Reading: John 6:1-21
In 2013 I went to Israel with Nev and Marg, and Cathie Lambert, for a two-week tour of some of the main places that feature in Jesus` life. While so many things have sadly changed over the past few years, what hasn`t changed is the overwhelming urge people have to go to where Jesus lived and taught and died. It was a profound and moving life experience, particularly when we got lost for five hours in the west bank. If it wasn`t for Marg`s open and generous way of talking to the Palestinian locals we might still be there.
We went to many places that are part of our Christian heritage, Jerusalem of course, but also the Sea of Galilee and Capernaum, Jesus` home town - where he spoke, and where he performed many of the miracles that are reported in the bible.
One such place related to our gospel reading today. Of course, there is now a church to mark the location of the feeding of the 5,000, a beautiful church, the floor inlaid with mosaics of loaves and fishes.
After we had been into the church, we wandered around the perimeter, as it sits right on the Sea of Galilee. It was a warm still day, and we found a beautiful area set up for quiet meditation and prayer. It was covered and had seats and a simple cross placed on a table such that we could look at the cross and the sea at the same time. It was earthy and plain, but said so much to all of us about Jesus himself. We stayed there for quite a while, in silence, before heading on our way.
The miracles of the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus walking on the water, are iconic biblical stories that everyone knows. We heard it from John today, but it appears in all the gospels, although the details are not exactly the same in each one of them. While we have been following the lectionary of Mark these past weeks, we suddenly hear from John. You may ask, then, why put in John`s version when each gospel has the story in some form?
I think it has to do with John`s grand theme, rather than just a record of the stories themselves.
The gospel of John was written sometime during the last decade of the first century, nearly 70 years after the life of Jesus of Nazareth. While we don`t really know the name of the author, by convention it is called `John`, we do know that the writer was a Jewish mystic. A mystic is someone who is deeply in tune with God, God`s way, God`s presence and God`s calling. Because of this, the gospel contains lots of stories and writings that try to direct us to how his community, people in the first century, saw Jesus, but more importantly what Jesus` relationship was to God. It is regarded as the most spiritual and least factual of the gospels so understanding it on a purely factual level misses the point.
Rather, John is the bigger picture gospel. He points us to God through the words and actions of Jesus. When Jesus is referring to the way, the truth and the light, this is the bigger picture. When Jesus says `No one comes to the Father except through me, the `me` is not an individual but the larger truth, way and life represented in him. When he says `Love one another as I have loved you` he is not saying there are some who are worthy and some who aren`t. For the writer of John, all are included in God`s circle of love. Jesus becomes for John, the bread and water of life, a shorthand way of saying, see Jesus, there you will see God. In fact, Jesus is called by many the ultimate mystic.
But I am getting ahead of myself. For today we only have the start of this journey. But keep all that in mind as we explore the stories set for today. For as I have said they are both so central to the picture of Jesus.
So how to interpret them in the 21st century? I just want to go through a few different ways.
Firstly, the feeding of the 5,000 can be seen as a supernatural event of bread being multiplied. A straight-forward miracle giving Jesus power over nature and therefore, power.
This understanding is difficult to hold in a modern world, with computers, technology, and the Hubble telescope. I believe it is very unlikely the miracle ever really happened, shocking as that may seem to some. Many scholars of John`s gospel would hold that thought. For so much of the story reflects the Old Testament scriptures.
In telling these stories, John uses references to the great Hebrew prophets, connecting us to the larger story of God. Feeding the hungry masses was a problem faced by Moses, in the wilderness. In Exodus his people are fed with heavenly bread called manna, which rained down from the sky. There are memories of Elisha. For example, someone bringing barley loaves that are inexplicably multiplied and shared would have reminded the people of the story of Elisha in 2 Kings (2:42-44), and there are memories of Isaiah and the beautiful promise of a feast on the mountain of hosts, `a feast of rich food`. (25:6).
The writer of John was equating Jesus with Moses in particular, but also with the great prophets. As Jack Spong concludes, the signs of Moses, are wrapped around Jesus and transcended by Jesus.
New doors are being opened.
But this is not the only problem with a literal understanding of the story as a straight-out miracle. Jesus himself wasn`t to fussed on faith that came from just believing in the miraculous.
