From the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Proper 12 Year B, July 26, 2015
Hear again these words from the letter to the Ephesians: “I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.” The writer of Ephesians prays that his hearers will be filled with the fullness of God. In the Gospel story today, Jesus takes five barley loaves and two fish and fills the bellies of 5,000 people. Twelve baskets are filled with the leftover pieces. The good news is that God offers us fullness. God offers us fullness.
What is this fullness that God offers us? The crowd in today’s Gospel lesson keeps following Jesus around. They have seen his healing miracles, and they want to see more. When Jesus is able to feed them with just five loaves and two fish, they proclaim him a prophet and are about to make him a king. The crowd perhaps defines the fullness of God as power to fulfill our needs. When we are sick, God heals us. When we are hungry, God feeds us. When we are afraid, as the disciples were on the stormy sea later in the Gospel story, God comforts us. The crowd wants to seize that power to fulfill our needs. They want Jesus to be their prophet king who will provide whatever they need whenever they need it.
We are not so different from the crowd in the story. Many of us would define fulfillment as having everything we need. Or being able to do the things we want to do. We are looking for prophets and rulers too. We devour the latest books and social media posts about how to be happy, healthy, successful, rich. We form strategies and plans to cure the world’s ills, to create a better society for everyone. We would be really fulfilled if everyone had enough to eat and decent health care, and a meaningful way to support themselves and their family. The American dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are mere shadows of the fullness that God offers us.
I have been thinking about one character in the story who is not often discussed but who might hold some key to what it means to know the fullness of God: the youth with the loaves and fishes. This is an interesting detail in John’s account of this miracle. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the disciples gather together the bread and fish from among themselves or members of the crowd. John is the only Gospel story where one person, a youth, has all the bread and fish to himself. It raises the question, why did this boy have all that food? Was he selling it? Was it for his family? It seems like more food than one person would consume alone. We are not told whether the disciples bought the food from him or asked for it or just took it. Can you imagine how he might have felt? Maybe he was thinking: “They are going to take my feast and break it into tiny bits to try and feed this crowd? There will be less than a crumb for everyone…it’s just as bad as throwing all my food away.” Maybe he was feeling honored that his food would go to the rabbi Jesus. Maybe he was just wondering what would happen next. Now imagine how he feels when he sees the disciples collecting the twelve full baskets of leftovers. We presume that he has eaten his fill and is now amazed to see more than he started with. The youth has gone from being full (having five loaves and two fishes) to being empty to being full again and with more to spare.
To be filled with the fullness of God, we, like the boy, are asked to offer the fullness we think we have. We become empty so that God can fill us in ways we cannot ask or imagine. So much of the world’s wisdom about fullness is about adding to what we already have, saving for tomorrow, accumulating more and more until we are finally full and satisfied. God’s fullness is less about accumulation and more about giving things away.
One of my favorite stories about fullness actually happened about seven years ago. I heard it on National Public Radio. Maybe some of you did too. (You can read it here.) On a cold night in February, a 31-year-old social worker named Julio Diaz was stopping at his favorite diner in the Bronx, New York City, the way he did most nights. As he got off the subway platform, a teenage boy approached him, pulled out a knife, and demanded his money. Without hesitating and with a friendly “here you go,” Diaz gave the boy his wallet. He noticed the boy was not wearing a coat, so he called out to him, “Hey, you forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people the rest of the night, you might want my coat to stay warm.” The teen looked confused. “Why are you doing this?” he asked.” Diaz replied, “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, you must really need to money. I was just going to get dinner. You’re welcome to join me if you want.”
The teen and Diaz went into the diner and sat in a booth. This was Diaz’s favorite place, and he was a regular, so everyone there was coming up and saying hello: the manager, the waiters, even the dishwashers. The young man was amazed. “You know everyone here, do you own this place?” “No,” says Diaz, “I just eat here a lot.” The boy wondered, “But you’re even nice to the dishwashers.” “Well I was taught to be nice to everybody, weren’t you?” The young man replied, “well yeah, but I didn’t think people really did it.” Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life, what would fulfill him, and the young man couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. He was just silent with a sad look on his face. Then the bill arrived. Diaz told the youth, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill, because you have my money and I can’t pay for it. If you give me my wallet back, I’d be happy to treat you.” The teen immediately returned the wallet. Diaz paid for the meal and gave the young man $20. Then he asked him for something in return…the knife. The young man handed it over.
I do not claim to have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth. I do not claim to know much about the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. I do not claim to be filled with the fullness of God at all times in my life. In a story like this one, I believe we catch a glimpse of Christ’s fullness; fullness that can live with some emptiness. The love of Christ does not always feed five thousand people. Sometimes it feeds only one or two souls. It is not the number that matters. What matters is our willingness to allow Christ to dwell in our hearts, to give up what we have and allow God to fill us far beyond what we could ask or imagine. To God who offers us that fullness and gives us grace to accept it be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.