On the highways, the signs that warn of road construction ahead in one mile are themselves, obviously, not the reality of road construction. Rather the signs indicate or signal what is coming.
All of this is to say that the event described by John as a sign, an event that resulted in feeding five thousand people with leftovers to spare, is not the point. As sign, John invites us to focus our attention beyond the apparently miraculous feeding. Something else is the more important reality.
As sign, what does the story of feeding the five thousand point to and indicate?
Feeding five thousand understood as a sign points to Jesus Christ. It’s not the feeding that’s important so much as the person doing the feeding. The story for today sets the stage for the rest of John chapter 6 which we’ll hear in the coming Sundays where Jesus talks about himself as the bread of life come down from heaven that feeds the world.
Feeding five thousand as sign alerts us also to the abundant generosity of God, the one whom Jesus calls Father, who in Christ does a lot with a very little. That the Word of God would take flesh in the vulnerability of the baby Jesus, that this same God in Christ would exercise divine power in the humiliation of the cross showcases the wonders of this God where we least expect wonders at all.
Feeding five thousand as sign also reveals our lack of faith and trust that there will be enough to go around. We are generally like Philip and Andrew in the story who at first were skeptical that five barley loaves would end up being enough to feed everyone. In our human finitude and brokenness we tend to see scarcity when the divine vantage point sees abundance.
At the same time, feeding five thousand as sign also calls us to faith, to trust in the one who makes abundance out of scarcity.
Feeding five thousand as sign points back to the passage in 2 Kings for today and the story of Elisha who also fed many people to their satisfaction with loaves of barley and with some to spare, thus revealing continuity between Elisha and Jesus, that Jesus Christ is in keeping with the long history of God’s involvement in the history of God’s children.
Moreover, the story of feeding five thousand as sign points us to the Eucharist as the words of John echo our words when we give thanks at the sacramental table: “Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated.”
Feeding five thousand as sign points us to our calling to go and do as Jesus did in sharing God’s abundance to feed to satisfaction those who do not have enough to eat. Thus, today’s gospel story points to this congregation’s generosity in giving to local organizations that feed the hungry.
When it’s all said and done, feeding five thousand as sign finally points to the prayerful praise and thanksgiving of the author of today’s reading from Ephesians who extolled the wonder of God in Christ: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:18-21)
You see, the miracle of feeding five thousand itself is not the point, but serves to point beyond itself to the rich variety of sacred realities that come together in Christ, the one who died, the one who rose, the one who still to this day makes himself known in the breaking of bread, where at our table of grace a little bit of bread and a sip of wine go a long way in feeding us with the fullness of God’s abundance in Christ.
May we thus in renewed faith see abundance when we might otherwise see only scarcity. And may we ourselves be signs in the power of the Spirit to point to Jesus Christ, the one who feeds us to satisfaction.
And finally, may our prayer in faith be the prayer of the psalmist, a prayer appropriate for all of our meal tables, sacramental and otherwise: “The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season. You open wide your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” (Psalm 145:15-16) Amen.