This is kingdom math: A crowd of five thousand, a boy’s lunch, and all ate as much as they wanted until they were satisfied. Then the disciples went around picking up the left over pieces, and they filled twelve baskets. No wonder this was a favorite story among the first Christians; Jesus feeding the five thousand is the one miracle that found its way into each of the four gospels.
Five plus two, divided by 5000 equals fullness for all and baskets of leftovers. This is kingdom math. What’s missing in this simple equation, though, is the most crucial element; whether our focus is on the overwhelming number of people or on the meager resources the disciples were able to identify, the story draws your eyes to the hands of Jesus: Jesus took the loaves, he offered thanks, and he distributed the food.
The first Christians loved this story because it pointed to the meal they celebrated every time they gathered on the Lord’s day. The same abundant grace that welcomed and fed the multitude by the sea, they remembered and encountered at the table.
We love this story because it shows us how grace flows freely from the source of life, the heart of God, the hands of Jesus, into our hands, our hearts, our lives. This is kingdom math: grace flows freely, and those who receive it discover life in fullness.
The first Christians also loved this story because it points back to the great story of the Exodus; it points to God’s mighty act of liberation when God’s people left the house of slavery and journeyed to the land of fullness, a land flowing with milk and honey.
We get a little hint right at the beginning, "Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near."
Very near indeed, and not just on the calendar, but in the events about to unfold. Passover was near in the person of Jesus. Liberation and the promise of fullness were present in the person of Jesus.
When he saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”
We get another hint: he said this to test him. Philip didn’t know it was a test, and so he quickly did the math he knew, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
But it wasn’t a math test, nor was it an employment test for the position of Director of Procurement and Purchasing. The test is for us: are we who are following Jesus on the way, both in the course of the story and in our lives as witnesses, are we beginning to see who he is?
Jesus’ question sounds very similar to one raised by Moses in the wilderness, when the Israelites were tired and hungry, and began to remember the house of slavery as a land of fleshpots.
“If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”
And Moses turned to God and said, “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? (…)Are there enough fish in the sea to catch for them(Numbers 11:4-5, 13, 22)?”
Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” and Andrew pointed out that two fish were barely worth mentioning.
With Moses and Israel in the wilderness, the question was, ‘Are the promises of the Lord trustworthy?’
With Jesus and the disciples and the crowd by the sea, the question is, ‘Are we beginning to see who Jesus is?’
Jesus was about to do another sign. “Make the people sit down,” he said.
Then he took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.
Grace flowed, food abounded until all were satisfied. None were asked if they were Gentile, Jew, or Samaritan. Male and female, young and old, rich and poor, wise and foolish – all ate until they were full. The fragments left over filled twelve baskets – enough for every tribe in the nation; enough for every month of the year, or perhaps simply enough. Whether it is wine at a wedding or bread at a picnic by the sea, there is enough for all to be filled until they want no more. This is more than kingdom math; this is life in fullness.
“Who do people say that I am?” The question doesn’t get asked here, but it is the one lingering in the background; and the people themselves give the answer.
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
They had tasted life in abundance, and they began to draw their conclusions. Within the framework of their experience and knowledge, they tried to identify the place where Jesus would fit in, and called him the prophet. And when Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him to make him king, he withdrew.
Why did he withdraw? Why didn’t he let them crown him? He healed people, so obviously he knew how to make healthcare affordable and accessible. He fed people, so obviously he knew a thing or two about the economy. He taught people, so obviously he had a passion for education. His character was flawless; not even a hint of corruption. Some people may have questioned his positions on gun control or divorce – but still, wasn’t he the best man for the job? Why did he withdraw? Why did he withdraw at the precise moment when he was about to be confirmed as king by public acclamation?
You may have read the question somewhere on a church marquee, “If God seems far away, who moved?” The question implies that if God seems distant, God isn’t necessarily the one responsible. In this story, however, it is clearly Jesus who moved away, and the people who were left wondering where he went. Jesus withdrew to the mountain by himself.
Withdrawing Jesus showed that he would give what he had to give without claiming worldly power; that he would bring fullness of life only on his own terms, not by being pressed into the crowd’s mold of expectations. The miracle of bread and fish provided them with a glimpse of who he was, and they immediately tried to take his grace and twist it to conform to their purposes and the existing systems of power.
We get a glimpse of Jesus, and we immediately want him to be who we need him to be; but he only gives himself as who he is. As soon as we cast him into the mold of our expectations for a make-over in the image of our desires, he withdraws.
Grace is utterly free, and the path of our knowledge of God is littered with disappointed expectations and broken idols. Jesus is indeed prophet and king, teacher and healer, but he redefines all these terms in the mold of his life and mission. To follow him is to trust him enough to let him dismantle our illusions of fullness; and in their place we receive the fullness of grace and truth he embodies and reveals.
When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea toward Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.
There is the darkness of night fall when the sun slowly sinks behind the horizon, and there is the darkness that spreads when Jesus withdraws. This darkness is the frightening reality of his absence, and at the same time it is the darkness in which the light shines.
The sea is rough, the winds are strong, and the disciples are alone in the boat. Then they see him, walking on the sea as on solid ground, and they are terrified.
Listen to these lines from Psalm 77.
When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you,
they were afraid; the very deep trembled.
Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
Passover was near indeed. The One who made a path through the mighty waters of the sea so Israel would be free to live as God’s people, was near in Jesus. The One who said to Moses by the burning bush, “I am who I am,” was near, saying, “I am I, do not be afraid.” They saw who he was; they saw the glory of God in Jesus.
Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
John loves to play with multiple layers of meaning; his passion isn’t so much for kingdom math as it is for kingdom poetry.
On one level, the land toward which the they were going was of course Capernaum, the town on the other side of the lake, just another stop on the way.
On another level, though, the land toward which they were going was the land of God’s promise, the land of life in fullness.
The moment they saw Jesus – the moment they saw who he was and is and always will be – they arrived. May God bless us that we too may see as they have seen.