July 25, 2021
So… one of the things I learned about our second scripture passage this week is that this one miracle story is actually found in all four gospels… the feeding of the five thousand. Continue listening for God Word speaking to you as we read from the gospel of John chapter 6 starting with verse 1.
READ John 6:1-21
As I often do with you whenever I read from John’s gospel… I start my sermon by telling you how John is my least favorite gospel. And I do that not because I am some great arbitrator of what is good in scripture and what is bad… I do that to model a more interactive approach to the reading of scripture. When we engage with scripture, we need to allow ourselves to fully engage… not hold anything back. Really open our awareness not just to the questions that might arise about meaning… but be aware of our own responses to the stories. What are we bringing with us? What emotions or thoughts are triggered by these stories? Whenever I read John, I am very aware of how this gospel just tends to rub me the wrong. Instead of pushing me away, though… that awareness actually causes me to engage the text more because I want to know why. What is it about this gospel that affects me so? What is it about me that keeps leading me to that same place? And is that creating in me a dead end as I seek after God? It’s hard to move down this journey of faith if all I do is end up at the same place… because it’s very tempting for us to name that same place God. And so I try to open myself up to the full experience of reading… of engaging… of questioning both the text and myself… staying aware… the best I can… of those false starts… those false steps… and exploring what might be a better way forward.
For example… when I read this text again this week… my focus immediately went to verses five and six. “When Jesus looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.” In John’s gospel, Jesus is always one step ahead of everyone else. Jesus knows everything that is going to happen before it happens. And I suppose for the writer of John and the community of faith from which this gospel came… for them that vision of the Christ connected to their experiences… to their collective journey of faith. I can see how there can be a reassuring quality in that understanding of Jesus especially when surrounded by feelings of being out of control. A Jesus who is always in control and in charge… a Jesus who is always confident and knows where every situation is leading… that Jesus, I can imagine, would be very appealing to a Christian community that is being persecuted and being cut off from their Jewish roots… from their spiritual homes… as Christians of that time were being thrown out of synagogues and these Jesus followers were being declared outsiders and heretics, for lack of better word. I can understand that when the Jesus story is told among themselves… Jesus might be portrayed as in control.
So knowing the historical context behind John’s gospel, helps me to understand and appreciate the theology within this gospel. But I still don’t like it. I still have a hard time connecting to it. There still exists a tension I think in the way I find myself telling the Jesus story and the way they told the Jesus story. I mean… I have to be honest with you. I think that’s important. I especially need to be honest with myself. If I can’t be honest as I seek out God… if I start to hold back or worry too much about whether or not what I’m thinking or feeling is wrong or right… if I worry too much if there is going to be the proper approval from some authority… whoever that someone may be… approval to ensure that I end up only where I’m allowed to end up according to some preconceived notion of what is right and proper… then that’s no journey at all. Maybe sometimes we need to hit that wrong step… maybe a few different ones… before the right step can be found. Learn from our missteps.
In my mind… when I read those two verses… all I can see is Jesus walking behind Philip… putting his hands on his shoulders, pointing him toward the crowd and saying in his ear, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” If I were Philip in this situation… if I were Philip I’d like to turn around and say, “Come on man, do we really need to play these games?” It’s the “test”… it’s the “test” that sets me off. No. That’s not quite right. It’s the being tested that sets me off. It’s the being tested that pushes all of my buttons. And I want to take all of those feelings… and I want to throw them all on Jesus here… I can see how I want to define him in this moment by my reaction to being tested. Being tested like this… for me… feels like being manipulated… it feels false… it feels wrong. It becomes part of what I don’t like about this Jesus that John portrays. But to stay here… gets me no closer to the Living Word that John’s gospel contains.
I’m aware of my own button that’s been pushed. Wrong step. False start. Try again.
The crowd in the story experiences a miraculous feeding… firsthand. Maybe in their own theological faith language is the story we heard from 2 Kings… Elisha… the powerful, miracle working prophet Elisha from of old… a name often connected to Jesus by the crowds within the gospels… maybe this experience triggers that story for them… that language they have used previously in seeking and understanding God… a story during a time of famine, but God through God’s prophet providing enough to eat… enough even with some left over to feed more. God not only meets the need but goes beyond so others might be fed.
What else is here? Five barley loaves… not just generic bread… barley loaves, which my footnote quickly tells me is a food of the poor. And it doesn’t take much research to discover that the fish are not just two fresh fish as we would imagine… because really, why would someone walk around with two raw fish in the heat of the place… intending to eat them. Yuck. According to the Greek word used in the text… they are dried fish… again the fish you would carry with you. Not fancy, but the food of the common people. Basic food that nourishes.
