Jesus does not ask many questions in the gospels. And every time Jesus does ask a question, there’s something breathtaking going on. I have a feeling many of us could identify a story from the gospels just by the questions Jesus asks: Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? Who do people say that I am? Who you say that I am? Where is your husband? Whose image is on this coin? Who was the neighbor to the man? Have you become to betray the Son of Man with a kiss? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Have you still no faith?
Most of Jesus’ questions are like nasty curveballs from the game’s best pitchers: they catch us off guard, they often make us look foolish when we try to answer them, and they force us each time to rethink what it means to be a disciple or who Jesus really is. So maybe that’s why Jesus’ question in John 6 caught my attention this week and should catch yours this morning. And maybe that’s why the more I’ve thought about his question, the more I’ve grown to like it, even to fall in love with it, and to fall in love with Jesus all over again because of it. Because there’s something different about this question, something that separates it from most of the other questions we hear Jesus ask.
All four gospels tell us about the feeding of the 5000. In the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is the disciples who approach Jesus about feeding the crowds. There, the disciples ask Jesus to dismiss the crowds so that they can have supper. Jesus instead orders them to feed the crowds, and the disciples react with shock and unbelief. In Mark 6, for example, they ask, “Are we going to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?”And Jesus asks them, “How many loaves do you have?” In Matthew 14 and Luke 9, Jesus simply tells his disciples, “You give them something to eat.”
But in John 6, things run very differently. Jesus takes the initiative. He sees the crowds that have gathered at the foot of the mountain, like the Israelites gathered around Moses after the Exodus, and he asks his disciples, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”
Or, to put it another way, Jesus sees the crowds of people in Forest Hill and North Harford County, the homeless men, women, and children we pretend don’t exist in our neck of the woods, and says to us at Centre, “What shelter will we provide for these people to have a place to live?”
Or, looking at the same crowds, Jesus turns to us and asks, “What food will we provide for these people to eat? What connections will we establish for these people to have jobs, reliable transportation, and access to health care?”
Or Jesus looks at the children and families of Forest Hill Elementary School and wants to know, “What will we do to care for families that are stressed out, or feeling left behind, or dealing with pain, abuse, and loss?”
There’s no doubt lurking behind this question. It’s not like one of those meetings where someone says, “You know, I noticed this problem. Should we do something about it?” And everyone shrugs their shoulders, avoids eye contact with each other, and mumbles, “I dunno.” Instead, there’s certainty: We are going to feed these people. We are going to provide shelter for them. We are going to care for them, welcome them, and provide them with meaningful connections and community. We are going to do this.
Not I alone.
Not you by yourself.
Not someone else.
You and I together.
In the other gospels, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in the place of the “we” there is a charge, a command: you give them something to eat. Feeding people is our responsibility as disciples of Jesus Christ. It’s not optional. Jesus commands it, and we had better be doing it. It is as much a part of the gospel and Christian discipleship as anything—anything—else. And anyone who tries to tell you otherwise really doesn’t know anything—anything—about the gospel.
But this “we” changes things. It’s an invitation to offer suggestions, creative ideas, to throw things out there that you would never try on your own. It’s a promise that Jesus won’t leave us to our own devices, that if we go along for the ride we will get to participate in something that’s going to happen with or without us. It’s a stunning reversal of roles, in which the King of Kings, the Great Teacher, allows himself to be directed by his servants, to receive instruction from his students. And it’s an invitation to trust that nothing offered up in response, no matter how meager or pitiful or useless it might seem, will go to waste. “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”
Usually Simon Peter’s the one who stumbles around with questions like that, but this time it’s Philip who misses the boat: “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
We don’t have enough.
There’s no way we could have enough.
Even if we had so much more than we have right now, it still wouldn’t be enough.
We don’t really have any children.
Our congregation is so small; what could we do?
Our finances are too tight; we’re barely making ends meet as it is.
Anything we did would be just a drop in the bucket.
Philip misses the invitation to trust Jesus, to look at what he has as a gift of abundance rather than a lack of sufficiency. But fortunately another disciple, tentatively, takes a crack at this test. Andrew says, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”
There is a boy, a child who barely counts.
There is some bread, but it doesn’t look like enough.
We have a building. It’s old, but it’s there.
We have a congregation. We’re small, but we’re willing.
Jesus receives the meager offering without a word about it. He doesn’t pass judgment on its size, he doesn’t say anything about its source. But clearly it’s enough, for he and the disciples get to work, seating people at the banquet, taking the loaves, giving thanks, and distributing the bread and the fish.
What are these five loaves and two fish in a meal for 5000?
What is one small congregation in a town of 20,000 people?
Without the invitation, without the response, without the blessing of Jesus’ “we,” they’re nothing.
“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”
With this one question, everything changes. With this one question, a door opens to a miracle. And all are fed.