Bread of Life – The Set-up

Preached on 29 July 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12, Year B  Track 2 (Thematic)

In the middle of this long season of ordinary time after Pentecost, our lectionary takes a break from Mark, the gospel for this year. Starting today, the lectionary spends five weeks in Chapter 6 of the gospel of John.  Five weeks; 71 verses.  It’s an opportunity to go deep.

Now the thing about John is that it doesn’t get its own year.  We read it in bits and pieces throughout the three year cycle, so we never get a chance to hear how it flows; how it holds together.  We don’t get a chance to notice how one story reiterates a message from another passage or repeats a theme or takes an idea deeper.  So, before we dive into today’s reading, let’s talk a little bit about the overall flavor of John.

John writes for a Jewish audience toward the end of the first century; after the destruction of the Temple in 70.  He uses the Jewish festivals as time markers.   He focuses on Incarnation and Revelation of the Divine. Jesus is the Word made flesh who walks among us.  Jesus, the Incarnate One, reveals God to us.

Jesus uses “I Am” statements that recall God’s words to Moses and the patriarchs in the Old Testament: “I Am the Lord Your God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”  In John’s gospel, we hear Jesus say,
I Am the light of the world,
I Am the gate of the sheepfold,
I Am the Good Shepherd, I Am the True Vine,
I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and
I Am the Bread of Life.

There is an emphasis in John’s gospel on Abundance – an abundance of grace offered by God, Abundant Life, and in today’s reading, an abundance of food.

John writes of “signs” rather than “miracles.”  And he uses a pattern.  He sets the stage, Jesus performs the sign, then there is dialogue and discourse.  In today’s reading, there are two signs – one for the crowd and one just for the disciples.  We’ll hear the dialogue and discourse over the course of the next few weeks, in which Jesus interprets and reinterprets this sign on many levels.

The first sign, the feeding of the 5,000, is in all four gospels and in three of them, it is paired with Jesus walking on water (the second sign).  Of course, each writer offers a slightly different account.

How is God revealed to you through these signs?  Imagine yourself in the crowd or in the boat.  Dwell on the details.

So, let’s go…  John sets the stage:  It is near the time of the Passover.  The people may be thinking about the stories of God’s deliverance of their people from slavery in Egypt, of their time in the desert, following Moses; of God giving them manna to eat for all those years.

Jesus goes up on the mountain with his disciples – reminiscent of Moses going up the mountain to talk to God.  Jesus looks up and sees a crowd of people approaching and he immediately begins to talk to his disciples about feeding them.

“Where can we buy bread?” he asks. His disciples point out their resources are meager.  They don’t have enough money to buy even a little bread for so many people.  There is a boy here with a few barley loaves – peasant food – and a couple of dried fish; but what is that among so many?

Apparently, they go down the hill.  Jesus tells the people to sit on the grass – and John notes that there is plenty of grass.  On the one hand, it brings to mind Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures…”  On the other hand, it looks ahead to when Jesus says, later in this gospel, “I am the Good Shepherd” and again to the end, when Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my sheep.”

Then Jesus distributes the food, the bread and fish, to the crowd himself.  All receive plenty to eat.  Afterwards, Jesus instructs the disciples to gather up the leftovers and there are 12 basketsful.

In this scene, Jesus doesn’t heal or teach. The crowd arrives and he is present to them.  He walks among them providing a basic necessity of life – bread.

The people understand the sign.  They may even be remembering the story we heard today about Elisha who fed 100 people with the few barley loaves that the man from Baal-shalishah, brought as an offering to God.  The people recognize him as a prophet and they want to make him king.  But Jesus will have none of it; he won’t be co-opted for someone else’s purposes.  He withdraws back up the mountain.  Alone.

Then, the disciples go to the sea and decide to take one of the boats across the lake to Capernaum.  This sets the stage for the second sign; the one only for the disciples.

They are three or four miles out when a strong wind comes up and the sea becomes very rough; they are terrified.  It’s night now and Jesus comes to them, through the storm, walking across the water.

He doesn’t calm the storm, though; he calms their fears.  “I Am,” he says, “don’t be afraid.”  And they immediately reach shore.  The NRSV translates it as “It is I,” because grammatically, that’s what our ear expects, but the words John uses are the same ones he uses for all the other “I Am” statements.

God, the I Am, is present; they need not fear.

John’s purpose in writing is to reveal who Jesus is and to reveal the nature of God.  He writes so that his readers will come to believe; to give their hearts to God.

In today’s story, a first level of understanding is that Jesus feeds hungry people.  God desires that all are fed.  No one goes hungry.  God’s love manifests in real food for real people.  We will hear Jesus offer more interpretations in the coming weeks.

What do these signs reveal to you about God?
And Jesus?  How do they touch your heart?  How do they speak to your soul?

Sit with them awhile; imagining yourself in the crowd or in the boat.  Dwell on the details. What is God stirring within you?