Wednesday, August 26, 2009

August 2, 2009 - Feeding of the five thousand

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, glory to Jesus Christ!
Glory forever!

You know, it’s easy for clergy, and even lay people to complain about how often the same events seem to come up in the readings of the Church. Bishop Benjamin mentioned how the herd of swine that ran downhill and drowned in the sea appears three times, and suggested that we have a bacon Sunday, a ham Sunday, and a sausage Sunday. And what he was reflecting was that it seems, on a superficial basis, hard to say something original over and over again. But this particular gospel today outdoes the herd of swine in how often it appears. It’s the story of the feeding of the five thousand, and the reason why it appears so frequently is because it is included in all four of the gospels. It is considered one of the most important events in Jesus’ ministry, and in fact there are two feedings that occur in St. Luke’s gospel: one of the five thousand, and one of the four thousand. So five times, we have accounts of Jesus seeing the multitude, having compassion on the, having his disciples seek out what food is there for the crowd didn’t come planning to stay for supper, they didn’t know that they were going to be enthralled, that they were going to be staying there that long; discovering a small number of loaves of bread of cheap grain – barley – and a few fish – and these fish were not trout, or salmon, or bass, they were… What does it say at the beginning of Partly Cloudy With a Chance for Meatballs? It says, “All the people could afford was sardines, because sardines are nasty.” They were sardines. They weren’t really, they were small fish though. Little fish that are what’s called “savories.” They were little fish that you took your knife and you spread them on your hard barley loaf so that you could choke it down. Little fish that were soaked in olive oil. And then Jesus took these and blessed them, and everyone was fed, and an amount of food was gathered back together that surpassed by far that with which He had begun.

This is one of the richest events in our Lord’s ministry. There are so many details to give ear toward. There are so many consequences, theologically and mystically, that follow it. And so many types that lead up to it, that it does lend itself to dozens of sermons. I’m not going to preach dozens of sermons today, but I am going to talk about this feeding of the five thousand and its purpose for us. What it was meant to show, besides an act of compassion for starving people.

