Imagine you were having a picnic with family or friends. What would you do if you met some people you hadn’t seen for a while, you got to talking and then realised that it was time for lunch? Would you keep talking with them in the hope that they would soon leave so you could eat? Would you subtly tell them that it was lunch and probably time for them to move on? Or would you invite them to stay and share your picnic even though you might not really have enough for everyone?
Would your answer be the same if you were talking with five people? What if there were fifteen? Would you share your lunch with fifty? What if there were five thousand extra people who wanted to join your picnic? Would you share your food with them?
In some ways, this scenario starts to sound silly when we begin thinking about more than five people. However, when we ask ourselves if we would share our picnic with five, fifteen or even fifty people, then we might begin to understand the disciples’ reaction when Jesus told them to feed the five thousand men, plus women and children, in Matthew 14:13-21. Can you seriously imagine sharing your food with more than five thousand other people? The idea sounds ridiculous! It is impossible for us to imagine that five loaves of bread and two fish could feed that many people. However, the disciples trusted Jesus enough to give him what they had, and with his blessing on the food, it not only fed all those people but there were twelve baskets of leftovers!
People usually hear this story telling us that we should share what we have with others. Some people understand it saying that we should literally share our food with people who are hungry. I know of churches that started ministries in response to it, taking left-over bread to people. These ministries are good and can be a meaningful expression of grace from the congregation to those who are in need. However, John’s version of the story in chapter six moves into an extended reflection on who Jesus is as the eternal Bread of Life. This suggests to me that maybe the miraculous feeding of the five thousand isn’t actually about food at all. What if it’s about something much deeper…?
For example, over the last couple of months our congregation has been on a journey with our worship because of the COVID-19 restrictions. After being fully online for a couple of months, we started meeting in groups of twenty to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in our hall. Then, as the restrictions eased, we have had services with larger numbers gathering until the people who worship at our early service were able to move back into the church building. This week, our later service will also be moving back into the church for the first time since March. Along the way I have been inviting feedback from people connected with our congregation about what we have been doing and what our possible next steps could be as we resumed our congregation’s various ministries. Generally, as people responded to me, what I heard people telling me was what they wanted, what they liked, or what suited them. I don’t want to sound critical of these responses – I understand them and want to hear what people think – but I wonder if they can also tell us something about our human condition.
How might we have responded if we were the disciples who brought the five loaves and two fish to Jesus, and he instructed us to give them to the five thousand men plus women and children who were with us? Would we have trusted Jesus and shared what we had with the crowds of people who were there? Or would we have preferred to keep the food for ourselves and let someone else look after the others?
An hour or two on Sunday morning isn’t a large amount of time. It is pretty small, like a meal of five loaves and two fish. But one thing I hear in the story of the feeding of the five thousand (plus women and children) is that Jesus receives the little things we give him, blesses them, and is able to make a big difference in the lives of lots of people through them. Jesus promises that however little we might have, when we offer it to him in faith and share it with others in love, Jesus can provide for a lot of people through it.
With our conversations around worship over the last few months in mind, this story leads me to wonder: What might the worship life of our congregation be like if we did the same with our Sunday mornings? What might happen if, instead of coming to worship just with the desire or expectation to be fed, we gave this time to Jesus and asked them to bless it so that others could be fed? If we think about Sunday mornings as the loaves and fishes, I can understand that our default position might be to want to eat first and let others have whatever is left. The faith I see in the disciples who gave their food to Jesus, though, is that they trusted him and gave what they had first so others could be fed. The result was that there was more than enough for everyone, and there were still leftovers! Is it possible, if we offered our Sunday mornings and what we do in worship to Jesus first, we might find that not only we are fed, but others are fed with God’s grace and goodness and there is still enough to provide for us throughout the week?
This isn’t just about worship. I am using Sunday morning worship as an example because it is a question that has been simmering in our congregation for the last few months. We will continue talking about the form of our worship services as COVID-19 restrictions are eased and we look towards the future God intends for our congregation. The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (plus women and children) is basically about faith. In every area of our lives, do we believe that when we give even the smallest things to Jesus, he will bless them and provide more than enough for us so we can share God’s goodness and grace with others? Do we trust him to give him what we have, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem, so Jesus can bless, provide for, and feed others through what we offer?
I’m not sure what I would do if my family’s picnic was crashed by others. I hope I would share our food with them, but I also know that sometimes our own desires and appetites can get in the way. The story of the feeding of the five thousand tells me that the One who gave everything out of love for us, not just his lunch but his whole life, has the power to take something small, like some loaves and fish, or a couple of hours on a Sunday morning, and do amazing things with them. What might happen if we gave what we have over to him in faith, asked him to bless it, and then shared it with the people around us?
More to think about & discuss:
- Discuss or reflect on what you would do if five people you hadn’t seen for a while turned up unexpectedly at a picnic you were having. Would you share your food with them? What if it was fifteen, fifty, or five hundred people?
- How do you honestly think the disciples might have reacted when Jesus told them to share their loaves and fishes with the crowds that day? Do you think they would have responded enthusiastically with unshakable faith? Or do you think they might have had a few doubts? Discuss your reasons for your thoughts.
- Where do you see the disciples acting in faith in this story? Where do you see them acting in love for others?
- I have used our congregation’s Sunday morning worship as an example of how we might sometimes think more of ourselves than others first. What are some other areas of life you might have seen people do that?
- What are some things in your life that you would rather hang on to than give to Jesus so he can share them with others?
- Why do you think we can find it hard to give what we have over to Jesus?
- Spend some time discussing or reflecting on what might happen if you gave something over to Jesus, no matter how small it might seem, in the faith that he would bless it and provide for other people through it…
- What is something you can give to Jesus as an act of faith in him and love for others?
You can also see a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/VrEkBvq7_S8