Miracles do not impress the post-Enlightenment mind. We are an age that has ceased to wonder, to believe in the miraculous. There is an explanation for the two miracles that are recounted in John’s text: the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus walking on water. One popular secular explanation for the feeding of the five thousand is that people in the crowd were willing to share their food from their hidden stashes because a young boy was willing to give up his five barley loaves and two fish. This version of the story focuses on the ability of people to solve their own problems, and on healthy shame, not on amazing grace. And perhaps Jesus did not walk on water, but beside it, as the Greek word epi can be translated as either on the water, or by the water.
Whether the incredible physical aspects of Jesus’ ministry – multiplying loaves and fishes, and walking on water, can be accepted by a contemporary reader of Scripture is, to my mind, a moot point. The miraculous does not need to be exclusively identified with these events – we can look beyond them into the ways in which the miraculous is present in the whole of life.
For example, without faith, there is never enough. Jesus poses a question to Philip: where are we to buy bread for these people to eat? Philip assesses the situation and recognizes that it is bleak:Sixmonths’wageswouldnotbuyenoughbreadforeachofthemtogetalittle. Andrew who looks at the boy’s five barley loaves and two fishes provides the bleak rhetorical question: What are they among so many people? In the text, the end of human ability is the beginning of God’s grace. And grace is enough to feed a multitude with a great deal left over.
How many times are we faced with overwhelming situations and inadequate resources? Think Katrina, tsunamis, crop failures, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and crippling poverty both in America and around the world. Yet, in the face of not enough, Jesus provides abundance.
In 1946 the woman who would become known to the world as Mother Teresa faced masses of suffering and dying people in Calcutta. Yet, a small order of thirteen people grew in the following decades to thousands of members giving care in many orphanages and centers of charity. God multiplied those meager resources and found a way forward from the position of not enough. In 1976, Millard and Lina Fuller began Habitat for Humanity with a few volunteers and a few tools because they saw the great need for affordable and decent housing for the working poor. Today, Habitat for Humanity stands as clear testimony of God using a few tools and people and creating a ministry of abundance. It would have been easy for Mother Teresa and the Fullers to ask What are they among so many? But, they didn’t. They believed that in the hands of God, nothing was impossible.
The other side of this coin is that God has created this world of abundance to feed every person on this planet. I was listening to the radio on my way to South Plains this past week and I heard a farmer from Kansas being interviewed about the subsidies the government was offering to offset the trade wars. I was struck by this man’s comment, not about the trade wars or the subsidies, but rather about the ability of one state to feed the entire country and much of the world. So it is often the choices that we make that undercut the grace and abundance that God has already provided.
In Jesus’ hands the few can become the many, little can become much, and the weak can become strong. This is a good lesson for South Plains. A church can create and keep a prophetic edge and a ministry of witness if it steps out in faith believing that God will take whatever resources we have and multiply them in amazing ways.
Two other things worth noting about today’s Scripture lesson: When the crowd and the disciples try to put Jesus into a category, he eludes them. They people want to take Jesus by force and make him king. Jesus withdraws to the mountain by himself. The disciples want to take him into the boat, but immediately the boat reaches land. We are never able to contain Jesus in a theology (as in king of the world) or in a building (as in a boat). Attempts to do so I call the God in a box theology. To try to contain Jesus is to try to control him. Jesus is always on the move. That’s one of the reasons I look for Jesus in the surprises of my life, not in the certainty of any doctrine that tells me how Jesus works in the world. I simply don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else knows either.
There is always a second miracle with the physical miracles that Jesus does. The miracles also bring hope to people and they feed their hunger for the bread of life. The miracle within the walking on the water is that Jesus could give ordinary people like you and me, who are often timid and insecure, the ability and confidence to walk where they had never walked before. The miracle within the miracle is that Jesus replaces despair with hope, a faith that can live with doubt, and the courage to live beyond the sting of death.
The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote: Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; And only he who sees takes off his shoes – The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries. An age such as ours, that has lost its capacity for wonder, is likely to miss the extraordinary within the ordinary, the miracle within the miracle. Let’s look beyond the blackberries, although they are sweet and delicious in and of themselves, and look to the heavens shimmering within, around, and beyond them. Amen.