There are all manner of buttons being pushed here with this crowd in the story. Messages being received. Five barley loaves and two dried fish. Five and two equal seven. Seven is a perfect number in scripture… it is a number that symbolizes completeness… enough. How many baskets were left? Twelve? Same meaning behind the number twelve as the number seven. There is enough. God provides completely… fully… with enough to feed more.
Now Phillip, in the story, is the one being tested… or his faith is. His response is the opposite from the message given by the numbers… “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Interesting contrast. But… do you notice how Philip’s answer does answer Jesus’ question. Do you remember it? “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus sets him off on the wrong foot. Almost like part of the test is to find the correction… to figure out how to get back to the way that is really the Christ… to see him for him and to be able to be aware of and ultimately sidestep all of the other stuff that we ourselves attach to Jesus.
The crowd witnessing this miracle firsthand… with their Elijah buttons good and pushed… with their seeing what makes for enough for all made with the simple food of the poor… they are about to set off on the wrong foot and declare Jesus king. Place him on a throne. Give him the power of government and rule. Reduce the Christ back down to the basest of definitions for that word. We need this one who fills bellies. That is what we want to receive from him. We will put him in the place where he can do and we can receive. But another theocracy isn’t the way forward. And Jesus doesn’t stay among them so they can define him in this way. In a gospel that has Jesus constantly saying “I am”… I am the bread of life… I am the light of the world… I am the door… I am the good shepherd… I am the resurrection and the life… I am the vine… I am the way, the truth, and the life… withdrawing from the fed 5,000 who want Jesus to be king is a clear statement of who Jesus is not going to be. I’m sure for many in the crowd in the story such a bold statement on his part would have rubbed them the wrong way.
Wrong step. False start. Try again.
After Jesus withdraws from the crowd, there is a period of time there where I want there to be more story. Me… who doesn’t like the test of faith put to Philip… wants to now see the test play itself out. After Jesus withdraws, what do the disciples then do between that time and the time when they head down to get on the boat. The crowd has eaten, but they haven’t been fed. Because that’s the real test isn’t it? Once you’re aware of that wrong first step… then your foot needs to find the right one. If the wrong question is “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”, then what is the right question? If even the miraculous feeding of 5,000 on five barley loaves and two dried fish leads to a wrong first step and wanting to make Jesus king… then what’s the right first step… what’s the right question? What’s that good, basic spiritual food that these disciples can feed to these 5,000… a spiritual food that by the numbers is complete and fills and there is more left… more left to share… a spiritual food that doesn’t deplete and diminish as you give it to people but expands and grows to feed all who gather and follow? And still have enough left to feed more?
Now that’s a test question to be whispered in the ear of a community of faith who is being told to leave their synagogues… who are being cut off and sent away… who are being told that they are not welcome. Such an experience might feel like… oh I don’t know… being in a boat in the dark… with a strong wind blowing and the seas getting rough and choppy. Lots of fear in a boat in that situation. But look… there’s Jesus walking on the water… unaffected by the waves and the chaos and the swirling fear of water and blowing wind. “Where are we to buy bread?” Wrong question. Wrong impulse. Wrong direction. But, in a sense it needs to be asked so it can be recognized and then left behind. Sometimes tests show the wrong answer so we can get to the right one. When will you take the throne? Wrong question. Wrong impulse. Wrong direction. Being inside a boat that is being tossed around by the wind and the waves, the wrong question… the wrong impulse… the wrong direction… is to tell the one walking on the water you need to get into the boat… that you too need to be defined by the experience of the boat… that the boat is what you need at this time to save you from sinking into the water. The one walking on the water says, no… it’s time for you to get out of the boat… because the next leg of your journey is here. The boat’s definition will not contain me. Now let’s go.
Wrong questions. Wrong impulses. Wrong directions. Dead ends and missteps are all over the place. And Saints, sometimes we get too attached to them and we get stuck. But staying there would be like the disciples staying in the boat as it reaches where they were going. The waves bumping the boat up against the shoreline. Each bump telling them to get out… but them still sitting there while Jesus walks away from them to what is coming next. It’s kind of a ridiculous image isn’t it? Sitting in a boat rocking back and forth. Staying in the same place. Bumping up against the shore that is crying out for a first step to land upon it.
The gospel of John is my least favorite gospel. I guess I could decide never to read it or study it or preach from it ever again. But I feel that somehow would be the wrong way to go… believing my likes and dislikes can define who Jesus really is. Amen.