Those paying attention to the lectionary may notice that we shift this week in the Gospel. We jump from Mark back into John. It might seem a curious thing to do. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that the editors of the lectionary preferred giving us all an opportunity to study the Eucharist in depth for a few weeks. John’s account is full of symbolism and meaning. Mark tends to just hammer away from point to point. I think the other reason, though, is that we have to begin to grapple with the question of Jesus. Who is He? Is He just another prophet like Moses and Elijah? Is He simply the ANE’s version of a hippy, dippy teacher and preacher? Is He yet another philosopher with some truth claims that seem enlightened (love your neighbor as you love yourself?)? Is He a charlatan? Is He little more than the “Buddy” represented by the statue unveiled in Dogma by Bishop George Carlin? Who is He? John is a wonderful place for us to examine the question in depth.
John sets the Feeding of the 5000 clearly in terms of Passover. For those of us who forget, the Passover was a meal that was instituted by God to mark Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. As the Angel of Death was killing the firstborns of all those who had no lamb’s blood to mark their need for mercy, Israel was eating the feast, ready to travel. It is a complex meal. There were rules about how the food was to be prepared, how families could come together to share, how participants were to dress, how they were to recline, and other such things. John places this miracle clearly in terms of the Passover. How do we know?
Verse 3 starts us off. Jesus goes up the mountain. In English, we tend to ignore articles such as a, the, and an. They are rather unimportant in our language as a whole, except to professors and teachers of English. I can’t recall for sure, but I do not believe articles ever provoked a song for School House Rock on Saturday morning. In Greek, the articles are generally contained in the noun. When we translate a noun, we can add any article we see fit, so long as the sentence is not changed. But, from time to time, the Greeks added articles. You all might be already starting to fall asleep as you did in English and Composition in high school, but the presence of an article in Greek is sometimes like us bolding a word in text. John tells us Jesus went up the mountain. Why is that significant?
What was the mountain? What was its significance in the history of Israel? The mountain was where Moses turned aside to see the bush. The mountain was the destination given to Pharaoh when Moses first told him that the Lord wanted Israel to come to worship Him. The mountain was the place where Moses received the ten words. The mountain was the site of the theophany that terrified Israel. To be sure, there are other important mountains in Israel’s history, but none are tied to the Passover. How can we be sure that John wants us to see this mountain in the light of that mountain? Verse 4 – Now the Passover was near. Anyone reading the beginning of the passage has had their suspicions confirmed. John wants to have us in mind of the Passover as he narrates this story that gives us insight as to who Jesus is.
We are told a large crowd is seeking Jesus. I know it is hard for some of us to believe, but there was a time when cell phones, texting, e-mail, and other devices did not exist. This story takes place even before the telegraph—you young ones can ask older ones “what’s a telegraph?” later. Information spread mostly by word of mouth. Travelers would encounter one another on the road and ask each other about the villages and towns the other had passed through. For example, if a traveler from Jerusalem on the road to Damascus met a traveler on the road from Damascus to Jerusalem, they might pick each other’s brains. Any sign of bandits? Any natural disasters like floods or fires? Any armies on the move? Any big news? Both would share information. That’s how news spread. As crossroads and other travelers were encountered, news could go in other directions. That’s how the news about Jesus’ healings have gone forth. Sure, people have told neighbors and customers, but the crowds that look for Jesus are considerable. Think about it for a second. What would it take to make you walk miles for a chance encounter? But you can imagine the news shared, right? Yeah, the road is good. Everything seems normal as far as that stuff, but let me tell you what I heard from these other travelers, or saw myself. There’s this prophet or Rabbi, His name is Jesus. You’ll never believe what He did. By word of mouth, Jesus’ name has spread throughout the countryside. People are flocking to see, to touch, to hear, to be healed. Such a group finds Him today.
Jesus asks Philip where to buy bread for the people to eat. Philip, we are told, is being tested. He responds like a great Vestry member. Whoa, Teacher, we could spend 180 denarii everyone would only get a little. The need is too great. The resources of the Apostles seem to insignificant. Andrew must be the problem solver. Well, we have this kid with five loaves and two fish, but, you know, look at the size of the crowd. Andrew is right. Their resources will be a crumb to the ocean of hunger in the crowd.
