Happy Meals

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Several years ago I read about a megachurch that presented “Feed the 5,000 Day.” 

The first 5,000 people who showed up on a particular Sunday morning received a free fish sandwich – bread and fish, get it? – passed out by Ronald McDonald himself.  Large American congregations are nothing if not inventive in their efforts to keep crowds of spiritual inquirers coming.  

It goes without saying that such efforts are made in the name of Jesus.  The ironic thing is that nobody knew how to alienate a crowd of spiritual inquirers faster than Jesus. 

That’s evident in the original event that filled more than 5,000 empty stomachs on a Judean hillside.   

It’s the only miracle (apart from the resurrection) reported in all four biographies of Jesus – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  It appears to have happened at a time when Jesus’ Messianic approval rating was soaring.  People were hanging on his words, hopeful that at any moment he might reveal himself to be God’s long-expected conquering hero – the one who would put his foot on the neck of the Roman Empire and restore Israel to its ancient glory.  Here’s how John records the event: 

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’ He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!’  Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, ‘Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?’

“Jesus said, ‘Have the people sit down.’  There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them.  Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted.  He did the same with the fish.” (John 6:5-11)

What’s interesting about this text is the number of numbers. 

First, there’s the number of those in the crowd.  As far as we know, this is the largest crowd that ever heard Jesus speak.  The text tells us, “the men sat down, about 5,000 of them.”  The other gospels point out that this total did not include the women and children who were present.  Thus there may have been as many as 15-20,000 people in the crowd.  It’s worth noting that while the gospel writers didn’t count the women and children, Jesus did.  He fed them all.

The other numbers concern limitations.  Philip gasps, “It would take eight months’ wages to pick up the check for this outdoor picnic.”  The disciples likewise count, with absolute precision, what they have in hand.  “We have seven items, Lord: five loaves and two fish.  That is the boundary of our resources.  What exactly do you plan to do with seven items?” 

This, however, turns out to be the day they discover that followers of Jesus must learn to count to eight.  Jesus himself is the greater Reality that overshadows all our limitations.

Check out the crowd’s response following this astonishing provision of food:  “After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’  Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”  (6:14-15)

During the first century a number of rabbis were teaching that when the Messiah finally came he would restore the daily provision of manna that God had provided for forty years during the time of Moses.  When the Messiah arrived on earth, it would be free lunches for everybody.

So the crowd stalks Jesus.  They catch up with him the next day.  Look how he responds:  “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” (John 6:26)

He exposes their motives.  They don’t want him.  But they would love another trip to buffet table.  

There is a huge difference between those options.  Isn’t this where we often find ourselves?  In our prayers we may say, “Lord, give me the strength to do what you want,” but in our hearts we’re actually sighing, “Lord, please make sure I get what I want.”

Jesus ups the ante:  “I am the Bread of Life.  The one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (6:35)

Here we need to pause and ask why he simply doesn’t yield to their request.  After all, he’s got them literally eating out of his hand.  Why doesn’t Jesus just blow everybody’s mind day after day with multiple miracles?  These folks would never let him out of their sight.   

But Jesus’ agenda is not to open a divine catering service.  He doesn’t want to become somebody’s meal ticket. 

God’s love is always persuasive.  It is never coercive.  His intention is to capitalize on the reality of the crowd’s hunger and to say, “I know what you really want.  The only thing that will ultimately satisfy you is trusting me.  I am the Bread of Life.  I am not a side dish.  I am not dessert.  I am life’s main course.” 

The crowd’s response comes in verse 41:  “At this they began to grumble about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’  They said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?  How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”  All these years they’ve been waiting for God’s Chosen One, and when he finally shows up he’s the kid from down the street whose mother became pregnant under suspicious circumstances, and who grew up to be a blue-collar worker in the construction industry.  How can this be the Messiah?

But Jesus doubles down.  He insists that he is the Real Meal. 

“You can’t leave me on the outside of your life.  You’ve got to take me in.”

And with that, the crowd has had enough.  Look at verse 60:  “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching.  Who can accept it?’”  Notice the word “disciple.”  These aren’t just casual hangers-on, but folks who have self-enrolled as Jesus’ apprentices.  The word “hard” here, by the way, doesn’t mean hard to understand.  The crowd knows exactly what Jesus is claiming.  This is simply outrageously hard to accept.

It’s hard for us, too.  Most of the messages that pervade our culture promise an easier life.  Jesus, however, seems to go out of his way to make things harder. 

Our never-ending challenge is to trust Jesus alone to be the meaning of our lives, instead of counting on our money, our looks, our public approval, or our job to see us through.  Those who experienced the miracle that day – the ones who ate the loaves and fishes – were forced to answer two questions:  What kind of kingdom are we waiting for?  And what kind of king do we really want? 

We have to answer the same two questions.

It’s hard to read verse 66 without feeling a twinge of pain:  “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”  Jesus clears out the crowd.  With all the power of the universe at his fingertips, he refuses to pass out Happy Meals.  

The next verse is poignant:  “’You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve.  Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’”

To which we can only say, “Way to go, Peter.”  The disciple who so often inserts his foot into his mouth gets this moment exactly right.

You can follow the crowd.  Or you can make your own choice.

It all depends what you’re hungry for.