Tenth Sunday after Pentecost Year B
C. S. Lewis, the British scholar and better-known author of fantasies like The Chronicles of Narnia once wrote that “miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”
Our Gospel reading today, from the Apostle John, retells the story of the Exodus, God’s delivering of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, to freedom in the promised land, with Jesus playing the part of Moses, and the disciples and the five-thousand playing the part of the Hebrews.
The Passover, that most important festival of the Jewish faith, which commemorates the greatest event in the life of the Hebrew people, their salvation from bondage, is the time-frame for Jesus miracle. And just as Moses asked God to feed the Hebrews in the wilderness, so Jesus feeds the multitude who have followed him, because “they saw the signs that he was doing.”
The feeding of the multitude is the only miracle of Jesus that is recorded in all four Gospels, so this must be pretty important in describing something about who Jesus is and what his mission is about. And lest you think this miracle is only about satiating physical hunger, it is telling that the word John uses to describe the effect of the crowds’ feeding, “they were satisfied,” actually carries with it the notion of a dream being fulfilled, not just a stomach being filled.
So much so, that the scripture says the crowd was about to “take Jesus by force to make him king,” so Jesus escaped to a mountain by himself, the same way Moses did to meet with God. The crowd recognized Jesus as “the prophet who is to come into the world.”
Of course, John is wanting us to understand more than what the crowd perceived about Jesus – that he was not just the prophet the people were expecting, but the Christ, the Messiah, the Logos or living Word of God. The one through whom everything in heaven and earth was made. In short, that Jesus was God’s Son. Again, quoting C.S. Lewis, “the central miracle asserted by Christians is the incarnation, that God became man.”
So to view this story as a quaint retelling of a group of Jesus’ followers who just happened to share their lunches with each other, misses the point entirely. The smaller miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes should not be obscured by the larger miracle that Jesus, by his words and deeds, could produce such a sign of hope and healing that this multitude would feel that their deepest needs had been met, that they had received not just a meal, but the very “bread of life” from the hands of this rabbi, who was so much more than any teacher they had ever encountered.
Some say that the net effect of modernity has been to cast aside our capacity to wonder at the mystery of God; that in our attempts to explain everything, we ceased to see the miraculous in our everyday lives. Maybe the English poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, said it best:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes—
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
In three of the four Gospels, with the exception of Luke, this feeding story is always coupled with the miracle of Jesus walking on the water. I don’t think that is a coincidence or mere copycatting. I think the authors are trying to tell us something by pairing these stories. In each of the versions, Jesus joins the disciples later, after they have left the scene of the feeding and are on their way across the lake. Jesus comes walking on the stormy sea calming their fears and bringing peace and safe passage.
In the same way that Jesus satisfies the multitudes deepest hunger, beyond their physical hunger, by his words and deeds, so Jesus banishes the fear of death in the midst of the storm, and brings the peace of God to rest on the hearts and souls of his disciples through his words and actions. The scriptures says, “they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But Jesus said to them, It is I; do not be afraid.”
That phrase, “it is I” can also be translated, “I am,” John’s code phrase for identifying Jesus as the incarnate one. Maybe the most revealing phrase John uses is the verb describing the disciples wanting to “take Jesus into the boat.” The word used there is used other places in John for believing that Jesus is the Son of God. So for John, this represents a profound trust by the disicples that immediately results in calm and joy.
John is writing his Gospel with the expressed purpose of demonstrating what he proclaimed in his prologue, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” John wants us to know that following Jesus means following the way of Jesus, the truth of Jesus, and the life of Jesus. This God that Jesus reveals refuses to be objectified and controlled, but rather seeks to enter into relationship with us.
Experiencing this God is grounded in the triune life as revealed in the incarnation of Jesus. The Quaker writer, Parker Palmer, states, “that in Christian tradition, truth is not a concept that ‘works,’ but an incarnation that lives.” At the end of all of our study and knowledge and experience remains the mystery we call God. And our Christian faith asserts that the best picture we have of what this God is like, is Jesus.
As we follow him, we find the same peace and comfort and joy that those first disciples discovered so long ago on that stormy lake. And as we feed at the Lord’s table, we discover that our souls are filled and our hearts assured that God truly is completely for us because he has shown us what love is, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.