Feeding the Five Thousand: What happened to the leftovers? 

So the feeding of the five thousand is a pretty well known story: Jesus miraculously multiples five loaves and two fish to feed a massive crowd. It’s a Sunday School classic. But here’s my question: what happened to the leftovers?

We learn from the story that, after everyone had eaten their fill, the disciples collected twelve baskets of leftovers. But even if those baskets were lunchbox-style things, that’s still a lot of food going to waste. Those leftovers may have been binned, I guess, or the disciples might have dived in next time they felt peckish. Or, as I’d like to think, they took those baskets into town and helped people out – after all, there were plenty who lived hand to mouth at the time. The same conversation can be had about a couple of other miracles: John 21’s miraculous catch of fish, for instance, or the feeding of the 4,000.

That last one gives us a hint as to where we can go with all this. It’s a parallel story to feeding the 5,000 but this time there are seven baskets left over. This isn’t a coincidence – the twelve original baskets represent the tribes of Israel, while the seven baskets represent the gentile nations. These miracles are royal metaphors, the Messiah inaugurating a different Kingdom, a Kingdom in which, among other things, the hungry would be fed. These baskets existed because everyone had eaten their fill.

So. Today millions face starvation in South Sudan in a world where obesity kills more people than hunger. It’s a problem if you retrieve perfectly good food from a dumpster but we accept it being thrown away in the first place. Food waste is something we need to tackle; what we eat – or don’t eat – is a justice issue. From a Christian prespective, the blessings we receive should always be used to also bless those around us; the edges of our harvest should always be up for grabs. It’s one of the ways we show which Kingdom we’re living for.

It’s easy to hear the great old stories of faith and miss the finer details, details which nevertheless point to how applicable they are to life in the here and now. We ignore them at our peril; we’re blessed to be a blessing, and even our leftovers can be sacred.

Jesus vs. Maps (John 6)

Jesus-walking-on-water_jpgThere’s a moment in The West Wing in which two senior White House staff are confronted with the idea that our maps are wrong; the northern hemisphere is made to look larger, and therefore more important, and Britain is put at the centre of the world. The scene is played for laughs, but I’ve been unable to look at maps in the same way since; we treat them as dispassionate records of where places are, but beware – they’re also rife with assumptions and biases, and if you think I’m exaggerating, consider that back in the day maps were centred on Jerusalem – the world looks very different.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that sometimes Jesus goes toe-to-toe with geography.

For instance, take the story of Jesus walking on water. It’s a Sunday School classic, and everyone knows it was Lake Galilee that he walked upon. But when John recounts the story, he emphasises something significant – the lake was also known as ‘Tiberias’, as was a nearby city. Now, at the time Jesus took his stroll across the water, this was a recent development; the city of Tiberias was found by Herod Antipas in AD20, as a way of sucking up to the Emperor, the lake being renamed as the city grew in prestige. This wasn’t just a nice bit of urban planning; it was a political statement that exposed some of the tensions of the time – many more militant or religious Jews refused to settle in Tiberias, although it’s loyalty to Rome meant it became the default centre of Jewish culture after the fall of Jerusalem in AD70.

Most of the miracles have a theological point to make; walking on water emphasises Jesus’s divinity, his lordship over creation and, as the sea was viewed as the source of chaos and cosmic forces in opposition to God, the triumph of God’s Kingdom. So when John stresses that this took place in an area where the name of the Roman emperor had come to dominate the landscape, at a time when loyalty was a matter of life and death, we’re invited to recognise who’s really in charge.

A similar thing happens in Caesarea Philippi; Jesus asks his disciples who they believe him to be; Peter immediately announces that he’s the Messiah. It would be a great proclamation of faith in any setting, but in Caesarea, surrounded by shrines to other gods, it almost becomes dangerous. The very town is named after an emperor and a king; heck, originally it was named after a god. There’s a reason Jesus asked such a controversial question in this place.

Humans often impose themselves on our landscape; we build cities that act as architectural testament to our power and prestige, we ‘discover’ new lands and give them new names, no matter what those who already live there think about it. We like to believe that God is sovereign, but we also believe that it’s our politician, our pastor, our bombs and drones that will really sort things out. Sometimes that even goes so far as to be a form of idolatry – it’s not spoken out loud, but we can see a glimpse of it every time we look at an atlas.

