The gospel lesson today is John’s version of the feeding of the five-thousand, the holy picnic at which Jesus produced a miraculous meal, turning five barley loaves and two pickled fish into a banquet of plenty.
It is one of the great miracle stories in all of scripture and one that most of us know by heart. It is, consequently, worn smooth by centuries of telling and retelling, it is a story with no toeholds left, no unexplored niche.
Yet I know how important the story is—that it is one of the few stories that John and the other gospel writers tell in common and that John’s version of it is full of theological significance. I know that it is the heart of the New Testament superimposed over the heart of the Old, in which Jesus becomes the new Moses, feeding his followers, the new Israel, with blessed bread, the new manna. I also know that it is a great story about human nature—about how quick we are to decide there is not enough of anything to go around, and how often God proves us wrong, and how we choose our prophets and kings and political leaders according to how well they feed us.
But what all of that ignores is the central flashing blue light in this story: It Is About a Miracle, an impossible, irrational, stupendous act of God. If I tell you that it happened exactly the way the story says it did, then you are likely to get cranky about why nothing like that ever happens to you; but if I tell you that it is just a myth, then you may well question why we are here at all.
The way most people get comfortable with this story is to explain that of course most of the five thousand had a little food tucked away in their tunics, something they planned to sneak off and eat by themselves, but that the presence of Jesus compelled them to share what they had so that there was plenty for everyone with twelve baskets left over, and that their open-handedness with one another was the real miracle.
But that is not what the Bible says. The Bible says that Jesus worked a sign and that when the people saw it they knew who he was. The feeding of the five thousand was understood by them as God’s divine hand in human affairs, God’s supernatural interruption of the natural order—bread where there had been no bread, fish where there had been no fish—that served to prove Jesus’ identity and establish their faith in him. Establish it, not confirm it. The idea is that the miracle made people believe, that it gave them faith where there had been no faith, the same as it gave them food where there had been no food.
Certainly, I think, there is a human hunger for miracles, for positive proofs of God’s existence that will change us on the spot into happier, healthier, holier human beings. I am even willing to suggest that people who insist they do not believe in miracles are halfway protecting themselves, explaining why such things have never happened to them. But if you do happen to believe in miracles you tend to want one, even if you know there is a good chance it will turn your life upside down.
That is, I think, what the wish for a miracle is all about—it is the wish to be changed, to be convinced, to be made to believe by something supernaturally but undeniably true. It is the wish to have my doubt taken away for good, to have proof of God and my own story to tell about the miracle that has happened to me. Isn’t that what we would all like on some level? Some thing, some experience that would make us have faith so that we would never have to wonder again?
You witness a miracle and it makes you have faith. But I am not so sure about that. Without faith, there are always other explanations for even the best miracles: Did you hear the voice of God? It sounded like ordinary thunder to me. Was she healed of her illness? It was probably psychosomatic in the first place. What makes you so sure that message is from God? You call that evidence? You call that proof?
No, I guess not; come to think of it, I guess there is no proof for anything that really matters in the world. How do you prove that your child is beautiful to you? How do you prove the infinite worth of your friend, or the loveliness of the world, or the goodness of your life? Those may be homegrown miracles, but there is no evidence for any of them, nothing that could prove them to anyone else or to you if you did not believe in them first.
Could it be, then, that we have gotten it all backwards somehow? That faith does not come after miracles but before them? That what makes something holy—what makes it a glowing and life-giving wonder—is not something about it but something about God and our response to God—that we are creatures able to make use of our freedom, to believe in spite of our doubts, to have faith without proof—and that because of those capacities God has placed within us miraculous things that happen from time to time, some of them as extraordinary as the voice God telling us what to do with our lives, but most of them as ordinary as the voices of our fellow human beings telling us that we are loved, that we are precious in God’s sight, that they want to link their lives with ours.
According to John, something miraculous happened on that hillside in Galilee: a snack turned into a banquet, skeptics turned into believers, a carpenter turned into a king. People were fed, body and soul—with barley loaves and with the very Bread of Heaven, and when they were full their eyes opened. "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!" they said, but I wonder: Who is he to us between miracles?
Can we still proclaim him king when we are not particularly well fed, when it is business as usual and there is no manna—no miracle—to be found? Can we sit down together with five barley loaves and two pickled fishes—or with a little bread and wine—and pass them around however many of us there may be, and say the blessing and remember that time when there was more than enough to go around, and look forward to the time when there will be again, and tell the story so that we remember also who our God is, and who we are to one another, so that whatever we happen to have on our plates becomes delicious and plentiful? The world is swarming with miracles, for those with eyes to see!