When I was 17, I went to Rome on a study trip, during the last week of July and the first week of August, a bit like the weather has been here for the past few weeks, it was 28℃ (82℉) when we landed at 10pm. When we arrived at our accommodation a friend of mine went to the bathroom to wash his face and brush his teeth before going to bed. He got a terrible shock. When he turned on the tap marked ‘C’ and out came boiling hot water. C in Italian stands for Caldo or Hot. He needed to turn on the tap maked ‘F’ for Fredo, or Cold. But he was so used to cold water coming out of a tap marked ‘C’ that he misread the signs.
This mistake is easily made, especially since we are so used to seeing the letter ‘C’ on cold taps back home. It shows us how things can go wrong when we misread the signs. In today’s Gospel we have several examples of people misreading signs. First, we have the Apostle Philip. He is asked by Jesus where they can buy bread for the crowd to eat. He replies that 200 denarii would only buy them a mouthful each. Six months wages just for a mouthful! So Philip says that there is no way that the people can be fed. He cannot believe that such a thing is possible.
The Apostle Andrew fares a bit better. He shows Jesus a boy with two ﬁsh and five barley loaves, the bread of the poor. But he cannot see the point and asks ‘what is that between so many?’ The disciples give the wrong answers to Jesus’ questions, because they cannot read the signs.
The crowd are also a bit of a mixed bag. They have followed Jesus because they are impressed by his wondrous healing of the sick. Once they have miraculously been fed, they recognise the sign as a declaration of Jesus’ identity, but they misinterpret it. They are about to take Jesus by force and make him king. But this is not what Jesus’ kingship is about, he isn’t a political ruler. His kingship is not of this world. All have expectations which are met, but not necessarily in the way they were expecting. Our God is a God of Surprises.
The context of the Gospel story is important. It was just before the Passover, the festival commemorating Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea towards the Promised Land. It is a festival of Hope and Freedom, of Liberation, of a God who will feed them with manna from heaven.
It is also the same time that Jesus will celebrate the Last Supper with his disciples, instituting the Eucharist, which Christians have faithfully celebrated ever since and which is the reason why WE are here today. The blessing, breaking and sharing of bread is a serious matter. A time for remembering and looking forward.
The fact that it is a serious matter explains why Jesus will devote so much time and effort to teaching the people about this in the Gospel passages we will read over the next few weeks. It matters because the Eucharist is how we encounter Jesus and how we are fed by him.
In the Gospel, it is Jesus who takes the initiative. He recognises that people are hungry, and that they need to be fed. He is a good shepherd who looks after his flock. So He takes the basic foodstuff, bread, to show us how God works with simple things. These may be, like the barley loaves, poor, the kind that the world despises and looks down its nose at. But for God, nothing or indeed nobody, is scorned or cast aside. Ours then is a God who takes what is available and uses it. Jesus takes what he is given and thanks God for it, in recognition that all that we have, our lives and all of creation, is a gift, for which we should thank God.
It is through prayer and blessing that bread can be broken and distributed and provide sustenance, on a scale and in a way that deﬁes our expectation and understanding. Not only are a huge number of people fed, but as a sign of the super-abundance of God’s love and mercy, there is more left over at the end than there was to begin with. Thus, in giving thanks to God and sharing his love, the kingdom of God, of which the bread is a sign, grows, when it is shared. It satisﬁes people’s deepest needs. The more you share it, the more there is.
Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and distributes bread to demonstrate what the Kingdom of God and the message of the Gospel is. This looks forward to the Institution of the Eucharist, just before Passover. It points to that great Passover, when the world is freed from the slavery of sin, washed in the Red Sea that flows from Calvary, and given the Law of love of God and neighbour.
This miraculous feeding by the shore of the Sea of Galilee will happen here today, when we, the people of God, united in love and faith offer ourselves and like the little boy, give the bread that we have, so that it may be taken, blessed, broken and given so that we may be partakers in the mystical supper of the Kingdom of God. We eat the Body of Christ not as ordinary food — that it may become what we are — but that WE may become what HE is. THIS is our bread for the journey of faith. THIS is the sign and token of God’s love. THIS is the means by which we too may enjoy forever the closer presence of God.
So then, as the five thousand received and were satisﬁed, let US prepare to eat that same bread, the body of Christ, which satisﬁes our every need and fills us with a foretaste of the Kingdom of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion, and power, now, and for ever. Amen.