By the power at work within us [God] is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. (Ephesians 3.20)
Years back, I was asked to speak to a group of advertising and marketing students about mapping career paths. Although the invitation flattered me, I was flummoxed by it. I was the last person to tell kids how to succeed in the crazy world of agency politics and client demands, as I’d stumbled into this business with no idea how it worked or how to make it work for me. I was a film and psychology major who spent his first 10 years out of school putting little of his training to use. Before settling on a career as a marketing creative director (which I discovered as a temp typist), I’d tried my hand at dozens of things. “Are you sure I’m your guy?” I asked the professor who tendered the invitation. “I didn’t really choose this path. It sort of chose me. I only got this far because I learned a lot by not having a career path.” He chortled, “That’s why you are the guy.” He’d observed a trend that concerned him. Major agencies were recruiting his students straight out of school and running them through their cookie cutters before they acquired any real-world experience. “That can’t be good for them or our field,” he said with a sigh. I couldn’t have agreed more.
I titled my talk “Learning to Love Peanut Butter,” referring to many times when all I had was a jar of Skippy and some bread. After clocking through my résumé, I told the students that, as far as I could see, there are two types of people: hikers and explorers. Hikers find—or are given—a path and stick to it. They know where they want to go and get there sooner than explorers. Explorers, on the other hand, tend to get lost along the way. Their destination isn’t as sharply defined and the route often takes them to places where they find little clarity or comfort. “That’s how you learn to love peanut butter,” I explained. “If it’s all you’ve got, it’s as good as steak—even better than steak—because it’s all that stands between you and going hungry.” But along with loving peanut butter, explorers learn that success and abundance can’t be measured quantitatively. They’re discovered in what lack of worry about them affords: freedom, endurance, simplicity, and resilience. Reaching deep inside to see what you’ve got is how you discover all you’ve been given. Once explorers master the art of bringing everything they’ve got to the table, success—and its abundance—comes to them, often surpassing that of hikers who’ve stuck to prescribed, “tried-and-true” paths.
Aside from followers of the oxymoronic “prosperity gospel,” most believers get queasy whenever they hear success and abundance linked with Christian faith. Jesus’s teachings are anything but a formula for worldly success. By definition, discipleship is a discipline that aspires to selflessness; its “success” can only be measured by the extent of one’s sacrifice, not one’s gains. Yet Sunday’s Gospel (John 6.1-21) and New Testament (Ephesians 3.14-21) describe how sacrificial living—made possible by departing from proven paths—reaps great success and abundance. Both texts endorse an explorer’s mentality that takes stock of all we’ve been given so that we can bring everything we’ve got to the table.
John tells the familiar story of how Jesus miraculously feeds 5000 by multiplying a boy’s lunch of five loaves and two fish. This massive congregation assembles at a most inconvenient time. Jesus and the disciples are exhausted. He needs some time alone with them to replenish their energy and discuss next steps in His ministry. He whisks them off to a mountainside and no sooner do they get settled than a huge crowd shows up. An ordinary leader would politely greet the uninvited horde and tell them, “I’d love to talk with you, but I’m in a very important meeting. If you go back to the seashore, I’ll get to you as soon as I possibly can.” Not Jesus. He scuttles His agenda—urgent though it is—sensing that most of the crowd has climbed the mountain with little or nothing to eat. Before anything else can happen, they’ll have to be fed. He already knows what He’s going to do. But He tosses the predicament in the disciples’ laps to see how they’ll handle it. They tell Him it’s impossible. There’s nowhere to buy bread and if there were, it would cost a fortune to feed so many people. A quick survey turns up a boy’s lunch and nothing more. Jesus tells the disciples to make the people sit down. After He gives thanks for the loaves and fish, they’re distributed to the people. Not only is His strategy successful. To the amazement of all, it yields an abundance—12 baskets overflowing with leftovers, one for every disciple.
It’s impossible to know if Paul (or the author writing in his name) recalls this story while outlining the principle of spiritual abundance in the Ephesian letter. Scholars date the epistle circa 62 CE, around the time that Mark, Matthew, and Luke pen their gospels and 30 years before John composes his. So Paul may not have even heard of this episode. Yet he is by far the greatest explorer among all the Apostles, the one who discovers success and abundance come to those who quit the beaten path and, for lack of a better phrase, learn to love peanut butter. He prays the Ephesians “may be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” (Ephesians 3.16-17) He trusts they will discover “the power to comprehend… what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (v18) With this power at work within us, he writes, God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” These statements sound lofty until we reach down inside ourselves and discover what we’ve got is more than enough. If all we have are peanut butter and bread—if the most we can scrounge up would barely feed a growing boy—it’s still an abundance, because we’ve been given power to comprehend God is at work within us.
What’s in Your Pocket?
Of the gospels’ miracle stories, the feeding of thousands—5000 here, 4000 in another instance—strikes me as the most problematic. Living in an age when meteorological and medical phenomena are standard news, calming storms, walking on water, curing disease, and even raising the dead seem, well, not so amazing. (In a way, what we’ve learned from science since these stories were first recorded magnifies their miraculous nature by shifting the focus from their inexplicable outcomes to Jesus’s role as the catalyst that brings them about.) But there really is no explanation for how Jesus transforms one lunch into dinner for 5000. Or so I thought, until I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s exquisite sermon on this episode. In “The Problem with Miracles,” she invites us to imagine most everyone on the mountainside showed up with a little something to eat in his/her pocket. The problem was none of them thought they had enough to share.
They might have been able to keep their own food for themselves if that bread basket had not come around, full of scraps, everyone so careful not to break off too much, everyone wanting Jesus’s crazy idea to work so much that very carefully, very secretly, they all began to put their own bread in the basket, reaching in as if they were taking some out and leaving some behind instead.
Of course, we can’t say with certainty that’s how it happened. Nonetheless, the notion is fully in keeping with how God works. God leads us to places where we discover God’s power to transform the little we have into overflowing abundance. Yielding our meager talents and resources is how we enable God to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. As we ponder Sunday’s passages, I pray we’ll discover that by learning to love peanut butter, not only will we eat well. Hungry hearts that find us will also be fed.
What’s in your pocket?
God’s power at work in us transforms what little we have into more than enough.