Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/Fbt9exomLq8.
Pentecost 9B 2015
The lectionary is a difficult beast- last week we didn’t have Mark’s version of the feeding of the five thousand and were left with a difficult gospel and I elected to speak on Ephesians. This week we have a wonderful passage from Ephesians and I was very tempted to go on with that, and at the same time the terrible and challenging passage from 2 Samuel about David and Bathsheba which cries out to be preached on, and then next week its sequel- so a sermon series of two! And then I realized that this passage of John is the first of five passages that consider the “Bread of Life” discourse, which we will interrupt with our Patronal festival. But nonetheless I have decided to consider what Jesus is doing here because this chapter of John 6:1-71 tells us a great deal about what it means that Jesus is the Christ.
So, here we are with John’s version of the feeding of the five thousand. And as is common with John every word of this passage is significant, but of course we haven’t got time to look at everything. The first thing I want to bring to your attention is in verse two where there is a mention of “signs”. Now in John, the things that Jesus does are not called miracles, but “signs” and it is not the sign that is important but what they signify- so as we read this passage we are not reading it to hear the story but to discover what it tells us about Jesus and who he is.
We know the story well from the synoptics but let me just bring out a couple of things that are significantly different in John’s account. The first thing that I notice is that Jesus goes up the mountain and sits down with his disciples- this is pointing us to the fact that Jesus is about to teach. And that gives us the heads-up that while there is action, there is also very important unpacking to come. The next thing is that the Passover was near. What happens at Passover? They have a special meal to remember that they are God’s people, who have been brought out of slavery. This is the most significant thing in the Jewish calendar and Jesus is about to replace it with another meal- but more of that in subsequent weeks.
A significant difference between Mark’s account and John’s is that it is Jesus who points out the people’s need of food, and Jesus who feeds them. When you compare it to Mark’s gospel at the feeding of the 5,000 it is the disciples who come to Jesus and say- “Send the people away because they need to eat”, though interestingly at the subsequent feeding of the 4,000 it is Jesus who has pity on them, and that is, in my opinion, because the feeding of the 4,000 represents a feeding of Gentiles rather than Jews. Sadly that is another passage left out of the Lectionary, so you will just have to take my word for that.
Jesus asks the question, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” and it is a good question- they are in the country side not near a big town, but you know even for us, with a supermarket right there it wouldn’t be an easy task. If I were to send a couple of you out to buy bread and other things to eat with it, for 5,000 people you would have to visit every supermarket for miles around, wouldn’t you? because 5,000 is a lot of people- you’d need 500 sliced loaves to make each person one sandwich. These numbers are to make something very clear and that is that this cannot be done by human resources. Philip recognizes this, “Six months wages wouldn’t buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
So Andrew comes to Jesus and makes the offer of 5 barley loaves and two fish belonging to a little boy. This description shows us the paucity of human offering. Barley bread was the food of the poorest people- please don’t be imagining some delicious artisan bakery, and if one boy needs two fish they are only little ones! “But what are they among so many people?” asks Andrew, and this, of course, is the crucial question. “How can a multitude be fed with no resources?”
So Jesus says, “’Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place” Is this detail here so that we know that the 5,000 people sat down comfortably? No, this is here to foreshadow the ample pasture that the Good Shepherd, of chapter 10, will provide for his flock. And he is about to provide the bread of life for his people. Jesus gives thanks to God, breaks the bread and distributes it, and “so also the fish, as much as they wanted”. We will come back to the idea of the Sacred Meal in subsequent weeks, but let me just point out one more thing and that is that this is a God of abundance. They are not given as much as they need but in generosity, as much as they want. This narrative begins with scarcity, and ends with abundant generosity. Such generosity that there was a whole lot left over! And does this remind you of the wine at Cana- not just wine but the best wine in huge quantity- this is a God whose resources are poured out for us, in both quality and quantity.
Does this mean that no Christian will ever go hungry? Sadly not. It is not, however, that God has failed to provide sufficient but rather that we human beings fail to share God’s gifts.
We live in a society where the language of scarcity is a constant theme. We hear all the time about how families are struggling, how energy costs are increasing, how there is not enough money for education or health. Let me say to you that we are among the richest people on earth and that it is our desires and expectations that impoverish us. When you, with grey hair look back and remember your childhood- the fact that people had far fewer clothes, seldom ate take away, were grateful for a bicycle to get around on, and contrast it with the wealth that we now expect we can see that what we have as a society is abundance. And when we think about spending at a national level, again there is plenty, but we choose to spend it in ways that don’t leave enough for the schools and hospitals. Jet fighters and submarines cost a lot! Our Defence Force spending in total is budgeted at $85mil every day. Not to mention the 800 million that was budgeted to keep people locked up on Manus Island and Nauru in appalling conditions. It is not that we, even the poorest of us, have ‘not enough’, but about how we choose to spend it. Please don’t hear me saying that there are not people suffering in our society- there are and I am frequently called upon to help them. And I have a deep compassion for people who find it difficult to manage with limited resources. I was a mother of four on a small income myself and understand very well the terrific strain of not having enough to pay the bills. However, it is our deeply consumerist society that leads us into debt, both personal and public, and if you would like to think more about this let me encourage you to talk to Pamela who knows a great deal more than I do.
My point is that when we look at the big picture, the wealth of the world is held by a very small proportion of the world’s people. And we are among them, while our brothers and sisters in Africa, Asia, and South America starve or get by with very little. God has provided but we don’t want to share, and at the same time our rhetoric is all about scarcity. Jesus has come to change our attitudes and our rhetoric to one of abundance. Jesus calls us to generosity. Jesus who fed 5,000 and then had plenty left over for others, in fact enough in his twelve baskets for everybody, which I believe is the significance of there being twelve baskets left over, calls us to feed the people.
It is interesting that as a society we are constantly seeking for happiness, and yet are not happy. There has been a lot of research done over the last few years on “Happiness” and a really significant finding has been that the most important thing to being happy is to be thankful. When we think like people who live with abundance, rather than people who live in scarcity, and give thanks to God for what we have, we are happier in ourselves!
Jesus is the one who teaches us that we have more than we need, and that we should thank God for it. And Jesus is, of course, himself God. This is brought out in the next little section.
When he has fed the 5,000 they say, “This is indeed a prophet”. This is the first stage in recognizing who Jesus is. Jesus, understanding that they haven’t quite got it yet and that their limited understanding makes them want to have him as an earthly ruler withdraws from them.
So the disciples set off in their boat and start off. They are in the dark, which is the first of the resonances here with the prologue. It is dark because Jesus had not yet come to them- the light which was coming into the world, has not appeared. They set off over the waters of chaos, and Jesus comes to them- walking over that sea, which for the Jews represents death, and they are terrified. And Jesus says to them, “I AM” “Do not be afraid!” Now this is a typical theophany, isn’t it? God appears and tells them not to be afraid. Jesus is claiming here that he is not a prophet, pointing the way to God, but God god’s-self. Jesus, the bread of life, who feeds the 5,000 with generosity and abundance, is none other than God. “I AM” Yahweh. So this is another sign, for the disciples of who Jesus is, the one who can walk, not only through the darkness, but through the chaos of death, and prevail.
Jesus that has thanked God, and fed them, is none other than God. God of abundance and grace, revealed as the one who feeds us both personally and corporately.
As these next weeks go on we will look at how Jesus teaches us in the light of this revelation.