Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 07/29/2012

I thought about omitting the sermon today (I wonder if you would have noticed).  But…I looked in the hymnal and maybe you’ve noticed that some parts of the service are listed as “may;” they may be done but you don’t have to include them, but alas the sermon isn’t one of those so I figured I couldn’t get away with it.  Actually, although I wasn’t seriously thinking about not doing a sermon, the thought popped into my head because of a trip up to Eagle Harbor to attend vespers with the monks last Saturday.  As we were leaving Father Basil, one of the monks, said, “So you have to drive back to Ishpeming tonight?” and I said “Yeah, they expect me to show up on Sundays.” Then he said, “Have you ever thought of putting a sign on the door saying ‘Worship is cancelled today?’ We do that sometimes.” 

So anyway, that thought flashed through my mind as the week was progressing and I was struggling to come up with anything about Jesus feeding the 5000 and walking on water that I thought was worth your time and attention.  They’re both well known, iconic images of Jesus power and presence but what else can you say? 

Well…the feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels.  That’s not true for very many gospel stories of any kind, never mind miracle stories, so one question you could ask is, “What does that mean?  Why does this one show up in each gospel?”  The first, and most obvious answer to that question is that the reason this story is in all the gospels is because something like this happened.  There must have been at least one occasion, or more than one that some way, some how Jesus provided food for a large number of people when it didn’t seem like there would be enough and so people took note of that and talked about it.   The gospels weren’t written until many years after all the events surrounding Jesus took place, but even while Jesus was still around, people must have been talking.  It was primarily an oral culture so pretty early on, there would have been stories circulating about Jesus and things that he said and did. 

When the writers of the gospels got around to doing what they did, they would have drawn from the stories that were around and then spun them out in ways that would make them memorable and also in ways that would get their theological points across.  They would have been less concerned with getting the history exactly right so we probably don’t want to get too worried about that, we shouldn’t read a story like this assuming that it happened exactly this way because that wasn’t their primary concern.  The fact that some version of this story does show up in all of the gospels though, would indicate that it must have been told in a lot of different places among a variety of groups of people so again, the logical conclusion is that something like this must have happened; there must have been a feeding miracle because from very early on this story had a prominent place in the tradition.

Today we have John’s version of the feeding of the 5000 so the next question is what was he doing with this story?  With all of the gospels we can assume that the miraculous nature of what Jesus did is intended to get people’s attention, to cause them to think about who Jesus is.  But all of the gospels also make it clear that it’s wrong to just see Jesus as a miracle worker; he’s more than that.  So what else is John up to?

One of the unique features of this story as John tells it is the mention of Passover.  It’s the kind of detail that we easily skip over but for the first people to read this, the mention of Passover would immediately conjure up images of Moses and with that there appear to be connections between Jesus and Moses that John wants us to make.  For example, the feeding story happens on a mountain which evokes Moses association with Mt. Sinai and the giving of the commandments.  Obviously there is a miraculous feeding in this story which is a reminder of the manna in the wilderness story.  Calling Jesus the prophet who is to come into the world could also bring images of Moses to mind and both this story with Jesus walking on water and the exodus story with the parting of the Red Sea include a miracle associated with crossing a body of water. 

I don’t think any of this is coincidence.  As I said, the gospel writers would want to tell the stories in ways that would make them memorable and these parallels do that.  At the same time they make a theological point as for a largely Jewish audience John clearly wants to associate Jesus with a prophet like Moses, that’s part of what he was up to, but with the walking on the water part of it John also ups it a notch; he makes Jesus more than a prophet like Moses as Jesus does something only God could do.

All of which is perhaps moderately interesting depending on how interested you are in biblical theology, but what we still have to think about is what does a story like this have to say to us?  Miracle stories can be difficult for modern people like us because while we might find them entertaining we can also tend to be either skeptical about them or just not terribly impressed with them; we often want to logically explain them away and that’s part of the history of this story.  One common explanation is that what must have really happened was when the young boy shared what he had, others did the same thing and there turned out to be enough.  That kind of sharing might actually make it more miraculous but with that explanation the story tends to lose some of its punch.  It’s an explanation that doesn’t deny that something happened but it’s not quite the same as believing that Jesus used his divine power. 

The other thing I mentioned, the connections to Moses and the exodus might make you say, “Oh, I never thought of that before,” but that might be about it, just a point of curiosity.  So…is there anything else here that’s worth thinking about?  That’s what was frustrating me earlier in the week.

One of the things you can do with a Bible story though is to kind of crawl inside it.  You can try to place yourself in the story somewhere and poke around and see where that takes you.  I did that; I imagined myself as part of the crowd that was there that day and I would invite you to do the same thing.  When you do that, think about this; do you have any reason to think that Jesus is going to provide you with something to eat?  As I thought about it, for me, from inside the story, the answer was no. 

I’ve gone out to see Jesus, perhaps out of curiosity just wanting to get a glimpse of this guy people have been talking about, maybe hoping to hear him speak, maybe hoping to see a healing; but I would have no reason to expect him to feed me.  I compared it to all those years I was part of a big crowd at Celtics games; I went to watch them play basketball, I didn’t go expecting Larry Bird to buy my lunch.  It wasn’t anything that would have ever even crossed my mind and being fed by Jesus wouldn’t have crossed the minds of those gathered on the hillside with him that day either.

I’d never really thought about that before relative to this story but what it made me realize was what a profound act of grace this was.  We tend to focus on the miraculous nature of what happened and maybe that’s what we’re supposed to focus on, but we also shouldn’t overlook how totally unexpected this would have been.  There was no reason for the people to expect to be fed and there was no reason for Jesus to expect that he should have to feed these people; but he did and that’s grace.

As Lutherans we talk about grace all the time; it is pretty much the cornerstone of Luther’s theology, justification by grace through faith, but I’m afraid that grace can sometimes just be a vague theological term that doesn’t always mean much.  I’ve talked before about grace as being something that’s undeserved and that’s important, but this story provides an example of grace as also being unexpected and that too is an important dimension of it.  The people on that grassy hillside were surprised by grace and that’s a reminder that we don’t want to lose that sense of surprise regarding our faith.

That’s another thing I thought about as I put myself into the story; as a member of the crowd I would have been really surprised as all this food was being distributed, happily surprised by this act of grace.  We ought to have the same sense of surprise at the unexpected nature of God’s grace and forgiveness, grace and forgiveness that we become pretty casual about and that we can often more or less take for granted, ho-hum.  But remember, it could be otherwise.  God’s approach to humanity could be different.  Just like Jesus could have said, “I don’t have to feed all these people; let them fend for themselves,” God could also say, “I don’t have to provide forgiveness and acceptance for everyone as a gift; let them earn it on their own and if they can’t do it, too bad.”  The relationship God offers us is surprising; we have no reason to expect it because we know we don’t deserve it.  But there it is.  God chose to reveal himself through the gift of a surprising Messiah.

As is the case with most Bible stories, there’s no follow up to this feeding of the 5000 story.  It jumps right to Jesus walking on water.  But a follow up would be interesting.  Having been the recipients of such a profound act of grace, you wonder if it changed anything for all those people.  You wonder.        

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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