On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured. The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.’ But he said to them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said, ‘We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.’ For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, ‘Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.’ They did so and made them all sit down. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.
We all know more than we once did about how to have a good diet. We know about proteins and vitamins, about not too many carbs and your ‘five a day’. There are all sorts of reasons why our bodies might not be well fed today in this world and we do well to work to overcome food poverty wherever we can.
But we also use food as a powerful metaphor for what our souls need. I remember someone once criticising sermons that seemed like ‘thin gruel’ (I think I knew what they meant), and I know what it means to find a sermon or a service that is truly nourishing. Like my physical body, my spirit needs regular, sustaining food and I am grateful for the times of prayer that fill me up and keep me going.
The story of this feeding miracle comes, in some form, in each of the four Gospels. And each time it seems as though it is about more than physical food, more than a catering triumph when the shops were far away. Jesus says to the twelve, ‘You give them something to eat’, and perhaps this is like that early encouragement to me to preach nourishing sermons. And the description of Jesus ‘taking’, ‘blessing’, ‘breaking’ and ‘giving’ is too like the founding stories of the Lord’s Supper to be coincidence. The twelve thought they had little to give, but with Jesus’ prayer there was enough and to spare.. for spirits as well as bodies.
Is this a moment to reflect on whether our own spiritual diet is right? Are we eating often enough the spiritual food that God provides? Are we starving ourselves, when God is offering us daily bread? Just how often might taking, blessing and sharing bread and wine really be right for us? And what food are we offering to others so that all may flourish? Let all eat and be filled.
O God, you know that I’m always hungry, and how my spirit rumbles with longing for joy and hope and peace. I reach for sweet fixes sometimes and I have known thin gruel that does not satisfy. Forgive me when I leave the table too soon or miss meals or eat the wrong things. Let me come regularly to the table of your presence and find the food that will truly nourish my living. Thank you for feast days and fast days, for daily bread and for regular communion. Show me how to eat well in your Kingdom and how to welcome others to the table of life.
The Rev’d Dr Susan Durber is Moderator of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.