Jesus had left Jerusalem, the scripture says, and travelled to the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. You ever heard it called that? I have been reading my Bible for the last 50 years and never noticed it called the Sea of Tiberias. But that is what John 6 tells us in his version of the feeding of the multitude.
Tiberias was a city founded in 18 CE and named after the emperor who followed Caesar Augustus. Jewish tradition believed that the city of Tiberias was built on the city of Rakkath, first mentioned in the Book of Joshua. Because there had been a city there before, part of Tiberias was built on a necropolis, which means city of the dead. In other words, it was built on a cemetery. Jews, especially those of the priestly caste, refused to live in Tiberias for many years because it would render them ritually unclean. At the time of Jesus it was almost completely a pagan city. So just who are the people surrounding Jesus that day? Are they the ones who live in the borderlands of their faith tradition?
Jesus left Jerusalem and went to the Sea of Galilee of Tiberias and went up the mountain with his disciples. But when they looked back they saw that a great crowd was following him because the people in the crowd had seen and heard what Jesus was doing for the sick. For example, in the previous chapter Jesus had just healed a lame man by the pool of Bethzatha. This newly healed man then got in trouble with the religious leaders for walking home on the Sabbath carrying the mat he used to sit on while he was crippled. I love the Bible.
Anyway, John is telling us about this crowd, when he puts this weird non-sequitur line in his story. He writes, “Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.” Why does John tell us that? Is it simply so we know it’s Springtime? Probably not. John wants us to know that these people aren’t headed towards Jerusalem, like any good Jew would do, they are headed away from Jerusalem, towards Jesus. These aren’t the good religious folks…. these are the ones who live in the borderlands.
As the crowd trudges up the hill towards them, Jesus turns to Philip and asks, “Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat?” John tells us that Jesus is testing Philip. I like Philip. He doesn’t panic. He doesn’t instantly move to anxiety. He doesn’t say, “Jesus, are you kidding me? We don’t have enough money to feed these people. What are you thinking? Don’t put me in charge.” No. In the voice of Eeyore he says, “Six months worth of wages couldn’t buy enough bread for all these people to even get a bite. It’ll never work.” John tells us that Jesus is testing Philip but I think Jesus is having a little bit of fun. He knows exactly the response he will get from Philip. He goads Philip into saying it won’t work because Jesus knows what he is going to do. He is going to prove Philip wrong.
We’ve all had or have an Eeyore in our lives. Maybe you are Eeyore. You have two choices with Eeyores. Let their Debbie Downer attitude ruin your day or poke them to say what you want them to say so you can prove to them that life is better than they think.
The next one to speak is Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. Andrew is like the teacher’s pet on the front row…the one who is always raising his hand. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus I went out among the crowd and asked around about food because I knew you were worrying about it and I found this little boy who has 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.” But then he looks over the crowd and all the hope goes out of his voice. He sees Eeyore….I mean Philip…smirking and he says, “But that is nothing with this many people to feed.”
It wasn’t much, it’s true. John let’s us know that these were barley loaves. This isn’t wheat bread. Barley was the grain of the poor. The poor couldn’t afford wheat so they made bread from barley. This is a very meager meal for such a crowd. Yet, I want to know, what little boy eats five loaves of bread and two fish for lunch? That is a lot of food for one child.
Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “Have them sit down.” Reclining was the posture for eating in the time of Jesus. “Have them get ready to eat,” he commands them. It was a big grassy area.
We are told there were 5,000 men there that day. I have always been irritated by the fact that they tell us that there are 5,000 men and leave out the women and children. We know that there were children there that day because there is a little boy with five barley loaves and two fish who is going to save the day. I have always believed that the counting of only men was another example of gender bias in the Bible. But 5,000 was a significant number. In the first century, a Roman legion was a formation of 5,000 men who were Roman citizens. On the hillside that day, Jesus has a legion of men who are following him. The empire should sit up and take notice.
Jesus holds up the loaves of bread and gives thanks for them. Then he tells his disciples to distribute the bread. Then he does the exact same thing with the fish. It must have been a comical sight, holding up this meager meal and then blessing it for the nourishment of over 5,000 people. Then when everyone had eaten and was satisfied, he said to the disciples, “Gather up what is left over, so that none of it will be lost.” Seems like a weird thing to say. First of all, there can’t be much left over. Right? Besides, even if there is, bread and fish aren’t going to last long without plastic wrap and refrigeration.
But the disciples go about their task and return with twelve baskets filled with the fragments of barley loaves. Twelve baskets of fragments not to be lost. Twelve …another significant number. The twelve tribes of Israel. No Jew, even those not going to Jerusalem for Passover, failed to know the significance of twelve. No wonder Jesus called twelve disciples. Twelve disciples….all of Israel is represented. Twelve baskets…no one is lost.
On a grassy hillside outside the city of the dead, Jesus acts out the gospel for those living in the borderlands. “I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly,” Jesus will say a couple chapters from now. It is the message of the Gospel of John. Jesus is the Word from whose fullness we have received grace upon grace. Jesus is the one who can take water and turn into wine for a wedding feast. Jesus is the one who can feed a multitude with a meager meal and have leftovers. Jesus is the one who tells us that God has a house with rooms enough for all of us. John finishes his gospel with these words: “There are many more things that Jesus did. If all of them were written down, I suppose not even the world itself would have space for the books that would be written.” The Gospel of John wants to make sure we know that a life based on the Gospel is an abundant life.
But we base our lives on scarcity. We assume that there is not enough to go around. We hoard, we save, we worry. We say, “That will never work.” We resist going where we are called and attempting what is only a vision. We live, always, on the edge of what God offers us. We live in the borderland of not enough. After all, a little of God’s grace and abundance is safer than risking the jump into the light and free-falling into God’s magnificence. Right? Living with a spirituality of simple addition is so more dependable than a spirituality of multiplication.
We’ve been raised to be careful. We have been told that if we give away too much we won’t have enough to take care of ourselves and for heaven’s sake we don’t want to be a burden to anyone else. Daily I am bombarded with news alerts on my news feed telling me that there is not enough to go around. We can’t share our country but others need to share their oil with us or we will go after them. We can’t take care of the poor. There is not enough to go around in this world of opulence. This morning, while we read a story in which Jesus invites a multitude to sit down for a meal like it is his living room and he has plenty for everyone, Americans are yelling at other Americans, “Get out of my country.” Our narrative has become one of winners and losers; the welcome and unwelcome.
But here in the Gospel of John, Jesus comes onto the scene and reminds us over and over again about God’s abundant love and mercy. We hear the voice of the Psalmist: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” As Charles Hoffman writes: “Whether it is wine at a wedding or rooms in eternity or picnic food, there is always more than enough.” This is the way God wants us to live: everyone wins, no one loses.
In seminary one of my professors said that preachers really only have one sermon they preach every Sunday they just use different illustrations. If that is true. If I really only have one sermon I preach to you Sunday after Sunday this is it: “God’s love for us is extravagant. There is more than enough to go around.”
You choose. You can live in the world of the empire where there is not enough to go around. You can scrimp and you can save and you can worry so that you too can be a winner. But you will live on the edge of the Kingdom of God. You will be the one on the borderlands.
Or you can pivot your body and move from the borderlands of the empire into the center of the City of God and live in the land of the gospel, surrounded by the Beloved Community, feeding on the light, rejoicing in God’s extravagant love and giving out of your abundance.
As always, the choice is yours. Amen.