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God's Ways of Providing for Our Bodies and Our Souls.
by the Rev. John Keble
Sermon XXXI from Sermons for the Christian Year: Sermons for Lent to Passiontide
S. JOHN vi. 5
“Whence shall we buy bread that these may eat?”

Think for a moment, my brethren, Who asked this question.  It was the Creator of Heaven and earth, the Maker and Provider both of all food that is eaten, and of all who are nourished by food.  He gave His blessing in the first place to the earth, that it should have power and virtue to bring forth what might nourish and sustain life.  Every hour He continues that blessing, not only to the great world altogether, but to each little insect and blade of grass; He cares and provides for each one as perfectly as if there were only that one to be cared and provided for.  He it was and no other; it was the great Almighty Creator Himself, Who as He stood that day on the grassy mountain near the sea of Tiberias, and saw a great company come unto Him, now after many hours of attendance, had pity upon them, knowing that they were faint and weary, and the provisions with which they had left their home if any, had been exhausted, and He, the All-knowing and All-merciful, Who had taken our nature upon Him, in order that among our other infirmities, He might know the pangs of hunger, and Who to that end had once fasted forty days and forty nights, He had pity on them, and decreed in His own mind to relieve them.  And how does He proceed?  He seems to consult His disciples.  “Whence shall we buy bread that these may eat?  He, the Maker and Preserver of all, seems in a manner at a loss how to provide for that hungry multitude, and He makes as though He were asking aid and counsel of His servants, as any Teacher or Master might among men.

And we need not wonder at this; for, when we come to consider it, it is just what He is doing every day by His Providence, as Governor of the world.  He does not in general supply us at once, without any trouble or pains; on the contrary, we know too well how much labour, how many difficulties, how many various contrivances come into most people’s minds, when we talk of “getting one’s bread.”  It was, as we know, a part of the sentence on Adam, “In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread;” not without much labour, not without manifold ways and devices, as if God were asking His creatures, where shall we find bread, that these who are My family  may eat?  Thus our Lord on the mountain, referring to His Apostles about the refreshment of the people, was but doing the same kind of thing which He does continually in His Providence, governing and keeping us all alive upon the earth.  He knows well what He will do, how bountifully He will provide for us; yet it pleases Him to ask us from time to time, and to set us on asking ourselves, where are we to find food for so many? how shall we ever be able to get on?  And when we are most at a loss, even then, if we trust and obey Him, He wonderfully helps us.  

And so He does in respect of His grace also.  He helps our souls as He helps our bodies, through the aid of ordained means; and sometimes He may cause those means to fall short, and then may supply them as suddenly and abundantly as He multiplied those loaves and fishes.  A person may have but little learning, he may be quite unable to read, and may seem to himself as if he did not well understand what he hears, and yet if he have the fear of God in his heart, and try to live accordingly, he shall eat and be filled with spiritual meat and drink.  One good lesson, one verse, one prayer, may be a treasure to him, which he shall never lose.  He may be a good way from Church, he may have few helps at home, but if he really try to make the most of what little he has, God can and will make a great deal of it, to him.  Half a prayer remembered as having been learned in childhood, an old torn Bible or Testament on a shelf, the remembrance of some good Christian formerly known, his sayings, his tone of voice, his manner of coming in and going out, all these and other such things are as the scanty fare of that multitude, the five barley loaves and two small fishes, which became abundant under His creative Hand, enough to feed and to fill many thousands.

We in our poor way cannot understand His wonderful ways.  We are apt to be like one or other of the Apostles to whom our Lord spake.  When He saw the multitude draw near, He turned to S. Philip first, with the question, “Whence shall we buy bread that these may eat?” and S. Philip after his simplicity, answered, “Two hundred pennyworth of bread would not be sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little.”  He was scared by the greatness of the want, as he saw them come crowding on, one after another.  How shall we ever get enough for them all? was his thought, a thought but too familiar, my brethren, to many of you.  He did not consider that it was all one to Him Who made and preserves all alike, to save the many or the few.  He can maintain a large family as easily as He can a small one.

