Sermon: “Fish in the Wilderness”
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA
7th Sunday after Pentecost: August 3, 2014.
The “Feeding of the Five Thousand” is the only miraculous sign found in all four Gospels. What’s more, Mark and Matthew each have two variations, for a total of 6 versions in the Four Gospels.
Clearly, the early church saw this story as central to their faith, and therefore it is central to ours. Many ask “How did this Miracle come about?” And there are a number of explanations as to the “How” of this story. Some claim it is a true miracle, others say it isn’t, many say it doesn’t really matter whether it was a miracle or not.
But for me, the central question is not how (or if) this miracle happened, but “Why is it important?”
Let us pray…
Lord, Feed us! Open your scriptures to us, and enable me to clearly communicate in a way that helps us to accept and internalize what you intend for us to receive here today. We have followed you into the wilderness, and rejoice in this chance to encounter your love and gospel in new ways, to renew our commitment to our faith, and to experience a deepening of our relationship with you, and with each other. In Jesus Name, Amen.
So, let’s think about why this version of the story is important to us, and discern what it is telling us about ourselves, and our faith…
First, let’s look at the context: this story immediately follows Matthew’s report of the death of Jesus’ mentor, John the Baptist, on the order of King Herod.
Just before that, Matthew tells us about the repudiation of Jesus and his ministry by those who knew him best, the people in his home village of Nazareth.
And so, after these two huge setbacks, Jesus felt compelled to withdraw, to pray, to retreat to where he could rest and find new strength, in an empty place: a wilderness. The metaphor of the wilderness is found throughout the Bible – many prophets speak of wilderness experiences, or actually lived or ministered in a wilderness, like John the Baptist himself. The wilderness was a place and time of renewal and of the deepening of one’s relationship with God, as we see in the Jew’s 40 years in the wilderness; in Jonah’s flight into a watery wilderness only to be rescued by a fish; and in Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry.
Yet, Jesus doesn’t find what he seeks in this wilderness: the crowds follow him into it. This shows that the hunger for God, and the need for ministry is not dictated or constrained by the needs or limitations of those providing the ministry, but by the needs of those who are to receive it.
So, when Jesus steps off the boat and finds the crowds waiting for him, he immediately has compassion, and begins to heal the sick right there. He keeps at it all day. The call to ministry followed him, and would not let go, and he responded without complaint, unlike Jonah.
One must also consider where this wilderness is: in Matthew’s narrative, it seems to be in a Gentile area along the shores of Galilee. However, the crowds who follow Jesus there are Jews. Why? Why feed and minister to the Jewish followers of Jesus in a Gentile wilderness?
When it was evening, his disciples urge him to send the crowds of people to nearby villages – gentile villages – so that they could use their own resources to buy food.
“You give them something to eat!” he says.
This is the first time Jesus gives his disciples a direct order to do something. They resist, saying they have nothing but a little bread and some fish. They don’t think they have what it takes to feed the crowds, and don’t want to be responsible!
But, what they need is already here. “They need not go away!” Jesus tells them, then orders the crowds to sit. And, how he provides sustenance to them is significant: he looks up to heaven, blesses the food, breaks the bread, and gives it to the disciples who then give it to the people.
These actions – blessing, breaking and giving – are the same actions, and in the same sequence, as the sharing of the bread at the last supper in Matthew 26.
But, this isn’t the Last Supper – at this point in Matthew, we are near the end of Jesus’ time in Galilee, but still nearer the beginning of his ministry than the end. And, there’s no wine – no liquid at all, in fact – nothing to serve as a metaphor for the blood of Christ. This may be because wildernesses are, after all, barren and dry places – as we have all learned in our own wilderness experiences. But, it may also be because this was a time of building the ministry, preparing for the next big step – not yet a time to celebrate or memorialize its completion.
The bread is there, and bread is a metaphor for the presence of the Holy Spirit. The ancients knew something miraculously filled dough, making it rise, but didn’t know what it was. To them it was a miracle, a bit of the holiness of God consumed by them at every meal through that most common of all foods – bread.
But what about the fish? Why fish?
