|Along Crab Creek, Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA|
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Faith for Life - The Mission of Hospitality
Preached on Sunday, February 12, 2017
Scripture readings: Exodus 16:1-12; John 6:1-15
There’s that joke that you say when you’re getting to know someone and you say, “You can call me anything. Just don’t call me late for supper.”
On this occasion, Jesus seemed determined to avoid this at any cost, only supper didn’t cost him anything. It only costs the kid who supplied Jesus with the supper to be served. Jesus was determined that the crowd, that seemed to follow him everywhere, wouldn’t be late for supper.
John, in his gospel, is going to take one of the most popular stories about Jesus and make it into one of the deepest stories of Jesus. Tradition tells us that John wrote his gospel late, because he saved the writing of it until he was old, and tradition also tells us that John lived to be almost a hundred years old.
Writing as late as he did, John seemed to know what had been written in the other gospels, and he mostly avoided repeating them, in the sense that his gospel repeats very little of the other gospels except for a scene in the Temple, the walking on water, the trial, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. He tells us about the Last Supper too, but only about what happened before and after supper.
Well, back to the feeding of the five thousand, John finds ways to tell us that it was more than a miracle. Remember that John, in his twentieth chapter, tells us that he chose to write what he wrote so that those who read him could know who Jesus is, and, knowing, have life in his name.
As for who Jesus is, John shows us that those who know him best know that, as spontaneous and surprising as he seems, Jesus is more than a miracle worker. Jesus is a miracle planner.
But John shows us more than this. He shows us that Jesus is a miracle planner because he is our care-giver and Jesus is our host. Even more than being an example of care giving, this miracle is just as much about hospitality, about being our host, as it is about anything else.
As for having life in his name, John shows us that the life we have in Jesus’ name means that Jesus gives us the grace of involvement in his planning, and in his caregiving, and in his hospitality. We see this in the questions that Jesus asked his disciples, in his concern for providing a meal for the crowd right from the start. We see Jesus involving us in the life of the grace of his hospitality in the way that he drew one young boy to share his supper with him, and with the whole crowd.
Just as he did with the Last Supper, John skips over most of the day. The other gospels (at least) tell us that, between the coming of the crowd and the feeding of the crowd, Jesus did many things and said many things.
The other gospels tell us that Jesus healed the crowd and taught the crowd. John only tells us that Jesus saw the crowd coming, and that he fed them, and (after he fed them) that he ran away from them.
John tells us that Jesus thought about feeding them as soon as that day began, as soon as he saw the crowd coming from a distance around the shore of the lake. He asked his disciple Philip, “How are we to buy bread so that these people may eat?” And John tells us about Jesus the miracle planner because, with the question to Philip, John tells us this about Jesus’ question: “This he said to test him (to test Philip), for he himself knew what he would do.” (John 6:6)
The other gospels tell us that feeding the crowd came late in the day. (Matthew 14:15-16; Mark 6:35-37; Luke 9:12-13) John tells us that Jesus was still thinking about it as the day went on, and that the disciple Andrew found a boy who had food leftover: five flatbreads and two pickled fish.
By the way, Galilee produced a pickled fish product that was famous all over the Greek and Roman world. It was a big cash export for Galilee. It was an expensive delicacy all over the empire; but it was common fare in every hut and cottage, in every local town and village that Jesus and his disciples knew.
It was also true that, in the world that Jesus and his disciples knew best, most people walked everywhere. This took a lot of time, but it was so much part of their lives that they knew how to do it. They were always prepared. They took the time because there was no other way, and they took food with them.
The Jews were famous for walking around with a basket at their side. It was part of their costume. They hadn’t really worried about food because they had brought something to eat with them, but now that it was late in the day and perhaps their food was gone. They probably knew that this would happen.
Jesus knew exactly what he was going to do, but his disciples, just like us, never knew what Jesus was going to do next. Jesus was taking so long to heal and teach, and now it was late in the day. The Feast of Passover was near, and so the moon was getting fuller, and the people would probably finish their day by walking home in the moonlight.
They had finished the food they brought, and they were subsistence people who were used to empty stomachs. But there was a boy close enough to Jesus, and to the disciples, that Andrew knew he had leftovers. If there had been boy scouts in those days, this boy would have lived up to their reputation of always being prepared. He came packed and ready to camp out.
Jesus had planned, right from the start, to do the unnecessary. He had planned to be the good host. He planned to give everyone a good supper for the hike home.
There was a trick involved. Jesus played his disciples and he let them think that he didn’t know what he was doing, or what he was going to do. But, the truth is, they would have wondered anyway. They should have known, long before, that Jesus knew what he was doing and that he could do anything; but they didn’t seem to know this.
