Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-21
What comes to mind for you when you hear the word “extravagant?”
By definition extravagance has to do with a lack of restraint in spending money or using resources. It’s a word associated with luxury, lavishness, comfort and indulgence. An extravagance is usually something optional, over-the-top and unnecessary, a waste really.
Yet Scripture tells us that God’s love for us is extravagant.
High and wide and deep and long, it breaks through our human dimensions of time and space. Intimate and endless, it transcends our reason and understanding. Inclusive and enduring, it defies all earthly limits and all our efforts to contain and control it.
In our Gospel this week, we read of God’s extravagant love being unveiled to a large crowd of people who had followed Jesus across Lake Galilee because of his power to heal the sick. Among them was also a large number of pilgrims heading towards Jerusalem to offer the traditional unblemished lamb as a Passover sacrifice in memory of their liberation from slavery in Egypt.
Now, we know from Mark’s retelling of this event that the disciples had recently returned from their own healing and teaching ministries and were tired, so Jesus had taken them off to a desolate place along the shoreline in the hope of having some time to eat and rest and share with them.
But when he was confronted by this mass of about 15 000 people (including the women and children of the group) so desperate to know of the power and presence of God moving among them that they had run on foot to get ahead of him, Jesus’s heart was full of compassion.
Because God’s love for us is extravagant: high and wide and deep and long, it breaks through our human dimensions of time and space so we’re never unwelcome, never unwanted, never intruding. When we reach for God, our needs are met with power, our deepest longings with loving-kindness.
Knowing full-well how he would deal with the massive crowd who just longed to be near him, Jesus asked one of his disciples, Philip, where they could buy enough food to offer hospitality to them all.
Philip’s reply is interesting in the way in which it demonstrates the difference between our own mindset and God’s. Notice how Philip actually avoids the question that Jesus asks of “where” this food can be bought and responds with how much it would cost if everyone was to have even a little piece.
Philip was blind to the extravagance of Christ’s intentions because of his own preoccupation with numbers: the size of the crowd, the cost of the food, how much – or how little – each person could have in order to keep their expenditure to a minimum. In Philip’s eyes, the extravagance of love that would be demonstrated by feeding a crowd of this size was reduced to a more symbolic act of offering a mere mouthful – and even that was beyond their current financial limitations!
His friend and fellow disciple was a little more creative. At least Andrew took the initiative to find a nearby food source. But even as he presented the child with his five barley loaves (a poor man’s bread) and two small fish, he evaluated what was on offer against what was needed and concluded that it just wasn’t enough.
But God’s love for us is extravagant … even though we are slow to comprehend both its nearness and its magnitude. Intimate and endless, it transcends our reason and understanding. When we focus on our limits, God reveals the untold riches of God’s glory and favour. When we are driven by the sense of “not enough,” God unveils a power and a plan beyond what we could ever have imagined or guessed at or requested.
So Jesus instructed the disciples to have everyone sit down. Imagine what welcome words those must have been to these desperate, hopeful, hurting people who had run so far from their homes to find him in the desolate place.
And he took the little that was on offer from one of the little ones in the gathering – who, for the record, isn’t named or even numbered among the 5000 because of his young age – and he gave thanks to God and began breaking it so that the disciples could share it out among the people.
Miraculously, the food multiplied, and everyone ate as much as they wanted, until they were completely satisfied. From the little that was offered, grew – in the breaking and the sharing – not just enough to feed 15 000 people, but more than enough with twelve baskets full of leftovers being gathered together!
Because God’s love for us is extravagant … but in no way over-the-top nor unnecessary nor wasteful. Inclusive and enduring, it defies all earthly limits and all our efforts to contain and control it.
Growing from a little, multiplying through dividing and sharing, this is what the table, the cross, the church, the kingdom of God is all about!
Yet, the immediate response of the people to this extravagant love was the desire to take hold of Jesus and forcefully make him their king. God-with-them on a grassy hill no longer measured up to their ambitious scheme to overthrow their Roman rulers so Jesus withdrew into the hills from the God-over-our-enemies mentality that even today seeks to cleave and crush and conquer.
Even the disciples were in danger of getting sucked in to this predictable plot which is why – in the other gospel accounts – Jesus, in fact, commanded them to head across the lake towards Bethsaida without him.
Their inability to control and contain the extravagance of God’s love, God’s plans, God’s kingdom was soon made apparent as a strong wind began to blow and the waves got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and they couldn’t even manage to get themselves to where they wanted to go.
But Jesus came towards them, walking on the water, speaking words of profound truth and deep peace: “Don’t be afraid. It is I.” And they happily took him into the boat with them and landed immediately at the place where they wanted to go – even though, through their own strained efforts, they had only made it about halfway to the opposite shore.
Those words in the Aramaic allude more strongly to “you know who I AM” than just “it is I.” Against the backdrop of darkness and the desolate place, at the time of Passover, with the manna-like provision of bread and the Moses-like power over the sea, these words are the climax of this chapter and the heart of the Good News: that Christ Jesus, the son of the Great I AM WHO I AM and I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE is the extravagance of God’s love given shape, present and active and moving among us.
As they landed at Bethsaida, on the opposite end of the lake to Jerusalem, Jesus resumed his work of bringing God’s great love for the world within reach of everyone. Soon everyone would hear him confess …
“I AM the bread of life,”
“I AM the light of the world,”
“I AM the good shepherd,”
“I AM the way, the truth, and the life.”
And they would know it was true for he fed the 5000, restored sight to the blind, sought out those for whom society no longer cared, and rose from the dead to restore to us the very fullness of life.
As we gather as church in a particular time and a particular place, we sit in fellowship with one another and in the refreshing presence of God to be met by the extravagance of God’s love and fed from the Bread of life.
The challenge though is not to try to control or contain what we receive as though God’s love is not enough but to allow the resting place of God’s love to become the very source and root of our life as the people of God within our particular community.
God’s love for us is extravagant. May our love for the world be no less high or wide or deep or long.