It was his very first time serving communion. Jim had been assigned by the Methodist Bishop in Iowa to a student pastorate while he attended seminary. And on this first Sunday in July, Jim stood before his new congregation eager to share the Lord’s Supper. There was a problem, however, it seems that someone thought it was a good idea to pour the grape juice into the challis the night before and place it on the altar. Remember now, in this small church communion was done by intinction, a method in which the congregation comes forward, is given a small piece of bread, and they are to dip it in the challis. Anyway, everything was going along just fine until Jim noticed that the grape juice had become moldy. Not knowing what to do at this point, he quickly announced that they would be taking only bread this time because the juice was, in Jim’s words “not good.” He continued, but here’s the kicker to the story. Suddenly, from the perspective of the congregation, a disembodied hand slowly came out from behind the curtain next to Jim, holding a new challis of juice. The point here? God provides. Even if it’s through the magical, floating hand of an elder. God provides!
Another communion story. Many years ago, before I was a pastor, I was helping with communion on Christmas Eve. It was my job to hold the challis and say, “the love of God poured out for you.” And again, communion in this congregation was by intinction. The other piece of this story that you need to understand is that, like our church, everyone was welcome to participate in the sacrament, including children. Well, one young man, about 6 or 7 years-old come forward with his mother. He received his bread and before his mother could stop him he popped it in his mouth. She quickly corrected him saying, “no, you’re supposed to dip it in the cup first.” And before any of us could react, he removed the bread from his mouth and dunked it in the juice. I like to refer to this incident as “holy double-dipping.” But here’s best part of the story. No one got mad. No one shammed the woman or the boy. The provision in this case was the presence of a loving community. A community that chose to have a good laugh rather than get angry.
Now, I share these two humorous communion stories today because in both instances God provided for the needs of the community! And I’m going to make a case today that the feeding of the 5000 is in fact a precursor; a foreshowing of the sacred meal we’re going to share here today and of the abundant provision our meal represents.
Let’s begin with the narrative itself. Jesus took the bread, he blessed it, broke it, and he gave it to everyone present. The text tells us 5000 men and an uncounted number of woman and children.
Now, I think it’s important for us to pause here for a moment and consider that this narrative didn’t just fall out of the sky. There’s a history of miracle stories, demonstrating the provision of God using food, in the Hebrew Scriptures.
First, the manna from heaven. In Exodus 16, the Israelites, newly escaped from their bondage and feeling the pain of hunger in the pit of their stomachs, wondered aloud if leaving Egypt was the right move. But God didn’t abandon them in their wilderness. God provided manna, nourishment in the desert.
And although it’s less familiar, a second narrative comes to mind when we think about the background of the feeding of the 5000. There’s a story about the prophet Elisha in II Kings 4 that also features a miracle of abundance
A man came bringing . . . twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So, he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.'” He set it before them; they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord
So, through his actions that day, Jesus renewed, embodied, and fulfilled the consistent call of the God of Israel to feed the hungry.[i] Jesus, out in that deserted place, renewed God’s covenant with God’s people by embodying the grace of God experienced by the Israelites in their wilderness and by fulfilling the promise to provide for their needs. In this case, food.
But the point of this narrative finally isn’t what Jesus did, but why. Why did Jesus feed the 5000? The answer to that question, my friends, can be summed up in a single word: compassion. Matthew says that when Jesus saw the great crowd that had followed him out into the wilderness, he had compassion on them. What did this compassion look like? Jesus healed the sick, he tended to their needs, and he was present with them. And then, when evening came and they found themselves without food, he fed them.[ii]
And this is where the Biblical world meets ours. What we now call “food scarcity” wasn’t only known in the ancient world, it was an everyday reality. So, the disciples’ suggestion that these hordes of people go buy food wasn’t just unrealistic – they were, after all, out in a deserted place – it was ridiculous and perhaps even a little insulting. The “crowds,” as Matthew calls them, probably didn’t have money to buy food in the first place. So, it’s reasonable to assume that Jesus was telling his disciples, in no uncertain terms, to get over their callous self-concern and feed the people themselves.[iii]
And that’s the lesson for us today. Jesus used the disciples to tend the needs of these thousands of men, women, and children. And Matthew demonstrates for us what happens when we move from a worldview of scarcity – “we have nothing here but five loaves and fishes” – to one of abundance – “thank you, God, for these five loaves and fishes.” Whatever our initial skepticism, or doubt, or self-preoccupation, like the disciples, we are invited to get caught up in Christ’s words of abundance and gratitude and distribute what we have and participate in the wonder and joy that “all ate and were filled.”[iv]
And this abundance of God’s provision extends beyond just feeding the hungry. When a new college graduate passes on a high-paying job to teach disadvantaged kids, God’s abundances continues. When one student stands up against bullies in defense of another student, the God of compassion is revealed. When a community of faith makes a promise that no one who comes to its doors will be turned away, the voice of the Still-Speaking God carries on, echoing across time and space.[v]
You know, the real beauty behind this narrative is that it continues: God still cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable – the poor, the immigrant, the hungry – and God continues to use us to care for them and God uses them to care for us. Because in the end, there’s no difference, there’s no us and them, we are all loved by God and we all stand in need of Christ’s compassion and forgiveness.
And that’s the wonderful thing about the sacrament of communion. It’s the great equalizer. We are all invited, we all come before God remembering, celebrating, and asking for forgiveness. When it comes to communion, there’s no us and them, only we. We are all under that protective shelter of God’s healing love and no matter who, no matter what, no matter where we find ourselves on this journey we call faith; we do not walk alone. We have each other and we have God in abundance, in this life and in the next. And that, my friends, is the greatest provision of all.
In the name of the One who provides for all our needs.
[iii] Ibid. McKenzie
[iv] Ibid. Duncan.