God’s acts of power and creativity echo down the ages
Stephen Adam, 29 July 2018
Ephesians 3: 14–21; John 6: 1–21
In his gospel St John explores and meditates upon the identity of Jesus in the most profound way. We encounter some of the most powerful stories about Jesus, such as the raising of Lazarus from the dead; we encounter those great ‘I am’ sayings, among them, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ and ‘I am the bread of life’; and of course the gospel opens with that spine-tingling, mystical reflection so familiar to us every Christmas, of how in the person of Jesus the Word became flesh. It’s a gospel imbued with the understanding that the essence of God is love, and that love is fully disclosed in the person of Jesus and in the glory surrounding him.
The account of the feeding of the 5,000 appears in all four gospels – in various forms in all no less than six times. Indeed, it’s the only miracle recorded by all four evangelists, so it was clearly a vital event for the early Church as it was told and retold orally before being set down in writing. Why should this be? What’s going on here? What can we take away from the story today?
In our modern, sceptical world it’s easy to dismiss the feeding of the crowds simply as a stunt to impress people. Because we find it difficult to believe in miracles any longer, the temptation is to dismiss it out of hand, or for the preacher to seek an explanation for the miracle by turning it into no more than an improving tale where Jesus has compassion on a hungry crowd and encourages everyone to share their sandwiches so there’s enough to go round.
For sure, we can take away a moral message from this that the world would be a much better place with enough to go round for everyone if we were all more generous and shared what we had with our neighbours. But there’s also a deeper point, for there’s much more going on here as John tells the story. John is a master wordsmith and every detail, every word, is there for a reason to illuminate his underlying message. Let’s look at some of the details in John’s account and listen for the deliberate echoes.
Firstly, those key words, ‘The Passover was near’. John, always the theologian, and clearly with high expectations of his readership, immediately grounds his narrative in the context of Passover, that great Jewish festival recalling the liberation of the Israelite people from their slavery in Egypt, as Moses led them through the desert to the Promised Land. And when the people were hungry in the wilderness and Moses prayed to God, ‘Where am I to get meat to give to all these people?’ you may remember how God answered his prayer by sending manna to feed them.
Only John includes the detail of the little boy with his barley loaves and fish – a detail that suggests this is surely a real memory of an extraordinary event. We’re not told whether the little child got to receive a bit of the bread so marvellously multiplied – it was, after all, before we had regulations about the admission of children to communion before confirmation! – but either way, no doubt he dined out for the rest of his life on what happened when Jesus took his sandwiches!
And then there’s that telling detail, that as Jesus made the crowds sit down we’re told there was a good deal of grass around. Surely there’s an invitation here for us to call to mind those comforting words from Psalm 23: ‘He makes me lie down in green pastures … You prepare a table before me’.
There’s no account of the Last Supper in John’s gospel, but instead we have Jesus here distributing the food to the crowd in a Eucharistic manner, and we’re told that there was an abundance: when the crowd was satisfied there was still plenty left over. This story at the beginning of chapter 6 is really pivotal, for the rest of the chapter is an extended reflection on Jesus as the true bread, the living bread from heaven that lasts, as John draws out the detailed lessons from the feeding miracle.
It’s significant, too, that the account of Jesus walking on the water immediately follows the feeding of the 5,000. The powerful imagery here recalls the foundational story of the Exodus from Egypt as the waters of the Red Sea parted to let the Israelites through, so escaping from the Egyptian army. In the Old Testament the sea represented all the primeval powers of chaos and destruction, all that was to be feared. And yet Jesus comes to the disciples at their moment of crisis with the comforting words, ‘It is I, do not be afraid’.
Perhaps our situation today is not unlike that of the disciples in the boat in the storm. Politically, economically, socially and internationally all our old certainties and securities seem in decline; everything seems up in the air, and we live in anxious and troubled times. Some welcome the changes; many feel threatened. And yet in the midst of this Jesus’ words, ‘Do not be afraid’, are a massive invitation to faith, just like a parent waking a child from a nightmare and saying, ‘It’s all right, I’m right beside you, don’t be afraid’.
Jesus’ words, ‘Do not be afraid’, are a massive invitation to faith, just like a parent waking a child from a nightmare and saying, ‘It’s all right, I’m right beside you, don’t be afraid’.
That self-announcement of Jesus to the disciples in the midst of the storm and rough waters, ‘It is I’, is the same utterance as the God who spoke to their ancestors in the ancient storm of the exile from Egypt – the God who in the words of Isaiah declared, ‘I am God, I have called you’, ‘I am God, and there is no other’; and then those storm-stilling words of comfort to the exiles, ‘Do not fear, for I am with you’; ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you’; ‘Do not fear, I will help you’.
All these echoes from the Old Testament narrative of rescue are there in John. John is declaring that what God is doing in Jesus is similar to the divine action that brought the people of Israel safely out of Egypt. This is a new act of power and creativity by God, an act only prefigured in the feeding of the 5,000, an act that will come to full realisation at a another Passover time in Jerusalem where, on the cross, Jesus breaks himself to nourish the whole world.
Many then – as now – find this declaration by Jesus that he is the living bread too hard to accept. If we read on in chapter 6 we see that many of those who heard Jesus’ teaching say, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’, and many of his erstwhile followers desert him; they are looking for a Messiah of a different kind, one who they can make king.
But that’s not the way of the cross. Note how, as they walk away, Jesus does not try to stop them. He does not argue with them or chase after them. He respects their decision.
There’s a lesson here for us. Jesus does not impose or coerce. He is the generous host who invites us to share in God’s hospitality. The response is ours – we are free to accept or reject that invitation.
Paul was in no doubt of his response to that love. In that marvellous reading from Ephesians, our epistle this morning, Paul is breathless. The words come tumbling out with a cosmic vision that goes beyond what we can possibly grasp or fully understand, as he tries to express all that God in Christ has done.
Paul was in no doubt of his response to Jesus’ love. The words come tumbling out with a cosmic vision that goes beyond what we can possibly grasp or fully understand.
It’s a prayer that we may have a firm rooting and grounding in that love, a love which surpasses knowledge or human understanding. And it’s not just a personal prayer for ourselves – he prays that we ‘with all the saints’ might have the power to comprehend this love. We are placed in the context of the whole church family – believers local and distant, in times past and present. It’s a reminder that our faith is not something private, to keep to ourselves, but we are in relationship with each other and we’re called to live out that faith in the world around us as part of God’s family. What a prayer to hold on to!