For the first followers of Jesus, or the followers of the Way as the early Christians were called, the story of the loaves and the fishes was a central part of their faith in Christ and their daily living out of that faith. The feeding of the 5000 is the most often told story in the NT. It is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels, along with the feeding of the 4000 in Mark and Matthew also.
When early Christian artists sought to depict the heart of their faith and worship, in that first century after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the image that shows up again and again is of the loaves and fishes. But there is nothing merely symbolic about the art that has been discovered in the Christian catacombs. ‘In one of the rock paintings, large baskets of bread and platters of fish are set around a table, with seven people around the table enjoying the food. One image in the Priscilla catacombs shows a table of women gathered around a large meal.’ (Brock and Parker, Robin Meyers)
This was at the heart of what it meant to be the beloved community – provision for all, provided by the community for the community as one continuous God-blessed banquet. For the early Christians, the story of the feeding of the crowds with the loaves and fishes became the heart of their faith in Jesus - it represented both daily need and so, practical feeding, and also, spiritual feeding….
For the early Christians, the story of the feeding of the crowd of 5000 provided a model for their daily work of love and service in the community. In the story, Jesus followed the Jewish tradition of taking bread, giving thanks, blessing it and sharing it with the disciples who then shared it with all the people there. People took the food and shared it with those around them and all received their fill….
This became the formula for that early community – take the food, give thanks to God for it, bless it to the people, break it and share it out – and there will be enough for everyone.
The Book of Acts which tells us the story of the Faith Community of Jesus in the years after his Resurrection and Ascension, tells us in chapter 6: “In those days when the number of (followers of Jesus) were increasing, the Greek speaking Jews[a] among them complained against the Hebrew speaking Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the (community) together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven (people) from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them…..
(Apart from the usual conflict and arguments in any community!), this story tells us some important things – there was a daily distribution of food to those in need, it was a responsibility taken very seriously which involved seven people being anointed to do the task of distribution, and the brothers and sisters of the community were told to choose people for this task who were known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom….
The early church’s emphasis on feeding the community is not surprising as this came absolutely from their time with Jesus. Jesus always made sure people were safe and had enough to eat, he saw this as a priority, as an important part of his service and teaching and he imparted this to his disciples. Jesus’ miracles were not magic tricks, they were always practical – providing needs, healing, restoring, feeding, relieving suffering…. He was so compassionate, and his parables and stories told of the same kindness and compassion:
In Matthew’s version of the feeding of the 5000 it says:
14 Jesus got out of the boat, and when he saw the large crowd, his heart was filled with compassion for them, and he healed their sick (and then fed them…).
When Jesus healed the 12 years old daughter of Jairus, after life came back in to her and she stood up, his first comment to the parents was to give her something to eat!
And in his parable in Matthew 25, Jesus emphasises to the surrounding crowds, which involved a number of the religious leaders, what is important in the Kingdom of God:
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
No wonder the early church emphasised so much, this care for the community. It came from the words, from the very heart, of Jesus himself…
And this providing of food and care to the community in that early time was linked to the Eucharist, because the Eucharistic Meal among the first followers of The Way was actually a meal – provided with the gifts given by those who had the financial means in the community.
We commented before that for the early Christians, the feeding of the 5000 with the loaves and fishes represented both daily need and therefore, practical feeding but also, spiritual feeding…. There is a dual message here in John chapter 6; the practical love of Jesus when he provides food for this crowd of people who have come to hear him, which we hear at the beginning of the chapter, and the spiritual message which becomes more prominent in the discourse of Jesus which we heard today, as chapter 6 progresses…. Jesus brings physical bread and spiritual bread…
In verse 63 of today’s reading, Jesus says;
63 What gives life is God's Spirit; human power is of no use at all. The words I have spoken to you bring God's life-giving Spirit.
When we hear Jesus, we hear the heart of God speaking to us, and when we look on Jesus, we see the face of God…. Jesus reveals God to us, his teaching opens our hearts to God’s love and compassion and transformation, and this brings us life.
We have talked before about how the providing of food and hospitality is vitally important in ME culture; it was in Jesus’ day and it still is today, but hospitality should continue to be an imperative part of Christian communities and culture as followers of Jesus in every part of the world – the provision of physical bread and spiritual bread.
The Eucharist we share is that spiritual feeding of the bread of life, that union with Christ, it is the most profound of those earthly moments when we touch eternity in the now, leading on to eternity in the forever.
Eucharist is about God’s generous love for this world, and there can be no celebration of Holy Eucharist without prayers for God’s world, for the crucial reason that our sharing in the heavenly feast can never be divorced from our sharing in the life of the world, with all its needs, confusion and suffering.
The Eucharist in the early church was an actual meal which was freely offered. The Eucharist, therefore, is the essential sacrament of sharing the abundance of God’s creation. This beautiful feast of life is the consummate example of love, compassion and grace, because in receiving the body and blood of Christ we are being filled with his life-giving presence which brings unity and love – not just for ourselves but principally in how we relate to, and treat, others… In God’s household, no one goes hungry and the early church framed its most important ritual meal, the Eucharist, to reflect that provision of earthly need and spiritual feeding together….
In both the feeding of the 5000, and in the Eucharist, we are assured that in God’s love and provision there is enough for us all….