God is Above Mathematics
In 1529 a German political leader wanted to present a united front, so he sought to get Protestant religious leaders on the same page. They met at Marburg. The sticking point was whether Jesus was really present in the Lord's Supper. Luther said "yes;" the other side said: "No, He couldn't be because He couldn't be present in heaven and on so many altars at one and the same time. Luther answered, "God is above mathematics" (d'Aubigne, iv, 528).
To appreciate what this simple statement means, do the math. Phillip did the math and he was right, wasn't he? Jesus asked the question, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?" And Philip did the math. He knew what a day's wages were. He knew its buying power. What he literally said was, "200 days wages wouldn't be enough for each to have a bite." 200 days' wages would buy 4,800 quarts of barley. Barley was the cheapest grain (Morris, 343). 4,800 quarts would make 13,000 loaves of 24 ounces each.
John tells us there were 5,000 men. Matthew tells us there were also women and children. So if for each man there was a woman and for each couple there were only two children. Do the math. There were upwards of 30,000 people. But here Philip's math breaks down. 13,000 24 ounce loaves makes 19,500 one pound loaves. In a buffet line the Internet says one pound will feed 5-6 people. That means 200 denarii of barley bread would give 97,500 to 117,000 people more than a bite, but Philip's math is more about economics and logistics. Where would they get 8 months wages and that much bread?
Are the numbers dancing in your head? Add this; subtract that; divide here; multiply there. And here comes Andrew. He's found a boy who has five small barley loaves and two small fish. Do the math. "How far will they go among so many?"
You've done math like this. The quick calculations that say it's hopeless. You've done careful calculations too on everything from politics to grade points to interest rates to blood cell counts. Your mind has rung up things like those old time cash registers. Ching, chang, clink, clunk and there's you're answer. And if you've done the math one of two things will be true. Either you will believe the numbers are in your favor or not in your favor. Either way your faith is misplaced.
Luther said of our text. "The great need of the disciples on this occasion was that, though they could think and figure, they did not believe or realize what kind of Lord they had in Christ. We know how to figure and calculate carefully so that our needs might be filled. But when help does not come immediately as we would like it, we get nothing out of our careful figuring and calculating except sorrow and loss of spirit. It would be much better for us to commend the whole matter to God and not think so much about our needs" (in Buls ILCW Gospel Texts, After Pentecost, 22).
God is above mathematics, so don't bother doing the math. You see this in our text too. They don't ever count all the people, do they? John only knows how many men there were, 5000, because Mark tells us the men sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. This was so they could be served efficiently and safely. You've seen the mob scenes when the UN distributes food. So they know about how many groups they have, but they still don't know an exact number. John says "about 5,000." Matthew says about 5,000 men besides women and children.
They didn't attempt a total counting. They didn't do the math. And when Jesus tells His disciples to seat the crowds as if they're about to have a grand feast, he totally ignores the math. He doesn't say, "Have the people sit down;" neither does John write that they sat down nor that they distributed to those who were seated. He writes that Jesus told them to recline the people, that they did recline, and that they were served while reclining. In fact Jesus used two different Greek words for the posture 1st century people used when feasting and celebrating.
Jesus didn't do the math. Never mind that there were no tables or couches; He was going to feast these people. And He did. They all had enough to eat the text reports. Actually it says they had "as much as they wished." What a big deal that was in a society that could rarely say that. John also says they were filled up and Luke uses a term that's regularly used of cattle. These people were stuffed with fish and barley bread. See them stretched out in tall, green grass like so many cows in a pasture.
Do the math and you will only be disappointed; don't do the math because your God is not bound by mathematics, and pick up your coffin. Our English word coffin is directly related to this text. The 12 baskets the disciples fill up were stiff, wicker ones. Their Greek name is kophinos. Our English word coffin comes from this Greek word.
So do the math on death. There is a 100% mortality rate. In Adam says St. Paul all die. We try to push back the mortality math with other math. We calculate the age our parents died at and find comfort if it was a ripe old age and not so much if it wasn't. We thrill when the life expectancy numbers go up. We like the statistics against smokers but are bothered by the math that reveals 60% of those who get the dreaded lung cancer have never smoked a day in their life.