Fish with bread was a typical meal for a laborer or fisherman in that time and place. It was nourishing, but not celebratory: a mundane meal that strengthened one for the work at hand.
Now, fish have religious significance, too. For one, the very floodwaters that destroyed the earth and everything on it in Noah’s time preserved the fish. They did not need Noah’s help to survive the flood, the flood itself was all they needed.
The water in which fish live is also symbolic of Baptism, which in turn is a sign of our commitment to the Body of Christ. So fish remind us of our unity and commonality with our fellow believers: we are all laborers and fishermen for Christ, and we all need Christ’s sustenance to accomplish the work we are called to do.
We can also point out that the Book of Jonah was central to the Christian narrative back then. Matthew himself refers to this, just a few verses prior to this story. Jonah was a man who fled from God into Noah’s tumultuous wilderness of water, only to be rescued by a fish so that he could respond to God’s call to ministry – a call he could not refuse.
Jesus echoes Jonah’s story here, but with a twist: he too leaves a boat after seeking out the wilderness, and is confronted again with his call to ministry; and, he fulfills that call: not only healing the people, but providing and then blessing the bread and fish, a working person’s meal, intricately framed by Matthew within the context of faith and scripture. Jesus then shares that simple yet spiritual sustenance with his disciples, who in turn distribute it to the crowds, out there in their wilderness.
How then do we interpret this, given all these images and memories: an inescapable call to ministry; fish, bread … a holy meal; Jesus’ followers in a Gentile wilderness.
Remember that we are “The Crowd” in Matthew’s story. We are those who follow Jesus and the Disciples out into that Wilderness: a wilderness in a country of gentiles, a place where people have not yet heard or embraced the Gospel; and, a place where we will experience that renewal and that deepening of relationship with God that we all need to fulfill the call upon our lives.
We’re hungry – both in terms of physical sustenance, and in terms of spiritual need, and at the beginning of this story, we don’t know how or where our needs will be filled – we’re just chasing after that boat!
And then, Jesus calls to us: He sets aside his own needs, ministering to our spirits and bodies, bringing us healing. Then, he ministers to our need for physical sustenance and resources. He provides the meal of a worker. A meal that is a metaphor for the sustaining power of God and the purpose of the Holy Spirit, expressed through fish and bread.
And, I’ll note something else: the story implies that the Gospel is not limited in terms of where it shall be preached: we do not need a temple, and we do not need priests. In fact, we don’t need anything – the Gospel can be shared even in an empty wilderness. Jesus is all we need for the work of the ministry, and it is Jesus who placed the resources we need into the hands of the disciples, they in turn provided it to us.
Our own calling is spelled out in the way this story ends: Once the fish and bread are distributed, Jesus immediately dismisses the disciples. Their presence is no longer required, because we – the crowd – have now been given all we need!
We remain with Jesus, but then we find a critical statement in the text: it does not say “Jesus sends them home” or “Jesus sends them away”; in fact, we were told near the beginning of this story that Jesus said that we don’t need to leave. Instead, at the end of the story, Matthew tells us that Jesus disperses the crowds, using a Greek word that can also mean “send off” or “set free” or “release.”
Jesus doesn’t send us back where we came from; Jesus disperses us – sets us free. And, we scatter to the ends of the earth, sent off by the will of our Lord. This image may well have had great meaning in Matthew’s time, where more often than not Christians were refugees from War and persecution. It meant that they – and we – are already prepared for the challenges we face. We might be in a wilderness, but we are not called to remain with Him there, any more than the disciples were.
We have had our wilderness experience. Our renewal and the deepening of our relationship with God is already accomplished. We have all we need. And so, we can now go forth and fulfill the call placed upon our lives to spread the Good News.
Matthew is also teaching us that the sacred work of the Gospel is our responsibility; not that of Jesus or his disciples – they’re gone! We are all called to share the bread and the fish, and – eventually – the wine, with everyone who seeks the Love and Healing that is freely given to us by our Living God. We are all witnesses to the Nations because the Holy One has honored us through the gift of the Holy Spirit and the sustenance of the Gospel.
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)