Jesus’ famous feeding of 5000+ people is the one miracle told in all 4 Gospels. That certainly says something about its impact in the collective memory of the early Church. Ancient tradition associates this event with a specific site on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee, where 19 summers ago I got to preach at the picturesque outdoor shrine that commemorates this miracle.
That was summer, but today's Gospel [John 6:1-15] puts the event in spring (at Passover time), when grass grows abundantly in the area. And so John portrays the people sitting in groups on the grass, just as those earlier fed by Elisha in today’s 1st reading [2 Kings 4:42-44] had probably done.
But in each case the food had to be gotten from somewhere! Some, it seems, had planned ahead and brought some food along as they followed Jesus; but the rest had either not brought any food or had used it all up already and were getting hungry again. In any case, Jesus anticipated their need.
But it was the way Jesus did it that was so striking and so memorable - as striking and as memorable as what he did. “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” Jesus asked Philip. It’s as if he were saying: Philip, these folks are here as our guests; we have to feed them! No doubt, the disciples thought that should be Jesus’ problem, not theirs! Poor Philip, not quite yet out of seminary, he’s already acquired the feeling-sorry-for-himself, whiny tone of a tired, over-stressed clergyman: “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.”
Just down the path from this site, on the same shore, is a shrine, which marks where the Risen Lord cooked breakfast for seven disciples and then commanded Peter to feed his sheep. In this instance, Jesus was giving them a foretaste of that future responsibility.
Luckily for them, of course, Jesus was there to help, to demonstrate just what it means to be his Church in a hungry world. Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining. Note that Jesus didn’t just magically make food out of nothing. He worked with what they had already, with the limited resources the people already had, and made them into something more – something God’s People have had to learn how to do ever since.
Our weekly celebration of the Eucharist reenacts - in a ritualized way - that famous free lunch. At this meal, we are nourished and commanded in turn to feed and nourish one another – both literally and spiritually, and not just one another in a narrow sense, but the whole world, for, in God’s kingdom, there can be no providing just for oneself, no eating while others go hungry, no security at someone else’s expense. Good news kept to oneself is not the good news of Jesus.
Unfortunately, that was what happened at Tabgha. The people remembered the story of Elisha and so figured that Jesus is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world. But they got only part of the message, interpreting it in a narrow, self-absorbed way, turning good news into bad news – as has happened so often in human history.
Our world is hungry for the good news that God is sharing with us in his Son and which we are meant to share with the world. And Jesus is here to show us how – how to be his Church.
Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 29, 2012.