The Jesus in John`s account has very little sympathy for the crowds who follow because of the miracle or who want to make him King. In the reading we hear him be dismissive of them. And throughout this gospel we find people being chastised by Jesus who believe only because of miracles and the amazing things he did. They have to be born again. Think Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
So I think there is more to the story than meets the eye!
The miracle is not to fly in the air, or to walk on the water, but to walk on the earth.
Many, particularly on the left or progressive side of Christianity have interpreted the feeding of the 5,000 as a different type of miracle where people`s hearts rather than the bread has changed. In this understanding Jesus is seen as a man of courage and compassion. It is Jesus who transforms a frightened and hungry crowd into one where all are in and no one is left out.
As Bill Peddie concludes, `Whatever Jesus might or might not have been able to accomplish, we are clearly unable to cause loaves of bread and fish to miraculously multiply in a physical sense, but the lesser miracle of seeing others for the first time as those whose needs we might begin to meet with our own limited resources, may be miracle enough for this day.`
Miracles need not be supernatural events, but rather the wonder and beauty of the life that surrounds us, the miracles of the everyday and the people who are transformed to follow the way of Jesus in the world.
Of course, for those who have a problem with supernatural events, this second interpretation is more popular.
But Bill Loader would suggest, that while this seems attractive, it reflects something that isn`t really there in the reading.
So where does that leave us?
Let`s look at a third and final understanding, which links with what I talked about in the beginning.
As Bill Loader says, John consistently takes stories from the tradition about Jesus and moulds them so that they now make statements about who Jesus is for us. His understanding, to relate to Jesus is to relate to God.
John has taken the miracle of the feeding much further, using it symbolically to point to Jesus. John is not denying the miracle by including it, and through his tradition may have even believed it happened, but that`s not the point. There is something much deeper going on under the surface.
So this third way of interpreting the feeding of the 5,000, is a way that is in keeping with the aim of the whole gospel. John`s gospel is about how Jesus and God are intertwined. While he in the end short cuts his language so it seems that Jesus and God are one, we have to remember Jesus was a human being, a God-infused human being, but a human being none the less. One who travelled around the Sea of Galilee speaking, and teaching and eating with his followers, surrounded by dust and dirt. Whatever has been placed upon him in the centuries after his death, Jesus himself, particularly in John`s gospel, dismisses faith that has to rely on miracles for it to grow. Instead his message is about bringing life to people, to see in him the work of the Father, of God and for that to transform them. To change the way they saw each other, and how they saw God.
This message is emphasised by the walking on the water miracle that follows the feeding of the 5,000. It`s almost like the disciples and the people don`t seem to get it and so it has to be reinforced by John.
Again there is a reference to Moses and to the crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan. There is also imagery of the divide between darkness and light. The point being made is that here we learn the truth about Jesus - and about the feeding of the 5000. The crowds misunderstood the miracle of the loaves according to John, and Jesus leaves them and goes to the mountain. Yet when the disciples enter the boat the truth is revealed. They see Jesus coming to them on the water, saying, `I am`, or it should say that, for that is the Greek translation, I am. Jesus was claiming the name of God. I am the life of God. I am the love of God. Do not be afraid.
Not that Jesus is God, but that Jesus reveals the life and love of God.
I feel like he might have added, Have you got it now!
Because that`s the thing isn`t it.
Is Jesus a pointer to God, to a deeper level of seeing and knowing God or some icon that we worship as a miracle worker?
Who is this Jesus for us? This is not an intellectual question but a heart question. A question of commitment.
Let me read a definition of a Christian written by Frederick Buechner…
Whether you believe the story really happened or not, whether the food was multiplied or not, doesn`t matter. For this is the essence of who Jesus was to the writer of John. Radical, inclusive, loving and compassionate. Jesus represents, reflects, embodies God in these characteristics, these qualities. As Paul Tillich writes, `The particularity of Jesus` life and message points to the universality of God`s love and presence.`
And where do we find God? In each and every one of us. A mystery at the heart of life, and at the heart of the universe..
And if we use Jesus as our guide, just maybe we will live this mystery in the world, just as he did. Just maybe.
Note - Thanks to Rev Prof Bill Loader and his lectionary notes and to Bill Peddie and his sermon on the reading.