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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Teachable Moments - 07/25/2021

We often call them miracles – Jesus making it possible for 5,000 to be fed with fives loaves and two fishes; Jesus walking on water, proclaiming to the terrified disciples “I Am,” … the same words God used when speaking to Moses through the burning bush. Jesus, as if to say “I Am who I Am, believe it and do not be afraid. Because my will for you always conspires for your benefit – for life.”

In the Gospel of John, these miracles are called signs. I wonder if Jesus called them something like “teachable moments.”

The story makes me wonder about that when it hangs me up nearly every time on this verse: “Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.” (John 6.5-6)

I bristle at the idea of being tested like that, I will admit. Even by Jesus, although I, like many of you, would subject myself to testing on his account and have.

In our present-day context, perhaps this bristling happens because we often say this regarding some negative or dreadful experience, fact, situation, behavior. Some will say these things happen because God is testing us. I suggest that’s not a very accurate statement or idea, as much as it is a habitual one. And even though it was unquestionably a view of God held by some of the Old Testament authors and storytellers (think Noah or Job), Jesus changed that perception for us. In his teaching and ministry and in the salvation we have received through his death and resurrection, we begin to understand that it isn’t God who tests us – it’s this broken world, it’s our broken selves.

It may be that once we realize this and move beyond the habitual response of “God is testing us,” we can see God’s place in all this testing more clearly – that God has promised no matter how much this world tests us, we are never abandoned. God is busy conspiring for our benefit, for life. God sings with us in our mountaintop experiences and cries with us in the deep valleys.

Another reason I, and perhaps you, bristle at this idea of being tested is because of how it comes up in other parts of our story about Jesus. How it was used in his time by those who are threatened by Jesus’ power, charisma, love; those who often test him with intent to trick and trap him, to manufacture a path to getting rid of him. So, I suppose it’s not surprising that the idea of being tested can make one bristle.

The word used here is πειράζω (peirazo). It does mean to test or tempt. It also means to entice, to discipline, to prove or examine – teaching words.

I liked the way the verse is written in the Message translation of the bible. “…(Jesus) said to Philip, ‘Where can we buy bread to feed these people?’ He said this to stretch Philip’s faith. He already knew what he was going to do.”

It was a teachable moment. Jesus knew how he was going to minister to all these people and before he started, he wanted to prepare Philip and the others and even us – we’re all paying attention more deeply now. Asking “Where can we buy bread to feed these people?” is the primer for what is about to happen.

And so, what happens?

Well once Andrew discovers the little boy with fives loaves and two fishes, Jesus sends the disciples out into the crowd of 5,000 (probably more…this number likely does not include the women and children who were there.). That’s a lot of people. Just for the sake of visualizing, a Wildcat hockey home game can seat about 4,300. The Superior Dome seats about 8,000.

Let us remember, there’s no sound system.

So, the disciples go out into the mass, saying the Lord has asked they sit down, recline on this green grass, as though prepared for an enormous feast. The disciples must have been asked, “What are we going to eat? How will we possibly have enough to feed all these people?” And what could the disciples say?

Maybe, “This is what our Lord has asked of us. We don’t know how all will be fed. There’s a boy up there with him. He’s got fives loaves and two fishes … it’s barely a drop in the bucket though!”

Just as a side note, outside of the wondering about where the food will come from, this scene is like Psalm 23 from last week is taking shape in the eye of our imaginations, isn’t it? The Lord is my shepherd, he makes me lie down in green pastures and rest in safe spaces as he prepares a feast for me. And I am at home forever.

When the people are seated and settled, Jesus takes this small but generous offering of the little nameless boy – one not even counted in that crowd – and he offers a prayer of thanks. We can imagine that at Jesus’ every move, the crowd shared what happened. The information must have spread through the 5,000+ people like little wildfires.

“He thanked God for that little boy’s meager meal,” one person said to another.

“He gave the bread and fish to the people, told them to take what they needed and then pass it on,” another one said.

Now, some friends and I were wondering about this feeding miracle this week, this teachable moment. And we wondered, could it be that when the people saw what was happening … when they saw the offering for the sake of the crowd from the little boy … when they saw Jesus bless and give thanks for that meager banquet for 5,000+ … Could it be when they saw this banquet unfolding like this, they thought to themselves, “Well, I also have this little bit of bread and fish. Certainly, I too can take what I need and add what is left for the sake of those who have none?”

Because let’s face it, if we know anything about humans, we know if this were us today, most of us would have put a protein bar or something in our pocket on the way out to follow an itinerant preacher across the sea to see what he would do next.

Some might argue that by forming a more rational explanation of 5,000+ people, five loaves and two fishes, I’m ruining the story … eliminating the mystery, the awesomeness. But I must disagree.

This idea that what Jesus started was a chain reaction of generosity and love of neighbor is mystical and awesome. It changes the way we understand this story. I think many of us here probably believe that Jesus can feed 5,000+ with five loaves and two fishes. Even so, it’s life-changing to understand that the miracle, the sign, the teachable moment Jesus leads us through here is not just the multiplication of loaves and fishes. It is the multiplication of love and generosity in the hearts and minds of his Beloved followers and seekers. It locates the places of Jesus’ signs and miracles and teachable moments in and through us – his Beloved believers.

This is teachable moment indeed. Within the command Jesus gives us to love one another as he loves us is all we need – green grasses, safe spaces, protection, food and dignity. Within the Beloved Community to which Jesus calls us, the miracle of all getting what they need with some leftover (just in case someone shows up late) … that mystical awesomeness lives on through the people, through us.

This reading today is the first in five weeks of a close reading of John 6 – often called the bread discourse. So, we will hear more – a lot more – about Jesus and bread and life as we make our way into August, primed now as we are to hear the point Jesus will make regarding all this bread: “I am the bread of life,” he will say. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)

For now, though, let’s wrap up on one more thought. This reading contains two miracles, two signs or teachable moments. We should not forget the second, the part where Jesus walks across a stormy sea at night and so boldly and plainly declares – “I am God. Do not be afraid.” (6:20)

It is another teachable moment preparing us for what is yet to come in this story, as if to say: “And it you don’t feel utterly mystified and awestruck by a meager banquet of five loaves and two fishes for 5,000+ people, just how might you explain this? I Am God, Jesus says. Do not be afraid.” Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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