As miracle stories go, this one has to be one of the most popular. Maybe that’s because it’s about food. In any case, there are six versions of it told in the Gospels. The numbers fed vary. Sometimes it’s 4,000, usually it’s 5,000, in one case way more than 5,000. The story seems to grow with the telling.
The biggest blank in the story is how five loaves of bread got broken into enough pieces to feed maybe 10,000 people with twelve basketfuls left over. People sometimes say that Jesus “multiplied” the bread as he broke it, but that’s filling in the blank. John doesn’t tell about that part. All Jesus did was take, bless, and give. (Other versions say that he took, blessed, BROKE and gave. I think the breaking is implied here too.) Either way it’s more like those “before” and “after” pictures. Here’s five loaves; now here’s a warehouse full of broken bread. But we’re not told how we got from “before” to “after.” That’s the part nobody saw.
It’s said that nature abhors a vacuum, and that’s at least true of human nature—we keep wanting to fill in that blank. And how we fill it in can say a lot about us. In an earlier time people just assumed that Jesus was a kind of superhero who could leap tall buildings in a single bound, walk on water and multiply loaves of bread—all in a day’s work. But of course that was just back then, not now. My Church’s Prayer Book has a prayer for consecrating extra bread and wine if we happen to run out, but if we don’t have any more to work with we’re in deep trouble. We don’t have any prayers for multiplication. We never did.
Today a lot of us look for modern ways to fill in the blank. About 200 years ago people started writing “naturalized” lives of Jesus. They tried to stay as close to the story-line as possible, but they found natural explanations for all the miracles. When Jesus walked on water he was really walking on a sand bar just under the surface. When he ascended into heaven he really just walked up a hill into a fog bank. That sort of thing.
I’ve seen two versions of feeding the 5,000. In one version Jesus is a bit of a huckster, standing in front of a cave, where those sneaky disciples keep slipping him extra loaves of bread. In another version—you’ve probably heard this one from the pulpit before—it turns out that lots of others brought their own food after all, but they weren’t about to share it until Jesus embarrassed them into generosity. That’s the United Way version. It comes in handy for stewardship drives too.
Well, that’s all understandable, though for me it’s just a little too obsessed with details. In Jesus’ time, when people told truthful stories about someone’s life they didn’t fret over the details that much. You could toss things in or cut them out or even give your imagination free reign. What mattered was whether the story was TRUE TO CHARACTER. Did it reflect something Jesus would do? More to the point, does it reflect something God still does for us in Jesus’ name? Then it’s as true a story as anybody needs.
Now I have to admit, I’m pretty much at home with that approach. I don’t have to get defensive if the Jesus Seminar tells me that this particular story was ninety-nine percent imagination. It can still be as true as it needs to be. I can live with that, and I don’t think the church has any business trying to stifle anybody’s honest questions or doubts.
But decades ago, while I was pondering this story it occurred to me that I might still be missing the most crucial point. I think I’ve still been in too much of a hurry to fill in all the blanks. I wonder if I’m really trying to reassure myself and the rest of us that what’s MOST true in this story is what we can explain.
But that gets everything backwards. This story invites us to see that what’s MOST true about it is what we CAN’T explain. It means to break open our chronic tendency to shrink God’s generosity down to the limits of whatever we happen to THINK is possible. No doubt miracle stories grow in the telling. And I’m not about to suggest adding a prayer for multiplication to the Prayer Book—we probably all agree on how well that one would work. But we do tend to shrink God’s generosity to fit our versions of the world.
And that shrinking tendency lies behind most of the rotten things the church has done to people in Christ’s name over the past 2,000 years.
Just think of the debates our Church has been obsessed with us over the past 50 years over who can be ordained and who’s relationships can be blessed. We’ve heard repeatedly that God’s generosity only works this way, not that way. It can’t change—no women priests, to say nothing of Bishops, and no same-sex marriages. They’re just not possible.
When Jesus’ disciples said certain things just weren’t possible, he had a different response. He took their stingy little worlds, then he blessed them, then he broke them open, and then he gave them out. And the impossible happened.
He took, he blessed, he broke, he gave. That’s not the only time he performed those four actions. And we regularly perform them too. Now we call them the Offertory, the Great Thanksgiving, the Fraction and the Communion. We take, we bless, we break, we give. And then, we’re promised, impossible things can happen.
One of those impossible things in my tradition is that we believe that the God-saturated life of Jesus really becomes present in a new way. We are not just remembering Jesus. The bread and the wine don’t just represent Jesus. We don’t officially endorse theories like transubstantiation, but we do endorse the words of St. Paul: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). We become Christ’s broken body sharing Christ’s broken body. That’s one impossible thing.
But other impossible things can happen when we do this. Maybe you’ll find you can afford to forgive somebody after all. Maybe you’ll get forgiven. Maybe you’ll find that you still have more faith than you know what to do with, just when you thought it had run dry. If you listen to people’s stories, you know that impossible things like these happen every week, every day. The limits of our world break open, and we’re awash in God’s generosity.
So pay attention during the Fraction, the Breaking of the Bread. When Christ’s body is broken, a whole world breaks open with it. It’s your world, and now it’s ready to give life to you and to those around you.