“A Basket for Each Disciple”
When you’re reading a passage from the Bible and considering what relevance it might have for you today, one of the basic strategies is to think about where you might place yourself in the story. Which person can you relate to, and what can you learn from their experiences – their action or in-action, their faith or doubt, their success or failure?
Last Sunday I preached on a passage from Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus interrupted a mini break he was trying to take with his disciples in order to minister to the crowds who were coming to him for practical help and guidance in their lives. It was the disciples that I related to most easily – the ones who had been out doing mission and were trying to get away with Jesus for a rest. As a church leader at the end of a couple of busy and stressful years, I could imagine what they felt like.
I read a sermon by another preacher on last Sunday’s text though, and I was surprised that he placed himself and his listeners in the crowd instead – among the people who were like sheep without a shepherd, who came to Jesus with desperation and hope, and who were not disappointed when Jesus set his own needs aside to care for them. That is the way that Jesus loves each of us, it is true. We are not only leaders and helpers of Jesus in his ministry, but we are God’s beloved children who are precious and worthy of Jesus’ attention and care.
Today’s passage comes from the Gospel of John, but it has the same basic cast of characters. There’s Jesus, who has been preaching, teaching, and healing. There are the disciples – likely the Twelve main ones, and perhaps a few others who followed him regularly. And there’s the crowd. In this case, it’s described as “a large crowd [that] kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.”
John’s Gospel emphasizes a series of seven signs that point to the redeeming activity of God in Jesus. They are miraculous events that include turning water into wine, healing the blind man, and raising Lazarus from the dead. And they are intended to point to Jesus not only as a miracle-worker, but as the Christ. Today’s passage actually includes signs number 4 and 5 – the feeding of the 5000, and Jesus walking on the water.
Although the crowds tend to love the miracles, and they come looking for Jesus to perform more and more wonders for them, most of them do not understand the deeper meaning of the signs. Jesus didn’t multiply the bread in order to impress the crowds and gain renown, but to reveal his identity as God’s Messiah who would not only offer bread to nourish their bodies, but become the Bread of Life to nourish their spirits.
In the coming weeks, as we keep reading through this chapter, Jesus will expand further on the significance of this sign and what it says about him and his love for all people. But for his closest disciples – the ones who had decided to follow him with their lives, the ones who were assisting him in his mission, the ones who were already being sent out and who would be tasked with carrying on his mission after his death and resurrection – there is another important message in this episode, combined with the next part of the story out on the water in a boat.
“Feed the people. Do not be afraid. There will be enough. I will make sure of it.”
The story encourages followers of Jesus then and now to trust God enough to offer what we have to others even when we don’t think our gifts will be enough to make a difference, and even when giving them away may seem to put us at risk. It is easy to be skeptical like Philip when he said, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little,” or like Andrew who said, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”
It’s not unlike the man who brought the offering to the prophet Elisha, but questioned Elisha’s instructions saying, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” (2 Kings 4:43) And his words echo Moses’ exasperated question to God in the wilderness when the people were getting hungry and complaining: “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?” (Numbers 11:13)
The SALT Lectionary Commentary suggests that “what all three have in common is a scarcity mentality, an understandable, pragmatic concern about what’s possible and what isn’t. And in all three cases, God goes on to act in ways that overflow supposed limits, calling us to a mentality not of scarcity, but rather of abundance.”
Many biblical commentators notice that right from the start of the feeding story, the narrator emphasizes the theme of abundance. Jesus asks the disciples to make the people sit down on the grass, and it is noted that “there was a great deal of grass in the place.” If Jesus is a Good Shepherd, providing for the needs of his precious sheep, he’s led them to a good place with green pastures where their needs will be met.
The story continues, with Jesus giving thanks and distributing the food, as much as they wanted. And when they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.
The number twelve is, of course, significant. It represents the twelve tribes of Israel, the whole community of God’s people. There is enough bread for all the people to be fed, and Jesus’ life and love extend to everyone as well. Jesus doesn’t want any piece of bread to be wasted, or any precious child of God to be lost.
