We, in modern America, if anything have too much food. You learn this in a new way when you go to places like Singapore where the portions are smaller – you know, normal sized. But in super-sized America it is hard for us to relate to people who truly live in hunger. We might be tempted to immediately jump to a spiritual application of this miracle – but let's not be so hasty.
The catechism teaches us in the First Article of the Creed, and in the Lord's Prayer petition, “give us this day our daily bread”: we acknowledge that each day, our food comes not from the fridge or the grocery store, but from the giver of all good things. This is one reason we pray before and even after meals – to acknowledge and give thanks for such blessings.
And sin is always there – crouching at our door – tempting us to make the lesser gifts into the greater gifts. To turn wants into needs. To prioritize poorly. To love the treasures of this world over the treasures of the world to come. To love ourselves and despise our neighbor. To make the created, the phyiscal things into gods, and fail to fear, love and trust the Creator.
The people who ate the miraculous fish and loaves that day were no different. If we were to read the parallel account of John 6, we'd see the people chasing Jesus around, trying to make him king by force – a “bread-king” who kept their bellies always filled. But they miss the point. Do we?
Jesus Christ himself is the bread of life. He himself is the only true sustenance for the soul. His bodily death on the cross, his shedding of blood, his atonement for our sins – this alone satisfies the deepest hunger of the human soul. Without such food, there is no life in us anyway. Without the cross you have, ultimately, no need of bread.
But just as there were more leftovers in the baskets than the food they started with, his provision is over-abundant. He gives all that we need and more. He provides for the salvation of our souls, as well as the resurrection of our bodies. And he sustains us with blessings too many for us to gather up in baskets. Blessings physical and spiritual, temporal and eternal. All from Christ, crucified for sinners.
And yet there are still more lessons to draw from this miraculous feeding long ago... Let's consider four:
We are dependent upon him.
Without Christ, we have nothing; we are nothing. We must look to him for all good things. This goes for the mundane food and clothing as well as the salvation itself. It's not as if Jesus gets us started and then it's up to us. We are and we ought to depend on him for daily bread, the air we breathe and the lungs to breathe it in. We have no more reason to expect any of this than the people he fed would expect a full and free meal – except that we know the giver gives abundantly, and loves to provide for our needs.
And it goes for the spiritual, as well. We cannot come to faith without His Spirit who calls us. We cannot make a decision to follow Christ that is of any value, but instead he chooses us. We cannot bring any good works that will wipe out our bad works and tip the balance in our favor – but only Christ's righteousness can suffice. And we cannot pay enough to cover our debt – only the blood of Christ has such value. We depend on him entirely.
And here we have even more reason to depend on him – for we have strong promises of forgiveness, salvation and eternal life with our God. Life in this world may bring trouble and hardship and nakedness and danger or sword, but no one can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ!
He has compassion.
Christ always has compassion on those in need. He never turns a cold shoulder to one who has faith and seeks his aid. This doesn't mean you will always have plenty and will never be in want of bread, or health, or that no sorrow will ever come your way. It doesn't mean the Christians will never suffer. But it does tell us where to go with our suffering, and who has the only and final answer to it, and the inclination to do us good. He knows our suffering, for he suffered it himself – he took it all to the cross . And so he sympathizes with us in our weakness, in all things.
Working through means.
Jesus very well could have hand-fed each of those 5000 plus all on his own, but he appointed the disciples to do it. He made them the go-betweens to distribute, to minister if you will, to the people. So today does he charge pastors, “you give them something to eat”. So do we often feel ill-equipped to do it, but so must we rely on the word and promise of Christ that in him there will always be plenty. As we distribute to you the blessings of salvation in word and sacrament, even greater miracles ensue – Christ's abundance is given freely, sinners are forgiven, and faith is strengthened. We can give only what we receive from Christ.
He taught them first, then fed. Today he teaches, then feeds.
First Jesus preached, taught – proclaimed the kingdom to these thousands. It must have been quite a day, as he had much to say and they stuck around to hear it all. Then he fed them as only he could. And we follow the same pattern today – we gather to Christ – around his word, to hear it, receive it. The word is read and proclaimed, sung and prayed. And then he feeds. We come to the table to feast on the word made flesh – and his body and blood are multiplied to far more than 5000, and stomachs and souls are sustained.
Whatever pangs of suffering you feel in your stomach or pangs of sin in your soul, turn again to the one who provides bread – daily bread for our bodies, and the bread of life for our bodies and souls. He himself is that bread – and he gives himself freely, on the cross, in the word, the water, and the meal of his altar. Come, eat and drink and live. In Jesus Christ, Amen.