” . . . as much as they wanted”. John 6:11
The letters of the word “loaf” give us the initial letters of four words that help us think about the story of the feeding of the five thousand, “L” for “loaves”, “O” for “order”, “A” for “all”, and “F” for “filled.”
The story tells of one of the most famous of the miracles of Jesus. Jesus has crossed over the Sea of Galilee, but there has been no escape from the crowds, who saw all the healing that had changed the lives of so many of the people. Perhaps trying to find quietness, Jesus goes up onto a mountainside and sits down, but the crowd does not go away and Jesus realizes he must respond. Saint John Chapter 6 Verse 5 tells us, “When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?'” Jesus knows what the answer must be, but Philip is not optimistic, saying, in Verse 7, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.'”
So the miracle begins with “L” for loaves. The disciples might have been negative, they might have said there was nothing that could be done, but Andrew comes with a suggestion, saying to Jesus, in Verse 9, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” He knows he has found very little, but at least he is prepared to be positive. There were probably disciples there who laughed at Andrew, coming along with the boy’s food, laughed at the suggestion that Jesus could do anything with this small meal.
The loaves are a reminder to Christians that God can achieve great things with very little. Do we think the boy could have any idea of what was going to happen? The loaves are a reminder to us that what we give to God can be used in ways that we do not expect, that small actions can have great consequences. Reading the story of the feeding of the five thousand, most of us can probably think of ways in which we could give more, ways in which we could do more, when we do, God can do unexpected things.
“O” is for order. God is a God of order. When there is no order, when there is chaos, then it is always the weakest and the vulnerable who suffer most. What would have happened if the loaves and fishes had just been multiplied and people had been invited to come and take their share? There would have been a stampede, the fittest and the strongest would have grabbed as much as they could; older people, young children, anyone who was frail, would have swept aside in the rush. It is because Jesus understands exactly our human nature that he says in Verse 10, “Make the people sit down.” Saint John tells us, “Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down.” Order is important, order is part of Jesus’ way of doing things.
If the church is to follow Jesus in our own time, we must always be people who look for order in our world, we must always be people who look for fair treatment of everyone. If Jesus says everyone should sit down and wait their turn, what does that say to us about our own world where if people are rich or strong, they can push aside those who are weaker? The feeding of the five thousand should be a reminder to us that this is God’s way of doing things
“A is for all.” Saint John Chapter 6 Verse 10 says that there were “about five thousand in all.” There must have been all sorts of different people there, people who were genuine followers of Jesus, people who were just curious, people who were sworn opponents of Jesus, people who would do him harm if they could. Jesus does not say that those who were known to be against him should be sent away, he does not tell the disciples to give nothing to the troublemakers. Verse 11 says, “Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.” Jesus feeds everyone, friend and foe alike. It is a picture of God’s grace, something given though no-one deserves it.
It is easy to forget that Jesus fed everyone, that he made no distinctions. The church tends to act in a different way, thinking it is there for the people who belong to it and taking a dim view of those who do not belong. The church forgets about grace, forgets that no-one deserves anything, that none of us merits what God has given us. All the people on that mountainside shared in the loaves and fishes, how different it might have been if the church had organised it. We forget the word “all”.
“F” is for filled. The people received as much as they wanted. Verse 12 says “When they were satisfied.” It was not a matter of making the food go round, counting out the loaves and fish, telling people they could only have a certain amount; it was a matter of God being generous, so generous that there was food remaining, Jesus telling his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” God is generous, but that generosity is not something to be wasted, Jesus is concerned that “nothing may be lost”, they are to treat generosity with respect and we read in Verse 13, “So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.”
We receive much from God’s hand, like the people on the mountainside, we are well-filled, but do we treat God’s generosity with respect? Don’t we, instead, take what we have for granted? Don’t we assume it is our right? Don’t we misuse much of what we are given? Jesus is concerned that nothing be wasted, how much do we waste in our lives? Not just material things and money, but our time, how much do we just throw away? What does our wastefulness say about our attitude to God who has filled us with so many good things?
“Loaves” remind us that we all have something to offer. “Order” reminds us that God has a way of doing things that we should follow. “All” reminds us that there is not one of us that does not depend on God’s grace. “Filled” reminds us that all things come from him.