Feeding the Five Thousand
Sermon from June 13, 2021
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
This morning, we are continuing our sermon series on the different types of stories in the Bible, as explored by Rachel Held Evans in her book, “Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.” If you have missed any of our other types of Bible Stories—origin stories, deliverance stories, war stories, resistance stories, or gospel stories—you can always go on our church website and give them a read.
I don’t know about folks who grew up in the desert, but for people like me who grew up around water pretty much everyone has a fish story. My fish story happened when I was a little girl living in Michigan, and my stepdad took me fishing for the first time in our friend’s pond. Now this happened on a Sunday after church, so I happened to be in a cute little frilly dress with great big pockets.
This may not seem like appropriate fishing attire, but I wanted to wear my dress and I wanted to learn how to fish and…sometimes you just don’t argue with a toddler about these things. So, my stepdad took me down to the little pond in our friend’s backyard, showed me how to cast a line, and then let me do it myself. I geared up, assumed the position, cast the line and then I made a big mistake. Instead of letting my line go into the water on its own, my fishing pole followed it, and since I didn’t want to lose my fishing pole I followed it into the water too.
Luckily, my stepdad was there to jump in and pull me out…but the best part of the story is that afterwards when I was standing in this dress, sopping wet on the end of the dock, I felt something moving around in my pocket. Folks, that’s how I caught my first fish!
Today we are talking about fish stories. It makes sense that so much of the Bible is made up of stories about fishing, fishermen, and miracles surrounding fish. Fish were a main source of food for the Jews, and several of the disciples were fishermen before they were called by Jesus to leave their nets and follow him.
The Bible tells stories of Jesus telling Peter to take a coin out of a fish’s mouth to pay his taxes. It tells of miraculous moments where the disciples were fishing and Jesus caused their nets to overflow but not break. It tells of times when Jesus took one person’s meal of fish and bread and blessed it and used it feed thousands. And of course, if we are talking about fish stories, we can’t forget Jonah who was swallowed by a big fish and miraculously survived.
It’s hard to know, however, whether these stories are meant to be metaphorical, larger than life illustrations, or truly miraculous events. Rachel explains how she feels about them this way:
“Sometimes the miraculous moments in Scripture strike me as…colorful exaggerations of events that may or may not have transpired as recounted…While it’s plausible to me that the Holy Spirit moved with special urgency during Jesus’ ministry and as the gospel spread throughout Asia Minor, the stories of Jesus healing the sick and walking on water, and of the apostles raising the dead and casting out demons, are some of the hardest of the New Testament for me to believe, and I know I’m not alone.”
I think that it’s very interesting that our topic of “Fish Stories” came up on the calendar this week. It was perfect timing, because last week a story went viral about a man who swallowed by a humpback whale. They weren’t talking about Jonah, or even Pinocchio, they were talking about a Lobster Diver named Michael Packard. I’m sure some of you have heard this story, but just in case you haven’t, let me read you this snippet of a news article I found from NBC Boston Ten News.
Packard was in about 45 feet of water when “I just felt this truck hit me and everything just went dark,” he said…..At first he thought he’d been eaten by a white shark — the feared sharks have become fixtures off the coast of Cape Cod in the summer — then he realized it didn’t have teeth: “I said, ‘Oh my god, I’m in the mouth of a whale.'”
Packard had been faced with an immediate struggle in the hard, shaking mouth of the whale, as his breathing regulator came out of his mouth and he had to find it. Then, as the seconds ticked by, Packard thought, “This is how you’re going to die. In the mouth of a whale.”
He didn’t know if he would be swallowed or suffocate, he said, and he thought about his 12- and 16-year-old sons, wife, mother and family. “I just was struggling but I knew this was this massive creature, there was no way I was going to bust myself out of there,” Packard recalled.
Then, suddenly, Packard saw light, felt the whale shaking its head and was thrown out of the water.” I was just laying on the surface floating and saw his tail and he went back down, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I got out of that, I survived,'” he said.
Others around him were also quoted in the article, including the Harbormaster, Don German, who said that at first he didn’t believe what he was hearing when he got the call about the incident. Quote: “Honestly, we all kind of thought, ‘OK, this is far fetched,’ but then, when we got word from the injured gentleman, we realized it was an actual incident.’”
So, Michael Packard was swallowed by a whale, spent 30-40 seconds inside the whale, and then the whale spit him out back into the water. The ordeal left him with some minor injuries like a dislocated knee and some soft tissue damage, but he is already out of the hospital and doing fine. For Michael, being alive today is a miracle, but if this hadn’t happened in 2021 where the technology exists to prove that it really occurred, who knows if people would believe his story?
If NBC Boston didn’t report on it, would we believe that it really happened? Or would we chalk it up to just another outrageous and dramatic fish story?
In this chapter about fish stories and miracles, Rachel Held Evans says that there are several ways that people read and understand them. Some people argue that the Bible’s miracle stories are unbelievable, therefore making the rest of the Bible unbelievable. Others try to explain the miracles away with scientifically plausible rationalizations. Still others spiritualize every miracle, describing them as metaphor rather than actual events. And of course, there are those who believe in the literal interpretation of the miracles.
I have believed many of these things myself at different times in my own spiritual journey. I have studied enough to know that the gospel writers took liberties with the way they described events in the Bible. They were writing for a specific audience, so they used references that they knew their readers would understand. They used details like sacred numbers for the number of people or fish or baskets of bread, or references to scriptures in the Old Testament so a Jewish audience would immediately recognize them.
I also believe that things don’t have to have really happened exactly as described to hold truth, and that incredible things can and do happen all the time. I know that many of us have moments in our lives where we can look back and see God was at work.
We can take this morning’s scripture as an example. I have heard some pastors and theologians preach that the feeding of the five thousand was a miraculous event in the life of Jesus that shows us that Jesus is God. I have heard others preach that perhaps the crowd was so moved by Jesus’ teachings that they began to take out the bread and fish and other food that they had with them and pass that around too—so the food became multiplied by generosity and hospitality, which can also be a miracle.
Honestly, I can accept either understanding of this scripture. What’s important to me, is that we live as though it matters, as if each of these miracle stories matter. That we believe that they were included in the Bible for a reason, and that their messages hold truth for Christ followers. In the grand scheme of things, it’s how you act in the world because of the story of Jesus that has an impact—not whether you can make a strong theological argument for whether his miracles happened as written or not.
Dallas Willard put it this way: “We don’t believe something by merely saying we believe, or even when we believe we believe it. We believe something when we act as if it were true. Rachel writes that “…perhaps a better question than ‘Do I believe in miracles?’ is ‘Am I acting like I do?’ Am I including the people who are typically excluded? Am I feeding the hungry and caring for the sick? Am I holding the hands of the homeless and offering help to addicts? Am I working to break down religious and political barriers that marginalize ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities and people with disabilities? Am I behaving as though life is more than a meaningless, chaotic mess, that there is some order in the storm?”
So, this morning, I invite you to ask yourself the same questions. How would your life change if you were living as though you believed in miracles?