2 Kings 4: 42-44; John 6:1 – 21
St Michael’s AL3 4SL; 29th July 2018
The story of the feeding of the five thousand is the only example we have of the power and authority of Jesus that is reported in all four gospels. That makes it one of the best known of all his miracles. John’s gospel is different from Matthew / Mark and Luke in that it clearly uses sources / maybe memories / that the other three didn’t. It was the last gospel to be written. So this episode of miraculous feeding must be one that was told just about everywhere in the earliest days of the Church. It might well have been told – as we heard today – in the setting of the Eucharist / the thanksgiving for the body and blood of Christ / because the way Jesus breaks the bread and gives thanks would be a very good way into teaching about the eucharistic meal. Except that in St John’s version it doesn’t actually say that Jesus broke bread / as the other gospels do // just that he gave thanks and distributed the loaves. [v13].
But that is to nit-pick. The thing to do with miracle stories in the Bible is to stand well back from them and to try to discern what is the theological message behind the miracle. Jesus didn’t do cheap tricks. Absolutely the reverse. We don’t need to get hung up on the possibility / impossibility of what we read in the Bible. What we need to do is to see the miracles as a teaching aid to enable us to get hold of the message in the bigger picture. In that respect / the feeding of the five thousand is loaded down with meaning.
The most obvious message that Jesus is giving is that Jesus is the new Moses. Moses who organised the manna from heaven for the hungry Israelites as they dragged themselves out of Egypt and eventually into the Promised Land / as we read in Exodus 16.
But then there are more detailed points of comparison / layers to strip away from the onion. Like Moses / Jesus had crossed the water as John tells us: After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. [Jn 6:1]. Like Moses / Jesus seated the people by companies and fed them with such abundance that there was lots left over. Less obviously / but thanks to the compilers of the Lectionary / there is the episode from the second Book of Kings that we are given today for our Old Testament reading / where Elisha takes an army of men into the desert and feeds them miraculously with a few loaves. So taking the Moses and Elisha stories together / in feeding the five thousand Jesus is alluding to the fact that he is fulfilling the Law / brought by Moses from God / and as a successor to Elisha / the prophets. The same idea is brought to us in the story of the Transfiguration where Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets / and testify that Jesus is Messiah / the one whom the Law and the Prophets foretold.
The great symbolic meaning of bread is – The Word of God. It is the message of salvation. It is central to the Eucharist / which is why we are here. But it is not just to eat bread. Moses warned the people in Deuteronomy : He humbled you by letting you hunger / then by feeding you with manna …. in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone but by every Word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. [Dt 8:3] Jesus / the eternal Word. Capital “W”.
John follows the feeding of the five thousand by a long discourse / a teaching by Jesus in words / amplifying what he has just done by action / and culminating in his famous: I am the bread of life. [6:48] Observe also that John is careful to tell us: Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was very near. [6: 4]
Jesus relates the Bread of Life to his own flesh and blood / so the connection with the Eucharist is impossible to ignore. The Passover / when Jesus broke himself on the cross / to feed the world.
It must have been so frustrating for Jesus that the Galileans failed to see that he alone could fulfil their deepest needs by feeding them spiritually. Like the vast majority of people everywhere the Galileans supposed that their needs as human beings were limited to physical requirements. So they were ready to receive Jesus as a political Christ / a provider of miraculous bread / a provider of cheap food who would establish a kind of Utopia and lay it before them / unearned / as it were.
When Jesus miraculously multiplied the loaves and fishes / the Galileans were prepared to do what the Jews in Jerusalem had NOT been prepared to do / to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah / the Christ / the Anointed One. These people from Galilee were doing it. They were doing it for the wrong reasons / but they were at least doing it. When Jesus realised that they wanted to carry him away to be their earthy leader / he withdrew into the hills. He had come NOT to satisfy their economic and political needs / but their deepest need for forgiveness without which they could not enjoy eternal life – any more than we can.
It says in the gospels that because the people had closed their minds in a particular place / Nazareth / actually / Jesus could do no miracles there. It is interesting because it wasn’t only the Galileans who closed their minds. We all have a part to play. It is not enough just to accept without question whatever drifts across the frontal lobes of our brain without consideration.
But neither must we go the other way and close ourselves off from the perception of the divine when God DOES act in our life // And he does.
All too many of us seek in all things a “rational” – in inverted commas – explanation for the inexplicable / to argue God out of our daily life altogether. If Jesus could do no miracles because minds were closed / what chance have we!
Elsewhere [1 Jn 4:4] St John tells us that the power that is in us – by which he means the Holy Spirit – is greater than anything else that is outside of us in the world. It is a challenge for us to accept this truth and to apply it to the people and to the circumstances that God presents to us in the world / in our life. The crowds who had sick friends or relatives they wanted to be healed kept close to Jesus when he was out and about. We all ought to do the same / because we ALL need healing. We ALL need feeding. It is particularly and obviously the case with small babies like Emilia. She is a marvellous little object lesson for us here today. But there isn’t some magical “cut-off point” where / spiritually / we can “go it alone” and not want or need God through Jesus Christ any more.
So can we clarify our reasons for following Jesus? Are WE truly open to him? What do WE expect of him? What can we offer him? And what do we think he expects from us? These are important questions / highlighted at a Baptism. There is no danger of Jesus disappointing us. Let us pray that we do not disappoint him. AMEN.