Texts: Isa 55.1-5; Rom 9.1-5; Matt 14.1-21
They landed on the other side and began hiking out into the wilderness. They had walked for an hour or two before they saw the first group—a handful of men and women, coming from the south. At first, Jesus had thought just to pass them by, but when they saw him they rushed to join him. A little while later more came. Then more appeared, almost as if from nowhere out here in the desert, and before he knew it, a vast multitude—5000 at least—had congregated around him. All he wanted was some time to be alone and weep for his friend, away from the prying eyes of the crowd. His heart was breaking, his head was swimming… but he couldn’t send them away. They had traveled all this way to see him—some had walked clear around the lake to catch up to him.
As he listened to their stories, he learned that they had come to find him for the same reason he’d left; they had heard about John and didn’t know what to do next. As much as he wanted to be alone, he couldn’t just leave them, so he went around and started talking to them. Among them there were people with sores and wounds, people who couldn’t walk or couldn’t see or couldn’t hear, people whose minds were gone. Today of all days, he knew what it was like to feel like a piece of himself was missing, and so, in an attempt to do something—anything—he began healing him.
Before he knew it, the sun was getting low. He had been among the people all afternoon, and would have kept working until nightfall if one of his friends hadn’t interrupted him. “Teacher, it’s getting late. The guys and I have been thinking, and, well… we’re way out here, hours from any town. If these folks are going to have any chance of getting back before nightfall to get some food, they’ll need to leave now. We know you don’t want to stop, but you’ve got to let them go so they can get some food.” Jesus stopped and looked at them, then he looked at the crowd. How could he send them away now? He turned again and looked at his friends. “You give them something to eat,” he said.
The disciples looked at one another, uncertain they had heard him correctly. “Give them something to eat? Like what? All we have is five loaves and two fish. It's enough to feed the 13 of us, but it won’t be nearly enough to feed this many people.”
“You’re right,” Jesus said, “It won't be enough; but it’s a good start. God will see to the rest.” He took the loaves and fish from them, looked up to heaven and asked God’s blessing on the food. He broke the loaves into pieces so they could all take some, and he sent them out to start distributing it. At first, they broke it into such small pieces that people almost laughed at the suggestion that this might actually be a meal, but then something remarkable happened.
As the disciples’ loaves got smaller, other loaves appeared. Here a man pulled a barley loaf out of a travel-worn cloak, and over there, two women produced a couple of millet loaves that they had brought to feed their children and started passing them around. Throughout the crowd, people watched the disciples sharing what little they had and slowly began to be moved to do the same.
What’s more, there were people from both sides of the lake here—Jews and Gentiles—and they were sharing with each other. Jesus even thought he saw some Samaritans in one area. People in rich, fine robes were sitting down next to beggars wearing tatters and they were eating together. Jesus wasn’t the only one who noticed. Others began looking around and seeing people from all different walks of life breaking bread together. They had all wandered into the desert to see the same man, and now it was almost as if in that common purpose they had ceased to be bankers and lawyers and fishermen and merchants and farmers and beggars and had all become one, big community, citizens their own, new country.
Something about this meal in the desert had changed them—if only for a while—and they were actually living the reign of heaven. Heaven wasn’t just a place far away, it was here, in this wilderness, right now. As Jesus listened to the murmur of the crowd, he heard one word repeated over and over: miracle.
Some time later, Jesus and the disciples were gathered alone in an upper room. Just as he had in the wilderness, Jesus took a loaf of bread, looked to heaven and asked God’s blessing, and broke it to give to his friends. “This is my body,” he said, “broken and given for you. Do this and remember me.” After the meal, he took the cup, blessed it as he had the bread, and gave it to them. “This is my blood, poured out for you—for everyone—to remove anything that separates you from God. Do this and remember me.” It wasn't until the next day when he himself was lifted up, broken and bleeding on the cross, that the full truth of his words hit them —“this is my body… this is my blood... given for you.” When he died, a part of them died with him.
But then, something remarkable happened.
A few days later they saw their broken teacher in the flesh, alive and kicking, and that part of them that had died suddenly revived; they, too, had risen from the dead. In the days and weeks and years that followed, that life grew and multiplied as they shared it, not unlike the loaves in the wilderness on that day so long ago. Their teacher, long since gone who-knows-where, was somehow always with them, just like he promised he would be. Wherever they were, he was there. Even after they parted ways and began journeying to different, far-off places, wherever they went, he went with them, until there seemed to be so much more of him than when they started.
As they shared him with the crowds who came to listen, they encountered unnumbered broken people—hungry, homeless, bruised and bleeding, unable to walk or talk or stand or look them in the eye—and his words from the wilderness would again ring in their ears: “You give them something to eat.” And once again, they would offer what little they could: a few words of comfort and hope, a little bit of bread and wine, a promise that the reign of heaven did exist—that they had seen it with their own eyes. It was never enough, but it was a good start, and more often than not, just as in the wilderness, God took care of the rest.