Finding in Jesus all that we desire

Pentecost 9

John 6:1-21 (Matt 14:13f, Mark 6:32f, Lk 9:10f)

Marian Free

In the name of God who provides for us more abundantly than we can imagine and more generously than we deserve. Amen.

I always approach the sixth chapter of John with a sense of trepidation bordering on dread. This is not because I find it particularly difficult to unpack or that there are themes within the chapter that jar or disturb. The reason John 6 fills me with a sense of disquiet is that we will spend the next five weeks working our way through it – all 75 verses of it! For the next five weeks (allowing for some literary license) I will be lying awake at night wondering whether there is yet another way that I can speak about bread or help to make sense of eating flesh.

Fortunately, John’s gospel has timeless appeal and is sufficiently complex that it warrants regular rereading and rewards a more detailed examination. So let us take a close look at today’s gospel – a well-known story that we hear today from a Johannine perspective.

The first thing of note is that the account of the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle story that is found in all four gospels. We know it so well that we have probably only paid attention to the elements that are familiar – the crowds who have followed Jesus, the concern shown for the hungry crowd, the worry that five loaves will not provide enough to go around, Jesus’ giving thanks, the sharing of what little is available and that not only is everyone satisfied but also that no less than twelve baskets of fragments are gathered afterwards.

So far so good, but I wonder if you noticed there are a number of significant differences in the telling of the story that alert us to the fact that John has a particular reason for recording this miracle. To begin at the beginning, John does not tell us that the hour is getting late as do Matthew, Mark and John. Instead John sets the scene by saying that the Passover is near. This detail is significant, as the remainder of the chapter will make clear. The author of John’s gospel wants the reader to understand that Jesus has supplanted not only the Passover Feast, but all the Jewish Festivals. They have been made redundant because in his own person Jesus is the light of the world, the living water, the bread of life and so on[1].

Another difference is that it is Jesus who takes the initiative in John’s gospel. It is he (not the disciples) who is concerned about the hunger of the crowds and he who asks how they might be fed. Further, Jesus doesn’t engage with the disciples as a group, but specifically with two of them – Philip and Andrew. It is Philip to whom Jesus addresses the question about the bread and Andrew who identifies the boy who has brought the barley loaves and dried fish.

These and other differences tell us that John has a specific reason for recording this particular miracle. Unlike the Synoptics writers who emphasise Jesus’ compassion and welcome in their accounts, John’s purpose in recording the feeding is to emphasise Jesus’ foreknowledge and power and to set the scene for the discussion and discourse that is to follow. The discussion will allow Jesus to reveal something of himself, his relationship with God and his purpose on earth. In this instance the story provides the author of the gospel with the opportunity to introduce a number of topics – Jesus as the bread of life, the bread that has come down from heaven. Unlike the manna in the wilderness, this bread will not perish and those who eat of it will live forever. Those who come to Jesus the true bread, the living bread – will never hunger or thirst because the bread that Jesus will give is his flesh – his life, his very self. Those who eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood will be raised on the last day.

This is a lot to absorb, which is why it takes 75 verses and why we take five weeks to explore it. It is important to note at the start that at the heart of the argument (and at the heart of the gospel) is the Johannine idea that Jesus and the Father are one and that discipleship consists of nothing more and nothing less than having a relationship with Jesus that is the same as Jesus’ relationship with God. According to this view, discipleship results in a complete dependence on God that stems from an understanding that in and through Jesus all our needs can and will be met. The miracle of the feeding is the vehicle that enables John to explore this theme and to make it clear that intimacy/union with Jesus puts an end to all our desires and all our striving because in and through our relationship with Jesus we will discover that we have all that we require and more besides.

Yes, it is extraordinary that five thousand are fed with just two small fish and five small loaves, but it is just as extraordinary to recognise that the discipleship that results in eternal life does not depend so much on what we do, but what we don’t do. By allowing Jesus to be our primary source of sustenance and our sole reason for being, we will discover that union with God that provides a sense of fulfillment and well-being such that the world can never supply.

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:15-19)

[1] The Festival of Booths celebrated water and light and a central element of the Passover was bread.

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