Long, long before our Lord appeared in Palestine, His ancestor David, the one who had been chosen by God and who had been anointed by the prophet of God Samuel to replace Saul as king, anointed as a little child, who had been brought up in Saul’s court and toward whom Saul had developed a great jealousy. David fled. He fled form Saul’s camp after having had Saul attempt, on several occasions, to kill him of have him assassinated. He fled into the hill country with a few of his loyal soldiers, and he came to Shiloh, where the arch of the covenant was kept in its tabernacle. And he came to the priest Abiathar, there, who was the high priest of Israel at that time, and David and his starving little band of loyalists, those who for several years would protect and support him as he waited for God’s hand to place him on the throne for which he had been destined. They approached Abiathar and asked for food, but there was nothing there at the tabernacle except the twelve loaves of Show Bread which were placed on a table inside the tent and were placed there as signs of the twelve tribes of Israel. Every Sunday, new loaves of bread would be baked, and the twelve heavy crusted loaves would be placed in three rows of four on the top of the table to represent Israel’s life. And then, on the Sabbath, the day on which it was not lawful to make anything by lighting a fire or preparing food, on the Sabbath the priests would take the twelve loaves and that would suffice for their supper for that day. It would be their nourishment. They would eat the loaves, and on the next day, Sunday, they would be renewed; they would be replaced. And David was far from being a priest after the order of Aaron or of the ancient covenate. He was not a Jewish priest. He was from the tribe of Judah. And David approached Abiathar and said, “Give us to eat,” and Abiathar, knowing that this was a command from God and not from man, indicated that he had no food he could give away. And David said, “Of whatever loaves you have, give me five to eat.” And so Abiathar broke the commandments as they were generally interpreted, as Moses had given them, and he entered into the Holy Place, into the tent, and took David with him, and he gave into the hands of David five of the twelve loaves of Show Bread. And David ate and he gave to his disciples to eat as well, to his followers, and thus his life was sustained, and he was delivered out of the hand of Saul and became king of Israel, and the ancestor in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And so, it was shown, by anticipation, that God with five loaves would nourish the world. Our Lord took these five barley loaves and two small fishes, which, we’re told, were all proffered by one little boy whose mother had the foresight to pack his lunch, and that this little boy eagerly and joyfully shared what little he had with those there. The disciples, meanwhile, asked, “What are these among so many?” Now, the five loaves represent the food that had already been given to Israel – not only the five loaves with which David and his men were nourished, but the five scrolls that constitute the Jewish Torah, the law of the Old Covenant. They were nourishment through the fall of man as these loaves were to be nourishment to there bodies. To this day, in the divine liturgy, when the priest prepares the gifts, he takes five loaves – there are others there – but five loaves set apart for the removal of particles to be placed on the discus and offered as the divine gifts. The five loaves represented the Jewish torah, and the five fish represented life that comes from water. If we descend into the catacombs of Rome today and look at the ancient sketches drawn on the walls of the burial cave where Christians gathered for their liturgies, or where they buried there dead, we will see this motif in at least three different forms: a basket, or a stack of five loaves of bread, and a fish on either side. Or in another case, a large fish swimming, on his head is a basket and on the basket are five loaves of bread, and the fish is looking back, and he is making certain that the smaller fish are all following him – he’s leading them into the kingdom of heaven. Of this Tertullian says, “fish acquire their life from water, and we Christians, born again of holy baptism acquire our life through water. And so,” he says, “we spiritually are fish. And Christ is our great fish, the fish who leads us into the kingdom.” And our Lord, having blessed and broken these loaves, prefigured the Divine Liturgy, for the loaves were distributed and He had the people sit down on the grass in groups of hundreds, so that they represented Israel in the desert, camped around the tabernacle. When the Israelites would come at night to the place where they were going to stay, they would set up their tents, and they would camp in groups around the tent which was in the middle. The tent would then be set up, in the morning it would be taken down, the Ark would be taken up, and they would sing, “Let God arise! Let His enemies be scattered.” And the people would go forth again. So this camp, this gathering of people to hear our Lord speak, was a reiteration, it was a type, of Israel gathered in the desert. And the people gathered around Him who was, Himself, who is, the Ark and the Tabernacle of God among men. And food was distributed. And when the five thousand were fed, what remained was twelve baskets of bread fragments – thus revealing to us that by the twelve apostles, the twelve tribes of the new Israel would be nourished forever with the bread of heaven, with the flesh of Christ, with His holy Body. The twelve baskets represent the twelve apostles, who distributed the mystery of the liturgy from the rising to the setting of the sun. And it is said, in the divine liturgy, when the sacrifice is broken, when I take in my hand the lamb and I break it into pieces after it’s consecrated, “Broken and divided is the lamb of God, who is divided but not disunited, ever eaten, but never consumed, and giving life to them that partake thereof. And so, this mystical feeding in the wilderness was a type of the Divine Liturgy, by which the whole world would be fed.

Then again, our Lord performed this mystery. He performed it this time for four thousand people. And the four thousand represent the four corners of the world. They represent the gentiles, the people not of Israel who would as well be fed of the bread of heaven. And as he gathered together the seven loaves, these represented the seventy apostles who would carry the gospel of Christ to the farthest corners of the world. And the seven loaves, and a few small fishes, were distributed and from these they gathered together seven baskets of fragments representing the entire human race.

