When the Gathering Is the Miracle

St. Philip Lutheran Church
25 July 2021 + Lectionary 17B (Pent. 9)
John 6.1-21
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching




One of my earliest memories of my call at St. Philip – now nearly a year ago (hard as that is to believe!) – was our Lunch Bunch gathering last August. I hardly knew any of you, after only a week on the job, but I remember gathering on the lawn on a beautiful, sunny summer Tuesday … our chairs circled up (and socially distanced).

There was such joy in being together that day – made all the more special by coinciding with Maxine’s 98th birthday and the video we made for her.

There was no agenda and no expectations that afternoon – just being together as the St. Philip family. There is a miracle in the simple act of gathering.

The story of the mass feeding of an enormous crowd with an absurdly small amount of food is the only miracle story recorded in all four gospels – with the slightly less impressive feeding of the only four thousand repeated in two gospels. That’s six versions of a similar story, which should maybe tell us to pay attention to what’s happening.

Thus also begins the first of five Sundays spent in the sixth chapter of John, where we reflect on what it means to experience Jesus as the “Bread of Life.” But before we try to figure out what the miracle means (that comes later), I think what happened is just as important on its own: five thousand hungry people were fed – not in some spiritual sense – but with real bread and real fish, satisfying physical hunger.

In the pages of the gospels, Jesus is constantly sharing table fellowship with those he meets. As early as his first “sign” (as miracles are called in John’s gospel), Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana to keep the party going longer. Everywhere he goes, he accepts dinner invitations and even invites himself into people’s homes. The religious elite accuse him of eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” Even on the night before his death, Jesus gathers around a table with his friends to share one last meal with them, feeding them with bread and wine.

Jesus is all about bringing people together over food – to experience a sense of abundance and a sense of together-ness in community.

Can you imagine going over to someone’s house and not at least being offered a glass of water or a cup of coffee … and probably some cookies, if not an outright meal? It seems that our lives are punctuated by meals like that … sharing food and drink with one another in the ordinary circumstances of life. Food brings people together. Or as my 93-year-old Italian Catholic grandmother would say – not so much with her words as with her extravagant cooking – food is love.

Jesus brings people together over food to share God’s abundant and extravagant love … without regard to who they are, or where they’re from, or why they’re there.

Jesus simply sees the crowd and notices that they’re hungry: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He doesn’t retreat or try to make them go away. He feeds them, and he creates community by fostering an environment that allows them to remain together.

There is a miracle in the gathering.

If there’s one thing this past year has taught us, it’s precisely that there is a miracle in the gathering … in the in-person together-ness.

I have been amazed at the ways this congregation has managed to find creative ways to gather and be together, even in extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances: A summer Lunch Bunch gathering on the lawn. Drive-thru and parking lot communion (who would’ve imagined?). A drive-by celebration for a member celebrating a 90th birthday. Two outdoor GLOW nights in the fall.

More recently, when we couldn’t run our regular VBS programming for the second year in a row, a group of us has been gathering for “Compassion Camp” on Thursday nights in July – a summer GLOW Formation series.

The first night we gathered, as I sat on my couch at home scrolling through some of the pictures I had taken, I realized that this was the first time since the middle of Lent 2020 – well over a year ago – that our kids and families have been able to gather in the fellowship hall for a night of sharing a meal, hearing a bible story, and playing and praying together.

There is a miracle in the gathering.

Today, on this first of five Bread of Life Sundays, we rest in the miracle – the abundance of loaves and fishes and community and grace. We don’t need to understand it or analyze it. It is enough to experience it.

Jesus calls us to be together – to come to the table, to share a meal of grace and love in abundance, where all are invited and fed, without regard to who we are, or where we came from, or why we’re here.

There is a miracle in the gathering – and that is enough.

Thanks be to God.

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