“The Fifth Loaf”
The Rev. Dr. William L. Hurst
FLCS Senior Pastor
When it was evening, the disciples came to [Jesus] and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves." Jesus said to them, "They don’t need to go away; you give them something to eat." They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." And he said, "Bring them here to me." (Matthew 14:15-18)
Our Gospel text this week is Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus’ feeding of the Galilean multitude. After a long and exhausting day of teaching, healing and ministering to these many thousands of people along the northern shore of Galilee, the Lord now bids the disciples to provide food for this immense crowd. Their response? “We have nothing – except for these five loaves and two fish!”
This event is memorialized in the Galilean village of Tabgha, which for more than 17 centuries has been viewed as the site of this miracle. In the Fourth Century A.D. a church was erected at this place, and a beautiful mosaic from the period captures the significance of this moment from the life of Christ (see above right).
In this detail to the right, tiled into the floor just in front of the altar in this church, there is a design of two fish and four loaves, symbolizing the disciples’ meager inventory with which to feed a hungry multitude, and the Lord’s invitation that they use even what little they have instead of bemoaning what they do not possess.
But wait: four loaves and two fish? Doesn’t the story say five loaves? Indeed it does say five in the story – yet take a careful look at the detail of four leaves with crosses inset at the top of the basket between the two fish – and do the math. Four loaves, not five.
One traditional explanation for this disparity in the mosaic is that the loaf of bread to be consecrated on that altar would be the fifth loaf, broken and distributed to God’s people in the Eucharist. A lovely image and symbol of the sacramental character of this story, and the connection between Holy Communion, bread and cup, and the call of God’s people to extend the sacramental act of feeding beyond its interior altars and out into the broader altar of the world’s thirst, pain, hurt and hunger.
But let’s take this one step further. In Communion we hear Jesus say that “this bread is my Body, broken for you.” Elsewhere in scripture (e.g. 1Cor. 11) we hear “Now you are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it.” So, while it would be easy and somewhat satisfying to solely designate as “Fifth Loaf” the table bread at Mass, whether at Tabgha or in any local worshiping community, I’d like to press the image a bit further. For if the saints are the Body, and the Body the Bread, then the “Fifth Loaf” is none else than the gathered disciples of the Living Bread, Jesus the Christ. Yes, we are the “Fifth Loaf!”
And if this is true, then being disciples – people called and committed to faithful following in Christ – and being bread – gathered from all peoples and baked into one nourishing gift for the world – are really one and the same. We hear Jesus say, to the Galilean followers and to us: “You give them something to eat!” Even more, we hear God’s own incarnate Manna say, “Oh, and the bread you are to give them? That bread is you, yourselves, your very lives and gifts and resources, consecrated, broken and blessed in my name!” The Loaf is yours, and the Loaf is you!
At this amazing feeding story’s conclusion, we are told that Jesus’ followers gathered up twelve whole baskets of leftovers, even after the thousands had eaten their fill and gone their way. What an abundance: more left over than it seemed was there in the first place! And so it is with the Fifth Loaf – we can bark and whine about our scarcity, our decline and our inability; or we can peer into the basket, and discover a godly abundance far beyond all we could ask or imagine.
For in the miracle of the Fifth Loaf, we disciples discover more than the capacity to fed, befriend and embrace the starving multitude. We also realize, to the depth of our being, the abundance of our own lives, talents, wherewithal and possibilities, when pressed into the prayerful and powerful hands of the Christ, who makes us both Servant and Loaf.
See you at the Bread this weekend. At the Bread, and As the Bread, In the Loaf and As the Loaf!
With You in God’s Good Work,