Our Lord’s public ministry is about to come a crucial turning point. There is a “large crowd” following Him because they have seen the miraculous signs he has performed in curing the sick and casting out demons, but many people in the crowd still see Him as a miracle worker, an extraordinary man who has the power to do what is impossible to ordinary men, but nothing more. The crowd has yet to know Him as God.
The Apostles have begun to know Jesus more closely, but they too still need to learn to rely on Him. For example, Phillip is concerned about the crowd, which as a result of having followed Jesus into the countryside does not have anything to eat. Phillip sees that they are in need, and he wants to fill that need, but he is faced with the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of the lack of availability of food.
In many ways, the same situation repeats itself in our own lives. So often we see many problems in our world, many people who are in need of feeding, both materially and spiritually. We struggle to reach out to those who are in pain or hurting, not knowing how to help them or to provide for their needs. Like the Apostles, we can often forget that everyone’s greatest need is for Jesus. The Apostles were blinded by material concerns: They were too busy noticing the logistical problem of managing the large crowd that was following our Lord that they did not realize that He was even more concerned with meeting their spiritual needs than their physical needs.
We know there is a great need for Christ in our world, but when we look at ourselves it is easy for us to have the same reaction as the Apostles. When Andrew sees that there are only five loaves and two fish, he asks the Lord, “But what good are these for so many?” Likewise, when we look at ourselves honestly and with humility, we see our own failings, our own lack of faith, our seeming inability to follow God’s law in the way we know we should, and we can think to ourselves, “What good am I for all the problems of the world?”
It is all too easy for us to fall into a lukewarm practice of our faith, to go to Mass on Sundays but not to let our Catholic faith inform the rest of our lives. I think that most of us know instinctively that there ought to be more, that religion isn’t just something for Sunday morning, but the myriad cares of life get in the way, we forget to give time to God in prayer, we give into temptation to sin without much of a fight, and before we know it, we are left as mediocre Catholics.
When we focus on ourselves, especially on our own failures to be the disciples that we know our Lord is asking us to be, then the idea of sharing our faith with others becomes unthinkable. However, the story of today’s Gospel shows us that what is unthinkable to men and women is oftentimes exactly what God is asking us to do. It was surely unthinkable to the Apostles that 5,000 men plus women and children could be fed from five loaves and two fish, but that is precisely what our Lord does through the Apostles. Rather than focusing on ourselves we should be focused on Christ, who suffered, died, and rose for our sins. When he calls us to share our faith with others, to feed the spiritually hungry of the world, he is not calling us to share ourselves so much as He is calling us to share Him.
Today, many of us are afraid of the charge of hypocrisy, afraid to witness to a faith that we ourselves do not always fulfill in all its demands. This charge of hypocrisy is a favorite tool of the world against the Church, but it is not something that should frighten us into silence. Look at what happens in the Gospel today. Our Lord does not take the loaves and fish from the Apostles and then multiply them, presenting the newly multiplied fish and loaves to the crowds. If the miracle were like that it wouldn’t require the faith of the Apostles, it wouldn’t require them to trust in our Lord in setting the loaves and fish before the crowd. On the contrary, it is precisely in sharing the loaves and fish that they are multiplied. It is a much more subtle miracle, and it isn’t until the 12 baskets of fragments have been collected that everyone realizes what has actually happened. It is a miracle that requires our faith.
Our Lord wants to bring about the same miracle in our own lives through our witness as Catholics. Even though we are still imperfect, even though we know that we are in need of His grace to live more in accord with our responsibilities as Christians, He does not want us to wait until we reach some plateau of success before we are able to witness to Him and to His Church in our families, our work, among our friends, and in society. It is precisely in sharing our faith with others that we give God the opportunity to multiply the graces of our Baptism in making us rely on Him more deeply.
What, though, do I mean by “sharing our faith with others?” To answer that question, I’d like to propose the following examination of conscience: When was the last time I shared what my relationship with Christ means to mean with another person? When was the last time I shared with another person what it means to me to be Catholic? Have I shared my love for receiving Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist and encountering Him in the other sacraments? When was the last time I didn’t stand up for the Church’s teaching because I was afraid of being called a hypocrite? Are there times when I have given into sins with others because I didn’t stand up for what I know is right?
The account from today’s Gospel comes at the beginning of the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, which contains our Lord’s famous Bread of Life discourse. In reading through this teaching of our Lord over the next few weeks we will have several opportunities to reflect on the importance of the great sacrament of His Body and Blood. Today, Jesus fees the crowds in order to show them and us that He has the power to increase all of our good works and that we must completely rely on Him to multiply all the good that we do, especially in sharing our Catholic faith, now matter how inadequate we may seem.
Even more importantly, though, He feeds us today with the Most Holy Eucharist, for which we give Him our deepest thanks, and ask that it might increase the fervor of our love for Him in this life, and redound to our eternal salvation in the life to come.
Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Baptist, New Haven
XVII Sunday Through the Year, A.D. MMXV