Luke 9:18-24 One day when Jesus was praying alone in the presence of his disciples he put this question to them, ‘Who do the crowds say I am?’ And they answered, ‘John the Baptist; others Elijah; and others say one of the ancient prophets come back to life.’ ‘But you,’ he said ‘who do you say I am?’ It was Peter who spoke up. ‘The Christ of God’ he said. But he gave them strict orders not to tell anyone anything about this.
‘The Son of Man’ he said ‘is destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death, and to be raised up on the third day.’ Then to all he said, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, that man will save it.’
‘Who do the crowds say I am’
The crowd has no name; there is no identity, no individual, no unique soul to recognise the voice that is calling them. So they make it up. People in a crowd, willing to stay in the crowd, become part of the crowd, have no fixed ideas because then they may become the odd one out – and that would never do. The survival of a crowd depends on its becoming one voice, one entity.
The crowd, finding itself listening to his words, will be wondering who Jesus is, will be making tentative suggestions, as the apostles say – safe, scriptural, hopeful suggestions; starting as whispers just in case the suggestion is too outrageous – then rising in confidence. But the crowd’s suggestions can only be what is most popular, most reasonable, most likely. The crowd wants the Days of the Old Prophets back, wants the Romans to fall, wants Jerusalem to be theirs again. The crowd, gathering itself from many memories and thoughts will never be right about who Jesus is – it is too radical and too original a thought.
There may be people in the crowd who think like Peter, that this man is the One, the Messiah. But the thought of being laughed at, rebuked, embarrassed - that is not a thing to happen in a crowd. And even if there were a few who believed – these are the ones who will come nearer to the feet of Jesus, who become followers, disciples.
There are many benefits to being a crowd, the idea of community is a strong one even within the faith; there is a belonging that reinforces our beliefs but also has much to do with safety and security. But like boats moored up in the harbour, or horses in the stable, or dolphins in a Seaworld aquarium, being safe and secure will not always make us happy; being safe and secure is not always where we are supposed to be.
‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine’
Jesus does not play it safe; and has know from the beginning that there is no safe place; there has been none in his life – from the birth in a borrowed cave to the hand to mouth existence of a peasant family; and now the wandering of a itinerant prophet with no place to rest his head. He has deliberately, perhaps, allowed himself no place called home. His home is his relationship with those he loves; those that become disciples, friends and later brothers and sisters. He has kept himself on the edge; but now he has these friends and followers and, if he is going to be true to them they need to know that he is not bringing back the Good Old Days – they need to know what they are letting themselves in for.
And it seems almost cruel (although who else would say it?) to allow Peter to bravely speak the words out loud, to recognise the Christ that the others have hidden in their hearts. 'Never quite right' Peter will have never fitted into the crowd - too likely to just say what he sees, with the foolish confidence that this must be the truth. This truth may set the disciples free but it will not be a freedom that they will all want to have.
To be free in Christ is making the choice to leave the crowd; to move outside the harbour; to push the stable door open; to leave behind the hopes and dreams; the accepted truths; the daily expectancies that make our lives safe and secure. Having our arms full of our own needs and security blankets means that we cannot hold the hand of those who need us; cannot catch those who falter; cannot carry those who fall.
It is the logic of a dreamer that if we each cared for the other – we would all be cared for. A radical, unworldly logic that the crowd believes will never happen. And maybe our cross is the weight of the world that cannot believe in these dreams and our mission is to follow the one who dreams them.
Possibly the greatest gift, if we choose to believe it, is the Real Presence, the gift of the Eucharist. That who we receive is not a symbol, retelling, or celebration of ‘what Jesus meant’ but is the reality of what Jesus says; ‘this is my body; this is my blood’.
It struck me today, for the first time, that Jesus gave us this gift before the Resurrection and I wondered why. We know that after the Resurrection Jesus meets with the disciples many times; eats with them; cooks for them; sits around tables and campfires teaching them to understand what had come before. We know that it is in the breaking of bread; the giving of hospitality that he is recognised by his friends. But wouldn’t it have been easier to believe the gift coming from a Risen Lord, one who has become super-human; has revealed his divinity; for whom nothing is impossible.
But then nothing is impossible to God - except us. The free will that we all have, make each and every one of us a loose cannon in God’s great plan. To believe, to doubt, to love, to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – every moment of our lives our choice; though it may suit us to pretend otherwise.
The Father has spent enough years trying to prove Himself; his love; His care; covenant after covenant; generation after generation; rainbows, children, authority; still we were impossible to please.
Then Jesus; gentle Jesus, meek and mild? I don’t think so. Jesus, the master of tough love – when is love not tough? A man without status speaking words many don’t want to hear. Disinclined to prove anything; doesn’t even answer questions except with other questions. Let the poor stay poor, heals those who need it, forgives the unforgivable; yet time and time again he says ‘it is your faith that has saved you’. Faith in the Son of Man cures the sick; forgives sins; raises the dead; faith in the humanity of Jesus as well as his divinity.
The Eucharist of the Resurrection would have been easily explained as a food for the spirit; for the intangible; an optional extra in an age of reason. Jesus is not just spirit but flesh and blood. He knows what hunger is like; he knows the gnawing longing that fills the flesh and the mind and the imagination. When you are hungry, really hungry, then all you can do is think, feel, remember, and desire nothing else than food; beyond reason.
