(Reflections of the Feeding of the 5000, Matthew 14:13-21)
This week has been a time of fear and sadness. Congress, led by a few representatives holding the county hostage over the political ideology, refusing to change with some saying based on their belief in God and the Bible, is pushing our country and world to a feeling of “nervous breakdown.” Then there was the awful massacre in Norway by the young fundamentalist Christian claiming he was following God’s orders to stop the intercultural mix of religions and races. Norway is a small country, and having friends in Finland, I can feel their pain, embarrassment, and shock.
In our Gospel reading for today, Matthew 14:13-21, we have the well known story of the feeding of the 5000 as Jesus blessed two fish and five loaves of bread brought to him by his disciples. The setting of this story is Jesus had learned his dear cousin and closest supporter, John the Baptist, had been beheaded by Herod during a party in which his brother’s wife, now taken by him for his wife and criticized by John the Baptist. She made him keep a promise as he watched her daughter dance to his drunken delight! The promise resulted in John’s beheading.
So Jesus moves to a quiet place to be alone, a practice he did daily. His prayers were hardly over when the disciples tell him the crowds won’t leave; they want more. After ministering to them, Jesus told the disciples to “feed them,” but they have but two small fish and five loaves of bread to feed 5000 plus wives and kids! But Jesus blessed the fish and bread and they somehow miraculously fed all the people with even twelve baskets left over. What might this mean?
The fish symbol was always important in ancient times. Jesus called “fishermen” to be his disciples. In the early Church, Augustine and Tertullian referred to Jesus as the “Big Fish” and the disciples his “minnows.” His secret name was IKHTHUS, which is the Greek word for “fish” which letters are acronyms for “Jesus Christ of God Son Savior.”
In ancient Egypt, both the fish and bread symbols were related to the zodiacal sign of Pisces, a constellation with stars in the shape of two fish which to them came to symbolize Aphrodite and her son Eros, later a Virgin Mother and Son. They had descended to earth and immediately have to dive into the Nile River to swim to safety from the dreaded Monster Typhon. In the early Church it came to symbolize Mary and Jesus, coming into the water and darkness of earth then swimming up the Jordan to finally cross over into the Promised Land. In our Christian Calendar, following the Roman one, this is commemorated as the Winter Solstice in the Pisces zodiac month but culminating five months later in the Spring Equinox under the sign of Virgo, the zodiacal sign of the five loaves of bread or fertility.
The Zodiac signs were used by mystical teachers to allegorically explain the return of the Spirit or Soul to God after its descent into the darkness of matter (symbolized by the born-in-a-manger story) through the waters of birth and growth. As we follow the teachers and Angelic Guides around and within, we can return to the liberation of Easter and become bearers of the fruit of life, called in scriptures the Bread of life. These are all amazing symbols of the transformation we can experience by awakening to the Spirit within who leads us out of the chaos of darkness back into the Land of Milk and Honey by awakening.
This story, however, is not just about spiritual figures as Jesus or the others but a story about each of us. We come into this world of darkness, born into flesh with all its trials, tribulations and guilt, and become “born again” with the light of awakening to our Eternal Selves. It’s the symbol of the lunar path from Christmas to Easter.
Ordained or recognized spiritual teachers today could be called “bigger fish” and the followers “minnows” which all are expected to grow together into the best teachers of liberation! Jesus modeled this by his daily return with his disciples to prayer and silence, explaining to them the parables he talk the crowds. He also taught they were not to be restricted by religious laws and rules that separated them from others unlike them in color, creed, or lifestyle.
When Jesus asked his disciples for food they might have, they brought the two fish and five loaves of bread. The fish and loaves represent the message they are to feed the people, hungry from sadness, worry, fear and confusion. They are to tell the story of coming to earth’s darkness but the bread of life represents our understanding we are not lost here but can awaken to Eternal Spirit in eternity. When they tell the story, feeding the multitude, the abundant blessings merely grow as they return with even more than when they began.
This is a story of sharing our faith in unconditional love and discovering we always have more! It is a story of breaking the strict dietary laws of Orthodox Judaism of the day, eating and sharing love with “sinners and outcasts.” It’s the message we can share with others in our time, if we are willing to immerse ourselves in the same awareness and discipline.
Do we want to feed the 5000 souls around this community with their wives and children, the number symbolizing the world? We must make then a decision to accept the darkness and temporality of this world and by prayer and study awaken to the Presence within! And share it with others.
Tom Bandy, a teacher of church growth over the past several years, said one of the barriers to church growth is the “my church” mentality. Churches are dying yet don’t want to really eat and share with those “sinners”. We talk about “my church, my music, my liturgy, my form, our dress codes, etc. etc.” Jesus sends us, in contrast by his example, into the world of people hungry for love and food of life. Bandy suggested one way to reach out to the community is to “give the church away!” Rather than charging non-members fees for using the church, he suggests we give it to them freely but charge the members! Apparently it works as these churches grow!
To be a teacher or a growing fish, church leaders and followers of Christ must have daily disciplines of meditation and prayer. Our best years of growth at Wayside in Hamburg began after I helped rewrite member vows to include such things as daily reading and meditation on scripture and prayers. It said “daily.” The vows did not say we must make a faith statement and support the church with our money and fund-raising but to grow spiritually.
No, there is no quick plane ride up the Jordan River to the Promised Land! Jesus said it involves serious ego dying! “Unless a person will deny himself daily and take up the cross, he or she cannot be my disciple.” The purpose of our being here is to learn to swim, growing from minnows to strong leading fish. Stumbles will come, trials will test, but prayer, willingness to learn, following the Spirit, will get us there.
What kind of fish are you? Immersed in reading, prayer and sharing love and compassion? Or are you still immersed in darkness and sleep, a little minnow, or worse, a crab? Are you growing together in this path? Are you all on the same “bus” to carry it to the world?
Today most churches seem lost in the darkness with little purpose and vision. It shows in the 3500 closures each year. In the Jesus story, a few disciples who opened themselves to the vision, made a huge impact on the world. Just eight or ten disciples whose chief goal and purpose is to be a shining Light of Love will multiply their impact on this world.
Tim Rogers-Martin once visited the session of Wayside to help us discern our mission for the future. He drew a big bus on the wall and then asked various questions about our relationship to Jesus and prayer. He concluded, as many of us did, that most of us were “on the bus!” For a few years we truly thrived and grew but then an issue of inclusiveness came along. Some jumped off the bus and we began to struggle a bit more again.
Discover your True Self as the Spirit of God, the Son of God. You will see it connected with all others, with the universe. And finding peace and deep joy, you will be a light to this dark and tired world. You will be the salt which helps keep it from completely destroying itself, until time is no more, and we all return to Home in God, a Home we always had, but for a time became lost. Desire to be a Big Fish! Feed the Bread of Life!
Talk shared by David Persons with the First Presbyterian Church of West Seneca people on Sunday, July 31, 2011.
Sources of Help:
Alvin Boyd Kuhn, “Shadow of the Third Century: A Revaluation of Christianity.”
Tom Harper, “The Pagan Christ.”