But twelve is also the number of the inner circle of disciples. I can imagine them wandering through the crowds, each one with a basket in hand, and gathering all the leftovers. They are the ones who thought there wouldn’t be enough, but they get the first-hand experience of discovering how much there really is.
And the story doesn’t tell us what they do with those baskets of bread. But even if each one of them just stood there in front of Jesus for a moment with a surprisingly full basket of bread, could they have missed the message that their job was going to involve feeding some more people?
Again, and again, and again… Jesus’ disciples will be called upon to take their baskets of bread, small and insignificant as they might seem, and to give them away. “The overall sweep of the story is a lesson for the disciples that they, too, should trust in abundant grace and feed God’s sheep, not hoard resources for themselves or rest on their laurels. ‘Take and eat,’ Jesus says – and in the same breath, ‘Go and share.’”
So, I’ve been thinking about times when I’ve witnessed the kind of miracle that Jesus did that day. Not that I’ve ever seen anything that looked like magic, but I have seen God’s power at work within people, helping us to accomplish abundantly far more than all we might have asked or imagined.
I’m thinking of one woman’s idea to start a prayer shawl ministry at our church, even though she was just one knitter. But others joined her from our church members and beyond, and many developed their skills, and community grew among the knitters, and many people were blessed by the shawls that carried the community’s prayer, care, and love for those who were sick, or grieving, or needing love and support.
I’m thinking of our regular conversations at First Church’s Board of Managers meetings about how we are continuing to deal with the major repairs that we needed to do to our church’s foundation walls. Perhaps many of you haven’t thought about that huge project for a while, especially if the pandemic has kept you away from the building for many months.
We applied for grants from a number of different sources, drew on funds from various investments, and borrowed money carefully to pay the bills when they were due. And although that story is not over, we recognize that we have been abundantly blessed by the resources that have come to us, and we trust that God will help us to keep on stewarding the gift of this church for the purpose of carrying out ministry and mission in this community for many years to come.
I’m also thinking of our refugee sponsorship projects, in which our congregation committed to sponsoring a family (and then another) with all the financial, practical, and emotional support that it will entail. And people gave small amounts and large amounts, and others planned fundraising events, and others donated furniture and household items. And our fund isn’t overflowing yet, but it’s getting there. And we trust that there will be enough, and our church will embody an expression of welcome and hospitality for two families from South Sudan and Pakistan that have been suffering and struggling for a long time.
And I’m thinking of the “Love my Neighbour” project through Unicef in which Canadians are gifting vaccines to people in developing countries who do not have access to vaccines. You may remember that I talked about this opportunity several months ago when Nick and I made a donation in gratitude for the gift of being vaccinated ourselves.
This week I received an email from the project organizers to let me know that our gift had been matched by the Government of Canada – doubled so that even more people would benefit from our small offering of money. “Well, shouldn’t the thanks go to Justin Trudeau or someone else with influence in the government?” you might be thinking. But I am giving thanks to God for the faithful people who were not only giving, but raising awareness, and advocating, and encouraging our leaders to increase our generosity as a country and help put a stop to this pandemic around the world.
Imagine yourself… standing in front of Jesus, holding a basket full of broken pieces of bread. What kind of bread is in your basket? A bit of money, a bit of time, a bit of creativity, a bit of faith? And where is Jesus sending you to give that bread away, trusting that when you do, your basket will be filled up again?
Jesus’ first disciples went out to sea in a boat. They didn’t even wait for Jesus to join them, but rushed away as if scared and baffled by the miracle they had witnessed and what they might have been starting to understand was their mission too. They were terrified by so many things, including the appearance of Jesus walking towards them on the water. But Jesus said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”
As Paul prayed for the Christians at Ephesus, let this be our prayer for one another: That God may strengthen you in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. May you have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. And may God accomplish abundantly far more than all we ask or imagine through us, as we take our baskets and begin to share.