August 26, 2021 – Welcome Back to Life Together
Rev. Amanda Highben
Text: John 6.1-14
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, beloved children of God, in the name of Jesus, our gracious host who welcomes us this place for worship and to the table of life and grace, where no one is excluded and all are fed.
I am so happy we are here together now. It has been far too long. So long, in fact, that the last time the Duke Lutherans worshipped in the York Room in the early months of 2020, I wasn’t even here yet. Pastor Ali was still here, campus was buzzing with activity as usual, we were just on the threshold of March Madness, and the Duke Lutherans were preparing to take a spring break trip to Atlanta and Montgomery called Exploring Race and Faith in the U.S.
And, then, everything changed. The world as we knew it came to a sudden and abrupt halt. I won’t go into all of the details tonight; you are more than familiar with them. What matters now is that we can sing and pray and share in Communion in the same physical space, in-person, gathered as one body in Christ. What matters now is that you are here: returning Duke Lutherans and wonderful, new students as well. What matters now is that we are called to share in life together, a life that God gives us as a gift, abundantly and without condition.
Speaking of abundance, it’s on full display tonight in our gospel passage, as Jesus abundantly feeds thousands of hungry people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. I confess that as a pastor who kind of nerds-out over the Bible, this is such a fascinating story to me for a variety of reasons. First, it is the only miracle that Jesus performs in all four of the gospels…which means, I think, that it’s especially important for understanding who Jesus is and what it means to believe in and follow him. This is also a fascinating story too because it is so rich in detail. For example, there aren’t just a few loaves and fish, but fives loaves and two fish. Andrew does not say there’s just some random person who has food with them, but a boy, a child specifically. The bread itself is described as barley bread, which is a revealing detail because this was recognized as food of the poor. Finally, twelves baskets are filled with leftovers and five thousand people are numbered in the crowd. (Or, rather, five thousand men to be precise. The large crowd also consisted of women and children, and Jesus of course fed them as well.)
But John’s gospel doesn’t include all of these details just for show or because it makes for good color commentary. Details matter because Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was also a real human being who cared for the real, physical, tangible needs of real people. So in Mark’s gospel we read that when Jesus saw the great crowd “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” And here in John’s gospel Jesus feeds the people himself, opening his own hands to serve the bread and fish to those resting at his feet on the mountaintop.
Details also matter here because this miracle doesn’t happen on some higher, spiritual plane, far-removed from earthly, ordinary, day-to-day life. I mean, when Christ became aware of the people’s hunger, he could have simply prayed for them or said that their souls mattered more than their bodies. But Jesus, the Word made flesh, who knew what it felt like to be hungry, exhausted, grieving, and angry—hangry?!—cares not just for the people’s spiritual hunger, but for their physical hunger as well. And as such, when he feeds them, he also serves life and health and peace. “And all ate and were filled,” writes Mark—filled in body, mind, and spirit because God cares about the well-being of our entire selves.
Notice, too, that “all ate and were filled.” In other words, no one was excluded; Jesus served everyone until their needs were met and satisfied. How different is the feast Christ hosts in contrast to the banquets of hierarchy and exclusion so often thrown by the world! You know the kind I’m talking about—with their selective guest lists, where only those with special rank or privilege get in the door. And of course I’m not just talking about literal parties; we know full well that because of things like your skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religion, you might never be “invited” to live in particular neighborhoods, attend certain schools, have access to quality, affordable healthcare, or earn a living wage. But in contrast to the world, Jesus invites all people to his banquet; and the thousands who are fed in the gospel are of no special status or consequence, at least not according to the rigid standards of the powerful and wealthy. The people haven’t come to see or be seen, but simply because they are hungry for Jesus’ words of hope and healing. And though this isn’t some lavish, glitzy party, it is still a gracious banquet of abundance, hosted by the Son of God and featuring simple loaves of barley, provided by a child.
Still, we can’t deny that something extraordinary does happen in this story. Even if you’re not super-familiar with the Bible, you might have heard about this miracle when Jesus multiples the loaves and fish to feed thousands. And as I said earlier, it’s a miracle that appears in all four of the gospels; it’s a big deal! It reveals that Christ is far more than the prophet the people believe him to be at the story’s end; instead, as we hear at the beginning of John’s gospel, “all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
You see at this point in the sermon I could tell you that we, like Jesus, are called to serve the needs of God’s children who are hungry in mind, body, and spirit, to serve others until all are fed and satisfied. But we, unlike Jesus, are not miracle-workers; even on our best days, we are not the life that is the light of all people. And the needs of our neighbors are so very great; listen to the news for just five minutes and you’ll know this to be true. I can’t help but think of Andrew when he says, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Indeed. Who are we among so many people? Who are we in the face of such great need?
The truth is that alone and left our own devices and abilities, we cannot love as Christ loved or serve as Christ served. But the good news, dear ones, is that we are not alone. We are called to share life together, meaning with one another and in and with Jesus. God calls us, and by God’s grace and power, everyday, ordinary acts of compassion and kindness are transformed into miracles of healing and hope. “We cannot all do great things,” Mother Teresa once said, “but we can all do small things with great love.” Even as Jesus once used a handful of bread and fish from a child, so now he continues to work through the littlest and least to redeem and save.
So, come to the table tonight, beloved children of God. Come to this small table where the food is simple, but there is room enough for all. Come to the place where no one is excluded because they are poor or sick or homeless, Black, Brown, transgender, gay, or in any other way deemed as different or less-than by the powers that be. Come because God’s boundless grace is at work in you to meet the real needs of real people. Come as one community, one body in Christ. Come because you are called by name. Come for Christ invites us and says again and again and again, “This is by body given for you. This is my blood shed for you.”