Actions and Words

Note: I preached a version of this sermon on July 29, 2012 at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

My books are, unfortunately, all in boxes, or I would probably have been able to verify a line I remember reading in the works of St. Augustine. So I won’t attribute it to the great doctor, St. Augustine, and I’ll just say it’s a paraphrase by Pastor Ben:

“God’s words are actions and God’s actions are words.”

What Augustine/Pastor Ben meant by this is that God acts by speaking. “God said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” God’s creative power is so total, according to the Old Testament, that God needs only to speak, to say a word, in order to call the whole universe into existence. If you remember the sermon I preached on the Apostles’ Creed, this is a different picture of creation than what people heard in other ancient myths, which usually involved violence or sexual intercourse (or both) as the means of bringing the world into existence.

At the same time, when God acts in the sight of human beings, especially in the Bible, God is speaking to us. When God rescues the Israelites from Egypt, for instance, God is telling us something about himself: that God protects the downtrodden and triumphs over the oppressor; that God rescues us from sin and death.

This principle–God’s words are actions, God’s actions are words–is something I try to keep in mind whenever I read a miracle story in the Bible. Because the fact is that miracle stories can seem very disappointing after you get used to them. The people who are healed and fed in the Bible just remind me, at least, of those people ever since and even today who are not healed and not fed. Where’s the miracle for them?

Today in the Gospel of John, Jesus is fresh off of healing many sick people, and he withdraws with his friends. And the problem with being a powerful healer is that you’re in a lot of demand. So the crowds follow him, and Jesus asks rhetorically, how are we going to buy enough food to feed them? Jesus is acting here as a traditional host. He’s got to feed his guests. And Philip takes the bait and says, we can’t possibly afford it. Andrew, another disciple, points out that some kid has five loaves and two fish, but that they won’t go very far in a crowd like that one.

This sets the stage for an act of God, which is also a word of God. Jesus takes the gift of the boy–remember that this miracle starts out with the boy bringing what he had; think for a moment about what it must have meant for the boy to hand all the food he had over to this holy man. And then Jesus multiplies it to feed all 5,000 people. There is so much bread and so much fish that there is some left over.

And here’s the thing: people see the action of God–multiplying the fish and the loaves–but they miss the word that it conveys. The people quite understandably see a wonder-worker who can conjure fish and bread in limitless abundance. Such a man would make an excellent king. Jesus basically has to flee to avoid being put at the head of the state.

This is the pattern of the Gospel of John. Jesus does a sign, as John calls it, and people don’t understand, so then he has to explain with words. And those words are actions of their own. But we’ll save the words for next week.

For now, we just need to see what God says to the world through this miracle. And I confess that some unhappy interpretations are possible: “Free fish yesterday;” “too bad;” “if I favored you, you would see such things.”

But that, I don’t think, is the point. This action of God speaks to us, if we’ll hear it, in a different way altogether: “You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Psalm 145:16); “the poor shall eat and be satisfied” (Psalm 22:26); “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55:1).

This miracle is about hope and trust that God gives what we need, and also that God ultimately abolishes all human need and feeds all souls and all bodies. Jesus enacts this hope of the Old Testament, a hope so simple and holy that it is summed up most fittingly in a loaf of bread: food for today, food for our needs, food for everyone; food that comes from our gifts, food that is more than enough, food that is gathered up in baskets, just as precious as the people it feeds.

And while every miracle story leaves us hungry for more, so to say, I think it’s really amazing that the church seems to have had no trouble getting the gist of what God is saying here. Our young people just returned this week from the national youth gathering in New Orleans, where they followed in a long tradition of serving those in need, of learning how to practice kindness and justice in a hurting world, and worshiping God with their words and their prayers and songs.

And there is nothing miraculous about this, at least nothing miraculous in the way that Jesus’ impromptu dinner for 5,000 was. It’s just God’s people doing the work that God commends into our hands.

But at the same time our youth, like the boy in the Gospel, offer up what they have to give–not five loaves and two fish, but their time, their labor in all those breakfasts and the car wash. And Jesus multiplied that gift through the work of all those faithful young Christians and their families and churches who made the same journey possible.

What our faith teaches us is that this, too, is an action of God. And like everything God does, it speaks to us as well. It speaks that same hope of the 5,000 in Galilee, and it speaks to us in assurance that God is still with us–mysteriously, yes; in challenges, and sometimes in hiding, but working still to feed the world. And when the feast is set, even the crumbs will be picked up and saved.


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