“What was is that Jesus heard?” That is the question that must surely be uppermost in our minds having just listened to that Gospel reading being proclaimed for us. What was it that Jesus heard that led him to withdraw from the crowds into a boat, only to find that when he arrived at the other shore, looking for space and time on his own, he was instead met by the crowds who had followed him around the shore-line eager to be with him. What had he heard, and what had they heard, which led him to want to be on his own, and led them to want to be as close to him as they could?
We do not find out from the text of our Gospel reading, but if we opened our Bibles when we got home, and looked at what precedes this encounter in the Fourteenth Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew we would find that the context for all that takes place is the beheading of John the Baptist. John, the one who had paved the wave out in the wilderness for the coming of Jesus, had been arrested by Herod and held in prison. And on the urgings of Herod’s wife and her daughter, John had had his head chopped off and served on a platter at one of King Herod’s feasts; and now Jesus has come to hear this news. And so grave is it, and so shocking to him, that he breaks off from his teaching and he seeks a quiet place to be alone, to grieve for his cousin, his forerunner, and to reflect on what has taken place.
Rather than trying to get away on foot, he takes a boat to try and evade those who are eager to follow him. But the response of Jesus is not mirrored in the response of the crowd. Jesus wants to be alone, but the crowd want to be with him all the more. So here they are in another wilderness, not the one in which John had been preaching and teaching and baptising before his arrest, but a similar deserted place, in which Jesus sought the refuge of solitude, but in which the crowds sought the refuge of his presence. Responding to their needs, Jesus begins to heal them, and to teach them. Try to imagine being in that place.
Perhaps you can sense what it might have been like for Jesus, seeking space and time simply to take in the bad news that he has heard about John’s beheading. Knowing too that this was a further pointer in the direction of his own fate – for if John is beheaded for preparing the way for Jesus, what other end could there be for Jesus himself? Perhaps you can sense what it might have been like for the crowd. Many of them have come to hear about Jesus through the ministry of John, they must be wondering what will happen next, to Jesus and to them. Is it really true that God could allow this to happen?
There is a desolation in the scene that the writers of Matthew’s Gospel portray for us. Certainly the deserted place, the wilderness, speaks deeply into our hearts about experiences that we have had of uncertainty and bewilderment, and sorrow; and in the midst of all of this, as we heard, God’s abundance breaks through in the most extraordinary of ways.
We know that what was to happen next was held closely in the experience of the first Christian communities. We know that the miracle that unfolded was talked about and reflected upon often in the life of the first followers of Jesus, in fact it is likely that it was talked about and celebrated and reflected upon more than any of the other miracle stories of Jesus because it is the only miracle event that is found in all four of the Gospels. The encounters that we hear week by week as the Gospel is proclaimed in this church, are found in one Gospel or another, sometimes in two, but this story, this experience of the feeding of the five thousand is the only one miracle that is recorded in all four of the Gospels.
As we heard, the disciples say to Jesus, send the crowds away, they need to go for their own good, there is no food for them here. We can understand their concern, large crowds can be unpredictable. When I was a student in Oxford Christians from across the University came together to re-create this event, by quantity not miracle. Over the course of a week we cooked and then offered 5,000 hot dogs free to anyone who wanted one – homeless and wealthy alike – in the busy central streets of the City, as a sign of the freely offered hospitality of God. As the person who was in charge of co-ordinating the logistics for that event, I remember that offering 5,000 of anything is no easy feat. I had a whole team of people to keep the queues in line and to marshall the crowds that built up over the days that we offered the free food. So the disciples were right to be concerned about how the hungry crowds might act as night fell.
But in that wilderness place, where the crowd is utterly dependent upon Jesus, both spiritually as they respond to the death of John, and physically because they have no food of their own, Jesus tells his disciples not to send the them away, but to feed them. The disciples find a few loaves and a couple of fish, that’s all, nothing more. Then Jesus looks up into the heavens, and acknowledging God’s presence, gives thanks, blesses it, and gives the disciples this food and invites them to distribute it to the crowd.
Much has been made by biblical commentators of the fact that Jesus does not hand the food out himself, but entrusts the task to his disciples. Perhaps it is a reminder for us that it is through our hands, through our lives, that the miracle of Jesus’ presence and actions is experienced in the world. Imagine the scene, imagine the surprise: both for the disciples and for the crowd. When they finish, Jesus asks them how it went. Did they have enough to feed everyone? Was it like a typical parish bring and share lunch, where there is always more food than people can possibly eat? The disciples report to him that amazingly they had more food after everyone had eaten than they had had at the start.
How did this happen? The Gospel writers do not tell us, simply that it did. The one who was unwilling to succumb to the temptation of turning stones into bread to meet his own needs, during his forty days in the wilderness, has turned a little bread and a little fish into an abundance of food to meet the needs of others. Like the manna in the wilderness so long before in the time of the Exodus when Moses and the people of Israel were fed from Heaven, God now feeds these people in their wilderness through the presence and power of Jesus.
In Matthew’s Gospel all of this is positioned not just after the death of John but after Jesus’ teaching in parables about the Kingdom of God. We have heard over the last few Sundays about what the Kingdom of God is like through those stories and images that Jesus used with his first disciples. We have heard through words what the Kingdom will be like, and now in the actions of Jesus we are seeing it taking place. There is healing, there is feeding, there is hope in that desolate place.
The Church teaches that all of this was not just a once-off experience two thousand years ago, but that we can find all of these things in the presence of God, in the life of his Church, at another miraculous meal, the one that we have come to celebrate together today. Because this Jesus, who turned water into wine, and multiplied bread will be present here in both of these things at this Eucharist, renewing each of us in the hope of his Kingdom. Giving himself to us in his body, and in his life blood, that through this miracle we might in turn be a miracle for others. That we might share Christ’s presence with those who are, right now, in a place of wilderness – perhaps in the desolate places of uncertainty and fear, perhaps in the desolate places of physical hunger.
The question for us, for you and for me, as we imagine this great feeding miracle out in the wilderness, two thousand years on, and as we gather for our own meal today with him, is how hearing this story, which so energised the first Christian communities, might also inspire and energise us in our faith. Because this story invites us to consider, and to give thanks for, and to respond to the hidden abundance of God at work, right here, in our midst.