By Matt Marino
This week, sitting in Blacksmith Coffee waiting for a friend, I overheard people at the tables around me.
Two middle-aged women one-upped each other on whose husband was worse.
A guy in his 20s stirring a flat white sat down next to his hipster bud. After opening with “Have you seen your newsfeed?” they lost themselves in gloomy political talk.
Four old guys commiserated on life’s disappointments.
Behind me, three young moms bragged on their high-end vacations. Finally one said, “Honestly, how many spa days can you do?”
Bruce Springsteen may have been onto something when he sang, “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.”
Please pray with me: Father, we read of your Son feeding multitudes, but in the human heart there lurks a hunger. Help us, we pray, to connect the dots between our hunger and your provision. Amen.
You’ve probably heard that Jesus was the master of the super-normal. But of all the unexplainable things Jesus did, the one miracle that all four eyewitnesses describe is the Feeding of the 5,000.
The other three witnesses tell us the disciples have just returned from a field trip, fresh back from Jesus sending them out two by two. The text suggests they were very impressed with themselves. In Mark 6 and Luke 9 they brag, “Even demons obey us.” You get the impression the disciples are moonwalking and high-fiving as they report their exploits to Jesus.
A bit of background: John, writing decades after the other witnesses, organized his take on Jesus’ life around seven signs that reveal Jesus as the Son of God. John has a pattern: Sign, discussion, discourse. Jesus performs a sign. People discuss what it means. Jesus clears it up in some form of discourse or teaching.
Today’s reading is the sign. But in a way that’s unique to this sign, John applies the sign not to the unbelievers, but to the disciples. For the next four weeks, our Gospel readings relay the dialogue and discourse to the feeding the multitudes as it applies to those who are not yet disciples.
In the other three Gospels ,the disciples distributed the food. John omits that detail. In John, the action is carried out by Jesus and the disciples are passive recipients of an object lesson. Notice in verse 12 that Jesus has the leftovers picked up. Who does he have do it? The disciples.
In verse 13, when they finish, there how many baskets of leftovers? Twelve. And there are how many disciples? Twelve.
People think, “How nice, Jesus fed hungry people.” And he did. But this miracle, according to the text, is for the disciples.
Jesus’ inner circle has just returned confused about the source of spiritual sustenance: “Fellas, I am your source. And I am their sustenance. All you boys brought to this picnic is me.
This whole sign is a fun sort of a way for Jesus to say, “Fellas, I could bypass all y’all for that kid and his Scoobie Do lunchbox.”
Jesus is pointing to a truth that we who name the name of Jesus easily forgot: The human heart hungers for a meal we did not prepare and long for a love this world cannot provide.
Springsteen wrote, “Everybody has a hungry heart.” How tone deaf is our secular culture when it tells us that we shouldn’t be spiritually hungry, that, since you and I are accidents of time and chance, we are searching for answers that just aren’t there. Most of us are far more likely to make horrible life choices as a result of our spiritual longings than to ignore them.
To our chagrin, and even occasionally to our detriment, humans are meaning-making creatures. We cannot help but experience our lives as stories, cannot help but assign purpose and connect dots. So, when postmodernism says we live in a world without meaning, well, that just doesn’t work for us. Our hunger convinces us a meal must exist. C.S. Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory: “A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he … inhabits a world where eatable substances exist.”
Jesus does not feed the multitude until the disciples think they are Jim Carrey in the movie Bruce Almighty. Remember Jim Carrey blowing open fire hydrants with his fingers to the tune of “I’ve Got the Power” by the German pop group Snap. The disciples, fresh off their preaching tour, were so self-important, so self-sufficient. Here we sit after Hurricane Harvey. All we need to remind us of our insufficiency is one good hurricane. Jesus Christ is not just the first disciples’ sufficiency. He is ours.
And the people of the world cannot see Jesus as the one for whom humanity hungers unless you and I tell them. Folk these days don’t generally start their seeking with the church. They start where they are. That is why most will come to your life group before they will come to church. The beginning of a walk of faith for most is seeing people who walk with Jesus serving others, and willing to talk about the one who is our provision — willing to share, one beggar to another, about a heavenly banquet offered freely to us all.
Our young adults Alpha course meets at a parishioner’s house. Thirty young professionals laughed over dinner, listened to a talk about Jesus, then discussed their lives and the difference a relationship with God through Jesus Christ is making. It was warm and welcoming. In fact, one person said, “I have never felt really welcome in a church before this group.” The contrast between the hunger in the coffeehouse and hunger satisfied that night was striking. It was a picture of the supper Scripture promises us in the kingdom, of hunger filled.
Before we wrap up, though, there is another miracle in our passage: Jesus walks on water. This may feel like Miracle Fest 2000, but three of the four Gospel writers connect these two stories, which makes sense because both are about the disciples’ lack of trust in light of who Jesus repeatedly revealed himself to be.
The disciples have left in a boat. Perhaps they are disappointed that Jesus wouldn’t let the multitudes make him the king of their expectations. Like the people around me in Blacksmith Coffee, we too hunger for the world to be better, for life to be about more than another spa day. Like the disciples, we want the kingdom, but we want the kingdom on our terms.
Jesus won’t be neatly packaged, though, neither then or now. We may float away on false expectations, but Jesus always comes; approaching, sometimes quietly, sometimes terrifyingly.
When they ask who it is, Jesus’ answer is “I am.” It is one of those “I am” statements, a reference to “I am who I am,” that God relayed to Moses. Whenever Jesus said “I am,” every Jew heard Jesus using God’s personal check-signing name. The feeding of the 5,000 has echoes of Moses giving the people manna in the wilderness. But Jesus upped the ante: More than a prophet after the likes of Moses who gave them bread, Jesus said unmistakably, “I’m the one who spoke to Moses. I’m the one who sent the manna.”
The only thing more astounding than what Jesus had just done was his explanation of who he was in doing it.
What are the disciples to do next? “They took him into the boat.” The word in the original language there is “received.” It’s the verb John uses over and over to describe believing on Jesus as the Son of God: “Believe and receive.” Trust and reception on the dark and wind-tossed sea is followed immediately by calm and joy.
When our tummies are hungry it tells us we need to eat. When our hearts are hungry, it tells us we need our Maker.
Are you longing with a hunger not long satisfied with the things of this world? Then receive him.
We cannot serve Jesus without first receiving Jesus. The secret to being full is to receive Jesus Christ, in our boat, as our bread.
Christians work for the common good, but the Christian faith is not a social program, it is a love affair with God in Christ. He is the satisfaction of our heart’s true desire. The Christian faith is the opening of a door upon which we have always knocked, a meal we have always longed for, a relationship we were made to be in. Receive him!
In moments we will come to take the bread and drink the cup. As the writer of Hebrews said, “Let us with confidence draw near the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”
Don’t give Bruce Springsteen the last word. I have another song for you: Isaac Watts’s hymn from the 1700s, “Let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare him room.” And heaven and nature — and your heart — will sing.
The Rev. Matt Marino is rector of Trinity Parish in St. Augustine, Florida.