Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 26, 2015
John 6:1-21 Commentary
Comments and Observations:
Hang on to your hats, preaching partners, because we are beginning a 5-week odyssey in John 6. Granted this is an important chapter but 5 whole weeks of preaching sermons on variations of Jesus being the bread of life can be a bit taxing. Having skipped over the Feeding of the 5,000 in last week’s Common Lectionary gospel text from Mark 6, the Lectionary now picks up this miracle as John records it in his own sixth chapter. (Knowing that lots of “bread of life” stuff is coming up, you could on this week preach on the walking on water part, and I reflect on that in the second section “Questions to Ask / Issues to Address,” section of this sermon commentary article.)
There are quite a few rather obvious differences between the two accounts. Mark clearly shaped his own version of the story to highlight Jesus’ role as the Messianic Great Shepherd of the Sheep. Mark’s account was thus redolent of imagery from Psalm 23 as well as various “sheep without a shepherd” texts from Ezekiel and Isaiah. John lacks those details but instead nestles this story in close proximity to the upcoming Feast of the Passover while also using this story and Jesus’ subsequent walking on water as more “signs” that Jesus is the Chosen One of God. Unlike Mark’s account where we are actually unsure to what degree the crowd was aware of the feeding miracle that had occurred, in John they not only know what happened, they use it as a reason to try to seize on Jesus so as to force him to become a king, a political rival to all things Rome.
This must have been an occasion of great wonder but also of great joy and hilarity. As the basket of bread and fish kept going and going without being depleted, waves of laughter must have accompanied it. By the time the basket got to the fiftieth person, you can almost imagine his shouting back to the first person in line, “Hey, Sherman! Isn’t this the same fish you ate?!” As astonishment gave way to joy, as growling stomachs gave way to stuffed bellies, the people realized Jesus truly was a great man of God.
Only the Creator himself could “play” with the very stuff of creation as to pull off this feat. As the Son of God, Jesus held in his hands the kernels of wheat from every field on the planet as well as the fish in every stream, lake, and ocean. Through his hands alone the bounty of all those fields and streams was channeled to this hungry gathering. Not surprisingly, they right away wanted to make him their king. Who can blame them? We always hope our leaders will somehow find the wherewithal to make available to all the people the riches of the land. Smart politicians who want to be elected promise just this, too. “Vote for me and taxes will be cut to give you more money, production will be increased to give you more food, the economy will grow to give you more of . . . everything.” A chicken in every pot and all that . . .
So also these people perceived that since Jesus could so richly provide the good stuff of life, they would set him up as their new leader. But Jesus wants nothing to do with this, and so he gets out of there. Because much though the feeding of the hungry is a sign of Jesus’ larger purpose, this miracle is only a sign of Jesus’ salvation but it is not the same thing. Jesus does not want to be made a king who will just keep producing more wonder bread because Jesus knows that in the long run the business of eating and drinking is quite literally a dead end. Even as any individual meal can sustain us just so long before we need to eat again, so the entire enterprise of eating and drinking can only keep us going just so long, and then we die. The bread of this earth cannot keep us alive forever.
That’s why, when a loved one is gravely ill with some disease, we do not conclude that if we run to the kitchen and whip together a ham and Swiss sandwich, we can make this dear one eat and so keep on living. No, it doesn’t work that way. These days doctors are able to fasten a feeding tube into patients who are too damaged or too sick to eat the normal way. The high-protein goop that gets delivered through such tubes can sustain the person biologically, and yet in at least some situations the family members watching all of this conclude that the life this tube is sustaining is finally no life at all. So although we may agonize about it, we may ask for the forced feeding to stop in recognition of the fact that true life has now stopped in ways that bread and butter, calories and protein can no longer help.
What Jesus did on the mountainside that day for those 5,000 folks was wonderful. It was a sign of the kingdom. But it was not the kingdom. To get at the real reason Jesus had come, to solve the deeper problems of life and death, Jesus had to say something else, which is what he goes on to do in the last part of John 6. There Jesus presents himself as the true bread of life. Somehow by eating his flesh and drinking his blood we can find a new form of life–eternal life.
Since that part of John 6 is coming up in subsequent Lectionary readings in the coming weeks, we will wait to ponder the way John 6 closes, but clearly we cannot read this feeding story completely in isolation from where it will ultimately lead in this chapter.
Then as now, we’re altogether too eager to settle for the quick fix. Holy patience insists we stick with Jesus over the long haul, following him all the way to a cross that is not only not a quick fix, it even looks like the end of everything. But only when we stay with Jesus that long do we actually discover the beginning of everything.
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
John’s presentation of the well-known incident of Jesus’ walking upon the water is strange by most any reckoning. For one thing, it seems odd that the disciples took off for Capernaum by boat without Jesus. We’re told Jesus had not yet joined them, but once they were all on the other side of the lake, it’s not the least bit clear how he would be able to join them later on, either. It’s as though, while on a cross-country trip, dad pulled the family car out of the rest area and back onto the highway before little Jimmy had come back from the bathroom. Jimmy is not likely to be able to catch up once he comes back to the parking lot only to see the car zooming away at 65 MPH. Why leave someone behind?
