First Lutheran Church
July 26, 2015
THE MULTIPLICATION OF GRACE
If you were here last week, you heard me preach on Mark’s account of Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fishes to feed the multitude. Today, we look at John’s account. And if you were here last week, you also know that I did not focus my sermon on the crowd and their needs, nor on how Jesus met their needs, but on the weary disciples who were asked to put aside their needs to feed the crowd, who was like sheep without a shepherd. Today I want to talk about the nature of the miracle, the way in which the people were fed.
This is the only miracle account that is included in all four gospels. Each has their own theological concerns and each seeks to persuade their readers that Jesus is the one who proclaims the Good News of the Gospel. The crowds do not know who they are following around. They are just impressed because, as verse 4 told us, they saw the signs Jesus was doing for the sick. And after he feeds 5000 people with five loaves and two fishes, the crowd declares him to be the prophet who is to come into the world (vs. 14). They try to take him by force to make him their political king, but Jesus eludes them and disappears onto the mountain. Later in chapter 6, Jesus will tell the crowd that they don’t yet get it, that they seek him out not because of his signs but because he gave them food that filled their bellies for a day. They see him as the Great Problem Solver, the Answer Man, the one who will make life a little bit easier. But folks who look to Jesus as the Answer Man really do not get it. Late night TV is full of ads promising to make my life a little easier if I just buy their time-saving gadgets. There is little practical difference between them.
Other people find the power of this account hinging upon its historical accuracy. The literalists argue that it happened exactly as the Bible tells it, conveniently sidestepping that, with four accounts, there is no “exact” telling of it. Others argue that no well-educated, enlightened person could believe such first century nonsense. Both are arguments that do not get it because they are arguments about magic, either the magic of literalism or the magic of human reason. Neither group sees the sign, the miracle. There is an enormous difference between magic and miracles.
Magic is that which seeks to manipulate the natural world for human gain. In first century understanding, magic was about manipulating the gods to use their power for human gain or benefit. If you have a hungry crowd, you do your incantations and rituals to force the gods to feed them. In the 21st century, we know there is no such thing as magic. It is sleight-of-hand tricks that seek to deceive us into believing the unbelievable for the purpose of entertaining us. David Copperfield is honest about what he does. He does not really make objects fly or disappear; he creates diversions so that we don’t pay attention to what he is really doing.
Miracles are different. Miracles are extraordinary events that manifest the power of the Living God, wonders that confound human understanding. It is not a power that human beings can manipulate. God’s miracles do not happen because some priest or magician manipulated God with the proper incantations and rituals. They happen because the Living God compassionately chooses to use his power for human benefit. The miracle of this narrative is not limited to the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, although that is extraordinary. The miracle is in the multiplication of the grace of God.
In that light, arguments about how enough food was produced are silly. Some folks insist that the miracle happened in human effort, when others in the crowd saw the generosity of the child with his food basket. They were shamed into sharing from their baskets until there was enough for everyone. Others insist that God through Jesus Christ produced something out of nothing. But the mechanics of it don’t matter. I don’t need to know the physics of sound vibrations to appreciate that when I turn on my portable mike, it will carry my voice through the church. It is enough for me to know it happens. That you can hear me is what is important. I can believe the miracle of the loaves and fishes both as a miracle of generous sharing and the miracle of God’s extraordinary intervention to create something out of nothing. In truth, I believe it was some of each.
The miracle or sign, as Jesus himself said, is not that the people were fed that one time on the lakeshore. Those who think so are looking for the wrong kind of bread. The sign is that God, who is the source of all life, offers us the possibility of eternal life with him. We get a taste of that in eating the bread of heaven which offers us life in the Spirit, a life stronger than all our desperate efforts to multiply life for ourselves.
That theme is picked up in the next miracle, of Jesus walking on the surface of the lake. The sign or miracle there is not that he did that one time 2000 years ago but that Jesus Christ comes to us in the rough seas of our lives, in the darkness of our solitary voyages across unknown waters and that he takes hold of us. It is I; do not be afraid. He asks us the same question he asked the crowd. Do we know the bread that is from heaven or only the bread that fills our stomachs? Do we truly know the Christ, the Son of the Living God or do we simply follow him for our own purposes? Because if we follow him for our own purposes, we are like the crowd following him around, not knowing who he is but curious about him because we think he may do something for us. Just to hedge our bets, we show up when it fits into our schedules. We talk to God when it suits our purposes. We feed our bellies today and we are no more touched by the Living Christ than we are by the late night TV gadgets and their promises.
There is no scientific methodology to reading the signs of God’s presence in our midst. Rather, it is a matter of faith and commitment and time, that God gives us the ears to hear and the eyes to see where God’s grace is multiplied in our lives. God does, in fact, give us all that we need, with so much more left over. Are we looking for the signs of the power and grace of God in our lives or are we just seeking the Great Problem Solver, the Answer Man? Jesus said, Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. What bread are you working for? To God be the glory. Amen.