July 29, 2012
The feeding of the five thousand. It is one of the very few miracle stories that appears in all four gospels. As is almost always the case with John, the way the story is told here helps us understand better and more deeply that gospel writer’s unique perspective on Jesus and what he wants us, his readers to understand and experience.
There are at least two key differences in John’s telling. In the first place, the immediate context for the miracle is not Jesus’ compassion. It is not worry about what the people will eat that causes him to act. Rather, this miracle, this sign, to use John’s word, is meant to demonstrate Jesus’ power. In addition, John provides a particular religious context. This takes place during the festival of the Passover, that great celebration of the deliverance of the Hebrew people from bondage under Pharaoh. It was a festival with political implications during this later period of bondage, as the Jewish community lived under Roman rule. But it was also a festival centered on food, with the development of the Passover meal occurring during this period.
Secondly, instead of the disciples’ distributing the food. Jesus does it himself. This sign, unlike the earlier one where he changes water into wine, is effected through Jesus’ direct agency. He takes the bread, gave thanks, and distributes to the crowd. By the way, that language mimics the language in the Eucharistic prayer we say every Sunday.
We will have occasion over the next weeks to look more closely at how John interprets the feeding of the five thousand. Today, I would like to focus on what he have in front of us and in the larger context of John’s gospel. I am particularly interested in thinking together with you about how John uses these miracles, or signs.
This is the third sign that Jesus performs in the gospel. The first is the wedding at Cana, when he turns water into wine. The second occurs in chapter 5, when Jesus heals a paralytic at the pool of Siloam. This story also comes after Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, and there are resonances here with that story as well.
I would like to point out two things about this connection with the earlier signs. Here, as earlier with the wedding at Cana, Jesus produced much more food than was necessary. In spite of the fact that there were only five loaves and two fishes to begin with, after everyone had their fill, there were twelve baskets of barley loaves left over. Similarly, at Cana, Jesus made a super abundance of wine, far more than was necessary at that point in the celebration. The second thing to note is the response. At the end of the story of the transformation of water into wine, John writes, that in this sign, “Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.” Here the people respond by saying, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” By the way this statement echoes one of the things the Samaritan woman said in an earlier chapter.
As the chapter continues John will develop the meaning of this sign. For now, however, our focus should be on Jesus’ actions and the crowd’s response. In a sermon a few weeks ago, I mentioned that for the Gospel of Mark, the healings and miracles that Jesus performs are not intended to create or sustain one’s faith. Rather, they are the product of faith. Jesus told the woman who was healed when she touched the hem of his garment, “Your faith has made you well.” This approach to miracle can easily be misunderstood. Too many Christians who pray for God’s healing believe that if only they had enough faith, God would deliver them from their distress. That’s not what Mark meant. His critique of miracle was directed at those who believed Jesus’ power to heal the sick or calm the storm was evidence of the sort of super-hero Messiah he was. For Mark, that interpretation got Jesus and messiah-ship all wrong.
John has a slightly different attitude or understanding toward miracles, or signs, as he calls them. We see that understanding quite clearly here. Jesus intends the sign for a certain purpose. He does not feed the people because he has compassion for them (which is the explanation in the synoptics). This sign is meant as a demonstration of his power. And the crowd responds to the sign with a confession of faith in Jesus: “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
We might think that such a confession means the crowd understands who Jesus is. Not at all. The very next verse reveals their complete misunderstanding of who Jesus was. Jesus fled the crowd because he knew they were about to come to take him by force to make him king. For John, the sign—the miracle—is only the first step toward faith. In fact, it may lead to an inadequate faith, faith in Jesus as miracle worker, even prophet. But that’s not what matters. What’s important for John is that the reader of the gospel experiences the deep faith offered by Christ—a relationship. To put it another way, the crowd may have had their bellies filled to bursting, but they had not tasted the bread of life that Jesus offered them, and offers us.
There’s a second miracle in today’s gospel. As spectacular as the feeding of the five thousand is, the story of Jesus’ walking on the water is even more unbelievable. We are even more likely to see it as proof of Jesus’ divinity, even more likely to respond like the crowd did, to seek to declare Jesus king and deliverer. But again, John points us in a very different direction. Jesus responds to the terrified disciples not with words of comfort, but with a declaration of who he is—“I am, do not be afraid.” This is what scholars call a theophany—an experience of the divine, a revelation of God’s presence. Jesus uses here the same words Yahweh used when appearing to Moses in the burning bush, “I am.” And to add, “do not be afraid,” is confirmation. It too is language that appears when God appears to humans.
This helps us see the signs correctly. The feeding of the five thousand is no mere sleight of hand or magic trick. It is the revelation of God’s glory among us, in the flesh, in this world. Now that glory is most fully revealed and experienced in the cross but we see it here as well. One important aspect of the glory revealed here in this sign and at the earlier wedding at Cana is the sheer abundance of the wine and food. Here there were twelve baskets leftover, enough symbolically to feed all of Israel. But it symbolizes more than that. It symbolizes the abundant life we live in Jesus Christ, lives sustained not by bread and water, but by the living water and the bread of life.
The glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ, revealed in signs and on the cross, is not primarily a set of beliefs or even a code of conduct, a list of things to do and not do. The glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ is the promise of relationship with living water and the bread of life, a promise of abundant life lived in God’s presence. We see that abundant life in those leftover baskets of food, abundance in the midst of want and scarcity.
Like the crowd, we have received sustenance from God. All that we have has been given by God and as we look around we see that yes, there is even more, more than we can ever want or need. Our human tendency is to grasp and hoard, to accumulate. But as God has given us so much, God calls us to be like Jesus, offering bread and water to those in need, giving of ourselves, as Jesus gave of himself. When we do so, we share in the abundant life of God, and offer that abundant life to others. When we do so, we help others know and experience God’s presence, we help them overcome their fear, and be fed. We make Jesus Christ present to the world.