We’re also told that although a strong wind had come up, the disciples are not reported to be in any grave danger (as the other accounts of this incident seem to convey). These are pretty experienced seaman and so they can handle some bigger swells. The only terror reported in this incident is when Jesus is seen serenely walking on the water. Once they realize it is Jesus, however, they let him climb aboard. But then we’re told not that the winds ceased or the sea became calm but only that (through what looks to be some kind of hyperfast transportation) the boat more or less disappeared from where it had been out on the lake only to reappear at the very shore toward which they had been headed all along.
So unlike other accounts of this where Jesus’ mastery over the creation and its elements is the key sign, it’s a little hard here to know what the sign is. Surely walking on water with about as much ease as walking on a gravel road is an eye-popper. And surely whatever quirk it was that suddenly made the boat appear at its destination—having gone from Point A to Point C without, apparently, having passed through Point B—is curious as well. But we receive no reaction from the disciples here, no words that indicate they were properly wowed or that they connected any dots between what happened and Jesus’ identity as the Lord of Creation.
But maybe in John the dots have to be connected by us as readers. Because we need to get beyond the English translation of John 6:20 where Jesus is depicted as saying, “It is I; don’t be afraid” so as to recall that what Jesus really says there is “I Am! Don’t be afraid.” Yes, a “dynamic equivalent” translation would have Jesus saying the equivalent of “It’s me!.” You know how that goes: you walk into the house only to have a family member elsewhere in the house call out, “Who’s there?” to which you reply, “It’s me, honey!” As such, you’re merely identifying yourself, putting at ease your fellow family member who might otherwise be a bit uptight as to who was entering the house.
But you can’t be familiar with John’s Gospel and miss the significance of the phrase “I Am.” The first time came in John 4 as Jesus revealed his Messianic identity to the Samaritan woman at the well. She said, “We know the Messiah is coming” and Jesus replied “Ego eimi,” “I Am.” Now in John 6 we get this again and, of course, many more memorable “I Am” sayings will follow. And taken together we know that in John this pegs Jesus’ identity to Yahweh, the Great I Am of Israel, the God who revealed the divine Name to Moses at the Burning Bush long ago.
The one walking on the water that day was Yahweh, was the Creator God himself. For those with theological eyes to see, John doesn’t need to make Jesus calm a storm or have the disciples express wonderment over how even the winds and waves obey Jesus. It’s enough to know Who it was walking on those waters.
And then it’s also no wonder to discover that having heard the freighted words “I Am” from the lips of Jesus, the disciples instantly arrived at where they were going. When you’re in the presence of God himself, you are always right where you should have been all along and where you will want always to be thereafter, too.
When compared to the Synoptic accounts, John 6:16-21 is discovered to be quite different. As Raymond Brown reminds us in his commentary, Chrysostom (among others) concluded that John’s version of Jesus’ walking on water is so different from the Synoptic accounts that John is quite probably narrating a different event altogether. Most commentators in history have disagreed with that conclusion, but we do find significant differences in detail, leading Brown to think that John’s may be the more primitive version of the story to which the Synoptic evangelists added various details and overlays of interpretation. What may be significant, however, is that one detail that all of the accounts share is the inclusion of Jesus’ saying, Ego Eimi, “I am” to identify himself.
Throughout history and across many very different religious traditions there has long been a curious linkage between spirituality and food. The Old Testament has its share of dietary restrictions and laws, many of which to this day translate into what observant Jews regard as kosher or non-kosher foods. Although the Christian faith has largely left behind such strictures, we still regard gluttony as one of the deadly sins, and some Christians also promote strict vegetarianism. Then there is the Roman Catholic “no meat on Friday” rule, which made the headlines a few years ago when St. Patrick’s day fell on a Friday during Lent, thus causing a number of Catholic bishops to suspend the rule for just March 17 so the Irish could celebrate with their traditional corned beef and a pint of Guinness!
Even some of the foods we eat each week have a religious background. In the mid-1800s there was a group of people in America known as the Millerites–a Christian sect firmly convinced that Jesus would return sometime late in the year 1843. He didn’t, setting off what was called “the Great Disappointment.” At least some of these folks, however, made the best of the situation by declaring that as a matter of fact Jesus had returned but that it had turned out to be an invisible, spiritual advent. Believing themselves to be living in an already-present millennial kingdom, these Adventists decided that as part of this new identity they should invent alternative foods as a sign of their not being fully in this world. So one preacher named Sylvester Graham invented a new kind of cracker for his congregation to eat–yes, the Graham Cracker. Peanut butter was also invented at this time, as was a variety of cold breakfast cereals, including something called a “corn flake,” perfected by Adventist devotee John Harvey Kellogg in a spiritual community located in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Food and spirituality have long been yoked, but aside from observing occasional periods of fasting, no religious group has ever said it would never eat anything again. We all know we must eat and drink to live. If we go much more than three days without water or a month or so with no food, we will die. Many organizations nobly work every day to get food to this world’s starving. The fact that thousands of children die of starvation every day is as vivid, and utterly tragic, a sign of this world’s broken condition as anything.
We need food to live. Those of us blessed enough never to have to worry about our food also have the luxury of being able to enjoy this creation’s bounty in all its manifold variety. We even celebrate those skilled at serving up particularly tasty cuisine, whether it’s Aunt Millie whose pot roast cannot be topped or Julia Child whose “Boeuf Bourguignon avec Champignon” is so fine we’ll shell out thirty or forty bucks just to get a plate of it.
We need food, we appreciate it. The crowds around Jesus on that long ago day as reported in John 6 were no different. They were hungry, Jesus fed them and so he quickly rose in their estimation because of this miracle.
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