When a Miracle is More Than a Miracle

St. Michael's Creeslough(Creative Commons Image by Steve Cadman on Flickr)

Dear Working Preachers,

Think about it. How many of Jesus’ miracles are recorded in all four Gospels? Let’s count. It shouldn’t take long because the feeding of the five thousand is the only one that made the cut (cf. Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:5-15). That fact alone should encourage pause and reflection when it comes to preaching this miracle that most certainly put Jesus on the map. Why this story? What is so important about it? What does it reveal about God, about Jesus, about who we are called to be in the world that each of the evangelists said, “Hey. Now that story is definitely worth remembering.”

Spend some time this week pondering these questions. For yourself. For your congregation. For real.

Of course, there’s the obvious answer: this is a pretty awesome miracle, after all. It is an encapsulation of provision and the poignancy of need. Sometimes we forget that to be provided for and to have our needs met are indeed miraculous moments themselves.

Taking away the reality of miracles does no one any good. We need them.

At the same time that it is Jesus’ provision for the crowds, to what extent is it also miraculous provision for Jesus’ disciples? There is a sense that this story sums up discipleship. An invitation to action and involvement. That discipleship is not just about following but participating. In this provision of food for many, the disciples witness that the promise of provision is their future.

And Jesus signals this promise with one pointed phrase, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

In other words, you do it.

Of course, Jesus then miraculously expands the rations. That is certainly a miracle. And I am not suggesting that the miracle is better understood in the disciples sharing so as to explain how the miracle happened. Taking away the reality of miracles does no one any good. They exist. We need them. And Jesus gets that.

But I do think that the meaning of the miracle is more than the miracle itself.

In that one simple statement, Jesus is saying to his disciples, “Live already. You can’t sit back and watch me do all this awesome stuff. Live it. Live life. I am counting on you. I need you.”

This past week, a colleague and friend, Deanna Thompson, shared on her Facebook page a recently published article. Deanna was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer five years ago and yet, here she is, living. And living life fully and extraordinarily, called to new places of teaching and witness and vocation and discipleship because her illness. She writes, “For too many who live in the aftermath of traumatic events, a tidy, linear cross-to-resurrection narrative simply doesn’t map the reality of their undone lives.”

This made me consider Jesus’ directive to his disciples in a different way. I wonder if Jesus is trying to disrupt our tidiness, our penchant for cause and effect. The disciples are thinking linearly. Practically. “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” A deserted place? Where will the food come from? Late? Time to go home. We are done here. What more do you want? And come on, Jesus. These people need to fend for themselves.

This is a major lesson in discipleship, Discipleship 101, to be exact. This is what I love about Matthew. OK, I know last week I said he’d be my dead last choice if I had to rank the four. But here’s where I get it. Discipleship is from the get-go. For Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount is the “no going back moment” as far as I can tell.

Discipleship is rarely tidy or convenient. What you will be asked to live — and when — may just be a miracle itself.

As Deanna writes later in her post, “If communities of faith are to help make it possible to ‘live like we’re dying’ for those of us haunted by the lingering, unpredictable effects of traumatic events, attention must be given to the space between death and resurrection. That space where we might experience healing and redemption, but sometimes only faintly. Where people go on even when they can’t.”

I suppose our particular Christological commitments will determine whether or not Jesus knew he was going to die. At the same time, one can’t go around being Jesus and think that no one will notice. In fact, if you do, you can expect to be targeted for arrest and elimination. The lives of the disciples became undone the moment Jesus showed up on that mountain. Experiences of “undoneness” make up what it means to be a disciple.

Surprisingly, unexpectedly, the feeding of the five thousand gives witness to what the space between death and resurrection looks like. For the crowd. For the disciples. Maybe even for Jesus. Where there is the knowing of profound lack, but experience of provision. Where we exist in the meantime of life, but can see, albeit dimly, solutions. Where and why and when we think we can’t go on, but then we do.

Therein, perhaps, is the miraculous.