What does it mean to be fed by Jesus?
One might imagine today’s gospel reading to be a good place to find an answer to that question. And yet, the Feeding of the 5000 is one of those stories from the New Testament we’ve all heard so many times that, to be quite frank, it sometimes feels like it’s lost any meaning it ever had for us. We’ve all coloured in pictures of it in Sunday School, seen it depicted in a thousand stained glass windows, and heard it read in church year after year.
So what does it mean to be fed by Jesus? The question is further complicated by the fact that we live in a world with a very impoverished notion of what it means to feed and be fed. The world of advertising encourages us to satisfy our every appetite by buying more and more. We’re all endlessly duped into thinking we need things that we don’t actually want, and want things that we don’t really need. And all whilst half the globe starves.
So what does it mean to be fed by Jesus? It’s an important question to ask as we emerge from lockdown and are finally able to meet together and celebrate the Eucharist once again.
I think our gospel reading does have an answer for us, and it lies in a detail of the story we’ve just heard that is very easily overlooked. The detail I’m referring to is this. It’s a seemingly throw-away comment made by the evangelist: “He gave orders that the people were to sit down on the grass.”
What on earth has grass got to do with anything, you might ask. We have heard Matthew’s version of the story this morning, but intrigingly both Mark and John include this detail in their versions of the story. They both remark that there was much green grass in the place Jesus performed the miracle.
To us, this might seem a bit puzzling, but to a first century inhabitant of Galilee, this detail would mean a great deal. If there was a great deal of green grass around, it had to be spring time. The mention of grass tells you what time of year this miracle took place at. In fact John confirms this in his version of the story. He tells us, “Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews was near.”
The Feeding of the 5000 took place in spring, at the time of the Passover. Whatever this feeding signifies, we cannot avoid the fact that the gospel urges us to see it in the light of the Passover, the Paschal Mystery in which God saved his people from bondage and redeemed them from slavery in Egypt.
If the feeding Jesus points to here is anything like the Passover, then it’s less about having our passing appetites fulfilled, or our momentary needs answered. No, if it is anything like the Passover, it is about being caught up in the saving action of God himself. Being fed is about relationship, the saving relationship God enters into with us, in which he saves us from slavery and brings us to the freedom of abundant life in him.
Just as God of old saved his people in Egypt and fed them on their journey to the promised land, so God in Christ feeds us through the Church as we journey to our heavenly home. In Baptism, we begin that journey and are made one with the Christ who nourishes us; each time we celebrate the Eucharist we are drawn into the sacrifice of Calvary, and taste afresh what it means to be redeemed by Christ’s blood.
But as we are fed on our Christian journey through life we notice a curious thing. The feeding Jesus gives us is completely unlike the world’s notion of feeding.
Our culture can’t help seeing it as something that centres around the self. It is all about me acquiring, eating, consuming more. The feeding Jesus offers has a very different effect. As he feeds us, as we are conformed more and more to his image, we become less aware of ourselves, and more aware of others. His feeding of us allows us to see more clearly the needs of those around us; it helps us rejoice in finding the good of others; it enables us to sacrifice our own selfish needs and wants for the sake of those we are called to love.
And all this is the case because at the heart of Jesus’ feeding of us is Love – divine love: God giving completely of himself without reserve, without holding back. So Jesus can take our humble lives, and our meagre abilities, and if we open ourselves to his love, we too, can be the means by which the world learns afresh what it means to be loved by God and to have all our yearnings, all our needs, all our wants, fulfilled in him.