Then Jesus does the unexpected. He has the people sit down in the grass. Mark reminds us it is green, telling us in another detail it is the time of the Passover. John seems to have figured he has been clear enough. Jesus takes the loaves, blesses them, breaks them, and distributes them to the Apostles with instructions for them to distribute to the crowd. Then, John says, He does the same with the fish.
Think about your expectations within this crowd. If you are sitting in the back, do you really expect to be fed? Seeing the Healer hold up the five and two loaves, what are your expectations? No matter how careful His disciples are, there is no way I’m getting fed. Mathematicians may claim that wholes can be divided infinitely, but bread will not be divided up infinitely, let alone for 5000 men, plus women and kids. Jesus issues curious instructions to the disciples, though. He instructs them to let everyone eat their fill. John tells us that everyone got as much as they wanted. How hungry would you be after walking some miles? If I invited you to eat wafers this morning in Nashville, how many would it take for you to be satisfied? Jesus satisfies the crowd with only five loaves and two fish!
There’s another sign, of course, to be discerned. Jesus instructs the disciples to collect the leftovers. We are told they collected twelve baskets of leftovers, after feeding the crowd until all were satisfied, from five loaves and two fish! Sceptics, and those who reject miracles, will try and explain the event. “You see, the crowd was moved by the generosity of the young boy to share what they had with one another. The leftovers came from the people and not from Jesus’ provision.” Such sounds plausible to our ears. Look again, though, at the story. What happens? The people have an “aha” moment. They are determined to make Jesus king. Do you think sharing would really inspire you to risk the wrath of Rome? No. Would people sharing really inspire you to risk your life, your family, everything you have? The people, like you and me this morning, are put in mind of the Passover. To be sure, they want the Passover on their own terms, but they and we get a bit of a glimpse into Jesus.
First, we see how Jesus seems to rank in the line of the prophets. Israel held that the two greatest prophets were Moses and Elijah. Nobody here is shocked by that statement. But have you ever paid close attention to the story of the Exodus? Moses always intercedes on behalf of the people. Usually, he intercedes by grumbling. Lord, you gave me these people to lead, but they are unruly. They are hungry. They prefer the collar of slavery to the freedom You promise. You have to help me. When the people hunger, Moses prays to God and God sends the quail and God sends the manna. Never in the Exodus account do people think the miracle comes from Moses. God simply acts when Moses calls upon Him.
Jesus, by contrast, does not intercede with God. Jesus does not ask His Father to act because it is within His power to act—He is God! Jesus blesses and breaks and distributes, and all get their fill! The people are put in mind of the Passover. The allusion to Moses cannot be missed. Moses intercedes; this Jesus does it Himself! He is the prophet who has come into the world! Scripture, specifically Moses and other prophets, have foretold that the Anointed would come. In this Passover themed miracle, Jesus is claiming that mantle for Himself. But it is His mantle to claim, and not that of the people.
The second insight we get in this reading is how the people have not changed. You would think that a people who chose Saul would be careful about their next king. You would think that a people who had been subjected to the rulers of Kings and Chronicles would have second thoughts about placing a crown upon anyone’s head. Heck, some have seen the results of rebellions and would know the hurt they cause. But they recognize Jesus is the One foretold and act to make Him king.
Jesus, of course, is a king, but He is a unique king. He is not so much a king of the people as He is a king for the people. One of the fascinating reads in Scripture is of the peoples’ rejection of God as king. God warns them what kings will do to them. Still, they reject God and embrace this idea of becoming like those around them. Samuel, in particular, throws a fit. But this is a lesson that the people must learn for themselves. God, in His mercy, gives them a king, but He promises that, one day, His King, will sit on the throne. Of course, the anointing of that king will be completely unexpected because God has a bigger plan in mind.
Our third lesson this morning is one of the Passover. As good as the Passover was, as important as it was to Jewish identity and cultural heritage, Jesus has a Passover in mind that exceeds by orders of magnitude the Passover experienced by the Jews. Unlike Moses, who came only to free the Jews from Egyptian slavery, Jesus has come to free humanity from the hopelessness and death of sin. What is about to happen is a Passover far greater, far more amazing than any of those present can ever imagine!