This is exactly what the people of Israel were like in the Old Testament. In their escape from slavery in Egypt, the Lord had already shown them that he had a complicated plan, and that he was able to do anything to accomplish it. The Lord had already demonstrated this to them, but they couldn’t keep the faith. So, they were surprised that the Lord was able to feed their multitudes in the wilderness.
The Lord held them in suspense to make an impression on them. He did it to help them keep the faith, and to remember that he cared about them, and that he was more than able to truly provide for them.
Jesus showed his people, and us, that the same thing is true of him. We truly see the God of creation, and the God who leads his people to freedom, and the God who could provide for his people in the desert, when we see Jesus. John tells us this so that we can read what he has written and know who Jesus is, and have life in his name.
John is going to make this even deeper, because he will follow up the feeding of the five thousand, later, with a conversation in which Jesus would tell the people that he is the bread of life. Jesus would go on to tell them, and us, that he was going to do something for the whole world that would make him real food and drink for all of us.
They didn’t understand him, but we know that Jesus’ death for our sins on the cross, and his rising from the dead, are our food and drink. It is love that empowers and fills us up. It is the real way that we have life in his name. It is also the great work that we are called to share, and to offer to the whole world in his name.
Jesus is the great host. Just as feeding the crowd was not expected, and no one would have considered it necessary, the cross and the resurrection of Jesus are like that. Jesus did it out of love, and not because was necessary: not because it was necessary for him.
Of course, it is necessary for us: absolutely necessary. There is nothing that we need more than for Jesus to be our host and feed us and quench our thirst with himself.
The unnecessary feast was only needed for the crowd to get some idea, if possible, of who Jesus was, and is. We can’t truly know who Jesus is, unless we eat and drink him as he gave himself to us on the cross and in the resurrection. Then we know who he is: that he is the perfect host and care-giver who planned, from the beginning, to give us life. Then we can have life in his name.
The life we have in his name means something even more than this. If our Lord is the perfect host who gives himself for the life of the world, then life, in his name, means our learning to follow him. Life means learning to be what he is for the world and (again) we can only be what he is when he is our very subsistence; when he is our food and drink. We can only live for him if we eat and drink Jesus.
So, our calling is hospitality. There are many important things we do together. We worship. We pray. We sing. We eat together. We share our joys and concerns in prayer; and we pray for the whole world. We form a family and a friendship together. We support missionaries in their work around the country, and around the world. We learn to share our faith with others; meaning that we learn to share the good news of Jesus: who Jesus is, and what he has done, and why it matters. These are all important things.
The meal by the sea was an expression of hospitality. Hospitality bound the host and the guests together in friendship. They would belong to each other as a result. Jesus was pledging his loyalty and the loyalty of his disciples, and the loyalty of the boy with the food, to the crowd. Hospitality in the ancient Middle East did this.
All the important things we do together are not what Jesus intends, unless we can be hosts for Jesus. As a single guy who doesn’t clean his house, I am a terrible example of this. But, even so, I almost always ask whoever is at the door whether they want to come in: unless it’s the UPS guy or someone like that.
Jesus fed the crowd in order to give his disciples a mission of hospitality, and we have the same mission. It isn’t only about potlucks, or about eating together. Hospitality is doing for others an unexpected and unnecessary thing that promises our loyalty, and our commitment, and our belonging to them.
How can we show the world around us that we belong to them? I don’t know the answer to this, but I believe that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, can give us a special calling in this direction.
For the disciples, and for the boy with the food, feeding the crowd was impossible. They only had a very little bit to give, but that little bit was something worth giving, because Jesus was more than able to bless what they shared.
We want Jesus to bless something that we can share. Jesus wants to bless something that we have in our power to share, even though it looks impossible to us.
Sometimes we are like those disciples who were stuck at the point where Jesus let them wonder about everything. Jesus let them wonder whether they were able to believe that he knew what he was doing. He let them wonder if he had a plan, and whether he was able to do it. Sometimes we are wondering just like them.
So, he gave them signs. John calls them signs. We would like to think that John’s word “signs” means miracles, and that Jesus is simply the miracle worker, but signs mean something more than miracles. The signs of Jesus were designed, like John says, to help us know who he is and to live accordingly, in his name.
We are called to trust and to pray for the miracle of being Jesus in this world. The feeding of the crowd tells us not only to feed the hungry, but to be his hosts to the world.
We are called to Jesus’ mission of hospitality. Then the world can meet him, and know him, through us, and through the signs of our lives. Then the people around us can find life in his name.