Jesus, God incarnate, lived and worked in places like this, which should challenge us – what comes first, God or Empire? Or, put another way, whose kingdom has the most territory on our theological map?

(This post was inspired by a podcasted sermon I heard recently – unfortunately I can’t remember who it was by! If it rings any bells, please let me know so that I can add a link.)

Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-43)

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It is the day of the Transfiguration and four young men climb an unnamed mountain for an encounter with… What exactly?

The Transfiguration is epic and mysterious; Peter, James and John see Jesus’s face shine like the sun, meet Moses and Elijah, hear the voice of God Himself. But what did it all mean, what exactly was Peter experiencing that day?

A moment of beauty, yes, but maybe beautiful like a waterfall, rendering him speechless with awe in the face of majesty, and overwhelming urge to throw himself in, against every thought of self-preservation. The apostles are suddenly thrown into a different world, one in which Heaven and Earth are dancing.

We hear how Jesus is transformed by this moment, but that’s not the whole story. He was fully human, sure, but also fully divine, and here we catch a glimpse of that ultimate reality, both natures wrapped around each other, different spheres of existence locked together in the figure of a thirty-something carpenter.

The Transfiguration is a moment at which the whole scandalous message of the gospel is revealed in its power and beauty: God is present with his people, not living at a sacred distance as he did in the Exodus desert all those years ago, but getting his feet dirty and drinking wine and talking and laughing and dying and rising. His omnipresence becomes more intimate and personal, back when the glory entered the Temple, the priests fell on their faces and saw it as an expression of goodness and love; here three fishermen see all this and realise that it’s personal as well.

And yet this moment isn’t permanent; God’s presence goes on to be seen and felt in other ways. At the height of the experience, Peter wants to build tents for everyone. It sounds a crazy, mundane thing to say, but it echoes the Feast of the Tabernacles and Zechariah’s prophecy that universal celebration of this feast will be a mark of the Messianic age. Maybe Peter thinks that day has finally arrived, God come down to put everything right.

In a sense he’s right; the Messiah is here, and the Now-And-Not-Yet Kingdom is at hand. But it’s not going to be as easy as the Transfiguration may have made him think. Peter doesn’t want to think of his Messiah, his friend, going through pain and death, but there’s another hill still to climb. On that day, the people alongside Jesus will be dying terrorists, not honoured prophets; instead of speaking out loud, God will appear terrifyingly silent. Maybe that’s why here God chooses only to say “This is my Son – listen to him!”. Take the hint guys.

We see something of this at the foot of the mountain. Peter and the others can’t stay up there with Moses and Elijah, and as NT Wright points out, every telling of this story is followed by an encounter with a demon-possessed boy. From the heights of the Transfiguration, the group are brought back down to earth with a bump; there’s no time to contemplate what they’ve just seen before the fear and frustration and busyness and confusion of the ‘real’ world comes crashing into them. And yet even there we see God’s presence; the boy is healed and restored to his family. The beams of light and the ancient heroes may be hidden once more, but God’s presence remains. And now the moments in which the Kingdom breaks through serve to transfigure the world.

Jesus Wept (John 11:35)

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Sometimes we know too much.

I know, for instance, that John 11:35, “Jesus wept”, is the shortest verse in the Bible, Everyone knows that, it’s a trivia quiz answer.

Except that it isn’t.

Well, okay, it is in the King James translation. But not in the NIV, or in the original Greek, and besides, the chapter and verse numbers came a long time after John and Paul and the others were writing.

“Jesus wept.”

Its shortness is its power, a blunt statement of fact that nevertheless affects the gravity of everything around it by its sheer mass and weight. It’s anything but trivial.

Jesus arrives at the village of Bethany too late, apparently, to heal his friend Lazarus. He has to face death threats and recrimination and anger and frustration from those around him, all while his friend lies in his tomb, wrapped in grave clothes.

And there are conversations about God and theology and hope, and yes, they’re important, but when Jesus looks at that grave, all that stops. It stops and Jesus breaks down and weeps.

We know too much, of course. We know why Lazarus is famous, we know what Jesus is planning to do, we know this story’s happy ending. And yet maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do, because somehow this whole narrative revolves around Jesus’s tears. We know Lazarus is coming back, so why all the weeping? Why exactly is Jesus crying?