Sceptics among us and out in the world might still want to argue that Jesus’ lack of intercession does not mean He is God. John apparently realized that too. The story continues with Jesus heading back up the mountain to hide from the crowd. Meanwhile, the disciples are heading to Capernaum via boat. Typically, a wind blows up and makes it hard to row. Looking, they see Jesus walking on the water. The testimony to the ANE would be clear. Water was a force of chaos. Large bodies of water were to be feared because they were unpredictable. Jesus, perhaps echoing creation in Genesis, comes strolling across the water. When the disciples see Him, they are terrified. Then Jesus, using the words of the burning bush, says to them, “I am. Do not be afraid.” Two great signs; one great God!
All that is fine and good, and certainly we will spend the next few weeks speaking of the sacraments and the way that Jesus is the bread of life. But it seems to me that this story hits us in a couple places here in Nashville, at this specific time. One is in the question of stewardship. I sort of had to laugh during this first seven months among you. It was important to the Search Committee and the Vestry that your next rector be engaged in Stewardship. As one whose discernment process really began as the result of a stewardship sermon some eighteen years ago or so, I assured them that I had no problems speaking and preaching and teaching about stewardship. Heck, living as a priest with seven kids, I think, requires a great deal of stewardship on mine and Karen’s part. Gregg and I were speaking Wednesday, though, how the lectionary has not really made stewardship, at least in terms of financial giving, a priority. Looking ahead, I won’t get a great opportunity to speak to it until October. Who designed this lectionary, anyway? We are laughing a bit, but it is a curious consideration in light of the fact that we have had no money teachings by Jesus, even though money is His most discussed subject.
In my short time here, I have met many Phillips and Andrews at Advent. There are a lot of practical, rational people who attend church here. Better still, at times, they engage in my sermons and teaching. One argument I have had with a number of people here is whether they are equipped to do the ministry to which they acknowledge that God might be calling them. As you all have figured out, I am a big fan of the soft-sell approach to evangelism. I think we have better results when we answer peoples’ questions about what informs or motivates us than when we hit the street corners thumping our Bibles. The best way to get others to ask us those questions is to live our lives as if we believe that Jesus is God, as if we believe we are redeemed from our sins, and as if He will come again to take us to that Great Feast. Listening to this story, those people probably sided with Phillip or Andrew. Jesus, this would take too much. Jesus, I have a bit, but it is like a drop in the ocean. Interestingly, it is the boy, the child, who provides the resources which our Lord will use this morning to satisfy the crowd. The little boy does not argue with Jesus. He just gives Him the bread and the fish. He acts with a childlike faith. When the adults thought it was impossible, we have this boy offering bread and fish for Jesus.
Brothers and sisters, if God is calling you to a ministry, one of two things is axiomatic: either you are already equipped, or He will equip you for the work He has given you to do. You might not think you are equipped, but you probably are! A lot of us have skills we tend to forget we have. But our Lord does not, and He is able to call them forth in our lives when they are needed. More amazingly, though, if we do lack skills, even then we need not worry. He will provide. One of the promises of this Eucharist that we share is that we are inheritors of all benefits of His passion. That means we get to claim what is necessary to glorify God in Christ! And make no mistake, brothers and sisters, when we know we have a lack and still feel that tug, we have no doubt on the other side who was asking. There is never that confusion that makes us think we did it rather than the Lord. So, brothers and sisters, if He is calling you, you are already or will be prepared. He has promised.
Along those lines, though, there is a wonderful reminder about the sacraments. In this story, we cannot miss the beginning of the transformation of the Passover into the Eucharist, a transformation which will not be completed until His Resurrection, reminding us that the bonds from which we have been freed are those of the evil heart. We talk in confirmation class that sacraments are outward and visible symbols of God’s grace. In this story you should see the beginning of the Eucharist, a Passover meal. From time to time, I think we like to delude ourselves into thinking that we are good enough, that we deserve some benefits from God. But the sacraments of the Church are there to remind each and every one of us who approach God that we approach the throne of mercy and of grace. What do we bring to God that He needs from us? Our hurts? Our fears? Our failures? The evil that is in our hearts? I know we want to pretend that we are full of any number of good qualities in our hearts, but do our lives bear that desire out? How many of us struggle just to thank Him once a week for this incredible gift? No. And it is at this table, this place, where we give thanks, eucharisteo in John’s writing today, that God loves us despite our sins, that God desires life for us despite our willing embrace of death, that God wants incredibly glorious things for all His children despite our ignorant willingness to fight over the scraps and crumbs of other idols!
