(Modified 2021-08-01: Added audio recording of this sermon.)
Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee, 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples.
5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
22 The next day the crowd that had stayed on the opposite shore of the lake realized that only one boat had been there, and that Jesus had not entered it with his disciples, but that they had gone away alone. 23 Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.
25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand is the context for today’s Gospel lesson from John chapter 6. For our Gospel writer John, that context also included the experience he and the other disciples had later that same night, when Jesus walked to them in their boat across the waters of the Sea of Galilee. If last Sunday had not also been the Feast of St. James, we would have heard about the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and the miracle of walking on water last week. This year we are moving through the Gospel of Mark, but actually, the creators of the lectionary we follow have moved us over into the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel for the month of August. John chapter six covers the same two miracles as Mark’s Gospel, but it also includes this teaching of Jesus on the bread of life, which isn’t in Mark’s Gospel. For the month of August, we will be moving through John chapter six, before we go back to Mark in September.
The people had followed Jesus across the Sea of Galilee because they had heard him teach about God in remarkable ways, and they had seen him perform amazing miracles of healing and raising people from the dead. When he managed to feed a crowd of thousands by multiplying five barley loaves and two small fish, they were ready to crown him king, whether he wanted them to or not. Jesus retreated from them further into the wilderness to be alone, and his disciples left for the other side of the sea in a boat. In the dark, the people didn’t see Jesus walk across the water to join the disciples. The next morning, they wake up, and he’s gone, but they aren’t ready to lose sight of a man who can provide food in a wasteland. They set off across the sea after him. “Rabbi, when did you get here?” This scene always reminds me of the Pixar movie The Incredibles, when Mr. Incredible comes home after a long day, and gets mad and picks up his car to throw it but then he notices their little neighbor boy on his tricycle, and they’re supposed to be hiding and not using their powers, so he doesn’t say anything, but sets the car back down and tries to pretend nothing happened. And then another day he comes home again, just the same way, and sees the neighbor boy sitting at the end of his driveway staring, so he asks, “What are you waiting for?” and the kid says “I don’t know, something amazing I guess.” The crowds that follow Jesus in the Gospels are like that little boy. “What are you waiting for?” “I don’t know, something amazing I guess.”
And while it’s always a good thing to follow Jesus, your motivation in doing so matters. Following Jesus because you want to see “something amazing I guess,” or because he can fill your belly, is not good enough. Jesus calls the crowd out on this. “You are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” Miraculous signs, which Jesus has been doing all along, are deeds that are full of significance, revealing Jesus’ identity and God’s saving activity in his ministry. The people had seen the miracle, but it did not focus their attention on Jesus. Rather, they saw him as a means to the filling of their stomachs. But Jesus did not come to fill stomachs with food, but to fill lives with the very presence of God.
This crowd is focusing on the physical realm. In John’s Gospel the physical and the spiritual are interconnected, for the physical is spirit-bearing: the Word became flesh. Jesus faults the crowd, then, not for their interest in their physical bodies, but for not perceiving spiritual through and in the physical. Too often we fail to have eyes to see and ears to hear where God is present in our lives, through either the sacraments or the events of everyday life. (Whiteacre, 152). “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
The people ask Jesus, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Translated, I think that means, we want you to stick around and keep giving us miracle bread. What’s the trade-off? What do we need to do to appease God, to make that happen? They are thinking in terms of manna in the wilderness, which is an obvious connection for them to make, really. They grew up on the story of the Exodus, and how their forefathers were sustained with miraculous food in the desert for forty years. “What do we need to do to make that happen?”
But Jesus isn’t interested in “works.” “The work of God is only this: believe in the one he has sent.” When your focus is on the needs of your body, you think in economic terms. I need food. How do I get that? I work. I want miracle food. How do I get that? What works do you need me to do in exchange? But Jesus is trying to get them to realize that the miracle bread isn’t the point. It’s a sign. It points to something else; to a deeper need they have, and an eternal, not a temporal concern. Our physical lives of flesh and blood are given by God, and they are significant, but they are not the whole story. This life is transitory. There is a “food that endures to eternal life.” It does not rot but instead nourishes real life, divine life, life that continues on forever.
But this crowd isn’t quite there yet. They’ve seen Jesus do some powerful things. They’ve been on the receiving end of a miracle feast. But they were also raised on stories of the miracles their forebears saw and experienced. They have the stories of Moses on their mind. Jesus miraculously fed them once. Moses fed the people in the desert for forty years. Will Jesus prove to them he is as great as Moses?
Like a good rabbi, though, Jesus points out the fault in their reasoning. It wasn’t Moses who fed the people in the desert. It was God. They called the manna “bread from heaven,” but Jesus is saying that yet again, they’ve missed the point. The manna wasn’t the bread from heaven. Or rather, it was so only in a limited sense. Manna was first and foremost a sign. It fed the bodies of the people, but it was meant to point them to a larger spiritual truth. “It is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Notice the tenses of the verbs in what Jesus says. “Moses has given,” “my Father who gives.” The bread from heaven was now, in their midst, given to the people in the crowd that day, not to their ancestors in the past.
The other thing Jesus is doing in this statement is the thing that’s eventually going to get him killed: he is aligning himself with God the Father in a way no other rabbi would ever dare to do. My Father. If it’s not the truth, it’s definitely blasphemy. With his teachings, Jesus claims for himself the prerogatives of God; giving life, and judgement. He offends the Jewish leadership with his words, and makes the people cautious. No wonder they keep asking for signs, drawing near, then moving away again. Jesus is either the Son of God, or he’s dangerously unhinged. Neither really is comfortable for mere mortals to be around!
Still, the prospect of being fed by God with something better than manna is too enticing. “Sir, from now on give us this bread.”
Jesus says the words “I am” seven times in John’s Gospel, and this is the first of the seven. “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” It’s big and bold and wonderful and scary all at once. And we’re going to see in the next few weeks, as we go through the rest of John chapter six, how the people respond to this incredible statement.
This big, bold, wonderful declaration is what we will assent to and participate in now in the sacrament of communion. We have made our own declaration in the creed: we believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, being of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven. We will eat the broken bread, the sign of the broken body of Jesus, broken for us; the Bread of Life. Our participation in this sacrament is our assent to Jesus’ words: “He who comes to be will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” We believe you Jesus. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.