Again, we in our distress naturally look on our scanty supplies, and say to ourselves, what am I to do?  I have only just so much.  This again is not unlike what passed between our Lord and S. Andrew; for when S. Philip in that desponding way had spoken of the number of persons to be fed, Andrew remarked, “There is a lad here which hath five barley loaves and two small fishes, but what are they among so many?”  So might some of you my brethren, say to one another at the week’s end, when prices perhaps are high, and wages are low, “our family is very large, we have such and such allowance or earnings, so many shillings a week, but what are they among so many?”  How often do such thoughts occur? but in a good and believing heart they are presently followed by another thought, “God is here, God will provide, God will make a little go a great way;” His word is, “Seek ye first My kingdom and righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”  My brethren, I am sure there must be some of you who know something of the happiness of this thought, the thought of clinging to God only, and living under the shadow of His wing; the thought of reposing on Him, relying on His Fatherly care, lying down and sleeping soundly at night, however bad the times may be, because you know that He is watching over you, and will be near you to take care of you in the morning, to take care not of yourselves only, but of those whom He has trusted with you and commanded you to love.  May you know more and more of this comfortable trust, this “peace of God which passeth all understanding,” this only refuge against the fretting cares of the world: and that you may know more and more with the ways of His spiritual Providence.  Think not only of the meat that perisheth, but of that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of Man giveth unto you.  We know by this miracle and by the conversations which followed upon it, between our Lord, the Jews and His disciples, that bodily meat is but a type of the true Spiritual meat, the Body of the Son of Man, the Living Bread which cometh down from Heaven.  This is the Bread which He provides for our souls.  There in respect of our souls, He mercifully answers His won question, “whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” as if He should say to men and angels, “Here is all this great multitude, these lost children of Adam, I have compassion on them, for they have naturally nothing to eat, nothing to do their souls any good, they have lost the fruit of the Tree of Life, to which at first I permitted them to approach, and the Tree of Knowledge has proved only poison to them; and now what can they do? they will surely faint on their way to Eternity: but I will take pity on them; I know where to buy bread, which shall be enough for them and to spare.”  Thus may we understand our Lord to speak; and if you ask Him “what bread?”  He will answer “My own blessed Body, spiritually, but most really and truly received, by faith, in the Holy Communion.”  If you ask Him further, “what is the cost of that Bread? for how much was it bought? this is the reply, the most wonderful and gracious reply, “It cost every drop of the Blood of Him Who is both God and Man, it cost all that pain and misery which He bore on the tormenting Cross.  That we might feast on this Bread, and live for ever, He poured out His Soul unto death.  That is our Bread and thus He bought it for us to eat.  You think much, all of you, of course you think much, of those ways of God’s Providence whereby He helps you to your ordinary, bodily food.  O! that you would think more, a great deal more than you do, of His heavenly and supernatural ways in His holy Church.  You labour hard for the meat that perisheth; O! that you would do something, something real, something earnest, for the meat that endureth unto everlasting life.

For in this point again the two kinds of good, the bodily and the spiritual, resemble one another, that in both He expects us to do our own part, though both, truly speaking, are free and undeserved gifts from Him.  We do not expect to reap without ploughing and sowing; we do not come into the garden and expect to find plenty of fruit, if we know it has been neglected: no more must we expect to obtain or keep the grace of Christ’s Sacraments, if we neglect what is required on our part.  See how it was in this miraculous feast on the mountain; Christ could have cured the people’s hunger at once, without any loaves or fishes at all, if He had pleased; and so if it pleased Him, He could give us grace without Sacraments.  But as He then employed the meat which was ready to His Hand, so it commonly pleases Him to give us His grace by the outward forms, first water, then bread and wine.  He could have commanded the people to help themselves to the Manna, but it pleased Him that they should sit down and wait to have it given them.  He might have given it with His own Hands, but He chose to do it by the hands of His disciples.  So it is with His Sacraments now; we are brought to His ministers for Holy Baptism, we come to them for Holy Communion; the grace is given in each case through His ministers.  When our Lord said to His disciples “make the men sit down,” it was as if He should say, “You, the Apostles and Elders of My Church, and you, Bishops and Priests who are to come after, see that you do your best to bring all to My Holy Table, and to make all come decently and in order.  Show them the way, help them to prepare themselves; warn them how dangerous it is either to forsake Communion or to receive unworthily.”  And whereas S. Mark says, “they sat down in ranks, by hundreds and by fifties;” this seems to tell us something of the admirable order of Christ’s Sacraments; and also how it depends upon us whether that order be observed or no; as those men had they chosen, might have refused to sit down, or might have sat down irregularly; and then, I suppose, they would have missed their portion of the feast.  See too how careful our Blessed Lord was to order His doings in such a way as the disciples would be sure to remember, when about a year after He should appoint the Holy Sacrament itself.  He took the bread, and blessed and brake it, and gave to His disciples to set before the multitude.  The very act of Consecration, as some here know, was represented bodily by our Lord on that occasion.  You cannot read the miracle without thinking of the Sacrament.  And as you read, you feel more and more that our Lord meant us to think on It.  It becomes plainer and plainer to us, that even as those men, had they churlishly refused to wait and be prepared for the meal, must have gone without any refreshment; so, if men neglect the Lord’s Supper, if they will not join in offering to God the appointed memorial of His Death;—there is no help for it, you must do without His Intercession.

But I am persuaded better things of you, beloved brethren, I know there are some among you who have serious thoughts about their own past neglect of Holy Communion.  I would say to them, “take care of these your good thoughts: value them highly; do not let them waste in mere thoughts.  Take your thoughts about Communion with you when you kneel down to say your prayers; remember it when you come to speak of “our daily bread.”  That you may come worthily and in order, come to those whom our Lord has appointed to marshal His guests at this His wedding banquet; report yourselves to the Priest, let him judge of your fitness to come.  Do this before Easter; let not the holy time find you still negligent.  Lastly, take especial care, having come once, to come again, and that often; not for the loaves’ sake, but for the miracles; not for what you can get in this world, as comfort, credit, inward satisfaction; but for Christ’s sake and His Blessed Body’s sake, because you know that your souls cannot live without Him.  Come to Him, not for earthly but for heavenly reasons; so will you come prepared, and depart with a blessing.