TEXT: John 6:1-15
When they were satisfied, [Jesus] told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. (John 6:12-13)
I think we all have certain old favourite stories that we like to share with family and friends—stories we tell over and over again.
I have a story like that. It has its origins in my time at Plura Hills United Church in Kamloops—and specifically in the months that I was alone there before my family was able to join me. I lived alone for about nine months, and had to get used to fending for myself. Part of that “fending” involved—of course—doing my own laundry. I did not have a washing machine, but luckily there was a laundromat nearby.
Every week, I would carry my dirty laundry to this place, where the same two women seemed always to be on duty. I usually needed change for the machines, and I would approach them to get it. Every week, they would smile when they saw me. I sometimes thought they were watching me all the time I was there—with big grins on their faces—but I couldn’t imagine why they would be doing that, so I shrugged it off as a figment of my imagination.
Then, one time—as I sat in the laundromat waiting for the spin cycle—I had a “eureka!” moment. “Look at all these machines,” I thought. “I could be doing more than one load at a time!”
When I told my wife about this, she said, “You mean those girls watched you come in every week, and watched you use just one machine, and they never said anything?”
Ah, yes—that was why they were always grinning!
Like most old favourite stories, that anecdote reveals some important things about the people involved. The laundromat attendants had a sense of humour, Iris had a great capacity for clear thinking, and I … Well, I don’t like to consider what it reveals about me.
Some stories are remembered and retold not because they are funny, but because they make such deep impressions upon us. I have a story like that, too.
Many years ago, I worked as an orderly at a hospital in Lethbridge, Alberta. One patient who was frequently admitted to my ward was a Second World War veteran who had spent several years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. During that time, he had suffered terribly from abuse and malnourishment, and the experience had broken him physically. Decades after the war, his poor health could be traced back to his mistreatment by his captors.
Since this man was so often in my care, I came to know him rather well. He seldom spoke about his years as a POW, but one time he did. I can’t remember now what prompted him to speak on this occasion, but what he said surprised me.
As he was describing the terrible conditions in his camp, explaining how starvation and disease took the lives of most of his comrades there, he passed the comment that a few of the guards would sometimes share their own meagre rations with prisoners who were in an especially bad way.
Then he told me that there was one Japanese soldier who on several occasions gave him a rifle and allowed him to go out and hunt for food—so that there would be some meat for the starving POWs.
I was completely taken aback by that comment, and my shock must have registered on my face, because the old soldier smiled and said to me, “They weren’t all monsters, you know.”
He told me that—while turning an enemy prisoner loose with a weapon might appear imprudent—his captors knew that there was really no place for him to escape to, because the camp was in a remote jungle area. He also told me that concern for retaliation against his comrades—and against the compassionate guard—meant that he could not even consider making a break for it. Even so, he said, he had never forgotten the supreme kindness of that Japanese soldier, who “took the risk of loving his enemies.”
This, also, is a story which tells a great deal about the people involved. It’s a story with an abundance of sub-plots, but for me two things stand out: the determination of some to behave humanely even when such behaviour carries tremendous risks; and the enduring beneficial effect of such behaviour.
You see, as I came to know this former POW better and better, I began to realize that he was entirely without the kind of bitterness and hatred that I would have expected him to harbour. Remarkably, he bore no resentment toward his former enemies.
This man’s war experiences may have broken him physically—but he was not broken mentally, or spiritually. And I think that the humane actions of just a few Japanese guards must have had a lot to do with the fact that he survived with his own humanity intact.
That story is entirely different from the first one I told. It also packs a much bigger punch, and—although I haven’t repeated it as many times as the laundromat story—I do tell it occasionally, and I think about it very often. In that sense, I guess it is a favourite story of mine.
I have many favourite Bible stories, too. One is about Jesus and his disciples, and in the early church it was told over and over again. There are lots of stories like that in the gospels, but most of them are told only once. There’s the story of the Good Samaritan1, told only once; the story of the Prodigal Son2, told only once; the story of the Sheep and the Goats3, told only once. These are favourite, great stories—but they are each told only once in our New Testament.
But the story for today—about the five loaves and two fish—is told not just once, or twice, or three times, but four times. It is the only miracle which is reported in all four gospels.4
Now, why is this story told over and over again? Perhaps because it captures the essence of all its main characters—as well as the essential truth about God.
Consider the setting of this tale. From the account given in Matthew’s gospel, we know that John the Baptist—Jesus’ cousin (and some think, his mentor)—had just been executed. John had been the greatest prophet that Israel had seen for 400 years. He was the one whom the common people had looked to for moral and religious leadership—and now he was dead.
Everyone was affected by this enormous loss—but no one more so than Jesus. Therefore, he wanted to get away by himself to grieve, to pray, to remember. He wanted to withdraw to a solitary place, and so he got into a boat to sail across Lake Galilee to get away from his throngs of admirers. But the crowds followed along the shoreline, keeping an eye on his boat, and so when Jesus’ party landed, there they were, waiting for him.
So, what was Jesus’ reaction to the thousands who had shown up? Was he irritated or angry? Apparently not. Did he feel imposed upon? Probably. But he did not show it. He looked upon the gathered crowd with compassion, like they were sheep without a shepherd—hungry souls in need of spiritual nourishment. And so, he taught them and he healed them.
The day quickly passed. It got to be afternoon—then early evening—and one of the disciples said: “Lord, the hour is late and the people don’t have any food and we are a long way from any villages. Maybe you should send them home now.”
And Jesus said to Philip, “How are we going to buy bread, so that these people can eat?” And Philip replied, “It would take more than 200 days’ worth of wages, and even that wouldn’t buy enough bread to feed all these people.”
So Jesus said, “Look around the crowd and see what you can find.”
Andrew found a young boy with five loaves of bread and two fish, and brought the boy and his food to Jesus. Jesus invited everyone to be seated on the green grass.
Then he took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, who gave it to the crowds. And they all ate and were all satisfied. The number who ate were 5,000 men, plus women and children—and there were twelve baskets of bread left over!
That one miracle story appears to have been told and retold endlessly by the earliest Christians. Why? I think it’s because it perfectly captures the essence of who Jesus was. More than that, it captures the very essence of God, who—in abundant and extravagant generosity and grace—provides for all his children.
Jesus can work miracles with five loaves and two fish—but first, somebody has to share their lunch. That’s the heart of this story; a little boy surrendered his meagre gifts to Jesus—and look what an amazing thing God did with them! It is a story which invites us to write ourselves into it—to surrender our little gifts to Christ, and then see what mighty miracles God can do in and through us.
Here’s a question for you: “Have you surrendered your five loaves and two fish to Christ?”
Maybe all you have to give is a cup of cold water. To one who is thirsty, that’s all that’s needed. Maybe all you have to give is a rifle and a few rounds of ammunition. But by giving it, you not only turn an instrument of war into an instrument of salvation—you also create an enduring legacy of hope, one which might just save someone’s soul.
Have you surrendered your meagre gifts to Christ? Have you surrendered the meagreness of who you are? The question is persistent, as the memory of loaves and fishes lingers on: “Have you surrendered? Have I?” I think that’s the power of this story—that we realize it is (or could be) a story about us. That’s why it is a favourite story, told over and over again.
By the grace of God, may it be lived over and over again, as well—in your life, and in mine.
1 LUKE 10:30-37
2 LUKE 15:11-32
3 MATTHEW 25:31-45
4 Besides the account in JOHN 6:1-15, see also MATTHEW 14:13-21; MARK 6:32-44; and LUKE 9:10-17.