Benedictine Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha in Galilee.

John 6 [NRSV]. […] 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they[c] sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then 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. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 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. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles,[d] they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I;[e] do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

Sunday’s gospel reading, St. John’s account of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes or the feeding of 5,000, is about Jesus of Nazareth’s only miracle to appear in all four gospels. There’s a lot going on it the lesson, but Thursday morning in our congregational Zoom session, we all decided it’s about abundance. Where God is with you, even in a grassy patch on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, there is abundance. The Lord maketh us to lie down in green pastures, to quote last week’s reading from the Old Testament, and somehow the Lord ensureth the pastures are green enough and there’s enough to eat.

Bottom line: This time it may just be two fish and five loaves of barley bread — John is quite specific about that — but it’s more than enough. You do what you can with what you have.

Later on in the week, I got more insights watching Jesuit author James Martin’s weekly Friday Faith Sharing session on Facebook. (Along with our Zoom sessions at home, they’ve been a lifeline to me in this time of pandemic and isolation.) More indication of how important this miracle of loaves and fishes is came when Fr. Martin explained the eucharistic symbolism: When Jesus gives thanks over the food (the Greek word he uses for giving thanks is eucharisteo), the action parallels that of the Mass or Holy Communion.

Fr. Martin held up a sheet (at 19:20) with the Greek words (which is how I learned that John used eucharisteo here), followed by their English translation — take, bless, break, give. “He took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to the disciples [to distribute],” Fr. Martin said. “This is what Jesus did at the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, and this is what Jesus does in the Eucharist.” We’re dealing with something central to the faith, he added, much more than a nice story of people sharing food.

Fr. Martin’s social media sessions are interactive, and toward the end (at 31:30) a viewer said the blessing takes on meaning only when it is shared. Another viewer added she thinks the young boy with the fish and the barley loaves is the hero of the story because he gets the ball rolling when he steps forward and gives them to Jesus. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I like that.

There’s a lot going on in this story, as there always is with John, and I think it says something important about service. About feeding people. And faith. And, most of all, about the presence of God. But first I have to work through a problem I always have with John.

I love the details in John. The five barley loaves, the 12 baskets of crumbs left over, the grassy field. John says it was at the time of Passover, and the grass would have been green in the spring. But how much can John’s facts be trusted? I’m not as worried about the miracles of feeding the 5,000 and Jesus walking on the water — they’re firmly rooted in early Christian tradition. But in John’s version of the story, Jesus gets in the boat and “immediately,” zippidy-doo-dah, it’s whisked across the lake to Capernaum. I can’t get the image of Harry Potter’s Harry Potter’s Ford Anglia flying up to Hogwarts out of my imagination — not exactly, I am sure, what the evangelist had in mind.

With the location of the feeding of 5,000, I feel like I’m on surer ground.

John is at best imprecise about where all this happened. He says Jesus fed the multitudes on the “other side of the Sea of Galilee,” which would put it near Bethsaida since he lived in Capernaum at this stage of his ministry. (In this John agrees with Luke.) But the traditional site, at Tabgha, is only three kilometers from Capernaum on the same side of the lake.

But I’m going to put my doubts aside and go with the tradition.

The name Tabgha means Seven Springs, and tradition holds that Jesus often preached in the vicinity. There also, a few meters away down on the lakeshore, the risen Christ appeared to the disciples and broiled a fish for them after his death and resurrection. Tabgha was been revered since the 380s when a pilgrim named Egeria visited a Byzantine shrine at the traditional location. She wrote:

In the same place (not far from Capernaum) facing the Sea of Galilee is a well watered land in which lush grasses grow, with numerous trees and palms. Nearby are seven springs which provide abundant water. In this fruitful garden Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. The stone upon which the Master placed the bread became an altar. The many pilgrims to the site broke off pieces of it as a cure for their ailments.