Now following this mysterious feeding of the people… And by the way, if you want to interpret this allegorically or symbolically, you make nonsense of the gospel. All four of the evangelists make it very clear that either they, or the people from whom they heard the story, were astonished, startled at a little bit of food feeding a great multitude and there being much, much left over. It was God simply multiplying food. But after Jesus has finished feeding the five thousand, and He and His disciples, as you’ll hear in the gospel during the time after Pascha, He and His apostles got up and went somewhere else. The crowd followed Him. They didn’t follow Him because they wanted their souls filled with the world of God, or their hearts fed with the divine grace, or because they wanted the spirit of God to dwell in them and Christ to nourish them. They didn’t even follow Him because they believed the words He had spoken. They followed Him because He had given them free food. They followed Him like a mob that will follow a demagogue. They followed Him like the masses that will go after any leader that tells them he is going to give them something for nothing. So when they came to our Lord, our Lord made it explicit to them in John’s gospel precisely what this all represented. He said, “In the wilderness when your fathers camped in tents around the tabernacle, every night the manna came down, and you gathered it together. And every day you ate the manna that you got the night before. Day by day, God fed you.” The Syriac version of the Lord’s prayer doesn’t say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” It says, “Give us day by day the bread of tomorrow,” referring to the bread gathered at sunset with the expectation that it will nourish us through the following day. And if any of the Israelites had doubted, if they said, “Hey, I’d better put a little extra bread under my bed because who knows what God’s going to do the next day,” when they took it out it had worms in it, because they had not trusted, and because it was the bread of tomorrow, the bread of each day. And when we pray, we pray not, “Give us next week 30 points increase in the Dow,” or, “Put back what we lost in our IRA.” We pray, “Give us day by day our daily bread. Give us this day the bread of tomorrow.”

“Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they are dead,” He said. “But whoever eats this bread will live forever and the bread that I will give is my own flesh, which I will give for the life of the whole world.” And what did they say? You know what they said, I’ve told you before. “Yuck!” Either, “This man is very bad at making metaphors – we really don’t want to even think about eating human flesh or drinking blood,” or “What kind of a nut is He? Moses told us we can’t even eat meat with the blood in it, and now He’s saying we must drink His blood to have life in us.” And so they all asked Him again, “Hey, you know, we’ll listen to some more of this craziness if you’ll just give us the food now. Feed us now, then we’ll listen.” Jesus didn’t do it. He knew the crowd had come to make Him king. Anybody, any trickster, any phony philosopher, any purveyor of theories of human salvation by human hands, can promise people that they’ll feed their stomachs, and the mob will follow them. How often in history have ten thousands of people who one day were faithful Christians, thrown away their prayer books and their crosses to go follow after someone who promises land, bread, meat? What did they get? No land, less bread, and ceaseless warfare. Right? The crowd then said, “How can this men give us His flesh to eat?” And Jesus answered them, “Amen, amen, lego humin.” That amen is how we end our prayers, you know that. “In truth, in truth, in very truth, I say unto you, my flesh is truly food, and my blood is truly drink, and unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you do not have life in you.” Brothers and sisters in Christ, the Lord was not speaking of gnawing on human cellular matter, or drinking plasma. He was speaking of our having His life inside of us, becoming one with His body by partaking of His body, of having His life inside of us by partaking of His blood. What did Moses teach when he told the Jews that they had to salt their meat so that all the blood was out of it? He said, “The life is in the blood.” And does that mean that blood somehow is cursed? No! It meant that God through Moses was teaching a lesson: That the life of God is in God’s blood, and that we are not nourished by the blood of animals – of bulls and of goats – but we are nourished by the life of God Himself, poured out through is precious wounds on the cross, by which He makes us to be branches of the vine which is Himself, His body, and to bear fruit through the nectar of His precious blood running through the branches of the vine.

As you leave today, maybe look up to the right, there’s a primitive Romanian icon done by a peasant at a time when the Turks didn’t allow people in that part of the world to write icons. You’ll see that it shows Jesus, and Jesus is sitting, and He is taking from His side a grip on a grape vine that is coming from the wound the spear made on the cross. And with the other hand, He is squeezing into a cup the juice of a bunch of grapes, and the cup is the Holy Chalice. He is showing us thereby mystically, that it is from the life that flows from His side that we are made one with Him. He said, “I am the vine, you are the branches, and it is My Father’s will that you bear fruit. Every branch that beareth not fruit is cut off from the vine and burned. And every branch that bears fruit, it is pruned that it may bear more fruit.”

So you see, brothers and sisters in Christ, this event, this feeding of the five thousand, is not just a story that we tell over and over again, on four Sundays during the year. It is a central theme of our salvation, our participation continually in the life of God. It is a sign of the mystery we are about to partake in, whereby God, not with His dead flesh and lifeless blood, but with His living flesh, and with the life that is contained in His blood, will make us to have life in our cells.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, glory to Jesus Christ!
Glory forever.

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