I want to tell you about a little boy named Tony Hudgell. For those of you who follow news out of the UK this boy’s story might be familiar to you. Certainly many of us have heard about Tony’s hero, Captain Sir Tom Moore, the centenarian who raised over 33 million pounds for the NHS covid relief by walking the length of his garden 100 times. Sadly Moore succumbed to complications from Covid just 8 months after being knighted. But this story is about Tony. As a baby Tony required amputation of both his legs. His surgery took place at Evelina London Children’s Hospital. At five Tony is learning to walk on his prosthesis. It’s not easy but he is a determined little boy. Inspired by Captain Sir Moore, Tony decided that he would raise 500 pounds for the Children’s hospital by walking 10 km in the month of June last year, a big feat for someone just learning how to walk. But just like with Captain Moore, Tony surpassed his goal of 500 pounds and managed to raise 1.5 million for the hospital that saved his life. At the beginning of May this year Tony decided to raise more funds for Evelina Hospital, in part in memory of his hero, and walked 100 steps unaided by crutches, another big step towards his own recovery and an incredible gift to the hospital. All because a little boy was willing to step up, do something small, and help others in a big way.
I would argue that the feeding of the five thousand is one of the most familiar stories in the New Testament. This is in part because it is one of the few stories that is told in all for Gospels. What makes John’s version stand out is two-fold. First, it is a very clear attempt at answering the question, “Who is Jesus?” In the introduction it says that a large crowd kept following Jesus because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Meaning, that people were very curious about Jesus’ gifts and ministry and they wanted to learn or experience more. Second, in John’s version this story sets the stage for a very lengthy section on Jesus as the bread of heaven. Seriously, this starts us on a month long look at this theme of bread and Jesus. I suspect that the lectionary collaborators chose to focus on this section during the summer because they expect people to be away, both preachers and parishioners, so for about five weeks the theme is the same to make sure that no one misses the point. Don’t worry, I’ve mixed things up a bit to make it a little more interesting this year. Next week we will hear a short interlude between the feeding of the five thousand and further bread imagery but we will find out that this interlude is answering the same question of “who is Jesus?” John uses these stories to answer that very question and in answering the question takes a deep dive into the image of Jesus as the bread of life.
Learning who Jesus is does not come all at once, but we catch glimpses of it as this story unfolds. The introduction is only four verses but it hints at what is to come. Verses one to three describe the scene. Jesus has just defended himself against naysayers. He leaves to go to the other side of the lake, this time it appears not in a boat but on foot, and following behind him is a large crowd because they have seen Jesus perform signs. John often refers to Jesus’ miracles as signs. This is because, for John, these miracles are not just showing off Jesus’ power and authority but rather proof of Jesus’ divinity. For the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Jesus is usually portrayed as a man, a very special gifted man, but a man. Whereas John really holds onto the divinity of Jesus.
The next verse in the introduction, verse four, tells us the time of year and while it seems like an irrelevant detail it again speaks majorly to who Jesus is. John places this passage at the time of the Passover. As a result it links this meal on the Galilean hillside with the story of the Exodus, with the story of God saving the people from slavery and providing for both their physical and spiritual needs in part through Manna, miraculous bread from heaven. This tiny detail about the time of year is actually at the heart of the entire chapter. For the next 68 verses we will hear how Jesus not only nourishes but redeems, saves the people of God, much like the people of God were saved in the Exodus.
Another detail that makes John’s version stand out from the others is that when Jesus sees this large crowd Jesus is the one who asks, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” John claims that Jesus is the one asking the questions as a way to test Philip because in truth, Jesus already knows what he’s about to do. In our Gospel story Philip answers that it would take an enormous amount of money to buy bread to feed all these people. Philip relates it to cost and thus establishes the mind-set of scarcity. It would cost way too much to feed these people so let’s not even try! I’m sure you can think of times in which the church has functioned on a scarcity model.
Andrew pipes in mentioning that a boy has brought with him a small supply of food but that such a small amount is worthless among so many people. This small boy’s offering is just a drop in a bucket- there’s no way it can make a difference! I’ve often wondered, did this boy offer up his loaves and fishes? Did this little boy step up, and hope that what little he had to offer would help others in a big way? How many of us look at a situation and say, it will cost too much, it will take too much time, it will be too much work, so we might as well not even try. Yet Jesus takes this small amount and nourishes the people, literally. The crowd was looking for a sign and they got one! Jesus fills their stomachs and their hunger. And all it took was something small and seemingly insignificant to make a big impact.
Next week we will hear how a little bit of fear can affect an entire situation but today we hear that a little bit of effort and hope can change an entire situation. Too often I measure need, quantify my inadequate resources or gifts and resign to hopelessness. Yet, I hear stories like Tony’s a five year old twice amputee who is re-learning how to walk and manages to raise funds, major funds, for a good cause and I realize that I have nothing about which to be hopeless. Jesus is standing on the shore amongst all of that need and hunger, with nothing but a few loaves of bread and a couple small fish, demonstrating that when we work with God, we have to expect the unexpected and trust that it will work out. Trust that small acts will show big results. We have to take what little we do have, funds, talents, efforts and step up because through the divinity of Jesus we have been redeemed, our small efforts may seem tiny in comparison but big things can happen when God feeds our souls. Amen