A Bountiful Feast
A Sermon for the Sunday Next Before Advent
Anthony G. Cirilla
May the Words of my Mouth and the Meditations of my Heart be acceptable in thy Sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
When I was a young boy, I would often spend the holidays with my grandparents. My Grandma Patty was a deeply loving person – she delighted in showering her family with affection, and she took joy in getting ready for the holidays, putting up decorations, sending out cards, and meticulously planning gifts. And of course, like any Italian grandmother, she loved to feed her family, so Thanksgiving was, to say the least, a big deal. In the days leading up to the big day, she would be making enough cookies to fill up the dining room table and pies to take up the kitchen table – lemon meringue, apple pie, and my favorite, pumpkin pie. Not to mention all of the side dishes – the stuffing, the mashed potatoes, and, unfortunately, the green bean casserole. On Thanksgiving day she would be basting that beautiful turkey, and, because this was an Italian thanksgiving, there was going to be the lasagna. There are three certainties in life – death, taxes, and the Italian Thanksgiving lasagna. I remember Thanksgiving morning, after I was finished getting ready, my grandmother would take me by the arm and say, “Anthony, come here and take this in.” And we’d go to the top of the stairs where you could breathe in the inviting aroma of the dishes she was preparing. “Doesn’t it smell wonderful?” she would say, and it really did. At the time I remember joking that I would enjoy eating the food more than smelling it, but I don’t really remember eating it as distinctly as I do remember standing at the top of those stairs with her. What I saw in that moment was her delight in what it all meant to her – that it was an opportunity for her to share good food with people she loved. For her, feeding her family was more than an act of love. It was a way of creating a spiritual connection with the gratitude of the season. By preparing a bountiful feast, she was performing the ordinary miracle of making a day into a holiday. The pragmatic day to day need to eat becomes, on Thanksgiving day, a recognition that sharing in a bountiful feast together has a deeply spiritual meaning to it.
The natural miracle of human love made manifest in a carefully prepared meal had a higher, supernatural fulfillment in today’s Gospel lesson, where we read of one of Christ’s most discussed miracles – the feeding of the five thousand. Imagine if you had enough food set out for your household, and then all of your friends and relatives showed up for Thanksgiving dinner without any warning. The panic that would create would mirror how the disciples were feeling – they had no plan for this crowd’s needs. Jesus asks Philip where they could get enough food from, and you can almost hear the anxiety in Philip’s words: “Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little.” Not only do we not have enough food, we don’t even have enough money to buy the food! Andrew attempts to help but seems rather unconfident as well: “There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?” In one sense, the concern of the disciples can be understood – with so great a number to feed, the disciples recognize their inability to meet the demand. But this fear also shows that the disciples have not been paying attention. In just the previous chapter Jesus had healed a man infirm from birth, and the chapter prior he had healed the official’s son on his deathbed. And there was an even more obvious experience which should have inspired confidence in them. Remember the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine in John 2? In verse 2, John records for us, “Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.” They had already seen Christ work a miracle in providing wine for a whole wedding. Sure, the number of people in the crowd was greater, but if Christ could heal a man handicapped from birth, raise a boy from deadly illness, and transform enough water into wine to meet the needs of an entire wedding feast, why should the mere number of people present make a difference? They were looking not with spiritual eyes but with a fleshly vision at the problem. They weren’t looking at who Christ is but the situation they were facing, and like Peter looking at the turbulent waters instead of at Christ in the storm, they were sinking into anxiety. A mistake I can say I am all too familiar with.
Now here is what is amazing. Christ could have chosen to simply give enough food to sate their hunger – to create enough food even to give five thousand people a snack, so that they could go and find food on their own later. That would have been reasonable. Or, Christ could have given them enough for a square meal, so they would be full enough not to eat again until the next meal. But Christ goes beyond that – as he has the disciples distribute five loaves of bread and two fishes to five thousand people, it reads that the amount of bread and fish was “As much as they wanted.” Wanted there in the Greek is ethelon – as much as could be desired. That means that they ate enough that these five thousand people didn’t need or desire seconds – they were full! It reminds me of those Thanksgiving meals where we ate so much of the good things set before us that we were falling into a coma. You know, you stretch out on the couch and say, “Oh goodness, I couldn’t eat another bite.” And then, a few minutes later someone says, “Anybody up for pie?” And suddenly new energy takes hold of you and you sit up and go, “Oh yeah, I’m ready.” Then you eat that pie and you’re done. “I’m never going to eat again,” you say, as you revert back into a couch potato in front of the TV. An hour later maybe, “Turkey sandwiches, anyone?” Ugh. If I have to, sure. You’re at capacity – you can’t have any more. And yet there are still leftovers for days. Now I doubt the crowd was quite that indulgent, but the point is, they had eaten their fill and didn’t even want anymore, and having eaten that much, the disciples gathered enough leftovers for another feast and “filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten.” The overwhelming bounty of God’s grace and love, planned even before the crowd knew they would be hungry, is on full display here.
