Did you know that the miracle described in today’s Gospel lesson, what we usually call the “Feeding of the Five Thousand,” is the only miracle other than the Resurrection of Jesus itself that is recorded in all four Gospels? That fact tells us two things at the very outset. First, this event almost certainly occurred. Its memory was preserved by multiple apostolic traditions, that two thousand years ago on a mountainside across the Sea of Galilee, Jesus actually was swarmed by a ravenous crowd, and Jesus miraculously fed them. Second, what occurred on that mountainside must have had special importance for the evangelists, even above and beyond the other miracles of Jesus. It is set above, or at least apart, from the rest.
Whenever this miracle comes up in the lectionary—which is fairly often, since it’s recorded in all four Gospels—the response to it says a lot about the listening audience. Some want to explain the feeding of the five thousand by saying that Jesus was able miraculously to regenerate fish Harry Potter-style, with a little magic mojo. When this is the case, you know you have a group of traditionalist Episcopalians at hand.
Others want to explain the story as an act of contagious generosity, in which many in the crowd were secretly hoarding food, and when they saw the young boy share his meager fare at the behest of Jesus, they, too, opened their cloaks and satchels to share. Thus, the loaves and fishes were multiplied, ensuring that no one went hungry. If this is the preferred explanation, you know you have a congregation of thoroughly modernist Episcopalians.
And then there is the group of Episcopalians who would gather for church in my home state of Arkansas. With rapt attention, they also would listen to this miracle story of Jesus in all its detail. Then they’d eagerly wait in the receiving line after church, and when they reached the preacher to shake his hand, their burning question would be, “Father, was it bass or fried catfish?”
The attentive listener will have noticed that already in this homily I have used the term “miracle” to describe the feeding of the five thousand six times. Much of the preoccupation with this story—and much of the misunderstanding—comes from, I believe, the notion that it is a miracle. Miracles, commonly conceived, are events caused by a suspension of the laws of nature. By definition, miracles stretch credulity to the breaking point, and in order to affirm that a miracle has occurred, a believer must set aside what he knows to be true about the way the world works.
But it’s important to point out that, in its original Greek, the New Testament never refers to the things Jesus does—to the healings, the stilling of storms, the exorcisms, or the feeding of the five thousand—as miracles. That’s a later, Latin translation. Rather, the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke refer to the acts of Jesus with the Greek term “dynamis,” from which we derive our modern word, dynamite. And the Gospel of John consistently refers to them as signs.
What difference does this make? A lot, it seems to me. Unlike miracles, dynamite doesn’t suspend the laws of nature, but it is explosive. It does intend to blow apart and wide open the staid and concrete way of things.
That’s becoming more and more difficult to do in our world. My job requires that I spend a lot of time on social media. It has become an indispensible tool for ministry. Or, I’m just addicted to Facebook. Either way, I have noticed—and you probably have, too—that more and more articles appear on the internet with sensationalistic headlines like, “He thought he was buying a Mountain Dew, but what he discovered when he opened the can was shocking!” Or, “The tiger was re-released into the wild, but you won’t believe what happened next!”
Superlatives abound, and we become jaded. If “shock” is defined by a suspect story of a mouse in a can of Mountain Dew (which is, by the way, what that article was about), then our adjectives truly have become trivialized. The horizons of our wonder have diminished. We have become numb to awe. The notion that our expectations could be blown wide open is dismissed. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
Dynamite is what Matthew, Mark, and Luke call the acts of Jesus. John calls them signs. And signs…as Will Willimon says, “A sign points to something [else] going on that’s even more important.”[i] The feeding of the five thousand, John says, is not a miracle; it’s a sign. So we should ask, to what is it pointing?
Look again at what happens in the story, distilled to its simplest plot points: There is a hungry crowd. There are the disciples who panic that they have neither the means nor the wherewithal to satisfy such gnawing hunger. There is a boy who steps forward and offers all he has. There is Jesus, who takes that gift, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the people. And through the power of Jesus, all are fed. John the Evangelist ends by saying, “When the people saw the sign that Jesus had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’”
According to Will Willimon, Jesus’ action “points to the truth of who Jesus really is and the direction the world is really headed…[This] was a sign that God’s kingdom had come close, that God’s intentions for the world had surged forth.”[ii]
This is the sign. This is the dynamite. This is the superlative that can blow apart the accreted cynicism in our world and reclaim adjectives like wonder and awe: We don’t have to set out to feed the world, which is an overwhelming and panic-inducing prospect. We each only must offer what we have to Jesus, who will take it, and bless it, and break it, and give it to that hungry world with the assurance to us that it will be enough.
This is God’s intention for the whole world. This is the great sign that all four Gospels share. It is the very sign that Jesus will repeat on Maundy Thursday when he introduces the Eucharist and which he will enact with his own life on Good Friday when he hangs on the cross.
In John’s particular telling of the feeding of the five thousand, he notes something that even the other evangelists miss. On this mountainside in dusty Galilee, to which the other Gospels refer as a desolate place, John says with his own expression of wonder and even confusion, “Now, there was a great deal of green grass in this place.” It is as if wherever Jesus goes, life blooms. You see, Jesus is himself a sign, a human oasis in an existential desert, one so brimming over with the presence of God that simply to have proximity to him is to be fed, to be healed.
The great jazz drummer Art Blakey famously said that “music washes away the dust of everyday life.” That is what the signs of Jesus intend to do as well. Jesus washes away the dust of everyday life, to reveal that real life—not the mundane and trivial life of social media and modern ennui but the life God intends—is full of signs, unexpected wonders and surprises that all point to the deep and never-ending love that sustains the whole creation. The feeding of the five thousand reveals to us that we, too, are among those signs, that we, too, are called to participate and give whatever we have to offer to Jesus, that he might make dynamite of us, rendering us those very agents who blow wide open the expectations of the world, and through whom hungry souls are fed.
[i] Willimon, William H. Why Jesus?, 60.
[ii] Ibid., 62 & 64.