I wonder if you noticed? Last week and this week our readings from Mark’s Gospel are both about feasts! But what a contrast - last week’s feast of decadence for over-indulged elites in a palace - this week’s feast of enoughness on the edge of the desert for nobodies and everyone. There’s almost too much in this tale for the lectionary writers to choose from and so they leave out some of the important bits - even perhaps the most important bit which is that today’s feast of enoughness on the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee is followed by a repeat picnic on the Gentile side. Everybody gets fed, in God’s scheme of things.
Last week’s feast in King Herod’s palace leads to death - and not just death but with a prophet silenced the people are left like sheep without a shepherd. But at the beginning of this week’s story and the return of the disciples from their great mission we are told the people recognised them - this is the shepherd they have been looking for! In Jesus and his disciples the people sense hope - and the Gospel writer tells us they run around the lake to get to where Jesus is going before he does. At this point we need to remind ourselves not to ask too many hard questions at a literal level - like - how does the crowd recognise Jesus in these days before photography? And of course how does the crowd know where Jesus and his disciples are going? Well, as with all Gospel stories it’s best to think not about literal possibility or impossibility, but at the level of what the story means. And at this level today’s story speaks of reassurance and reconnection. What would the story have meant to the Jewish Christian community St Matthew is writing for in the last decade or so of the first century?
Two things fairly leap out at you. And if you are one of Matthew’s Jewish listeners the first one is this - where else in the Hebrew scriptures do we read of God miraculously feeding people in the desert? Because the Greek New Testament makes it a bit clearer than our English translation - the deserted place to which Jesus and his disciples are heading is literally a desert place. This story about Jesus reminds us of the miraculous gift of manna in the desert for God’s people fleeing from slavery in Egypt. There the desert becomes a place where the people come to know their utter dependence on God, and where God’s providential care for God’s people is demonstrated. God knows your needs, and God will provide for you. Just like Christians in the first century we also need to hear this, and be comforted by it. Our needs are not unimportant to God.
And the second echo the story makes? Is an echo forwards, an echo forward to the Christian practice of breaking and sharing bread in the Eucharist - the meal in which Christ’s living presence is experiencing and in which we know ourselves as one people in Christ. Breaking the bread and giving thanks in today’s stories Jesus is also prefiguring the Eucharist, giving not just food but himself. Here both souls and bodies are fed.
But a Uniting Church colleague, Andrew Prior, suggests that the symbols in this story also operate at a deeper level. If the desert stands for the great Exodus of God’s people from slavery in Egypt to the land that God had promised, for the coming of the Law on Mt Sinai and for the whole of salvation history which is the context of the people’s lives - by contrast the lake in this story seems to stand for the depth dimension of human spiritual need - the mysterious waters rich with fishy life but also fearful and unfathomable, with violent storms.
In the background of our consciousness as we read today’s story we might still have the memory of Jesus stilling the storm on the night-time crossing of the Sea of Galilee in chapter four. There Jesus appears as the one in control of the chaotic depths of our lives. The water of the lake is also the water that time and time again in the Hebrew scriptures represents the Spirit - and as the Church we know that we are called to be navigators of these depths - we are called just as the disciples were in chapter four to be in the boat with Jesus. Being in the boat is the defining journey of the Church. But frankly we all too often refuse the invitation to venture into the deep waters. The lake is the life of spirit. The lake is the our interior relationship with God, our connection with the wider reality of existence.
This basic contrast is what gives the story its power - it isn’t just a story about full tummies though of course if bodies aren’t being fed then neither can spirits find the connection they need. Where the story of Herod’s feast was a story about greed and jealousy and cruelty and power, this story is about healing, compassion, teaching the way that leads to life, and feeding. But without the lake, it would be an empty story. As Mark puts it at the end of his Gospel, if we want to really see Jesus we need to go back the Galilee.
It’s not really a coincidence that we read this story on the day we designate as Good Neighbour Sunday - with the Worship Team I thought about it, and planned it that way! It’s an opportunity to think about the very practical ways we can be involved in caring for others who are doing it tough, even in our lucky country at a time of great material prosperity. And of course a way of putting together some money, and some food, for resourcing this ministry. But this morning’s reading also sounds a note of caution about good works that by themselves are hollow and even empty of compassion unless they flow from a deep connection with Christian spirituality. Like Jesus in today’s story we need to give not just food but ourselves, which of course is the extra ingredient that makes the difference between charity and love.
The Gospel writer, Mark, is telling us something about the balance between the surface and the depth of Christian life. In this story numbers are all-important - in both Old and New Testaments whenever the number 12 appears it is code for Israel which consisted of 12 tribes. Another important number in this story is five - for the five loaves. Five also stands for Israel but specifically for the Torah, the five books of the Pentateuch, the Law of Moses. It means we are fed from the history of God’s saving work and care for God’s people. We need the bread of history and law and tradition.
But as Andrew Prior points out we also need to be fed from the waters of the spirit - the fish that represent the life that comes from daring to navigate the depth-dimension of human existence. Some commentators suggest the two fish in this story are a reference to the second Book of Baruch that promises when the Messiah is revealed the two mighty mythological water-monsters, the river-dwelling Behemoth and the ocean-dwelling Leviathan will become as food to God’s people.1 Formed and fed by the bread of law and remembrance of God’s saving acts, we may eat of the fearsome creatures of our own inner depths. In a sense bread without fish is only half the feast. Food - even the food of scripture without spirit is empty, leaving men and women yearning for reconnection. On the other hand, without the bread, Leviathan and his scary twin may eat us!
In chapter four of Mark’s Gospel Jesus has already shown himself to be the one who has control over the chaotic depths of the Sea of Galilee - now, after meeting the people’s needs in the desert he returns to the lake - this is the bit our lectionary skips over - and demonstrates this some more by walking across the water. Jesus is revealed as Lord of both the material circumstances and the depths of our human spiritual need. It’s maybe harder for modern people to understand this - in our hyper-materialistic world we are so run aground that we have all but lost touch with our own inner landscape. And yet - as we gather together at the table of the Eucharist we are given a glimpse. We confess ourselves to be damaged people - both those of us who are old and those of us who are just beginning the journey of life. Our bodies bear physical witness to the costly journey of our lives. We know ourselves to be incomplete, humbled by our own limitations and unsure of our own capacity for love. We carry burdens of shame - the awareness of not being good enough - and of guilt - the awareness of having turned away from Jesus’ command to love one another. We are reluctant to be vulnerable to one another.
And yet in this meal which is the heart of our faith we are drawn together despite our scathing knowledge of ourselves. Something in us is fed and restored as we act out the story of Christ’s self-offering. We rehearse the giving of ourselves to each other so that we can then give to others. As we share the morsels of bread and the sip of wine - and we do share the wine even when it is poured and blessed and offered in our midst but physically consumed only by the priest - we are invited both beyond ourselves in love to the world and deeper into the depths of ourselves to know the reality of the Spirit which gives life. We who are many are one body.

1 2 Baruch 29.3-6