly to one another with many stories held in common, but by comparison to these “synoptic” gospels, John is starkly different. In John, Jesus is God, the Word made flesh, from start to finish, a cool cucumber of a healer, teacher, and prophet who knows and has control of the whole situation—from the beginning of the world through his appearances following his resurrection.
I share all of this to say: from these various theological perspectives, in these four separate gospel accounts of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, they share only four stories in common: baptism, death, resurrection, and the feeding of the 5,000.
When I think about what Jesus did, when I consider the focus of Jesus' ministry, when I ponder the important aspects of his life, many stories come to mind, like the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Sermon on the Mount, and those are good parables and sermons and important to preach and teach. But Jesus feeds people in all four gospels! In John, Jesus goes on, after feeding people, to discuss and then preach: I am the Bread of Life. And we'll hear about all the ways Jesus spiritually feeds us for the next four weeks. But first, Jesus literally feeds people.
Among religious people, there is often an unspoken assumption that people consist of body and spirit, and that, in terms of importance, spirit triumphs over body. The New Testament, a collection of books composed by Greek and Greek-influenced authors, largely presents humanity in this way. But if we read the Old Testament carefully, we find body and spirit inextricably intertwined in such a way that they cannot be pulled apart. To live at all is to live in the flesh. There is no disembodiment. To care for people is to care for the actual physical health and well-being of people AND to care for the emotional, intellectual, and indescribable aspects of what it is to be human. So, of course, Jesus fed people because he loved them—and people cannot live without food.
Preaching professor and John scholar at Luther Seminary Karoline Lewis writes about the feeding of the 5,000: “Being fed, literally, is a hallmark of the presence of God...where people are fed, literally, is where you can expect to experience grace -- see it, taste it, smell it, feel it.”
When I read her words this week, I burst into tears of joy—because we serve a lot of food here. And if her words are true, then we are being true to our name: Grace Lutheran Church. “Where people are fed is where you can expect to experience grace.”
Being fed is a hallmark of the presence of God. That's why we feed people here. That's why we collect non-perishable donations for Mount of Olives food closet every January and February and why we receive an offering for ELCA World Hunger every SouperBowl Sunday. That's why we walk in the CROPWalk with sisters and brothers from many traditions—because that money always goes to one local and one global food-related ministry. That's why the ELCA helps sister church bodies throughout the world build sustainable programs to end hunger. Not that we are so great but that God is great—and moving among us so that all might be fed, including each one of us in this room.
Yes, we know that we do not live by bread alone, but we do need bread. And God provides it! Whether here at Grace or at our own tables, even when we question from where our next bread will come, God provides the bread we need. It is not simply our spiritual lives for which God cares—but the gritty requirements of fats and vitamins and minerals. The good news of this story is that, whether Jesus miraculously multiplied the food or the people generously shared what they already had, God moved in such a way that everyone was fed. Nearly every other Sunday of the church year, we hear of the variety of other ways that God feeds us, but today it's simply this: with fish and bread—and more to spare.