Sermon preach on July 2, 2017 by Rev. Shawn Coons
On June 26, 1997, the book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published, and for millions of readers around the globe found a collection of books and characters to enjoy and grow up with. Our family enjoys Harry Potter. Even before we had kids, Carrie and I were Harry Potter fans. I remember when the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out. I went to Barnes and Nobles at midnight to pick up two copies, so that Carrie and I could both read it at the same time, and I stayed off the internet for the whole weekend while I finished the book so that I could avoid any spoilers.
If you are unfamiliar with the books or movies, the story follows a group of young students as they attend a Hogwarts, a boarding school for young wizards. One of the things I like about the books is how each year at school begins. The very first night that the students arrive they meet in the Great Hall of the school. This is a huge and impressive room with stone columns and an expansive ceiling enchanted to look like the night sky.
In the Great Hall are several long rows of tables at which the hundreds of students sit at while the headmaster of the school gives some opening remarks about the upcoming year. Usually his words are brief and then he invites the students to “dig in” and enjoy their dinner. At that moment the tables, which have formerly been barren, magically become loaded with steaming plates of turkey, ham, potatoes, vegetables, breads, desserts, and a variety of other wonderful delicacies. It is a feast that could probably feed thousands, which appears out of thin air
It begins with a crowd of hungry people, and no food to be seen. It ends with everyone getting more than enough with food left over. Very magical if we are still talking about Harry Potter, or very miraculous if we are now talking about Jesus feeding the 5000. In our passage from Matthew this morning, there is no mention of magic (or house elves for that matter), but the events of this story are astounding and certainly out of the ordinary. As the story begins Jesus has just heard the news that John the Baptist, his cousin, has been killed by Herod.
Matthew 14:13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
The story begins with Jesus hearing the news of John the Baptist’s execution. When Jesus hears this he gets in a boat alone and tries to go somewhere where he can be alone. But people in the area find out where Jesus is heading and a great crowd goes ahead of Jesus to meet him at his destination. At a time like this we could certainly understand if Jesus wanted to get back in his boat and try to get away from them, but he doesn’t.
The Bible says he has compassion on them, even during his own grief, and he goes among them and heals those who are sick. He apparently spends almost all day doing this, because eventually evening rolls around and people are starting to get hungry. The disciples get a little worried because there is no way they can feed this crowd of thousands, so they ask Jesus to send the crowd away. But Jesus basically says to them, “No, you feed them.” I’m sure at this point the disciples are a little bit perplexed. They ask around and come up with five loaves of bread and two fish. Not a lot of food. If you want to get exact, according to one minister this would be about five servings of about 650 calories per serving, including 55 grams of fat, 130 grams of carbs and 35 grams of protein. Not quite enough for a crowd of 5000 men, plus several thousand women and children.
But this doesn’t stop Jesus. He takes the food, blesses the fish and bread, breaks the bread, and gives it to the disciples who in turn give it to the crowd and everyone eats until full. Does this sound familiar to you? Specifically does this language sound familiar to you? Does it remind you of anything else Jesus did? Jesus took the bread and fish, gave thanks for it, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples. In just a few moments I’ll be standing at the communion table saying “On the night that Jesus was arrested, he took bread, and after giving thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples…”
What Jesus does in our passage from Matthew this morning is very similar to what he does during the Last Supper. In fact, the author of Matthew uses the exact same verbs to describe each event. Take. Bless. Break. Give. It’s almost as if this story is supposed to make us think of communion. Well, I think that’s what the author of Matthew intended. As we read this story, it is supposed to bring our hearts and minds to the communion table. Let’s look at some ways that this story helps us understand communion.
On the day that Jesus and the disciples fed that crowd of thousands the Bible tells us that Jesus walked among the people. Jesus was there, present with them, not just standing in front of them speaking to them as a crowd, but he was in the midst of them. Talking with this woman over here, healing a man over there, greeting a young girl, meeting a small boy. Jesus was really present to the people on that day.
As Presbyterians, when we celebrate communion, we believe Jesus is really present, and not in a sentimental “Jesus is always in my heart” kind of way. As we share the bread and the cup during communion, Jesus is here with us. Really here! We don’t believe that communion is just a symbol. We don’t believe it is just a fancy way to remember Jesus. We believe something happens as we come to the Lord ’s Table.
Now unlike certain traditions, we don’t believe that the bread and the wine (or in our case juice) becomes the physical body and blood of Christ, but we do believe that the real spiritual presence of Christ comes to us in the mystery of communion. When I first heard that phrase “the real spiritual presence of Christ” I wanted to know exactly what that meant. Precisely how is Jesus here with us? What takes place in the blessing of the bread and wine?
Unfortunately, it isn’t something that we can really understand or articulate fully. It’s not like we can say Jesus is here in spirit, standing right over there, or that Jesus manifests himself in this specific way. But what we can say is that Jesus is present to us in communion, here in a way that is real and that is unique to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. As sure as Jesus walked among a crowd of hungry people 2000 years ago, Jesus is present in the breaking of the bread.
