This week, Faith in Real Life discussed John’s accounting of the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on the water to the disciples. It can be easy for us to focus on the miraculous aspects of the literal interpretation of the story. There were five thousand people. There were five loaves and two fish. Somehow everybody got something to eat. However, if we take one step back, we find that there’s a far more useful lesson to be learned–no matter the circumstance we face, we are called simply to do the best we can with the resources we have.
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then 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. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 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.”
15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
This passage combines two different miracle stories that are used by John to address the question: ‘Who is Jesus?’ Rather than use the more biographical narrative of the other three Gospels, John uses seven signs—actions of Jesus in his ministry to reveal his true nature. In the past I have tended to miss the forest for the trees. I have gotten more invested in trying to understand the miraculous than seeing the revelatory nature of the story.
I remember being told that our faith rested on whether we believed these mighty acts actually happened. The truth of the Jesus story resided in the impossibility of producing food for five thousand out of a boy’s lunch or the impossibility of anyone walking on water. Jesus was special because he defied the laws of physics and the capabilities of ordinary understanding. The proof of God was the way he broke the rules of the natural world. And the proof of faith was our willingness to believe the unbelievable. We just had to accept the bible. If you questioned, you revealed your lack of faith. As you can well imagine, that makes an inquiring bible study difficult at best.
From this point of view, the focus of faith becomes more about thinking and accepting the improbable than about a way of life that transforms living. I believe 1st century followers of Jesus also had difficulty understanding what Jesus was about.
Notice that after providing food for the five thousand (we’ll get to that in a minute) that “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” The people had fundamentally misunderstood the sign he had just performed. The people equated Jesus’ specialness with his ability to improve their physical lives. He healed people and he fed people. That kind of a guy would make a great king—a leader for the people who took care of the people. Who wouldn’t want a king like that? He could fix things. He could make their lives better.
But Jesus was trying to teach people that there were dimensions of healing and feeding that went well beyond the physical ailments and hunger of the day. Getting a free lunch wasn’t the point, it was the signpost for a new way of life. Worldly circumstance was not to be equated with the spiritual life he offered. The people didn’t get it so Jesus had to withdraw to avoid being swallowed by their expectations. He spent his life inverting expectations and I think that is the easily missed sign in this story.
Jesus was actually trying to get away for some ‘me’ time. He crosses a sea, goes up a mountain with his disciples, looks up and realizes that his retreat wasn’t going to happen—five thousand people had followed. The people and all of their needs kept coming.
Jesus sees a teaching moment. The immediate problem is the hungry people and the larger problem is how do we ever respond when the needs of those around far surpass our ability to respond. Jesus uses his question to Philip (“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”) to set up his point. The ordinary, the logical and the reasonable response is: ‘We can’t.’ This is more than we can handle. As Phillip puts it: “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
All of us face problems that individually or collectively are more than we can handle. I worry about my parents, my children, wife, my friend and most recently, our dog. There is always something going on. And that doesn’t count my internal anxieties. Years of therapy have only served to illuminate rather than eliminate my personal insecurities. They are with me every day. If we extend the circle of concerns beyond ourselves, we cannot walk down the street without meeting the hungry. We cannot watch the news without witnessing divisiveness, antagonism, disregard and outright cruelty.
What is our responsibility to the never ending tsunami of need that confronts us? How are we to stay mindful? How are we to love our neighbor? How are we to love ourselves? Secular thinking tends to go in two opposite directions There is always the dream that somebody, somewhere should or could fix whatever ails us. (That is the basis for the people’s desire to make Jesus a king). The other common response is to be immobilized by the enormity of the problems. We don’t have enough resources. The needs are bigger than we are. What can we do? We can’t make a difference. In both cases who we are and how we respond depend on some quantifiable measure of what we can offer.
When I was working with Hospice, we only had 20-25 volunteers. Usually, at most, we could care for only 20 people at a time. There were many, many more who needed care. We had to decide how we would see our work. We could see ourselves as never enough or we could see that whatever we did was additive. In Jesus’ feeding the five thousand, he makes the choice clear.
His is the spiritual way and it leads to new life. Jesus responds to the needs in front of him—without regard to what is enough. He did not let the impossibility of the task keep him from responding. What he had was a boy’s lunch. Jesus says do what you can with what you have. Trust that there are possibilities beyond your imagination. Stick with your job. It is hard to respond when by the world’s standards our contribution amounts to so little. It is wistful to believe that even though we aren’t enough, somebody is. None of that matters to Jesus.
Our Christian faith claim is that everyone and every bit of kindness matters—even when the outcomes we can see are grim. I had a brother-in-law who posted a sign in his living room saying he was in the 15% club. He had a 15% chance of responding well to his chemotherapy for lung cancer. Those were long odds but they left room for hope. They helped him live the days he had. All of us can live until we die and we can love until we die—-as long as we leave open the possibility of the unexpected, unlikely or even unimaginable outcomes. As long as we believe in God, those possibilities always are present. We are not limited by what we think we know.
Our job is to do what we can with what we have. Don’t overthink it. Examine yourself, stay within your personal limitations but do what you can with what you have. We have to have the faith to believe that one drop of rain adds to the ocean. We have to believe that there are possibilities beyond our imagining. We have to trust God or we will sacrifice our living to our sense of futility . That is how we will live the abundant life. That is how Christ will live and that is how the kingdom will come.
This is not something we can do ourselves. We need God’s presence in order to live this way. I think that is the main point of the second sign in this narrative. Apparently Jesus had finally managed to get away for a bit and the disciples decided to start back without him. They are engulfed by a storm—forces they could not control. It was a dangerous time and a frightening time. In the midst of all of this, they see Jesus, walking on the water towards them. He simply says, “It is I; do not be afraid.”
We, like the disciples, can leave Jesus, but you can count on two things happening. First, at some point we will be overwhelmed by the world’s needs and forces we can not control, and second, Jesus will be looking for us. It will be up to us to invite him into the boat. When he is with us, we live in the promise that we are enough in the face of a world that says we are inadequate. We live in God’s love instead of human expectations. That is quite a promise.
Invite him into the boat. Respond to the needs that are in front of you. Do what you can with what you have. Let it be so.