The miracle of the feeding of five thousand persons is a familiar one to readers of the Gospels. It is the only miracle of our Lord’s to be featured in all four, so every early church tradition it would seem found this event important enough to record.
St. John’s version is especially important: John’s account of this miracle teaches us three things. It teaches us about reality itself—the world we live in as God intended it; it teaches us about who Jesus is; and it teaches us about who we are.
I have joked from this pulpit before that someday I will make a definitive list of “Fr. Hanson’s Rules for Miracles.” Since I have preached this passage at least twice before here, I think it’s about time I made good on this half-joking promise.
One of modern philosophy’s most famous critics of miracles was the Scottish Enlightenment thinker David Hume. He defined a miracle as a violation of a natural law. On this modern skeptical view a miracle is a kind of magic trick, an exception to the rules of how things go.
This view is of course wrong. Think of this as my first rule for miracles. A miracle is not a violation of a natural law. It is a revelation of what nature really is. It is not a violation of how things normally happen; it is an indication of how things are supposed to happen.
Jesus Christ is not in the business of working miracles for the sake of it. He is not a magician, and a miracle is not a magic trick.
Jesus Christ performs miracles to show us the reality of the world God intends. In our world there is not enough to go around. In our world people face scarcity and poverty and deprivation.
This is not the world that God intended. It is a world marred by sin and selfishness. Jesus performs a miracle to show us not an exception to our world and its laws but to show us that our world is one big exception to God’s original vision; As one biblical commentator puts it, “the miracle is less the irruption of the extraordinary than of God’s ordinary.” The miraculous feeding of the five thousand shows us a glimpse into the unfallen world, not the extraordinary but God’s ordinary, the world operating as it should.
The world that God created is not a world of scarcity but abundance. Not a world of need but one where everyone has what they need and then some.
Think of this as a second rule: A miracle is done for our benefit. Not for it’s own sake. Not as a dazzling display of awesome power. A miracle responds to something in us that is needy and imperfect. So while a miracle is supernatural, it answers to something in our nature. In this case, it satisfies the most basic human demand: hunger. To eat is one of our fundamental human necessities. It’s a daily requirement. Jesus does not ignore this basic human need; he does not address himself only to “higher” things; he does not pontificate to people, treating them as if they were only minds and not also bodies. He feeds them.
A priest friend of mine recently recommended the writings of the Rev. Canon Henry Scott Holland, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. I have enjoyed reading his work on John, and while preparing this sermon I came across these words: “The supernatural will never justify itself unless it can find its confirmation in the natural. The miraculous, that is real, must have its roots in reality. The argument for the Beyond must be found inside that which is here. This is the peculiar Christian question: met by Christ. This is the entire secret of Christian ‘miracle.’” The secret of the miracle performed by Christ is that while it does reveal another reality, the reality as God intended it, it also meets us where we are, in and amidst our needs and imperfections.
In this miracle then we learn something about who Jesus is: He is the one who is motivated by perfect compassion. He knows what we need, and he knows how far away our world is from what the Father in heaven intends.
He is the perfect incarnation of the Father’s love for his creation and for us, and that love is shown for us in the three traditional offices ascribed to Christ. In verse 14, the people whom Jesus has fed recognize on the basis of this miracle that he is indeed a prophet. Then in the very next verse they try to make him king. This however Jesus will not allow because he cannot be made king; he already is a king. Finally, Jesus performs the priestly function of giving thanks in verse 11, the Greek word here for giving thanks being the exact same word we use to refer to the mass: eucharist.
So Jesus reveals himself to us as prophet, king, and priest in this miraculous event.
By feeding us with bread Jesus models the compassion of God (because he is perfectly divine), and he models the grateful response we should offer in response to that love (because he is perfectly human).
This is the last thing we learn from this miracle: What it means to be human. Jesus shows us something about the nature of reality, something about himself, and something about us. The action of grateful offering is what God intends to be the definitive human action. This priestly function is the meaning of human nature itself. Because Jesus Christ is perfectly human as well as perfectly divine we learn from him in this miraculous moment exactly what we are meant to be, and that is a priest of creation. We are meant to be people who enjoy the blessings of what God intends for us and to render our thanks in return.
Eucharist—is at the heart of humanity as well as the heart of the mass. Because the mass is where we can fully appreciate this miracle; its meaning is in the mass constantly re-enacted with our participation and for our benefit.
Here, in the mass, there is more than enough grace and provision for all of us; here there is all we could ever need and then more left over besides. Here, in the mass, we see the compassion of God embodied, the love of God for his creation performed again and again; here we see the face of Christ, prophet, king, and priest. Here, in the mass, we complete a circuit that runs from God to his creation through us and back again.
In the mass the Church enacts the fundamental purpose of the human being: to mediate the action from God to God, to stand as the spokesperson for all nature and creation, to return the echo of thanks for all that God has done for us, from creation to redemption.
Here is something you know but may not think of because it has become so familiar. At the celebration of the Eucharist, when the priest delivers the bread to the people, we say “the body of Christ,” and the receiver is supposed to say “Amen” for a simple reason. “Amen” simply means “yes to that,” and we say “Amen” when we are presented with the body of Christ because we are agreeing with the priest’s pronouncement, we are saying in effect, “Yes, I agree that this is the body of Christ and I receive it with understanding and thanksgiving.”
We say “Amen” because we are acknowledging the miracle of Jesus Christ, who fed the hungry, and who feeds us with his own body in the mass.
Like a miracle, the mass is not an exception to the ordinary run of things; it is the divine drama that makes sense of all things. It is not a part of our life; it is our life. Without it we will die as surely as without bread the body withers and dies.
We are not here to see a magic trick. We are here to take our part in the glorious drama of reality itself. We are here to fellowship with Christ. We are here to participate in the essential human action of thanksgiving. We are here to say our “Amen” to the miracle. So Amen.