Math can't do battle with Death. Law, sin, Death are three unsolvable problems that Satan wields mercilessly. I Corinthians 15 says, "The sting of Death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law." The Law given by God to us constantly convicts of us our sins and sinfulness. No matter which way we turn, no matter how many excuses we offer, no matter how much we promise to do better, the Law says guilty, guilty, guilty. And what's more since the power of sin is the Law, the more the Law says, "Stop," the more we want to "go." And so under the Law sins multiply, our guilt ever increases, and we're convicted of deserving death now and forever.
But what does Hebrews 2: 14 say? "Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, Jesus Himself likewise partook of the same, that through death He might destroy the Devil who had the power of death and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery." Do you hear the chains being struck off? Do you hear them falling to the ground? Jesus took our flesh and blood; He was born under the Law so that He might keep all the Law for us. Not one Law remains that Jesus didn't keep. Not one Law is hanging over our heads to convict us.
But it wasn't through His perfect life only that He delivered us from death. No it was through death itself. The Death you deserve to die; the Death you fear to die; the Death that math can't solve; Jesus Christ did. Death couldn't swallow up forever the holy Jesus. It had to spit Him out once He paid for sins, and out of the grave come all those Baptized into Him; Absolved in Him; bodied and blooded to Him. So pick up your coffin.
Do you see how merciful the Lord is to His feeble, faltering disciples? For the disciples who did the math and concluded that no one, not even Jesus, could feed so many with so little, Jesus gave each one of them a coffin filled with bread. They held coffins filled with bread for their journey. They didn't deserve it. They didn't believe at the outset that Jesus could feed anyone. Yet He did despite their unbelief; despite their math because God is above mathematics even the mathematics of death. Life expectancy charts, actuarial tables, statistics on disease rates don't direct, bind, or influence the will of the Lord.
And no it's not a stretch to connect Jesus feeding of the 5,000 with our defeating Death in Jesus' name. The only miracle reported by all 4 Gospel writers besides the Resurrection is the feeding of the 5,000. It would be a poor God indeed who was able to feed His children for this life but not able to feed them, to sustain them for eternity. The early church has always linked this miracle of bread for today with the Bread for tomorrow: Holy Communion. One symbol for Holy Communion used in the early church is bread and fish.
The early church heard this as an account of how Jesus could provide not only for their physical needs but their spiritual ones too. They linked the bread and fish that Jesus miraculously provided with what they and Luther liked to call the Medicine of Immortality: the Lord's Supper. You can make the same link if you remember the coffins.
Pick up your coffin. Pick up that fear of death that Jesus delivered you from by His gory, guilty death on the cross and give it a fling. You don't have to carry it around your neck like a ball and chain. The Lord Jesus having lived your life and died your death provides all that you need not only for this body and life but for the resurrected body and life. And He distributes, gives, and graces you with these by means of things that touch your physical bodies.
Your Lord Jesus assures you that your body will rise from the dead as His did by baptizing you into His death and life. Your body joined to His body goes where His has gone. Like the Easter hymn sings, "Make like Him, like Him we rise, ours the cross, the grave, the skies." Jesus puts the forgiveness of sins into your ears so that your whole body might hear. Since you are forgiven, there is no sting in your death because the sting of death, sin, has been removed. And by the Medicine of Immortality Jesus uses His Body and Blood to inoculate your body and blood for everlasting life.
Math is a wonderful tool that helps us understand the physical world, but it leads to misbelief if you limit the things of God with it. Many a person has shipwrecked on the rocks of the 3 in 1 Trinity, the 2 natures but 1 person of Christ, the one Body and Blood of Jesus being in 1 heaven and on a million altars. The main character in a Russian novel from 1922 identifies his soul which the State says doesn't exist with the square root of -1 (We, 39). Up to that time he knew as surely as there was no square root of 1 there was no such thing as the soul. He is plagued by the fact he can't deny he has a soul. Don't you be plagued by math or your soul. Whether delivering 5000 people from hunger or you from your coffin, God is above mathematics. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (20120815); John 6: 1-13