In both the first reading from II Kings and in the Gospel passage, we read of God’s provident care in providing food for a multitude in a marvelous way beyond all expectation: The Prophet Elisha takes twenty barley loaves and feeds a hundred people at the Lord’s command so that some is left over; and Jesus takes five barley loaves and a few fish and feeds about five thousand with twelve baskets of fragments left over.
Do you believe this? That is, do we truly believe and trust that Jesus can and will care for me, will fulfill my greatest needs and my most ardent longing? Evidently, Philip and Andrew were skeptical. However, at the end of this chapter of John’s Gospel, which we will be hearing over the course of the coming Sundays, we are told: Many of [Jesus’] disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. However, when Jesus asks the Twelve if they, too, want to go away, Simon Peter will answer: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.
We, Jesus’ present-day disciples are very often like Philip and Andrew in today’s passage. We struggle to believe and to trust in Jesus. And yet, with Peter, we can say, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” For we have all tried other alternatives, other promises of happiness. Our sinfulness is a desperate – albeit misguided – search for happiness which, as we know from bitter experience, leaves us yet more miserable once the immediate gratification we were seeking has dissipated. We yearn for something to trust, to hope in. Jesus’ demands are simple, beautiful, but they demand our total allegiance, and they are laughed at and scorned by the culture in which we live. And so we gather today, hoping that one day we, too, may grow in faith like Philip, Andrew and Peter did, who, in the end, laid down their lives in faith for Jesus.
What are some things we can learn from the Word of God today regarding the struggle we have to believe? In the first place, we need to remember that the happiness we are seeking will not be found in wealth, power, pleasure, influence, attention, or any of the innumerable ways we seek gratification. Jesus, when he realized that the people were going to make him king, had the good sense to flee. The happiness we are seeking is one which is immeasurable and everlasting, and found only the God’s reign in the life to come. The belief in this life to come, however, can provide much pleasure and peace in this life in face of all the inevitable disappointments, failures, sickness and, finally, death we must all face.
We might have found the offer to be king attractive, as we find all temptations. The temptation that being followers of Christ ought to bring respect and even admiration, privilege and influence is quite strong. There is the constant seduction to use power to coerce people’s compliance, rather than love to change their hearts. In the face of the increasing hostility to faith and to the freedom to live our faith and operate our church institutions according to that faith, we need to remember that Jesus has invited us to take up our cross. The fact that we must face obstacles and attacks in living our faith is actually salutary, for it will force us to examine whether or not we truly believe that Jesus is Lord, and can and will fulfill all our longings. It is when we are honored or privileged for the profession of our faith that we are in the greatest danger of being enticed, even unknowingly, into living something other than the gospel, all the while dressing it up with Christian respectability.
In their commentaries on today’s gospel, the early church writers commented on the fact that the loaves used by Jesus were of barley, not wheat. Barley was cheap, considered to be of lesser quality than fine wheat bread. It was the food of the poor, not of the rich, of the leaders and the important people. And yet this was the bread, offered by a young boy, which the Lord is pleased to use to provide a wondrous meal for so many. Can part of our difficulty in believing be that we feel that what we have to offer, our gifts and talents, are so insignificant, so paltry, that it makes no difference? Have we been caught up too much in the false values of the culture that we have lost sight of the value of each individual person, made in the very image and likeness of God? The culture and the media gush over the rich, the powerful, the beautiful. Yet each of us knows someone, or someones, who are not rich, powerful and perhaps not physically all that attractive, who will never be featured in the media, yet who are solidly good and loving people, who have immeasurably enriched our lives. Why do we have such a hard time believing that we, too, can be such people? It is too easy to be subverted by false values. Have you noticed how candidates for public office line up celebrities to endorse them – as though having made a lot of money by athletic prowess or acting ability, often accompanied by lives that are far from edifying or moral, somehow gives these people special insight into public policy of the common good? This is absurd, but we are all too easily seduced to believe that power and notoriety allow one to impose on others.
In the face of all this, we look at the paltry few barley loaves and fish that we seem to have to offer, and we can become discouraged. What are to do? In the first place, we are to believe in what we have come here to celebrate, the resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Our Lord. That resurrection has changed everything. Let us then live in a manner worthy of the calling we have received, striving with God’s help to overcome our sinfulness, and seeking by grace truly to live with all gentleness, humility and patience. What a difference it would make if we would always bear with one another through love when we meet people who are hurt, angry, jaded by the false values of our culture! For only love can truly change people, but we must have great trust that this love will endure even through death. Finally, especially within the community of the church, let us preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. And let us be insistent in our prayer, so that we may have insight into the Providence and power of God. And let us, strengthened by this Eucharist, never doubt that the Lord Jesus himself can take the meagerness of our talents and offerings and, by his own power and great love, multiply them to an abundance beyond our imagining for his own good purpose, and for the salvation of the world.
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