Reading: John 6:1-21
Imagine hearing a story that Jesus fed a huge crowd of people with just a small amount of food. And there's another one about how he walked on the surface of a lake.
You could fit that story into Twitter.
How does someone like the author of John build the story up to tell us something about who this Jesus really was?
Let's put ourselves "on location."
After this, Jesus went to the other side of the sea of Galilee...
John makes a small addition about what is to come. In a world of expensive writing equipment, lacking wordprocessors, unnecessary text always has a purpose. Remember this phrase:
also called the Sea of Tiberias.
The story needs a crowd, and they need a reason to be there so,
a large crowd followed him, because the saw the signs he was doing for the sick.
Healing the sick, in itself is a powerful motif in the religious memories of Jesus time: In Luke 7, when John the Baptist asks if Jesus is the one, Jesus replies "Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me."
Now John (the Gospellor) does more scene setting.
Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.
The flavour of Moses is here; Moses went up the mountain to talk with God. Disciples sat at the feet of a Rabbi for teaching. The story is telling us that Jesus is about to teach. The next day, after the feeding, people will come looking for Jesus, (John 6:25) and ask Rabbi, when did you come here? They will miss that, in John's high Christology, the disciples have gone up the mountain, like Moses, to be taught by God! The people in 6.25 have not understood the sign. They do not call him Lord.
For one last piece of scene setting before the drama begins, John tells us
Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.
He distinguishes Jews from Christians, reflecting the hostility between his Christian situation and the Jewish synagogue. But he is telling us that what is about to happen has a Passover significance. It is about the saving of the people by God.
The lesson begins- for the disciples, and for us. The story is being told for us.
When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?' He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.
Phillip fails the test.
Philip answered him, ‘Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.'
John uses Andrew to introduce another cultural memory. In 2 Kings 4,
when there was famine in the land, a man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, ‘Give it to the people and let them eat.' But his servant said, ‘How can I set this before a hundred people?' So he repeated, ‘Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, "They shall eat and have some left." ' He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.
So before Jesus, there has already been a feeding miracle, using barely loaves, done by Elisha, that great man of God. In fact, he had a double measure (2 Kings 2:9) of the spirit of the prophet Elijah before him, who multiplied that last little bit of meal for the baking of cakes in the drought at Zarephath 1 Kings 17.
But Jesus is a greater prophet than these two great prophets, so he will multiply loaves to feed even more people! How many loaves? Perhaps we could choose five, the number of books in the Torah, the Law from God. They'll come from a boy, a servant like Elisha's servant. Five is a good number, because it reminds us of the one who was given the law- Moses.
In fact, Moses also had a feeding miracle. Do you remember the manna in the wilderness? In that story in Exodus 16 people could gather "as much of it as each of you needs."
In our text then, we can note some more of the flavours and layerings that John has added:
There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?' Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.' Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.
Each sentence is loaded with memory. Where else do we eat in a grassy place?
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; (they reclined to eat)
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks
(of course in English we can miss this- thanks, in Greek, is eucharist)
he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples....
In the tradition from Elisha, and in other Jesus stories people may have heard, there is some bread left over. ‘Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, "They shall eat and have some left." ' He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord. (2 Kings 4:43) John uses this tradition. Jesus told his disciples
‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.' This is the mission of Jesus, who comes to save all people. So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.
The number twelve is the great number of Israel. It is the number of tribes, the sons of Jacob, whose other name is Israel, the "one who fights with God."
The people thought they got it. They understood.
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.'
But they have failed the test. They have not understood.
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.
Withdrawing to the mountain by himself, has some echoes of divinity about it, I think, but I've not seen anyone comment on this.
When evening came (without Jesus being with them) his disciples went down to the lake, got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum ... the lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing.
Night time out on the water is a time of danger and uncertainty. John makes sure we get this message by inserting this sentence where I have left the ellipsis:
It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.
No words are wasted here.
When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified.
Jesus is walking on the Sea of Galilee. We all know this story. We often miss that in John, he is walking on the Sea of Tiberias. He walks on top of all the ambiguous, often evil, depths of Empire. He is not to be made a popular political king, but he walks across empire with ease. The disciples, rowing into the wind, struggling against the powers of empire, "immediately ... reached the land towards which they were going" when Jesus enters the boat. There is nothing to fear.
Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.
It's pretty clear that with Jesus in the boat of the church, things happen in a different way, even if the seas are hostile and rough. How much John knew this image, which is present in the Roman catacombs, and how much his gospel, and the others, gave rise the image, is outside my expertise!
The set reading for the lectionary of the week ends here. But if we proceed a few verses, we see people are been searching for Jesus.
Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
They go looking for Jesus, but they use boats which came from Tiberias, a newish town founded by the Roman vassal king, Herod Antipas. Are these boats a symbol for the way of empire? They found Jesus, but
When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?'
They call him Rabbi, which is John's sign that they have not fully understood who Jesus is. Jesus confirms this.
Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.
Of course, in all this, I have left out the symbolism of the fish. There is much less clarity to this symbol in our time, compared to that of the bread. The early Christians called Jesus the fish; the Greek IXOUS (pronounced ICTHUS) can be an acrostic for Jesus Christ God's Son Saviour. It seems to have been used as early as the 80's CE, so perhaps the saying was familiar to John. But the original stories certainly predate the acrostic and its use by Christians as a sign of recognition. In fact the appeal of the acrostic is more likely to come from the stories.
Perhaps fish was simply a staple food. There may be a connection to the disciples as fishers of people. Perhaps not everything in a story is a symbol of something more; it may just be story!
With the bread, however, come some questions.
Will we look at Jesus, or will we get fixated on the signs?
We can fixate on the signs by going down the side track of whether this story really literally happened, and missing what it means. Or will we can too much seek our own signs and wonders, forgetting that the transcendant is not so biddable, as Jill Seggar puts it. Such a seeking will lead to food which perishes.
We could also seek to make Jesus a king of the wrong kind, seeking to reinstate a kind of Christendom. This sort of political activism loses the compassion of Christ, and becomes intolerant, seeking to impose our limited understanding of Christian values on everyone. I think this is where much of the agenda of the Christian right ends up.
How will we understand this Jesus bread? How will we feed on him?
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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