We are like the crowd – we have many needs, and meeting those needs often presents a challenge, a challenge that might seem impossible to overcome. Like the disciples, we have the tendency to forget what we know. We have the complete record of Christ’s miracles, including this one. Notice here that God cared about the physical needs of his people. Yes, the ultimate concern should be our spiritual health, but it is appropriate to go to God, to set before Christ those troubles we have. Miracles of the sort recorded in the Gospel are rare, but often God uses the miracles of common grace to meet our needs, like my grandmother working to prepare the Thanksgiving dishes, which can be found if we are open to looking for them. Indeed, if our eyes are fixed on Christ, we can be the source of bounty for others when they are in need, like the disciples carrying the baskets of bread and fish to the crowd. We pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” both because we need to cultivate thanksgiving for the daily bread that we do have, and because it is from God’s grace that all of the blessings in our everyday lives flow. That we are able to work, that we have an economy where even buying our basic needs is at all possible, that sometimes we even have enough to share with others – all of this comes from the means of grace which surround us all about. Notice that the disciples were not even able to pay for the food. Even if we grow our own food in our gardens, we can’t create from nothing the soil in which the food grows, or the sunlight which makes it flourish. The means of creation, both in nature and in human nature, the nutrition in food and the delight in providing for one another in the human soul, all of these things are an incredible bounty which all flows from the Throne of Bounty. How much more true is it, then, that we cannot pay for the bountiful grace which saves us from our sins, a certain salvation and the promise of a heavenly feast which the Lord’s Supper reminds us to look for. Gratitude to the Father of Heavenly lights, from whom comes every good and perfect gift, is the means by which we perfect and sanctify the pleasure we take from occasions like Thanksgiving Day.
Of course, it is not enough to talk about the meeting of physical needs. As Christ said, quoting the Book of Deuteronomy, Man cannot live on bread alone. As a kid, I used to make the joke at dinner – A man cannot live on bread alone – he also needs something to drink. At Thanksgiving the joke would become, Man cannot live on Turkey Sandwiches alone – he also needs a slice of pumpkin pie with ten pounds of whipped cream. But the reason why Christ met the physical needs of the followers was not simply to fill their stomachs, but to, through their stomachs, make them sensible of a spiritual hunger. Their response to the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is fitting: “This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world.” Many were there to hear the wisdom of Christ’s teachings, and perhaps some in the crowd who had been skeptical about the truth of his ministry found their faith confirmed by this physical manifestation of his divinity. Maybe they were only hoping for one of his increasingly famous miracles to be on display, but their quest for novelty became a realization that this was someone particularly marvelous to perform a miracle of such magnitude. But what those in the crowd who said this were recognizing was a deep connection between the physical and the spiritual. It’s easy to divorce in our minds our spiritual duties from the mundane bodily needs of ourselves and others, but Scripture emphasizes that this is a wrong way of thinking about it. James 2:15-17 says, “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, 16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? 17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” Christ did not say, I am here to teach you – you’re on your own when it comes to your needs. By seeing and being sensitive to the needs of others, Christ was modeling the Christian duty to reach out and bring others into the bountiful feast of God. The same delight my grandmother took in feeding her family is the spiritual joy we should find in doing works of love for our neighbors in need.
Important as exhibiting generosity in works of charity is to the Christian life, however, this point is not the true center of the miracle. The spiritual quality of meeting physical needs points to an even higher truth – the bounty to be found in dwelling in a life with Christ. The day after the feeding of the five thousand, Christ calls them out on a distorted motivation: “26 Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. 27 Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.” Their focus, like that of the disciples before, had drifted. They were turning to what we might call the prosperity Gospel, the false notion that God will always meet our desires in this life. Christ warns them not to be satisfied in meeting only physical needs, but that physical hunger itself is actually a manifestation of the deeper spiritual hunger that we all have as a result of the Fall. No amount of Thanksgiving dinner, however delicious, can meet that need. The crowd asks for a sign that Christ is the one who can meet that spiritual need, sort of a dull request when you think about it, because they were literally to see the miracle of the feeding just yesterday. But Christ uses this as an opportunity to teach them that they are ignoring the deeper need of their souls by pursuing him only for bread: “For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.” 34 Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. 35 And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” Do we hunger and thirst after the righteousness of Christ even as eagerly as we hunger and thirst for normal food and drink, let alone for special holiday meals? Do I get as excited for Holy Communion as I do for Camarie’s pumpkin cookies? Well I should, and even more, because in Holy Communion we see the joining of the ordinary miracle of feeding the body with the supernatural miracle of feeding the soul. Christ said, 51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” And when the crowd questioned this shocking saying, he asserted, 53 Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Some believe that the Lord’s Supper is only a memorial of the life-giving sacrifice of Christ on the cross, to remind us that Christ became the bread of life for us, so that by believing in him we can be fed in our souls to chase out the death of sin. And it most certainly is that. But as there were leftovers at the feeding of the five thousand, Holy Communion is also more than that. Christ says, 54 Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. 56 He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. If taken, as the 28th of the 39 Articles says, in an heavenly and spiritual manner, the Lord’s Supper is a pouring out of a spiritual blessing, a miraculous encounter through the Holy Spirit with the presence of Christ.
Spiritual hunger is a real hunger, and so the Lord’s supper is a real spiritual meal. And as with bodily hunger, meeting the needs of our soul with malnourishment causes a bad appetite. We might not crave the bountiful feast of Christ because we are fouling our soul’s palates with spiritual junk food. This is why meditation on Scripture is so important – it trains our soul to desire the spiritual food of Christ’s truth. Also to really enjoy a meal you have to work up that appetite, to really feel the need. Don’t you notice that food tastes better when you’re hungry? Well, confession of our sins is the exercise which prepares us to long for the bounty of Christ’s presence to nourish our souls from the source of all plenty. When we participate in it fully, the very structure of our liturgy reminds us of a hunger for eternity which can only be met by the God of eternal blessings. A spiritual feast is being laid out for us, and we can come to this table and delight in it. We are content to feed our minds and bodies but God wants to feed our souls, the very core of our being. The world says, Feed yourself, because there’s only enough for you. False gods say, Feed me, or I will take away from you. The true God, manifested to us in the person of Christ says, Are you hungry? Is your plate empty? Is your cup dry? Then come to me, stand at the top of the stairs in worship and take in the good aroma, for I want to feed you. I want to fill you up, and use you to fill up others. In Scripture, in prayer and the sacrament of Holy Communion, we partake of a bountiful feast. Amen.