Fullness

Parker Palmer had given a speech in Saskatoon, Canada and he boarded a 6 a.m. flight home to Wisconsin. “Our departure was delayed,” he writes, “because the truck that brings coffee to the planes had broken down. After a while the pilot said, ‘We’re going to take off without the coffee. We want to get you to Detroit on time.’” Palmer was up front where all the “road warriors” sit — a surly tribe, especially at that early hour. They began griping, loudly and at length, about “incompetence,” “lousy service,” etc.

Once they got into the air, the lead flight attendant came to the center of the aisle with her mike and said, “Good morning! We’re flying to Minneapolis today at an altitude of 30 feet…” That, of course, evoked more scorn from the road warriors. Then she said, “Now that I have your attention… I know you’re upset about the coffee. Well, get over it! Start sharing stuff with your seatmates. That bag of five peanuts you got on your last flight and put in your pocket? Tear it open and pass them around! Got gum or mints? Share them! You can’t read all the sections of your paper at once. Offer them to each other! Show off the pictures of kids and grandkids you have in your wallets!” As she went on in that vein, people began laughing and doing what she had told them to do. The surly scene turned into an excursion of happy campers!

An hour later, as the attendant passed by his seat, Palmer signaled to her.

“What you did was really amazing,” he said. “Where can I send a letter of commendation?”

“Thanks,” she said, “I’ll get you a form.”

Then she leaned down and whispered, “The loaves and fishes are not dead.”[1]

The story of Jesus feeding a multitude is the only miracle story told in all four Gospels, and in Matthew and Mark, it’s even told twice; it’s a rich and generative story. In it, we hear echoes of Israel’s wilderness journey with Moses and the mighty acts of Elisha, and it tells of Jesus who is both a part of that history and its completion. It is a story of overflowing grace and abundant life that points to Jesus as the enfleshed presence of God. Palmer writes,

As far as I’m concerned, that story doesn’t involve any magic. It’s about the miracle of sharing in community, an everyday miracle that anyone with some courage can pull off. [2]

I agree that the story doesn’t involve any magic, but reducing it to an everyday miracle that anyone with some courage can pull off rips out the heart of the story, Jesus. John has no interest in introducing us to the man who orchestrated the miracle of sharing in community so that we may learn how it’s done. John tells us about Jesus so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name.[3]

A crowd of five thousand, a boy’s lunch of five barley rolls and some fish, and all ate as much as they wanted until they were satisfied. At the end of the picnic, the disciples went around and picked up the broken pieces, and they filled twelve baskets. Five plus two, divided by 5,000 equals fullness for all and baskets of leftovers. That’s kingdom math. Palmer is right, the story doesn’t involve magic; it is the testimony of the first witnesses about Jesus in whom we encounter the life-giving power of God. Grace flows freely and abundantly from the source of life, the heart of God, the hands of Jesus, into our hands, our hearts, our lives grace as tangible as bread.

John tells us that Passover was near, the festival of liberation. Passover was very near indeed, not just on the calendar, but in the events about to unfold. Passover was near in the person and work 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?”

John says it was a test, and who can blame Philip for starting to think about budgets when it was Jesus who talked about buying bread? Philip quickly did the math he knew. He understood that it wasn’t a matter of knowing where the nearest bakery was. “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little,” no need to mention that none of them had that kind of cash. It wasn’t a math test. And it wasn’t part of an interview for the position of Director of Procurement and Purchasing. The question for Philip and the rest of us was and is: where do you turn for the gift of life and the gifts that sustain it?

There are echoes of the Exodus story. When the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness on their way to the land of milk and honey, they were tired and hungry, and soon they began to remember the house of slavery as a land of fleshpots. “If only we had meat to eat!” they cried. “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” Moses turned to God and said, “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’” Moses didn’t have meat to give them, and their memory was being clouded by rosy illusions: the fish they used to eat in Pharaoh’s brick yards, they imagined they ate it for nothing. They were reimagining the reality of slavery as a story of free food.

Jesus’ question to Philip and to us echoes that wilderness scene and implicitly he asks us where we turn for the gift of life: do we think of life as something we buy in exchange for our labor or as the gift of God on whose faithfulness we can depend?

Jesus 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.

Nobody asked them if they were Gentile or Jew or Samaritan. Nobody inquired if they were rich or poor, or asked to see their papers. They all ate, male and female, young and old, foolish and wise – 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, more than enough. Whether it was wine at the wedding feast or bread at the picnic by the lake, there was, there is, there will be enough for all to be filled until they want no more.

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus doesn’t ask this question here, but it is the one lingering in the background. When the people saw the sign that Jesus 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. In the framework of their experience, they tried to identify the place where Jesus fit in, and they called him the prophet, one like Moses, sent to lead God’s people. 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 clearly he knew a thing or two about the economy. He taught people, so he had a passion for education. His character was flawless; there was not even a hint of corruption. Some people may have questioned his positions on gun ownership 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?

Jesus gives all that he has to give without claiming worldly power. He is no king in the mold of the Roman emperors who distributed free grain in the capital to keep the people from rebelling. He doesn’t conform to our systems of power by taking over the spot at the top, but rather subverts our dreams of dominion by giving life and the freedom to live as children of God to all. He is indeed teacher and healer, prophet and king, but his life redefines and transfigures all these terms.

Bread tells stories. In recipes handed down generation to generation, bread tells us about our ancestors. In its journey from the field to the table, bread tells stories about farms and cities, about kitchens, bakeries, and factories, about immigration and labor relations.

In much of the world, bread is the very essence of food and life. “Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray – and with bread we pray for all that is needed for people to thrive and life to flourish. Dennis Linn recalls how

During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But, many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”[4]

Bread tells stories. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”[5] He himself is the goodness and fullness we long for, and he freely gives himself to us that all may have life, and have it abundantly.[6]

 

[1] https://onbeing.org/blog/loaves-and-fishes-are-not-dead/

[2] Ibid.

[3] John 20:31

[4] Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, Matthew Linn, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995), 1.

[5] John 6:35

[6] John 10:10

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