This is how hungry our desire should be for God; physical, emotional, spiritual; unable to be satisfied by anything other than God. In the Eucharist, Jesus feeds all of us with all that he is –‘this is God’s body, this is God’s blood’ - it is for you to question whether it is true - ‘it is your faith that will save you’.
Given, helpless Sticky with blood Slippery with sweat Enfolded into his mother. First words; first steps: Giggles and tickles; Sneezes and coughs; Tears, hiccups. Body of Christ
Falls from trees Scraped knees, bloody noses; Splinters, ‘too hot!’ burns; Nettlerash, pimples; Dirt ingrained in fingerprint whorls Calluses, bitten nails Blistered shoulders Slipped chisel scars Body of Christ
Face of a wanderer Laughter lines etched deep Leathered skin Speaking of Love Giving peace with a kiss Courage with a word Sharing of Body and Blood Food for the journey Body of Christ
Surrendered Agonised flesh Tortured, tormented, Defiled, pierced Given, helpless Sticky with blood Slippery with sweat Enfolded into his Father Body of Christ
Jesus made the crowds welcome and talked to them about the kingdom of God; and he cured those who were in need of healing.
It was late afternoon when the Twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the people away, and they can go to the villages and farms round about to find lodging and food; for we are in a lonely place here.’ He replied, ‘Give them something to eat yourselves.’ But they said, ‘We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless we are to go ourselves and buy food for all these people’ For there were about five thousand men. But he said to his disciples, ‘Get them to sit down in parties of about fifty.’ They did so and made them all sit down. Then he took the five loaves and the two fish, raised his eyes to heaven, and said the blessing over them; then he broke them and handed them to his disciples to distribute among the crowd. They all ate as much as they wanted, and when the scraps remaining were collected they filled twelve baskets.
This part of the Gospel is a mathematician’s dream, especially if you have an interest in the symbolic meaning of numbers – in this case the Biblical, particularly Judaic use of numbers. Numerology has been around as long as language and is an active part of storytelling even today – any story with the number 13 in it leaves you waiting for disaster to strike and where would we be without a trilogy to look forward to?
This is the only miracle (apart from the Resurrection) that is reported in all the Gospels- there is a message here that we all need to hear.
Luke uses numbers to accentuate the meaning of this account, clues and footnotes revealed within the story. To the people he was originally writing for, these asides would have been a spiritual commentary; to us some numbers plucked out of thin air. So here is one interpretation of the Gospel using numbers and we begin with the Twelve – this is the easy one and represents the twelve tribes of Israel; so the apostles, the tribes. And the twelve know that they have God with them; God looking over them; and they know they are the Chosen so rather than taking care of the strangers, the gentiles, choose to send them away and expect God to agree.
But Jesus tells them - No, they are Kingdom people too and the Twelve have to take care of them and, of course, they have no idea how. In John's account a boy comes- one, Unity, God, God that comes as a child, without earthly authority but with food.
In any case all that they are able to find is five loaves and two fish – the Twelve see no way that this is going to work
Five loaves and two fish – two – unity plus one – the time when something changes; when division takes place – the new from the old – the was from the will be. And the was to the will be needs Grace which is number five. Grace to change the world. And the Grace is unlimited - 5 fish, parties of 50, feeding the 5000. But Israel, the Twelve don't get it.
They need to be shown by Jesus the Reconciler who brings them together. The two and the five make seven – the number of completeness – God’s work done – change through Grace.
And at the end, the twelve baskets of leftover food to show that Israel is not forgotten; God has not deserted the tribes – there is plenty to go around. We have a generous God.
So you could imagine that this is not a real account at all. Luke is writing an allegory to describe the gift that Jesus brings to the world.
Of course there are fables and parables all through the Bible. It is a library of wonder. And the masterful use of symbolic numbers suggests a writer that knows how to play an audience. Certainly, with the Age of Enlightenment, it makes far more sense that it is a story to tell a story. In the most sensitive use of logic the feeding of the 5000 can be explained with cultural and dramatic finesse.
Even without the numbers, the Age of Reason will explains the account with a refined sense of conscience. Almost everyone, who had come along to hear Jesus had some food with them; they were simply not willing to admit it, certainly not to share but when someone volunteers their share everyone else is shamed into revealing their own portions. And, of course, a shared table tends to go further; a good morality tale.
It is the human condition – to find a pattern, to explain the unexplainable; to add reason, even a superstitious reason like numerology – rather than accept the reality of a real, honest to God, miracle.
Perhaps Jesus plays the game himself; using the symbols and signs of the times to his own advantage; seeking to reinforce the faith that the apostles and disciples find so shaky; so hard to cling on to from even one moment to another. Sometimes it must seem like all he can do; even after the healings and forgiveness; to give them what they need – now – food. He accepts their mortality and is satisfied, this day, with taking care of them; all of them.
So the numbers are fascinating; the morality laudable but as Christians we are asked to do one thing – to believe that this really happened; that the Second Person of the Trinity worked a miracle; that the generosity of God is unequalled and God is that big and that clever. And that what we need from God is as everyday, as basic but as necessary as food. God's gifts are fundamental to our lives and we will never have enough to feed ourselves.
These people were good people, they had come to listen; to pray; to be healed; faithful people but the journey they had taken to this lonely place had used up their reserves. They were hungry again but hungry for something they couldn't provide. It is the same for us; we have to know that, admit that, turn to God with open hearts so that we may receive Grace. Grace that doesn’t need the number 12, 5 or 2 to work, that it is simply there, abundantly there, ours for the asking, freely given, as much as is wanted, with leftovers.