Knowing Jesus – being part of the story

Pentecost 9

John 6:1-21

Marian Free

In the name of God who is the end of all our stories. Amen.

 There is a wonderful movie called “When Harry met Sally”. It is about two graduates who share a ride to New York, separate, meet again, separate and finally admit that they want to spend their lives together. I watched the movie again recently and was reminded that one of Harry’s habits was that he liked to read the end of a book first. He couldn’t stand the suspense of waiting until the end to see how everything worked out, so he would read a few pages at the beginning and then turn to the end before going back to where he had left off.

When I first saw the movie I couldn’t believe that any one could spoil a good read by jumping ahead in that way. However, I have to acknowledge that there are times when I’ve been compelled to ask someone whether or not a book ends well because the suspense is too much for me. I don’t want to know the ending exactly, but I do want to prepare myself to know if, for example, the central characters are going to completely damage their relationship or whether they eventually get it together. If I know that it is all going to end well, then I can cope with the stresses along the way! I have to confess that on one occasion it took me several weeks to read the end of a book, not because I was anxious about the ending, but because I had guessed what the ending was going to be and knew that it would spoil the whole book!

For most of us, knowing the end of a story spoils our enjoyment of it. In fact, reviewers now have an expression: “here comes the spoiler”‘ which acts as a warning for us to stop listening, watching or reading because the end of the story is about to be revealed.

John’s Gospel should perhaps come with such a warning. Throughout John’s gospel we are given a glimpse of the community in the present – the risen Jesus, the Jesus known by believers in the present – makes his presence known in the gospel as much, if not more than, the Jesus of history. This is because the author of John, unlike the authors of Matthew, Mark and Luke, writes from the perspective of a community which understands the historical Jesus as a result of knowing the risen Christ. Jesus is understood and taught from the perspective of those who know the risen Jesus. That is, the end of the story determines the way in which the story is told. That is not to say that the communities of the other gospels did not know the risen Christ and that they did not read that knowledge back into the story as they told it. It just means that they wrote their gospels from a different perspective. The writers of the Synoptic Gospels knew the end of the story but they wrote, by and large, as if they did not.

The account of feeding of the five thousand occurs in all four gospels. In fact in some gospels there are two accounts of miraculous feedings – the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand. Likewise in all four gospels the account of Jesus’ walking on the water is attached to the feeding of the five thousand.

John’s account has some marked differences from the other three. His detail of where the event occurred is more specific. He tells us that the Passover was near – a symbol that is associated with Jesus’ death. In John two disciples, Philip and Andrew, are mentioned by name. The emphasis in John is on the abundant provision of bread rather than the miracle itself. After the feeding, the disciples choose to go on ahead while Jesus withdraws by himself. There is a strong wind, but the disciples are more frightened of Jesus than they are of the storm.

A number of other factors in John’s re-telling stand out. These are what lead scholars to believe that the story is being interpreted in the light of the present situation – that of a community which knows the risen Christ. For example, in John’s account Jesus is completely in control. He is not trying to escape the crowds and they don’t reach the spot before him. It is Jesus, not the disciples who notices the hunger of the crowds and he doesn’t send the disciples to buy food to feed them.

In John’s gospel, Jesus sees the crowds coming, takes the initiative and asks Philip where they can buy bread. However, he does not expect an answer, because he already knows what he is going to do. The Jesus of John doesn’t waste time. As soon as he sees the crowds coming he wonders about feeding (not teaching) them. After they are fed, the crowds declare Jesus to be the prophet who is to come into the world. All this is in contrast with the other gospel writers who emphasize Jesus’ compassion, have Jesus teach and heal before the crowds are fed, and who stress the fact that the disciple’s misunderstand the meaning of the bread.

John’s concern in re-telling the story is less with the miracle itself and more with the question of the identity of Jesus. Even though they get it wrong, the recognition of Jesus by the crowds is an important part of the story. The crowds identify Jesus not just as a miracle worker, but as the prophet who is to come into the world. Mistakenly, they seek to make him king, but he is not the sort of king that they expect.

At the same time, the multiplication of the loaves provides an opportunity for teaching  – something that is a common feature in John’s gospel.  The Jesus of John doesn’t teach and heal the crowds and then feel obliged to feed them because he has kept them so late. In John the crowds are fed first. The miracle of the feeding provides the illustration and sets the scene for the teaching that is to come. (For the remainder of this very long chapter, Jesus will explain the meaning of the bread, claim to be the bread of life and demand that people identify completely with him by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. In fact, as we will discover the teaching is so difficult that it separates the Jesus’ true followers from those who just want what Jesus can do for them.)

As in Matthew and Mark, John’s account is followed by Jesus’ walking on the water. Again there are a number of differences in John which suggest an interpretation by the post-resurrection church. Two features stand out – Jesus comes to the disciples (as he does after the resurrection) and the key to the story is the recognition of Jesus by the disciples (they don’t mistake him for a ghost). When Jesus walks towards the boat the disciples are terrified, but when they know it is Jesus, they try to get him to come into the boat with him.

Their recognition of Jesus also serves to separate the disciples from the rest of the world. The disciples recognise Jesus for who he is, whereas the crowds see him as they want to see him. The crowds judge Jesus by worldly not other-worldly categories, they can see him only in earthly terms. The disciples know the deeper, spiritual significance of Jesus, and understand that as a result of such knowing they are set apart as the community that follows in his name.

Like the gospel writers, we too know the end of the Jesus’ story. Like the community for whom John’s gospel was written, our lives and our understanding of Jesus are determined as much by the Jesus who is present with us, as they are by our knowledge of the historic Jesus. The story of the historical Jesus is essential for our understanding of our faith, but it is the risen Jesus who informs, teaches, challenges and guides all that we do in the present.

Our present is the end of the story so far, our past is already a part of the story, and our future will determine how the story is told. In fact our future may determine whether or not the story continues to be told.

May we live in such a way that the story known through us is a story which is filled with the transforming power of the risen Christ in our lives.

(I am indebted to L.Th. Witkamp “Some Specific Johannine Features in John 6:1-21.” in Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 40 (1990) 43-60. for some of the ideas above.)

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