Tile: Bread of life
Texts: Isaiah 55:1-5, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21
Date: July 31, 2011
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
Jesus withdrew to a solitary place, away from the towns, “a deserted place by himself” (Matt 14:13a)—perhaps to mourn the death of John the Baptist, who was just beheaded by king Herod.
“But,” the text says, “when the crowds heard [the news], they followed [Jesus] on foot from the towns” (v. 13b). Even though Jesus sought solitude, he didn’t turn the people away. Instead he welcomed the crowds: “he had compassion for them,” it says, “and cured their sick” (v. 14).
As evening approached, the disciples began to worry about dinner. Jesus, they said, “send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves” (v. 15). But Jesus didn’t want the people to leave. He wanted to be with them. “They need not go away,” he says in verse 16. There’s no need to break up the party; Jesus wanted it to continue into the night.
At Jesus’ request, the disciples handed over the only food that they had: five loaves of bread and two fish (v. 17). They were willing to share the only food they had, even though it seemed absurd to imagine that so little food would be able to feed the thousands of people around them.
But Jesus took the bread and fish, looked up into heaven, and blessed the food; then he handed pieces of bread and fish to the disciples. It turned out to be more than enough. After everyone ate their fill, they collected the leftovers, filling twelve baskets.
This is a story of the abundance of God, the way God, in Jesus, pours out life for the world, more than enough, overflowing life. Five loaves and fish turn out to be enough to feed thousands, with plenty left over for the disciples—twelve baskets, one for each of them.
The number twelve reaches back to the Old Testament, to the story of the twelve tribes of Israel. So, in Matthew’s story, Jesus seems to be pointing us to his relationship to Israel, to his identity as a Jew, the Jewish Messiah, who comes to bring life not only for Israel, but for all the others, for everyone and anyone who comes out to be with him, to follow him.
The twelve disciples represent the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, belongs to these tribes. Yet others come out to be with Jesus, to draw near to him, to follow him. And Jesus welcomes them as well.
The God of Israel, the God of Jesus, overflows with grace, with new life, with food for all who are hungry. With Jesus, there is enough for everyone to eat and be filled—and there’s even leftovers, twelve baskets of leftovers, one for each tribe of Israel.
With this miracle, Jesus performs the good news; he embodies what God’s kingdom is all about. With the bread and the fish, Jesus shows how God’s grace works: that God, in Jesus, offers abundant life—enough to sustain the tribes of Israel, and plenty more to invite everyone else into the kingdom of heaven.
With God, there’s always enough to go around, enough for the thousands that surround Jesus and the twelve, enough for hungry men, women, and children. There’s enough of the bread of life to go around; there’s enough even for you and me.
The apostle Paul, in the passage we heard from Romans, describes this same movement of grace—the way God’s life is for Israel, and through Israel, for the whole world. Paul says, in verses 4 and 5, “To [the Israelites] belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises… and from them…comes the Messiah [the Christ], who is over all” (Rom 9:4-5).
Just like the bread is offered to the thousands who gather around Jesus, so too is the bread of life, God’s life, offered to the world, to the gentiles, to us. The movement of God in the world is a flow of abundance, of more than enough, always with leftovers.
In the first few centuries of the church, followers of Jesus would meet for worship in catacombs. There, among the dead, they found a deserted place, away from the threat of violence, away from persecution. They turned the catacombs, the place of the dead, into worship space, into a place for prayer and fellowship, for encouragement and companionship, a place for communion with God and each other.
One of the ways they transformed the catacombs into a place of worship was by painting and drawing on the walls. Along the walls of the caves the early Christians drew scenes from some of their favorite bible stories, liturgical art.
The story we read tonight, the story of Jesus feeding the crowds, was a popular one to paint in the catacombs.[i] Different versions of the story appeared in the caves. What’s interesting about the way they drew the stories is that they turned the miraculous feeding of the multitudes into a Communion meal. There, at the center of the crowds, was Jesus offering the bread and the cup, the bread of life and the cup of the new covenant.
Those early Christians seemed to be saying, with their art, that when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper, Communion, they were also part of the disciples and thousands of villagers who feasted with Jesus on the five loaves and two fish. As they showed with their art, when the Christians in the catacombs celebrated Communion, they saw themselves joining in the meal that Jesus offered to the hungry masses.
The Lord’s Supper was, for them, about abundance, the abundance of grace, of life, in the midst of so much death. The response to the reality of violence and death all around them was to come together and celebrate the abundance of God’s bread of life with Communion. They created a place where God’s life could continue to flow into the world, to sustain them—just like Jesus provided food for the masses. As they ate from the same loaf and drank from the same cup, they trusted in Jesus to provide for their spiritual and physical needs—to give them their daily bread.
In the catacombs, they became the disciples in the story, invited by Jesus to eat and be filled, but also to offer the bread of life to the world, to feed the hungry, to share in Jesus’ ministry. The story in Matthew’s Gospel became their story.
We are also invited to live in this story. We are like those who have followed Jesus out into the wilderness. We are the people who Jesus has welcomed with compassion—choosing to be with us, providing for us, and refusing to send us away.
And what God has given us we turn around and give to others. That’s how grace works; that’s how God’s life flows through the world. We give from what we have already received. We are invited into God’s movement of grace, sharing our life with the life of the world.
Together, as we become a community formed by God’s grace, we trust in the One who used what he had, five loaves and two fish, and was able to feed all who were hungry—the bread of life, food for hungry bodies, and food for hungry souls. To share the food of companionship, of friendship, of caring for one another—to share the love of Christ, with our words and our hands.
Here we are, gathered together in the wilderness of this world, creating a place for God’s life to happen in our midst, for God to multiply our gifts so that we can offer what we have to a world hungry for love and grace, for companionship—people who are hungry for a meal and the fellowship that happens as we sit and eat together.
As we come together, we share our gifts, our lives, all that we have, so we can join in the invitation of the prophet Isaiah, who says:
“you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price” (Isa 55:1).
[i] Geoffrey Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1981), 42-43.