Grief? Empathy? Anger at death’s presence in creation? Frustration that of all the deaths in the communities in which he lived, only a few were reversed in this way? Did the words of Lazarus’s sisters cut him like a knife? Even though he knew that a resurrection was at hand, did he still mourn for Lazarus’s suffering, for three lost days?

“Jesus wept.”

That’s the problem, right there. My theorising. Because sometimes, more often than we’d like, Christians need to follow Jesus’s lead, need to shut up and weep.

We find it inadequate. We’re God’s ambassadors, after all, and so we feel that we need to provide answers. We tweet Bible verses out of context and quote textbooks because if we can’t answer the near immortal question of suffering right that moment, then God is somehow threatened and dishonoured.

But the presence of theology isn’t necessarily the presence of God. Sometimes we’re too busy talking and knowing too much when God wants us to weep. Weeping is openness, vulnerability, solidarity, incarnational. Our hearts break and when they do we need to grieve, grieve and know that God grieves with us. Words and homilies come tumbling down with the world around them and all that’s left are tears, for minutes or hours or days.

“Jesus wept.”

Lord, help us to silence our answers and insecurities and weep with those who need it, and let our hearts break along with yours.

 

Pentecost (Acts 2)

pentecost2Tongues of fire and a mighty rushing wind and a babble of languages that the speakers never learned… The story of Pentecost is intrinsically supernatural. But it’s supernatural for a reason, a key moment in the building of God’s Kingdom.

The story is well-known, a Sunday School staple. The disciples are gathered together when the Holy Spirit arrives, manifesting as wind and fire and leading to 3,000 people becoming Christians. This is seen as the birth of the early church; it’s a seriously important moment.

All this was happening during Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, a pilgrim festival serving two purposes – a celebration of the harvest and a commemoration of God giving the Law on Mount Sinai. Jerusalem was full of pilgrims – Jews from (in modern terms) Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Italy, Greece and Jordan. They came loaded down with their harvest, taking it to the Temple to be blessed by the priests. And yet, while they were doing this, they encountered…

Well, they encountered God, each of them in their own language. They were fulfilling their religious observations at the Temple, but the real explosion of God’s power and presence happened outside of those structures. Look how people react to the disciples – they’re immediately identified as Gallileans, yokels, and while they’re standing there miraculously speaking a whole bunch of languages, they’re still easily characterised as drunks. Why? Because these aren’t part of the elite, they’re not the priesthood or respected authorities. They’re on the margins, tax collectors and fishermen, not the sort of people to whom 3,000 pilgrims should be looking for spiritual guidance.

And yet the priests are oblivious as a fisherman explains what’s going on, while the curse of Babel is reversed.

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine this sort of world. Christendom has been in existance for something like 1,700 years and we’re terrified about losing that influence. We really don’t like being on the margins; we’re so used to the cathedrals and the tax breaks and the politicians sucking up to us that we forget that, when God launched His church in earnest, he did so with a bunch of people who were written off as drunks. The whole point of the Book of Acts is about how the disciples find themselves increasingly working in those margins to share the good news of Jesus with people outside the power structures that dominated society. This is where that begins.

Peter quoting the prophet Joel points to that – “I will pour out my spirit on all people… And everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” If Pentecost celebrated the original giving of the Law, this is the inaugeration of a new church, one empowered by the Holy Spirit. That empowerment is vital – it’s not about the miracle of spontaneous translation in and of itself, it’s about what that means for God’s Kingdom – “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem,” Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel. Well this is where all that begins, with the Spirit enabling a motley group of ex-fishermen to build a new kind of Kingdom after their King ascends his throne.

And the truly scandalous thing about this? That it extends to us. Because that Kingdom is still being built. Pentecost was the spectacular fulfillment of a promise of which we’re a part, and the same Holy Spirit empowers us to be the church Christ wants us to be, a church that isn’t afraid and dismissive of the margins, of the disenfranchised, of the outsider. That’s scary – it may be because that mission is fundamentally outside of most of our comfort zones; it may be because the Holy Spirit Himself takes those comfort zones, puts them into a blender, then sets fire to them. But look at Peter – that’s what God can do through us. Scary, yes, but also a privilege.

We’re called to build the Kingdom. And Pentecost is ours.