Today the Lectionary moves us on and we abandon Mark’s Gospel but we continue with the story we heard from Mark last week when Bishop Walter told us how Jesus’ compassion led him to feed the multitude. This dramatic miracle is the only miracle from Jesus’ public ministry told in all four Gospels, and in all four it has overtones of the Eucharist, so in that respect it is a very relevant passage for the type of liturgy we share today.
John’s version of this event, though, isn’t the major emphasis of this section of his version of Jesus’ ministry: it serves as the introduction to Jesus’ discourse on the “Bread of Life” which we will explore more in the coming weeks and in doing so enter more deeply into the mystery of the Eucharist. However, I tell you this with the strong recommendation that you take the time to read the whole of John chapter 6 a couple of times so that you see how the bite-sized chunks we offer week by week fit together.
(You can tell he’s a teacher. He’s even giving us homework and it’s the school holidays!)
So: the crowd clamours after Jesus and there are many in search of his healing touch. Yet there is something more going on here beyond the healings. John tells us “A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.”
I remember some time ago telling you of two colleagues I had when I first started teaching and how their individual approaches to scripture were so entrenched that they both missed the point, or at least only partially grasped it in my view. One of them, Mr. Forest, a Biology teacher, embodied the literalist or fundamentalist approach where everything was to be taken at the plainest level of meaning and must have happened exactly as the account said. His response to this miracle would be to say “Well, it just goes to show that Jesus is God, doesn’t it?” Doubting that a miracle story happened exactly as it was recorded was tantamount to doubting the divinity of Christ.
Mrs. King, my first R.E. Head of Department, on the other hand, took the reductionist approach, wanting to “demythologise” the miracle accounts to reveal the morals that lay behind the stories. In this case the moral to her was that when Jesus fed the multitude he and the disciples shared out what they had and their example encouraged others who had been holding back their own food to share theirs too. The “real” miracle was when everyone discovered the joy of caring and sharing with others.
She referred to him as a snake-handling Baptist and he referred to her as a wet, liberal Anglican.
I didn’t sit with them in the staffroom.
John has an agenda in his Gospel, a gospel which seems to have been written with the early Jewish community in mind. The early verses of John speak of Jesus’ own, the Jews, not accepting Him, whilst others did. The Jews, the very people who were supposed to be waiting for the messiah and who repeatedly failed to believe in Jesus. John contains a great deal of material not found in the other gospels including much private instruction to the disciples. Only in John is Jesus explicitly identified with God and only in John do we find the “I AM” statements: “I Am the Bread of Life”, for instance, which comes in a later sermon.
Now in this passage notice that John tells us the crowd “saw the signs.” This would have had Mr. Forrest and Mrs. King arguing straight away, so let’s be clear. In John’s gospel, miracles are signs that point beyond themselves – to God. Every time Jesus performs a miracle he is saying something about God and about himself in relation to God. The miracles are not important merely because this or that person is healed or because Jesus changes water to wine or whatever. The miracles are signs that point to the reality of who Jesus is. Yes the crowd gathered for healing, but they kept following him because of the signs, even if they didn’t yet fully understand the implications. Why should we expect them to? Even the Disciples didn’t fully appreciate what was going on at this stage.
But we do with the benefit of hindsight, so we don’t have that excuse.
In both the readings from 2 Kings and the Gospel of John, crowds of people are in need. Not only are they hungry; the food supply is limited, and there doesn't appear to be enough to satisfy the hunger of all. Obviously, some will be sent away with little or nothing and those responsible for controlling the crowds wonder how this limited supply should be distributed. Then, in the midst of this need, something extraordinary happens. Not only is food provided, but more is available than is required. How did this happen? What are we to make of it?
In John’s theology this is simple: Jesus has provided another sign. The crowd is hungry and Jesus will feed them. He has been feeding them spiritually and now he’ll fill their stomachs as well. The miracle unfolds quickly. Jesus asks Philip how they’ll feed the people. A boy comes forward with “five barley loaves and two fish.” In language that is similar in all four accounts and echoes the Last Supper: Jesus “took the loaves, gave thanks and distributed them”. There are important distinctive ideas at work here and they are deliberate: John alone among the gospel writers uses the verb eucharisteo - (“to give thanks”); Jesus alone distributes the bread, and commands the disciples to gather the fragments – all twelve basketfuls - (using a word that becomes a technical term for the eucharistic elements).
Yet this passage can be understood on more than one level and the Mr. Forrests and Mrs. Kings of this world, wedded to a single understanding of how scripture works, miss much of it. Yes it is a story where Jesus again reveals himself as God, and yes it prefigures the Eucharist but we can still find more here: it is not accidental that so many stories throughout the Bible use food, eating or hunger images to make a theological point. These readings invite us to reflect on hunger deeper than those related to our physical survival. Jesus meets that most basic human need, hunger, and does so with generosity and compassion. Could those writers mean us to understand that God is as essential as food for our existence? Add to that the first theological idea that Jesus IS that God and we have a lot of personal challenges.
Jesus operates out of abundance. Not only is there always enough, but there is more than enough. With this hungry hoard, there is fish and bread enough for all to get what they want and enough to gather together twelve basketsful of leftovers.
This is a sign that points beyond Jesus to the earlier experiences of the children of Israel. John has quite deliberately tipped us off that the Passover was drawing near. And at that time of year, thoughts of the Jews naturally turn toward the Exodus experience. Under Pharaoh, the people had been enslaved and as they were brought out of Egypt, they were fed in the wilderness with manna. Everyday God gave the people all the food they needed. There was always more than enough. Whether you see that Exodus story as history or religious myth or a combination, the moral, if you like, is the same: this was a sign that God would be faithful day after day after day with enough to meet their needs.
With this story in mind as the Passover approached, as well as the miraculous feeding stories of the prophet Elijah, the people gathered that day on the grassy hillside saw a new sign.
Here was Jesus on the hillside, freely offering abundance. Everything the people needed for life came without cost. Jesus offered not merely healing food. Jesus offered a change from scarcity to abundance for those who could see beyond the physical act. There would be more than enough for everyone.
What should this mean to you and I as we seek to apply this message to our own lives?
John tells us, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Jesus pulls back. The people have seen the sign and misinterpreted it. Jesus did not come to set up an earthly kingdom, but to inaugurate God’s eternal reign.
Just after our reading for today, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” Jesus wants much more than to heal people who will later get sick again, or to feed people who will again hunger. Jesus wants to give them more. The something more Jesus offers is what these signs point to. Jesus tells them, “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life.”
That is what is on offer here beyond all the references to the satisfying of physical hunger and that is the challenge to you and I today.
As we continue reading through John’s gospel in the coming weeks, Jesus will draw out the lesson of how he is the Bread of Life and will further connect what he is doing to how God fed the people in the wilderness during the time of Moses. For now, we see that the crowd wanted Jesus to be their king. O.K. they had the wrong vision of Kingship. But we don’t today.
Who wouldn’t want a king who fed you spiritually and bodily? Who wouldn’t want a king who could heal both the body and the soul?
Who wouldn’t indeed?