I love the way John tells this story.
The great feeding is one of those "red letter" stories that were so important in the early days that we find it in all four gospels. But John does not simply retell a story in his awn words, he "value adds" as we might say.
John consistently takes stories from the tradition about Jesus and recasts them so that they now make statements about who Jesus is for us. Using common images of daily necessities, like bread, water, light, life, John is declaring that our deepest needs are to be found in him. They are found in him, because for John he is intimately linked to God, as God's unique Son. In effect, to relate to Jesus is to relate to God. In this way John merges diverse traditions and images into a single simplicity: our relationship with God. The result is a profoundly 'spiritual gospel', to use Clement of Alexandria's language.
I remember from my days as a Sunday School teacher that the lesson material I used called this story "the miracle of the boy's lunch".
We could also call it the story of the "ill prepared crowd", - what were they thinking, going out without lunch?! or we could call it the "compassionate teacher", - Jesus took pity on them or the "Disciples put to the test" - Jesus did ask them to organize the food, or it could be the "the Mass Fed" - and our Catholic brothers and sisters might like the allusions.
Now we all know that to be a disciple means to be a learner. Here in the gospel story is a lesson about sharing and it starts with a clear need and a test for the disciples. Remember, Jesus asks Philip, "Where can we buy enough food for them all?"
I think Philip and the other disciples gained a lot from this test! Even though what Philip was asked to do was beyond him and he failed.
How often do we get ourselves in a situation where we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we can't do what we would like to. There isn't enough money or enough time? It's frustrating isn't it? In the story of the feeding of the 5000 Jesus says to Philip, "OK, here's the situation, what can we do about it? Come on Philip here's a big need, what are we going to do to meet it? In a broad sense the question hits us all the time, "is there enough food in the world? Are there enough good will, peace and love to go around? And the reality seems to be, we don't have enough, we can't, we aren't able, but Jesus calls us as well, to do what's not possible by logical human standards.
An important aspect of this story, as John tells it, that I've not bothered with, or even noticed much before is to see that Jesus expects his disciples to get involved with his work. It might sound obvious, but the role of disciple was to sit at the master's feet. A rabbi's role was to teach. A healer would heal, miracle workers would work miracles.
But not Jesus.
Jesus does all these, and not as ends in themselves.
All the actions point to a reality that is beyond.
The miracles point to God's reality - the abundance of God's great love and compassion, grace and mercy.
And the community that Jesus gathered around him were not just there to enjoy the show, or to take notes for writing their gospels later!
Jesus expects them to learn and then to do the same.
"Ok, Philip, here come the crowds, how will we deal with this"? Jesus pops Philip under the griller for a moment.
Not just for fun.
Not just to make him squirm or feel inadequate.
Not just to show humanity as bereft - or it's needs unmeetable.
He is continually drawing his followers into his mission.
But, it's impossible to love as Jesus loved us,
But it's impossible to be holy as our Father in heaven is holy, to make peace in our world, to house the homeless, to heal the broken.
But, it's impossible to feed thousands of people! and yet that's what Jesus asks Philip to come up with an answer for and somehow,.... the answer is found and the impossible is done.
Let's look for a moment at Philip's response. He looks at the size of the crowd and his sensible logical bean counting brain whizzes into action, "Six months wages wouldn't pay for even a little for them to eat". Philip thinks rationally, practically. He thinks about the economics and the logistics of it. It's not possible, 200 silver coins for bread alone, .. Look at the cost!! Be real, we don't have the resources, we could be in debt for years!! I don't know if Philip had studied accounting at the Jerusalem institute, but I do know that there are many followers of Philip around today. Philip was pragmatic and eminently sensible. So what then was Jesus? Plainly he wasn't reasonable or even sensible by human standards.
As you and I think about how we will respond to the challenge to share that God puts before us, will we think about how poorly qualified we are to comfort others, about how inadequate our leading skills are and so on? And then answer like Philip did?
All too often we look at our resources and our capabilities and say no, sorry I can't share, I don't have enough, I'd like to, but! And our reasons may be good and sensible, but God calls us to follow one who broke the bounds of what was reasonable and logical, the one who gave of himself beyond all measure.
Back in the gospel reading Andrew's response to Jesus was more positive, even if it was only the doubtful offer of such a little, he at least brought forward what he knew could help, the loaves and fish, the boy who was willing to share.
There are a few valuable pointers for us here.
Firstly Andrew doesn't just leave Philip to face the test alone. There's nothing worse than being deserted by your friends, but it takes a lot of courage to get in there and put yourself forward in someone else's place. Secondly, Andrew doesn't have a great solution to the seemingly impossible problem of feeding the crowd but he offers the little that he knew of to help.
Jesus takes this small doubtful offer and with it he meets the need. The miracle here is that Jesus works through the little one seemingly insignificant person had to offer in a tentative small step of faith.
It's like concerned South Africans saying of apartheid, "we can't do anything, it will always be this way", and then a few dedicated people working with what little they have to help. And somehow,.... the job being done.
If we take our lead from Andrew we will be willing to have a go, to put ourselves at risk, to share what we have, even when, like Andrew we doubt our usefulness. We just might be shocked at what the grace of God can make of our willingness.
If our forbears in faith had not had something of this attitude, of taking a risk to follow Jesus way, this church would not have been built. If this congregation had not believed in exercising such a faith it would not have started the Kinder, the John Macrae centre. Uniting Arts and the many other things done as Christian outreach here.
We could have looked at the problems like Philip and said, "how can we possibly?"
But before we might be tempted to feel self satisfied, we need to remember that this call and response pattern is the shape of Christian life. There is never an end point reached in the call and challenge to us as the church, this side of heaven. We need to always have our ears open to the spirit of Jesus saying to us, "see this need coming, what can you do about it?" - because Jesus will keep on asking us, as he asked Philip.
We are brought face to face with the needs of the world on the nightly news, and even that is such a limited picture of the real needs. We know about many of the needs in our own country and in our own community. If we are honest I guess we all meet situations where we think that we need to do something but don't feel able. - - The disciples looked at the need and said "we don't have enough", Jesus said "look at what we've got" and he used what little was offered.
And, as Paul emphasizes again and again, we are not alone in this task. It is the love of Christ that fills us with the very nature of God. We have our roots and foundation in love -not just for our own benefit or fulfillment, but so that the one "whose power is at work within us is able to achieve far more than we can ask or imagine, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.
As Jesus followers today we need to look for what we have, we need to work together and trust that in the sharing God can do far more than we can imagine, even through us. Amen.