Welcome to the picnic!
This Sunday is our bi-annual outdoor service. Britain is in the heart of a heatwave so how better to start Sunday worship than with breakfast by the brook? Bacon butties and other breakfast delicacies are served and when we have shared in our holy meal of bread and wine, there will be celebratory tea and cake. What are the good folk of Nether Wallop celebrating, you may ask, why nothing more nothing less, than God’s goodness and provision, and the whole Portway and Danebury group of churches are gathering together to share in the provisions. In God’s goodness even the gospel reading provided for this day centres around a most spectacular picnic, and our patron saint, Saint Andrew, is at the heart of it, read it here.
This is the story that was missing from last week‘s gospel passage, and although it is recorded in all 4 accounts, for some reason we have been sent to John’s for consideration.
Jesus is at the peak of his popularity, his celebrity status is shooting through the stars, and wherever he goes crowds follow him. On this occasion in excess of 5000 people have gathered to sit at this teacher’s feet and glean whatever wisdom, whatever inspiration, whatever insights into the kingdom of God they can. The people are emotionally and perhaps even spiritually stirred, but they aren’t practically prepared, and have left home without anything to eat. Perhaps their faith is such that they expect Jesus to provide whatever they might need, perhaps they were just caught up in the crazy fandom and didn’t think….
But here they are, their minds full but their bellies empty. Philip estimates that it would take 6 months wages to send for takeout, but Andrew, ‘the master of introductions’ discovers a child has food on him. For some the miracle is that the one who had food was willing to share, and in doing so others were encouraged to share as well, but I don’t think this is what John had in mind.
The description of the miracle has a very ‘Eucharistic’ feel to it. The bread is offered to Jesus, who then gives thanks before distributing it to everyone present. The magic may be in the multiplication of food, but the miracle is in Jesus’ presence and, through his actions, identification as the Messiah. For those at the picnic connections would have been made with Moses and the heavenly bread, the manna, which God provided in his day, and of the promise of Moses that one day a prophet would come in his image. For the early Christians hearing the story read back to them it would remind them of the Last Supper and the continued sharing of bread in memoriam, for us it keeps Jesus present even in our busy and confusing lives.
Mark’s account reminds us that Jesus has now turned towards Jerusalem and his death, but John’s account, this account reminds us of another occasion. For me, it is the detail of the child with a lunch that raises questions: I am imagining a scene where a child, a son, has something nobody else has, and his mother pushes him forward to offer it. That offering becomes a blessing and a small lunch of fish and bread feeds everyone. Flashback to the beginning of John’s gospel and a mother pushes her son forward when there is nothing to drink, and he too blesses others. First it was wine that was blessed and shared, now it is bread. What Jesus began with his first miracle turning water into wine is now nearing completion with the distribution of bread.
For Jesus the feeding of the 5000 may not have simply been an impulsive gesture towards a hungry gathering, but a chosen moment enacted with thought and care. In Mark’s account we are reminded that this picnic takes place on the way to Jerusalem for the last time, and Jesus is viewed,
not as a Messiah meeting hunger, but as a king bringing victory
The time is not yet right for Jesus to be enthroned, so he retreats on his own, but just like Hansel and Gretel he leaves a trail of crumbs for us to follow. In the leftovers there is also significance: Jesus urges his disciples to gather up the leftover fragments ‘so that nothing may be lost’ (6:12), and when they do, they discover twelve full baskets of leftovers, double the amount of wine jars.
Twelve is a highly significant number in Jewish culture: twelve tribes make up Israel God’s holy people. Everybody has eaten well – the 5,000 men, the women, the children, even the boy who sacrificed his lunch, have all been included in this most unexpected heavenly banquet. God is doing something new and amazing and everyone is welcome to join in, there is to be no separation or distinction in value of male or female, old or young – everybody is welcome and everyone is fed. Something new and inclusive is happening, and this is to be celebrated, but perhaps others, the more established members of the Jewish community feel left behind, feel excluded. Jesus takes care that they are not left to feel like discarded crumbs. Elsewhere Jesus promises that he has not come to destroy the law but to fulfil it. The old ways are not wrong, but neither are they yet complete.
We live in a world of ‘new’. Fashionistas would be horrified to be caught wearing anything from last season, techies amongst us would be beside themselves with excitement at the news of the latest iphone launch, and is there anyone who has entered the wizarding world of Harry Potter who hasn’t ‘pre-ordered’ the next instalment? Jesus himself often urged his disciples to look for the new thing that was coming, and John the Baptist’s famous cry from the wilderness was to ‘prepare the way’ for that something (or someone)!
And yet Jesus takes care that nothing, that no-one, is lost. All that might otherwise be discarded is gathered up in the baskets, the crumbs are not left behind but valued and kept safe. I wonder who, or what, are the crumbs of our faith built society that otherwise might be lost?
Something to do:
Something to think about:
- What is the most surprising picnic you have attended?
- What surprises you most about this story from the gospels?
- Why do you think it was so important for the child to make his offering?
- What offering do you have to make?
- How can God use what we have to give?
Something to pray: