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Have you ever had a family story where the point was clear, but the facts might have varied a bit in the retelling?
The lore in my father’s family was that Great-Grandfather Shaver had been married seven times. They told and retold that story: the man who couldn’t settle down, who went through six divorces before he finally found someone he could live with. A few years ago my father got interested in genealogy and started doing some actual research, looking up marriage certificates and burial records. It turned out Great-Grandpa Shaver was married four times. It really did take him a long time to settle down, and some of those marriages really were tumultuous. So the story was clear although the details had fluctuated. That’s oral tradition at work.
This past Monday we gathered to celebrate the feast of St. Mary Magdalene and heard one of the resurrection stories from John’s Gospel where Mary encounters the risen Jesus. There are four gospels, of course, and each one tells the story a little differently. Matthew and Mark have one angel at the tomb, Luke and John have two. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb with other women in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but by herself in John. There’s a clear shared core to the story: it’s women who first discover the empty tomb; an angel tells them Jesus is risen; later Jesus himself appears. But the details are different. And again that’s oral tradition at work. Those differences can feel threatening if your understanding of the Bible is that the text must be literally factual in every single particular. But that kind of fundamentalism is actually a pretty recent, pretty modern development. Historically Christianity hasn’t said that scripture is literally inerrant but rather that scripture is sacred, that the Holy Spirit inspired its authors, and that the Spirit speaks through it to us today. That’s completely compatible with the fact that the scriptures were also written by human people, subject to ordinary human processes. After all, the gospels didn’t even exist until the first generation of Christians started to die out and there were fewer and fewer eyewitnesses still living to share the stories of Jesus firsthand. There’s something beautiful about the fact that God’s Word comes to us not as a direct transcript from the mouth of God but filtered through a couple of generations of ordinary disciples breathlessly sharing the stories of their Lord until some of them began to decide to scratch them out on some parchment for posterity.
Now the gospel reading we just heard includes a story that first generation or two remembered as so important that it’s included in all four gospels. Believe it or not, the “feeding of the five thousand”—we should say the feeding of the more than five thousand, since that number refers only to the men present, not counting women and children—is the only miracle story from Jesus’ public ministry that’s included in all four gospels! You may know that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all quite similar. Most scholars think Mark was written first, and then Matthew and Luke are two different expansions and adaptations of Mark. So it’s common for those three to contain versions of the same story. But John’s gospel is quite different. It has a different order of events, different theological emphases, and different miracles. It was probably written in a church community that followed different traditions from those of the other gospels and looked to different apostles for its origins. So when the Gospel of John includes a story that tracks closely with the other three, that’s significant. It means this story was remembered by Christians in different communities and different places across the early church.
We heard the version from John today, and it has some unique features. It’s the only one where Jesus initiates the conversation about buying bread with his disciples; in the others they come to him. It’s the only one that says it’s a young boy who has the loaves and fish, and the only one that specifies that the loaves are made of barley. But what’s remarkable is the commonalities. It’s actually possible to sit down with the four different versions of the story and underline words and phrases that are shared in common, and when you do, you end up with a sort of skeleton or framework. Here’s what you get:
A large crowd was following him.
Buy something for them to eat.
Six months’ wages worth of bread.
Five loaves and two fishes.
The people sat down on the grass.
About five thousand men.
Jesus took the loaves.
When he had given thanks, he gave them to them.
And also the fish.
The people were satisfied.
The leftover fragments filled twelve baskets.
It’s easy to imagine early Christians sharing the story, with the individual details varying with each retelling as this core or framework held the story together. And then in each community the story took on its own character.
So what might we make of this remarkable story? Well, first of all, we might conclude that there’s a there there. I don’t know quite what happened on that green grass two thousand years ago by the Sea of Galilee, any more than I know what happened at Jesus’ tomb on the first Easter Sunday. But something happened that, at the very least, was so memorable that the story was remembered and retold with that shared core of details at the center. Great-Grandpa Shaver may not have been married seven times, but if he hadn’t been married four times there would have been no reason to tell the story at all.
Another thing we might notice about this story is that even though the facts matter, what matters more is the meaning behind them. The point about Great-Grandpa Shaver wasn’t the dates on the marriage certificates or whether it was four marriages or seven but the story of this man who couldn’t quite settle down. And the point of this feeding story isn’t that Jesus once did a remarkable trick worthy of the Guinness Book of Records or Ripley’s Believe It or Not! but that Jesus came into the world to bring about God’s new realm of abundant life. Over the next few weeks we’ll hear what follows in John’s gospel, where Jesus explains that he himself is the bread of life. He came to fill people not just with food that lasts a day, wonderful though that is, but with spiritual food that lasts for eternity. The facts matter; the living story matters even more.
After each Gospel reading in the eucharist we say, “The Gospel of the Lord.” Those words aren’t about the book, but about the living message. We treat the gospel book with reverence: we decorate it with gold covers, carry it in procession, place it on the altar. But the Gospel isn’t a physical book but a living story, one that exists not on printed pages but in people’s lives. This is our family story, and God is still writing it today in you and me.
 Actually “two hundred denarii,” which would be about six months’ wages for a worker. For some reason the New Revised Standard Version translates it literally in Mark 6:37 but as “six months’ wages” here.
 John does not include “besides women and children,” as Matthew 14:21 does, but John does clearly use the word andres (“men,” with a gendered meaning) in the second half of 6:10, just as the Synoptics all do.
 Matthew, Mark, and Luke have “blessed” instead of “gave thanks,” a difference in terminology that some scholars of liturgy trace to two different Jewish formulae of prayer, but that seems to have been treated as roughly equivalent in the early Christian church.
 Literally “filled”; John uses a different term here than the Synoptics, but with a similar meaning.