Today, according to a description by Hillel Geva of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which holds the portfolio for minority religions (including Christianity), a Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha features an “untrimmed stone […] under the altar,” said to be where Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks and “distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.” In front of the altar is a Byzantine-era “mosaic depicting a basket of bread flanked by two fish.” Geva says it was “added in the 6th century, suggesting the stone’s significance.” It’s a lovely Benedictine chapel, located on a hillside gently sloping down to the Sea of Galilee.

Rough stone and mosaic (in foreground) beneath altar in Benedictine church at Tabgha

When I consider the historical Jesus, I like to rely on the early Christian traditions — they must have known something I don’t. Plus, I’ve been there. And Egeria’s description of the surroundings, the lush grasses and abundant water, seems about right, even though the climate is arid. The springs would have formed sort of an oasis. Even visiting the area 2,000 years later, with tour buses crowding the parking lots and pilgrims everywhere, you get the sense that something important happened here.

And that’s the sense I get from reading John: Something important and holy happened here.

But what? If I’d been there on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee on a spring evening in the year 30 or 32 of the Common Era, would I have known what to think? The disciples didn’t know what to make of it. Why would I?

As I try to imagine the scene, I think I would have come from Capernaum out to Tabgha partly out of curiosity and partly because Jesus’ message is beginning to resonate with me. He came down from Nazareth about 50 kilometers to the west several months ago, and he’s been preaching out here by the Seven Springs quite a bit. I am truly impressed with the people he’s healed at the synagogue in now, and I like what he says about a kingdom of God. I like the idea it can begin here and now. With me. Within me. But I don’t know quite how that’s going to work, and I want to hear more.

So this afternoon I was able to sneak off from work for a little while — seems like there’s always nets to be mended — and I walk down to Tabgha. It takes about a half hour, and I can hear Jesus and the crowd before I see them or make out what he’s saying. Lately we’ve had people coming into town from as far away as Sidon and Tyre. Caesarea. Up from Jerusalem. He’s famous, and we haven’t had this many people in Capernaum for as long as I can remember! They say he’s Elijah of John the Baptist come back. I don’t know about that, but he knows how to explain the law and he certainly sounds like a prophet, though.

Just my luck, though! Just about as soon as I get up to the edge of the crowd, he’s winding up with a story about a pagan guy who’s possessed with demons over on the other side of the lake. Guy says the demons are legion, and we get a laugh out of that because we’ve got Roman legions all over the place since old Herod died. There’s even a little garrison in Capernaum. Whatever else you can say about this Jesus guy from Nazareth, he knows how to appeal to an audience.

He’s talking with Simon bar Jonah and Andrew. Philip, those guys from Bethsaida whom he’s teaching and who follow him around. I can’t hear what they’re saying, and I edge up through the crowd to get a little closer. […]

LATER (Aug. 17): And that’s as far as I got with it. Trying to imagine myself at the scene — a Jesuit exercise that helps me get into the gospel narratives — I’m sure I would have sensed that something important and holy was taking place. But I wouldn’t have know what it was, any more than Mary Magdalene and the 11 disciples (Judas was gone by then) initially knew what the resurrection was all about. I’m convinced something happened that ultimately changed the world, in both cases, and we’ve spent the the next 2,000 years trying to figure out what it was.

So I kept thinking about it off and on through the rest of July and August. In a Sunday sermon at Peace Lutheran, where we heard that as we receive the bread of life in Holy Communion, we’re called to feed the hungry, to be the bread of life for others. (I’m paraphrasing very loosely, from memory, here.) Maybe the echoes of the Eucharist that Fr. Martin pointed out are why the story of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fish in John is so powerful.

Most of all, I liked a comment in an ELCA discussion group on Facebook, riffing off of the passage where the crowd at Tabgha wanted to proclaim Jesus king after he miraculously fed them with the fish and barley loaves. I can’t find it now, but it went something like this:

They wanted a king;
What they got was bread.

Which leaves me thinking: They didn’t know it, but they got the better end of the deal.

[Revised and published, Aug. 18, 2021]

One thought on “‘They wanted a king, what they got was bread’ — some preliminary thoughts on the feeding of 5,000 and the Eucharist

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