I have a burning question this morning … what happened to those twelve baskets of leftovers? What did the disciples do with all that half chewed bread and fish? Haven’t you ever wondered? The gospel writers are so delighted with the excess but they never spare a word about where it went. Did the Twelve carry the basketsful home to save for tomorrow’s gathering or did they hand out doggy bags for the departing crowd? Perhaps after the miracle that had just happened these scraps were treated like holy relics to be hurried home and stored in little gold boxes ready for when the next fever might hit and a miracle be needed. Or maybe everyone was so full they lost all interest in food and the leftovers were left to rot like waste. Maybe? And now I think about it I wonder where they got the baskets from? You see once you start asking these questions it gets hard to stop and even finds a fascination all of its own. It’s called theology and some of us do it for a living.
But it has its traps and one of them is the shift of focus that is embodied in this great mediaeval feast of Corpus Christi. For nine, ten, centuries after the first last supper if you asked the ordinary person in the pew where the body of Christ was—after they stopped looking at you strangely—they’d tell you here—in the gathered church praying together, breaking bread together, doing good together. A few hundred years later the same poll would have gotten a different answer—the long-suffering amateur theologian would use a different gesture—not sweeping out a wide arc but pointing directly at the tabernacle: there’s the body of Christ—in that box. Somehow Jesus has been trapped in a box—oh a gold box, nicely padded, but under lock and key. How do we let him out again?
We have a lot to celebrate in this feast but we have to know what are we celebrating: an event, not a thing; something that goes on happening, not something over and done with; an awful and glorious waste.
Look how Paul remembers that event: not as the first Eucharist, not as the first consecration, but as the night when Jesus was betrayed. On that night when he was handed over by one of his own, he first hands over himself to his friends, his own—including the betrayer. He hands himself over in broken bread and shared cup. “This is my body which is for you.” Eat it and remember me. This cup makes a new promise sealed with my blood. Drink it and remember me. What a waste! You can imagine his friends thinking, “this is not a good bargain: bread and wine instead of flesh and blood.” What could have possessed Jesus to waste his life like this—handing it over for nothing instead of prudently backing off to fight another day. He could have gone back into hiding and let the fuss die down but, no, he had to go and hand himself over even as he is handed over by his betrayer. What a waste!
It’s the waste we remember: every time you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
That’s why the gospel’s twelve baskets of wasted food is an important detail: night is falling and people are hungry and the disciples are worried and Jesus is challenging. He asks them the question he keeps on asking us: what have you got to offer? What will you waste?
Though the disciples say they have next to nothing, they hand over what little they have, protesting all the time the waste of throwing so little at so many mouths. But Jesus blesses their pittance of bread and fish and hands it over to God, and God hands it over in abundance to the hungry crowd. The miracle isn’t in the eating but in the handing over; isn’t in the receiving but in the giving.
The crowd was hungry but now they’re satisfied: more, they’re full, stuffed, couldn’t eat another thing. They thought they had nothing but it turns out they had enough and even more than enough, even too much. Here’s how it is in the body of Christ: we have to run the risk of wasting what little we have, handing it over, so there’ll be enough to satisfy the deepest need, enough to waste.
So … where’s the body of Christ this morning? Is Jesus here or in a box? I think that all depends on what we do together. Shortly we will break bread together but if the focus is on what we receive the box will stay firmly locked. What opens the door is what we offer; what we are willing to hand over today; what we are ready to waste. Because the hunger is still there and Jesus is still asking us the question: “why don’t you give them something to eat yourselves?”
June 14th, 1998