When I was in Australia, prior to my ordination, I was in the seminary’s Ministry Formation program, taking classes and training for practical matters in church work. Part of the program included a series of guest speakers, who would come in and address us ordinands on some topic relevant to our upcoming ministries. One such guest speaker was an American laywoman who like me had been living in Melbourne for some time. I can’t say I even remember what her topic was supposed to be, but I remember her tone—she was salty, confrontational, and provocative—and I suspect that she had been brought in not so much for what she had to say as with the intent to give us all a bit of a shakeup. During the Q&A one of my peers expressed some doubts about her own abilities to achieve her ministry goals: “I don’t know if I can do it,” she confessed. Our guest speaker shot back with some sarcasm: “Oh no? Why not, is there not enough grace?”
This was not what you would call a sensitive reply. It was rather testy, but it stuck with me. And it stuck with me because I too was our speaker’s target. I also am often inhibited because I am not sure that there really is enough grace. Maybe you are this way sometimes too. If we are not convinced that God’s grace is sufficient for our needs, even abundantly beyond what we need, then we limit ourselves before we have even got going. When it comes to what we can do for our Savior and for the advancement of his kingdom all too often our ambitions are too small, our aim is too low.
Today’s account of the feeding of the multitude from John’s gospel is in part meant to teach us how unfortunate it is that we don’t trust in the boundlessness of the grace of Christ and how overwhelming that grace really is if we will boldly expect it.
You probably know that the feeding of the multitude is the only one of our Lord’s miracles to be reported in all four Gospels; today though I want to draw on some of the features of this story that are unique to John.
First of all, Philip plays a unique role in John’s account. Philip is my guy in this story. He’s the straight man who Jesus sets up with his question: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Now maybe Jesus is asking Philip specifically because he is a local; Philip is from Bethsaida, which is the nearest village. But there is an even deeper reason that John tells us straight out, and that is that Jesus is testing him. You can almost imagine our Lord being a little sarcastic here himself, knowing that there is no way his question can be answered in human terms. That’s because there are five thousand men alone present, not counting many thousands more women and children. Bethsaida at the time was a village of only two or three thousand people, most of whom may in fact be right here, at our Lord’s feet, so the needs of this crowd certainly cannot be met by the neighborhood’s resources.
It’s as if or Lord is saying, “So what do you think, Philip? Any bright ideas?” And Philip falls for it and gives an annoyingly pedantic answer: “By my calculations, Jesus, we would need several thousand dollars, and even that ‘would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’” Philip’s rather lame answer is a confession of total insufficiency. But there is truth in his answer too. The question we are told is a test, because Jesus already knows what he will do. I have said this before from this pulpit, and I say it now again. For John the Gospel writer, Jesus is always in control. Always. Jesus already knows very well that this crowd on its own cannot feed itself, either literally or spiritually. His question is meant to show that the problem of our insufficiency, of our inadequacy before the Lord is one that—in human terms and with only human effort—cannot be solved at all. This is the truth in Philip’s feeble answer. We don’t have enough. We can’t do it. We don’t have enough on our own to supply even a little of what we all need.
And what is worse “a little” is the most we seem to even aspire to on our own. How narrow Philip’s vision really is, how cramped his imagination. It is as if Philip was not even there for the first five chapters of John, as if he did not see our Lord turn water to wine or heal the sick or read his friend Nathanael’s mind. You can imagine Jesus hoping for just a little faith from Philip at this point, for him to say something more like, “Lord, I don’t know how you are going to feed all these people, but I am sure you can.” I get Philip here, because his lack of trust and vision is my lack of trust and vision—but that lack is going to have to be fixed.
Because Jesus already is in control, he already knows what he will do, and he already knows our needs before it has even dawned on us that we have a need, both physical and spiritual. And he has even already purposed to meet that need, not by giving us “a little,” but by opening the floodgates of grace and provision. You think you can’t deliver even “a little,” Philip? Well watch this… Jesus can do much better than just a little.
Now admittedly what he has to work with is not promising. The disciple Andrew introduces an unnamed boy who has enough for himself perhaps, some barley loaves, which is the basic sustenance of poor people who could not afford finer flour, and there’s some fish, though the Greek here implies that these are not even whole fish but only a chopped-up topping for the bread. In this meager supply we again see an image of the insufficiency of our own resources. What we have of our own is so small it is barely worth mentioning. Our own means do not suffice, do not even begin to suffice. But Jesus will demonstrate how what little we have—by the grace of God—can be transformed into extraordinary proportions.
In the hands of Jesus, this little boy’s gift is consecrated to the father, as Jesus always gives thanks to the Father, and the gift of bread is broken. And what happens next, while undoubtedly miraculous, is told so unnoticeably that John does not even draw attention to it as a miracle. He merely says that Jesus distributed the gift until everyone had enough: “Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted” until “they were satisfied.”
And more was left over besides. For what comes from the grace of God is never just “a little” but more than we can even think to ask and indeed more than we can even handle. In fact it is this detail of the twelve leftover baskets, a seeming afterthought, it is this detail that convinces us more than any other of the miraculous nature of what has taken place. The miracle is that there is more than enough. There is more than enough grace. So the next time you think to yourself, “I don’t know if I can do it,” remember this miracle. Because the truth is you can’t, but there is enough grace. There is enough grace to meet your every need and then some, there is more besides.
The people for whom this miracle has been performed recognize in verse 14 that Jesus is a prophet. And that is so. He is a prophet, and he has already for example foretold the destruction and resurrection of his own body. And in the very next verse they hail him as a king, and so he is. But what they don’t seem to recognize is his third office: Jesus is not just a prophet and a king, he is also a priest. Before he can be crowned king, his prophecy must come true, and for that he must be the priest who is also the sacrificial victim. That phrase in verse 11—“when he had given thanks”—should ring a bell; so should the Greek word that we translate as “given thanks”: That word is “Eucharist.” And so another distinctive of John’s account of the feeding of the multitude is that John emphasizes that Jesus does not just give bread to the needy: Jesus is the bread; his own body is the bread of heaven.
It is John too who alone reminds us that this miracle takes place at Passover; this is important because at the next Passover Jesus will undergo his Passion, and then he will offer himself as the sacrificial Passover lamb. The feeding of the multitude for John is a sign of even greater grace yet to come. Let us not forget this detail about the feeding of the multitude: There was a miraculous superabundance of leftover bread, but John says the leftovers are “fragments.” What was small to begin with has been multiplied. But in order for the bread to be multiplied it must be torn to bits. The bread was broken, again and again, into piece after piece, into thousands of fragments.
John wants us to anticipate that Jesus—the prophet, king, and priest—Jesus will soon find himself deserted by all. There will be no multitude. There will be no disciples standing by. There will be no young boy lending the assistance of even his meager means. At that time, deprived of all else, Jesus Christ will have nothing left to offer but himself. And when he does, there will be more than enough. Amen.