Today we leave Mark’s Gospel, the primary Gospel assigned to this year, and we begin a series of readings in John’s Gospel, the 6th Chapter. This chapter is mostly a discourse on bread – manna, bread from heaven, the bread of life, Jesus as living bread. But before the discourse, which we’ll read through together over several weeks, comes the sign.
John’s whole Gospel can be divided into two books:
- The book of signs, chapters 1 through 12, tells all about his teachings and miracles
- And the book of glory, chapters 13 and following, tells of his passion and resurrection
This story is clearly part of the book of signs.
But first, some context. Up to this point in John’s Gospel, Jesus has done a few other signs
- He turned 6 stone jars of water into wine at the wedding in Cana
- He cleansed the Temple of the moneychangers and sellers of animals
- He healed the son of a royal official and cure a crippled man on the Sabbath
- And now, in Chapter 6, he feeds a multitude and walks on stormy waters
The purpose of the book of signs in John’s Gospel is to reveal who Jesus is , for that is the ultimate question after all. Who is this?
- Is he the prophet?
- Is he the one like Moses?
Both of whom were expected to come before Messiah.
- Is he the prince of demons, as his enemies claim elsewhere?
- Is he Messiah?
- Is he the Word made flesh?
- Is he the true light come into the world?
- Is he just a magician or wonder-worker?
- Is he God?
Over and over again Jesus says, in John’s Gospel: ego eimi, which is Greek for: I Am. Now, of course, anyone paying even a little bit of attention, who knows anything about the Jewish faith and the Hebrew Scriptures, knows that this is a loaded phrase. It’s a claim of divinity. “I Am” is the name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush, and John’s Gospel, including parts of this 6th Chapter that we’ll read in the weeks ahead, is loaded with I Am statements.
For our part, as we move through this 6th Chapter in the coming weeks, this phrase will usually be connected to some predicate adjective or predicate nominative (for you grammar geeks)
- I Am the living bread
- I Am the bread of life, etc.
But not so in our reading for today. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Let’s start at the beginning.
Jesus has been doing signs, and he’s begun attracting crowds, only, now, the crowd has gathered in a deserted place and, whereas Mark told us last week that Jesus had compassion on the crowd, John tells us that he sees the crowd coming and acts proactively, turning to Phillip with a very practical question: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” It’s a test, you see. The crowd has seen the signs, and they’re coming, John tells us, because of what they’ve seen. This is an act of faith on the part of the crowd. Phillip, on the other hand, seems to have forgotten what he’s already seen and heard, and he answers: Duh, I dunno! We don’t have enough money to buy enough food for so many people. And then Andrew chimes in with some information. He’s found a child with 5 loaves and 2 fish, but he quickly dismisses the value of this small amount of food, saying: What are they among so many people?
Neither one of them seems to get it; not even as much as the crowd does. At least the crowd comes to Jesus expecting something good based on the signs they’ve already seen, or heard about, Jesus doing. The disciples don’t even seem to have any expectations or any idea that Jesus might be able to do something about this situation.
But Jesus takes the loaves, gives thanks, and distributes them to those who are assembled together in his presence. And lo and behold, there’s enough for everyone with lots left over! 12 baskets full! And the crowd’s response is: We know who this guy is; he’s the prophet who’s supposed to come into the world! And it makes sense, I guess. Who else could do such a thing? But Jesus, realizing that this sign is being misunderstood, and that the people might want to forcibly take him and make him their King in some revolutionary action against the Roman occupiers, slips away up the mountain by himself.
The whole idea of the doing of signs is to reveal Jesus as the ego eimi, that he is the I Am, but the people misunderstand what that means. Jesus hasn’t come to be their earthly, revolutionary leader. Jesus is “I Am”, in the flesh.
The sign, of course, is also meant for us, to reveal who Jesus is for us in our own time. And the form in which the sign happens is no accident. This is one of only a few stories that appears in each and every one of the 4 Gospels, and each account records a form that should sound very familiar to us.
- Jesus takes the bread
- Gives thanks, or eucharistia, in the Greek
- Breaks it
- And shares it
And we, of course, are meant to hear the echo of our own Eucharistic meal keeping. And having just read together the story of Herod’s symposium meal from Mark’s Gospel a couple weeks ago, with its gruesome story of John’s beheading and with all of its exclusive and abusive characteristics, we are encouraged to consider anew the meaning of these meals in juxtaposition, and the connections between this miraculous feeding story and our own keeping of the Eucharistic meal.
This miraculous feeding is meant to continue into our own gathering as we are now the crowd that comes with great expectation to this One who has been doing signs and wonders. Those 12 baskets of food, leftover, and gathered together, are carried into our assembly here and we, too, are fed. And in the feeding, the identity of this Jesus, this Word made flesh, this miracle worker, this healer and teacher is revealed anew in our midst.
Ego eimi. I Am, not an earthly king come to rule and reign only here and now, overthrowing Rome or whatever oppressive force is dominating your life, but I Am, the One who knows your needs before you know them yourself, and better and more fully than you know them, and who not only can, but takes great pleasure in meeting those needs. This One is none other than the Lord our God, who gives to those who wait upon the Lord, food in due season, who opens wide the Divine hand and satisfies the desire of every living thing…
There’s a second story tacked onto this feeding story, not just here in John, but in Matthew and Mark as well. Immediately following this feeding miracle, the disciples get into the boat and try to row to the other side, only to find themselves impeded by the wind and waves. And Jesus walks out across those same waves. Now, they’re some 3 to 4 miles out, and when you’re that far out, the last thing you expect to see is a person walking up to your boat! And John writes: “they were terrified.” Well, yeah! Unlike most of what the disciples do and say, that, at least, makes sense! I mean, wouldn’t you freak out if you were 4 miles out to sea, and it was dark and stormy, and you saw someone walking on the water? I know I would!
And it’s here that Jesus speaks the ego eimi for the first of 5 times in this chapter. The version we read today translated it: “It is I; do not be afraid.” But the Greek New Testament reads simply: “I Am; do not fear.” And as soon as they try to take Jesus into the boat, the boat makes landfall…
Again, signs, in John’s Gospel, are all about revealing who Jesus is, and today, in these signs, Jesus is revealed to us as the Lord of heaven and earth who is present with us, even in the storms of life, and who makes a way, even where there seems to be no way, and as a compassionate provider who can take what seems to be too little, and make it, not just enough, but abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.
To be continued…