To understand something else about communion, I want us to try to imagine the mood and atmosphere on the day that those thousands of people were fed. At first there was probably some tension in the air. This crowd of thousands probably came looking for Jesus for a number reasons. Some of them wanted to be healed, others may have wanted to hear him teach, and some may have just wanted to see the man so many people were talking about.
I would imagine, by the end of the day, the mood there was pretty joyful. Jesus has spent a good part of the day meeting people, talking to them, and healing them. Then just when they think the day is over, Jesus and the disciples give them a huge meal to eat! This is cool! I’m imagining a huge outdoor picnic with people talking, children playing, and lots of laughter and smiles all around. I am sure if first century Israel had Frisbees™, there would be several of them flying around. It’s a big party!
This is one image of what communion is supposed to be like. It may be hard to tell from taking communion at many churches, but communion is referred to as the Joyful Feast of the Lord. There is a reason that we usually say that this morning we will be celebrating communion. But, somewhere along the way we seem to have forgotten this. Communion today in most churches is solemn, quiet, and serious. There doesn’t seem to be much room for joy or laughter or a smile.
But that isn’t how communion is always supposed to be. Communion doesn’t just look back to Jesus time on earth 2000 years ago, it also looks forward. When we take communion, we are not only remembering Jesus’ death and resurrection we are celebrating the day when we will all sit down at the heavenly table in the Kingdom of God. And you better believe that that’s going to be one rockin’ party! Communion is a celebration of the children of God coming from all different places to be united in Christ and be in fellowship with one another.
Let me tell you about one of the most meaningful communion experiences I was ever a part of. It was at an event called the Massanetta Middle School Conference. It was at the end of a four-day camp and I was in an outdoor auditorium with a couple dozen adults and several hundred 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. We were having our closing worship service and the minister went forward and presided over communion in a manner you and I are familiar with.
He prayed, he said the words, “On the night Jesus was arrested…”, the whole liturgy you have probably heard before.
And then he looked at us and said, “the gifts of God, for the people of God.” At that moment, the first notes of an upbeat rock song by the group U2 started playing loudly from the sound system. A cover of Woodie Guthrie’s, “They Laid Jesus Christ in the Grave.” And then we all got up from our seats and literally danced down the aisle to take communion. It was great! It took a while for everyone to be served so while we were waiting we continued to dance and clap and celebrate the joyful feast of the Lord. It was truly amazing.
Now when we celebrate communion here in a little bit, I’m not going to ask anyone to dance down the aisle, but I will ask you to reflect on the joy that Christian fellowship brings and if I see one or two of you smiling a little bit, it’s OK! Jesus commands us to “Do this in remembrance of me,” but what we need to keep in mind is that we aren’t remembering a loved one who has died and is no longer with us. We are remembering the risen Lord Jesus Christ who is alive and among us today! Communion isn’t a wake, it’s a celebration dinner where Jesus is the guest of honor.
The final thing that we learn about communion from this story is that everyone is invited and everyone is involved. I would imagine that the crowd gathered on that day was a motley crew. There were probably all sorts of people there. Men, women, young, old, Jews, Gentiles, rich, poor, Israelites, foreigners and all manner of folk. So when dinner time rolls around, the disciples look out on this mass of people and decided that they needed to go somewhere else.
In 1995 a small piece of satire in Sojourners magazine described the scene this way. "Apparently, biblical scholars funded exclusively by the Christian Coalition now feel that, for their own good, the 5,000 should have worked for that food instead of depending on an overly generous Messiah. Scholars are convinced that the disciples--the first shareholders in the kingdom of God, if you will--probably tried to stop Jesus from creating a culture of welfare among his followers. 'Oh sure, Master. Today you feed 5,000, then what? Feed 10,000 tomorrow? Look, just give back [the fishes and loaves], make your speech, and let's get out of here.”
But Jesus has a different plan. Jesus looks at the crowd and sees God’s children, every last one of them. Jesus knows that God doesn’t turn anyone away. And so, Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “No. You give them something to eat.” Jesus doesn’t agree with the disciples wishes to send the crowd away, and he doesn’t just disagree with the disciples and then miraculously feed the crowd by himself. He makes the disciples get involved. He makes them a part of the celebration.
I don’t have much more to say in this sermon because this final point really gets at the heart of what communion is. Everyone is invited and everyone is involved. There isn’t anyone who isn’t welcome at God’s table and everyone invited is also called to be involved in helping to serve the meal to others. When we sit at the table with each other and with God we are fed, and in being fed we are nourished, and in being nourished we are strengthened to go out and bring others back to the table for the next joyful feast. This morning let us all come to the Lord’s table with hearts of joy and lives ready to be strengthened for God’s service.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One God, Mother of us all. Amen.