Today’s Gospel is from St John’s Sixth Chapter, parts of which will be read for the next four Sundays.
Today’s story is one of the few told by all four Gospels. Its words of Jesus’ taking the bread, giving thanks and distributing it reflect the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a special kind of bread: one which we need as much for the nourishment of our spiritual life as we need material bread for our bodily life. Gandhi once said, “To the poor man, God does not appear except in the form of bread and the promise of work”. The Eucharist renews the deepest springs of our humanity through bread broken and eaten for the life of the world.
The Eucharist makes us companions. And the miracle of the bread shows God is abundance.
The Gospel story presents for our consideration three people. There is, first of all, Philip, who lived in the region in which Jesus faced this crowd of thousands. When Jesus asked Philip what to do about feeding the crowd, all Philip could see were difficulties: A half year’s wages wouldn’t buy enough food for each of them to have a little bit. Like some of us, he seemed reluctant to get involved in a problem that looked too big to solve.
As for St Andrew, he knew the logistics, too, but his attitude was a bit more optimistic, pointing to the boy there who had five barley loaves and two fish.
Barley was the cheapest kind of bread there was: the bread of the poor. Fish at that time before refrigeration wouldn’t last long, and to preserve them one had to pickle or dry them not too long after catching them. It’s hard to tell what Andrew had in mind bringing forward the loaves and fish, but he had faith in Jesus and felt it worthwhile to take a chance.
Then there was the boy. This boy had to eat his fish himself, bring them home or sell them among the crowd. He had the innocence, trust, and openness which were among the qualities that Jesus admired in children.
He came forth as bidden and, as far as he knew, if he gave up his food he wouldn’t be getting anything back. But he gave his bread and his fish – which, aside from the clothes on his back was all he had.
This boy was content to simply make the effort and let Christ be the Architect of its effects.
There is a very profound truth in all of this: those who live in God’s world never know the final outcome, the full effects of their efforts. That is so because it is, in fact, God’s world. It is God who built it, and by God’s choice part of the essential raw material of that building is the effort that we make.
That means that there is a real sense in which God depends, in the building of the kingdom, on the efforts that we make to be virtuous.
Just think for a moment of all the times in the course of our lives that each one of us is asked to make an effort at virtue. An effort which may not seem to pay off at all. The times we are asked to be charitable to someone who we know is going to try to take advantage of us. The times we are asked to forgive someone whom we know is going to hurt us again. The endless demands on patience that are made of those who live in the company of other human beings, even though it never seems to be enough.
Every Christian, sooner or later, has to ask, “is it really worth it? If I do give up my personal five loaves and two fish, is anything good going to come of it?”
Christian tradition answers that with an insistent clarity: “Yes, it certainly is worth it, something good will come of it”. To the next question, “Why?” Christian tradition answers with an equally insistent clarity, “I don’t know. But it will.” It is not the greatness of our accomplishments that God values, it is the sincerity of our efforts. Accomplishments are God’s concern. Effort is ours.