After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he 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. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
The feeding of the multitude is recorded in all four Gospels, indeed there are two such accounts in Mark and Matthew. Those of us familiar with these accounts can too easily go into auto-pilot and not pick out significant variant details.
For today I want to focus on two details
Philip features a number of times in the fourth Gospel but, although listed, is not featured in the other Gospels. In our account he is tested by Jesus – why? Perhaps Jesus, actually knowing what he planned to do, was helping Philip expand his understanding. From the Gospel I get the impression that Philip was a cautious man who, although seemingly close to Andrew, was the antithesis of Simon Peter. Philip had not sought out Jesus but was rather chosen by Jesus – yet, having been called, Philip went and brought along Nathanael. When some Greeks wanted to see Jesus they went to Philip who then consulted Andrew. How we should value those who may initially be cautious but are willing to act when opportunities are recognised and understood.
The second point that stood out for me is the word “the” – the prophet who is to come into the world, not “a prophet”. Today, just as two thousand years ago, there are many who make end encourage claims about themselves: Jewish communities throughout Biblical times had many who claimed to be a prophet but whose claims proved false. On this occasion people realised that Jesus was the genuine prophet from God. Alas, the Christian community is not immune from those who distort the teaching of Jesus to their own advantage. We often need to be cautious like Philip, checking out what is true and dependable.
Gracious God, so much in the world is confusing and many voices clamour to be heard, endow us, we pray, with the gift of discernment so that we do not go astray but remain steadfastly walking the Way of Jesus – in whose name and power we pray: Amen.
The Rev’d Julian Macro, Retired URC Minister, Member of Verwood United Reformed Church