We are all like that crowd. We have come to Jesus because the stories about Him call to us. Like those who were willing to walk for hours on foot for a mere glimpse or touch, we give up the comforts of bed or crossword puzzles, we hear the derision from friends and neighbors for “wasting our time”, and still we come. We want to know, we need to know, that we are loved. And the sacrament explains that mysterious truth to us in ways we may never be able to communicate to another. We come to this sacrament with the veneer of our world stripped away. Do we not approach the Eucharist with tears, only to learn that He has cried for us? Do we not approach the Eucharist with wounds, only to learn that He has been wounded for us? Do we not approach the Eucharist convinced of our own isolation, our own unlovableness, only to learn that we are always, tenderly loved? Do we not approach the Eucharist dying, only to learn that He has died for us?
My favorite commentary reading this week compared the Eucharist to a picture that brooks no falsehood. Each and every time we gather, we are confronted with our sins and failures and reminded of our inadequacies ever to earn our way back into God’s grace. Then, just when it seems we are doomed, He enters. He breaks, He blesses, and He distributes, much as He did before these 5000 we read about today. Nothing we have brought is used. We haven’t planned ahead. We have not been picked because we are uniquely better than anyone else. And we are fed! We are filled! We are reminded of His presence, of His gift, and of His promise! And fortified with those we are sent back out into a world that is starving to learn the truth conveyed in the mystery of the sacrament, a world where people want the same as us—to know they are loved dearly.
The story in John’s narrative, we might say, ends in a strange manner. Why don’t we stop at verse 14? Why do we go seven more verses, especially when the verses seem unrelated? In truth, those last seven verses remind us of the reality we will face within our hearts and out there in the world as we go about the work He has given us to do. Jesus heads back up the mountain to be by Himself for a time. No matter what the people intend, Jesus will not be cajoled away from the Father’s plan of salvation. Jesus will not be taken by force; nor will He take us by force. As Lewis said it in Narnia, He is a good lion, but a dangerous lion. Jesus has more work to do, and a far greater throne to ascend, than the people understand, even though they do recognize the sign. Later that evening, the disciples encounter Him as He walks across the water. The imagery of the Exodus is complete. Deliverance is among them, though, admittedly, they will not understand the slavery from which they are freed until Easter morning. He even identifies Himself as the I am of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush.
As we prepare to be fed and sent back out into the world to do the tasks He has given us to do, our Lord knows full well the storms, the enemies, the indifference, the need, everything we will encounter that seeks to thwart our missions. Goliaths and storms crop up everywhere God’s people are at work. We are reminded, of course, that those who share in His provision are never really alone. In real terms, that meant He could walk three or four miles on the water to reach His disciples. To us, it means that He can cross whatever chaos exists in our lives, quell it and our fears, and remind us of His presence with us. One of the deep reminders of the Eucharist, brothers and sisters, is that we who eat His flesh and drink His blood are members incorporate in that mystical body. He is part of us just as we are a part of Him. Better yet, we are heirs! Each week that we gather, each time that we gather, to celebrate this feast and all that goes with it, you and I are confronted with His promise that He is with us even to the end of the ages. Just think, we who are wearied, scarred, bloodied, tired, doubting, fearful, are forced to chew on the flesh and drink of the blood, reminding each one of us that never again are we ever alone. Never. It is as incredible a thought as it is a promise. Then again, our Lord is always about providing us more than we can ever ask or imagine . . .
I have intentionally skipped over much of what may be preached at churches in our community this weekend with respect to this reading. The fact is, we have a few weeks to discuss Jesus as bread, to discuss people’s response to His claims, and anything else that John has to say these next few Sundays. This week, I want you to look at the painting. I want you see how Jesus has met you on your journey and satisfied you, even when you were loathe to let Him or not yet convinced of your need of Him. Think on that gracious brow and amazing hand, that loved you, lifted you, and asked only to let Him satisfy you!