Okay, quickly now: If you subtract 35 from 126, add 16 and then add 4, then subtract 6, what have you got? A) The extra credit question on your 10th grade math final; B) A problem you’ve scribbled out the answer to in the margins of the math section of the ACT; or C) The equation you have to do in your head (with the whole congregation watching and an offertory anthem going on in the background and an enthusiastic acolyte trying to had you water and wine)...the equation you have to do in your head every Sunday when you’re the priest counting out wafers before communion. Let’s see, 125 wafers in the ciborium, but there are not that many folks here so take out 35, but the priest host breaks into 16 so add that, and remember 4 families get their babies from the nursery, but maybe 6 people or so won’t come up for communion, okay, so that’s what...10 wafers we need in all? Or 20? 50?? Who knows?!?
It never occurred to me that I’d be doing so much math as a priest. It’s not my favorite subject. In college, we got to choose between taking math or taking a foreign language, a choice that for me was, well, muy facil. I haven’t taken math since high school. I’m not really that bad at it - I can do it, but it takes effort, and I can’t do it in my head. I’ve never once counted out the right number of communion wafers. I either run out and have to break the last few wafers into tiny bits, or I have so many left they might could feed five thousand with twelve baskets left over...
There’s some kind of math going on in our gospel reading this morning, but it must be new math, because nothing adds up. How could it - the one doing the calculating was himself God, whom we worship in Trinity, in whom one plus one plus one equals both one and three at the same time. Saint Athanasius tried to work that one out, and his formula is in the back of our prayerbook: We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance... The Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Ghost Almighty, and yet they are not three Almighties but one Almighty... That’s not any kind of math I know how to do.
Still, I can imagine Jesus sitting on that hillside trying to get a head count of the crowd, giving up and guessing there were about five thousand, then looking down at the five loaves and two fish in his hands and thinking, Okay, if I break each loaf into a thousand pieces and these fish into, what would that be, two thousand five hundred pieces each... But some of them may have babies in the nursery and maybe not everyone will eat...
Scholars have gone round and round about how Jesus did it John tells us they ate until they were satisfied, so it’s safe to assume they didn’t each get just one one-thousandth of a loaf of bread and one two-thousand-five-hundredth of a fish. It’s not a division problem, then. In fact, if the miracle is that somehow as Jesus broke the bread it increased in amount, then it’s more a matter of multiplication. Some have even suggested that the math involved was addition, that as the crowd witnessed the generosity of the little boy who offered up his lunch, and the determination of Jesus to make it work, that they began reaching into their own pockets, pulling out their provisions and adding them to the menu - the first parish potluck. Indeed, is it any less of a miracle for Jesus to change so many human hearts from selfishness to generosity than it is for him to change five loaves and two fish into a feast?
All four gospels record this miracle, but not one of them tells us how it was done. If we only knew, especially in these difficult times...if we only knew how to divide or multiply or add or whatever it takes to have enough - let alone to have too much, twelve baskets left over. All we know is the old math. We measure, we calculate, we count, and we worry, we always worry that there isn’t enough - not enough money, not enough time, not enough energy, not enough patience, not enough hope, not enough bread or fish perhaps, not enough of ourselves to go around. If only we knew how Jesus did it.
Theologian Douglas John Hall insists, though, that we’re reading the story all wrong when we focus on the “how” of the miracle that happened on the hillside that day. The math isn’t the miracle. The man who did the math is. When we focus on the details of the miracle, Hall writes, we miss “the wonder of divine grace that permeates the whole of human life,” not just loaves and fishes.
I’m not sure Jesus ever meant to host a picnic at all. In John’s telling of the story, no mention is made of the crowd’s hunger - not a hunger for food, anyway. Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat? Jesus asks his disciples, wondering if they will understand that it’s not a math problem he’s posing. They don’t understand. They start measuring, calculating, and counting and of course they come up short. There’s not enough bread for everyone there.
Over the next several Sundays we’ll have our fill of bread as we continue our brief journey through John’s gospel before returning to the gospel of Mark. The Reverend Barbara Crafton calls these the “Bread Sundays,” and in the reflections she posts on-line she is including a bread recipe for every week we hear Jesus talk about the stuff. This week it is loaves and fishes. Soon he will say something about true bread from heaven, better by far even than manna in the wilderness. And then Jesus will begin to talk about bread that gives life to the world.
Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat? But, John tells us, He said that to test the disciples, for he himself knew what he was going to do... Do you know? The disciples of course did not - they thought he meant bread and fish, tuna sandwiches, lunch. I am the bread of life, Jesus will say before this chapter in John is finished. I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. Jesus is going to feed them with himself.
This story was beloved in the life and worship of the early church for its eucharistic imagery - Jesus takes the bread that is offered, give thanks for it, breaks it, and shares it until all are satisfied. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the disciples serve the meal, but in John’s version, it is Jesus himself who hands out the bread. Jesus feeds the crowd.
If this is a math story, it’s not arithmetic - it’s geometry. As Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians, it is about what is the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love in offering to us the Bread of Life through the life and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is a new equation to learn, and it is this: five loaves, two fish and (and this is what the disciples had not considered)... five loaves, two fish and Jesus are enough to feed the deepest, widest hunger we can imagine.
Whatever happened on that hillside, the heart of the miracle is not division or multiplication but the exponential, limitless love of God for those who are hungry, which is to say, all of us. We may not be hungry for bread (well, I don’t know, we haven’t had our morning toast yet), but for what are we hungry? Peace of mind? A feeling of fullness? An end to despairing? Confidence that our offerings, our selves, our lives, however meagerly we measure them, are enough?
We are enough, not because we have five loaves and two fish or more or less, but because we have God. The meal we will soon share on this hillside at this table, with Jesus as our host, is no less miraculous than that meal on the grassy Galilean hillside. Regardless of whether or not I get the numbers right, there will be more bread for the world here when we finish our meal than when we begin. For at the altar rail we take into ourselves what we already are - the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven. Jesus feeds us with himself, and then sends us out to feed the hungry - perhaps with bread and fish, perhaps with clothing and shelter, perhaps with time and attention, perhaps with healing hands, perhaps with simply our presence, but always, always, with the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that surpasses measure, that is infinite.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Artwork: "The Five Thousand," by Eularia Clark; "Feeding the 5000," by Dianne Vottero Dockery; "Feeding of the 5000," by Daniel Bonnell; "The Feeding of 5000 Men," by Justino Magalona.