Of course, the thing the organizers hope for is not necessarily for a lack of raindrops or insects buzzing overhead. Those hosting the meal hope everything was remembered when it comes time to ring the dinner bell. Did we bring along enough serving spoons, enough plastic silverware, enough hamburger buns, and the questions go on.
No getting around it—a meal takes preparation. For some, a picnic that may last an hour or two at the most has been on our minds for quite awhile. For others, you just started thinking about the picnic once you read about it in the bulletin and remembered that you had forgotten it was today. (These are the folks who will pray that Colonel Sanders come to their aid.)
All jokes aside, we know that meals are not magically available. After all, even “fast food” or “frozen dinners” take time. A meal takes time to prepare. You know it. I know it. The disciples know it.
So why doesn’t Jesus know it?
You can imagine the panic and the puzzlement of the disciples. Jesus is healing the sick, and a large crowd has gathered to learn from him. Jesus asks about making the necessary arrangements, and the disciples look a bit dumbfounded. To feed this many would be quite costly, yet Jesus seems quite serene in asking them to do the impossible. Doesn’t he know that you have to prepare?
The disciples are very matter-of-fact. It would take six months’ wage to buy enough bread just to feed each person a small bit of bread, cries one. Another disciple points out the only person in sight with food, just some kid with five loaves and two fish. It’s not much, and that’s the point they try to make.
Now for the reader, the gospel writer offers a little aside: Jesus asks about feeding the crowd to test the disciples. He knew what he was about to do, but did they have the faith that could see such an impossible challenge met so readily? They see the problem at hand and worry about the last minute nature of things. How in the world can we do anything with so little time, so little preparation, and so little food?
One situation from that summer comes to mind. In one church I worked with, we were asked to provide a funeral dinner for a church family. On Monday, the request was fairly low-key: sandwiches and salads for a dozen people with the food brought by the family home rather than in the fellowship hall. Not much to worry about, until the next day brought news of the request changing. Now it was about thirty people and the fellowship hall would be needed. By the end of the week, when it came time to say the word of welcome and the blessing for the meal, I counted an attendance of about a hundred. It was trying, yet the board of Deaconesses made everything happens. Perhaps a grumble or two along the way, yet we had enough food left over to send “to go” packets home with various people.
One wonders at times when everything seems to be going not to plan or with little preparation how things will turn out. I made it through that summer with a pastor on sick leave just as surely as the Deaconesses survived a week of the ever-growing dinner. At the time, all of us would have preferred things not surprise us like it did, yet we made it through one way or another. It was not just me running the church while the pastor was unexpectedly sidelined, though it took a little bit for folks to realize that they had to step up and cover things. The Deaconesses probably still tell the “war story” of a funeral dinner that went from 12 to 100 with less than four days’ notice, yet they rang phones and made the food appear one way or another. Perhaps this was a bit of divine testing at work or just coincidence, yet I’d like to think each of us involved grew a bit in our faith in God’s provision, even when there seems not much likelihood.
In John’s gospel, the stakes for faith area raised a bit higher. What Jesus is testing the disciples (and really anyone else in earshot) regards the question of their ability to believe that Jesus can provide for their needs by the power of God. In John’s gospel especially, we read of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus, God’s Son, including Jesus’ assertion that if you see him, you see God. The disciples are told of this, yet they struggle to understand. They see only a multitude that Jesus says must be fed. Jesus sees an opportunity to feed everyone a good fulsome meal with enough leftovers. The disciples see only five loaves and two fish, enough provision for a child. Jesus sees more than enough to feed five thousand people, with leftovers galore!
This story is often called a “miracle”, yet John’s gospel has a certain spin on these events. Such events are referred to as “signs”, a term with a great deal of meaning for John’s gospel. Declaring these miracles as “signs”, John uses these moments as symbols for something greater than just the spectacle that has occurred. Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding at Cana. It’s great tasting, unexpected and downright miraculous, but John shakes his head at the speculative questions of “how did this happen?” Instead, John poses a theological question to the reader: “Why did this happen?” The impressive part is secondary to the challenge this sign gives the reader. Do you believe in Jesus, the one who can do these things? What do you believe is happening: a free lunch or God’s abundance made known in Jesus, the Bread of Heaven?
Talking of events that seem gleefully in their contradiction of the way the world works (science, the laws of physics, etc.) often make people turn away, asking how these things are possible. One cannot instantly feed five thousand. Surely the generosity of this young boy’s offering of five loaves and two fish inspired everyone to share. Surely the water into wine trick is some wishful thinking on the part of the gospel writer. Shouldn’t we leave these stories best behind in elementary level Sunday school?
The story does not take the “how” as its reason for being told. Instead, the story asks, perhaps tests the reader to ponder what one believes about Jesus. If we take the text as “wishful thinking” about God, though we don’t see how in the world this could be, we may lose a bit of the wonder and the mystery innate with the Christian faith. Not everything is known, not everything can be explained, yet we can be people who look at the world with a different prism, a different understanding of what is possible, we take these texts at a different sort of face value, inspired rather than doubtful about what is doing God in the midst of the world and how we can be faithful disciples of Jesus.
This story tells us that when there's an overwhelming problem staring you down, do not run from it, or put it off due to a lack of preparation time. With God, we are a people who look for abundance when most cry scarcity. We are also a people who presume with God, there will be more than enough abundance to meet our needs.
For Christians, we keep the faith that God is in the midst of all things. Churches worry less about whether or not they are "big enough" to get involved with making a difference in the world, they just get going, looking for ways to help and partner. We find ourselves ruled less by the bottom line and more by the spirit of John 6's exuberance. Such good news is indeed needed today, just as surely as those who heard Jesus and ate their fill with great abundance left over.
A few lines from the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning speak of this sort of faith another way:
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware.*
(*As referenced by theologian Douglas John Hall in his lectionary reflection for John 6, as quoted in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, Westminster/John Knox Press. Note: he does not quote the final line in his excerpting).