(Modified 2021-09-26: Added audio recording – sorry about the static!)
We see today in our Gospel reading what we so often encounter in the Gospels. Jesus’ disciples have some small, local concern they want him to address, but Jesus has his mind on the big picture, the cosmic picture.
John the beloved disciple, whose Gospel and letters teach us a great deal about loving one another, has a very unloving complaint. “Jesus, some dude we don’t know is going around casting out demons in your name. We told him to stop, but he won’t. Do something!”
(Modified 2021-08-29: Added audio recording of this sermon.)
Sometimes when we hear the Bible translated into our own language, it’s helpful to also translate into our time and place.
In listening to the conversation we heard about in the Gospel that was just read, with its references to ritual hand washing and dish washing and washing of groceries you brought home from the market, I found myself getting distracted by the obvious parallels to life under a pandemic, when those aren’t really the connections we need to be making. But then I came across a retelling of the story from a Rev. Charles Hoffacker from Greenbelt Maryland. He’s reimagined what a version of this conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees might sound like in 21st century North America.
(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.
So I think we can all agree that human beings are pretty messed-up. I used to feel pretty smug about my identity markers. I’m a girl – that’s definitely better than being a boy. I’m Canadian, and that’s better than being American. Like a lot of people I thought of us as America Lite, the kinder, politer version of America, with all the good things like democracy and human rights and diversity and much less of the bad stuff like prejudice and arrogance and hyper-nationalism.
And I was smug about having Christianity as my identity marker in terms of the world’s religions. The worst thing people ever seemed to accuse us of was the Crusades, and since those ended 700 years ago I thought we were doing pretty well on the problematic waging-war-and-murdering-people-in-the-name-of-God front.
Feeling smug about your identity markers is mostly a young person’s game. If we are not actively deluding ourselves, life soon disabuses us of our illusions about the rightness of our own tribe compared to everyone else. Someone you trusted to tell the truth lies to you. You find out an institution you belong to has been hurting people. A political party you believe in gets caught up in a scandal, and won’t admit to being wrong. The longer we live, the more times we are disillusioned by our tribe, and by our own behavior, the more we realize that all human beings are pretty messed up. No one has a legitimate claim on virtue.
Such as are planted in the house of the LORD / shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age, / and shall be full of sap and flourishing.
I was standing in a socially-distanced line outside a LifeLabs clinic last week, and struck up a conversation with the lady in front of me. We covered the usual chit-chat basics: the weather (thank goodness it’s a nice day for standing outside in this line!), Covid (thank goodness pretty soon we won’t have to stand outside in lines like this!), and work (how come you’ve got time to stand outside in a line like this on a Monday morning? Don’t you work?) But then she asked me if I had my garden planted yet. I already had the feeling this lady thought I wasn’t pulling my weight as a human being, so I cringed a little inside when I had to tell her I live in an apartment and therefore do not have a garden to plant. But, I was happy to report, everyone I know who has a garden has indeed got their plants in. I know this because it’s come up in every conversation I’ve had in the last couple of weeks! At least I know people who are pulling their weight as humans.
I appreciate it when Jesus uses gardens and fields as metaphors for the Kingdom of God in his parables. I like the idea of growing plants as images for the Kingdom, because while there is work for the people in the metaphor to do – the sower sows, the harvester reaps – so much of what happens is out of the control of the people involved. Plants grow as they will, and there is little you can do beyond set the conditions to encourage them to grow well. Similarly, it is as well for us to think of the seeds of the Kingdom of God, once sown into the world and into our hearts, growing as they will. Our role is to set the conditions to encourage them to grow well.
(Modified 2021-05-22: Added audio recording of sermon.)
Several years ago, some researchers asked a group of children to explain what love is. The results have been passing around the internet ever since.
Karl, age 5: “Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other.”
Chrissy, age 6: “Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs.”
Emily, age 8: “Love is when you kiss all the time. Then when you get tired of kissing, you still want to be together and you talk more.” She went on to comment, “My Mommy and Daddy are like that. They look gross when they kiss.”
Some of the answers were quite wise.
Billy, age 4: “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.”
I had a bad-attitude day on Friday. I say a “bad-attitude day” and not a “bad day” because objectively, by every measure, Friday was a very good day. I got to work from home. It was a beautiful, sunny spring day. I played board games online with dear friends I haven’t seen in person in over a year. And I came to church in the quiet and the evening light to pray. But despite everything objectively seeming quite lovely, I was in a snit pretty much from the word go. I felt resentful and put-upon. I felt smothered by obligations when all I wanted was for the world to leave me alone. And round about the time I was dragging myself resentfully downstairs to the car to come to church for Evening Prayer, I started to lecture myself. You have no earthly reason to feel this way, I sensibly pointed out. You chose this work and these relationships. And there can be no argument that by any objective measure, your life is not only “not that bad,” it’s pretty damn privileged. So what are you whining about?
A period of forty days is significant in scripture, and is repeated over and over:
We heard in the Penitential Rite on Ash Wednesday that the forty days of Lent are the Church’s preparation for the great feast at Easter, and that that preparation takes the form of “self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, and reading and meditation on God’s holy Word” (BCP pp. 611-612).
Genesis 7 – in the great flood, rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.
Exodus 24 – Moses was on the mountain with God forty days and forty nights.
Numbers 13 – the Hebrew spies were in in the land of Canaan forty days.
1 Samuel 17 – the giant Goliath tormented the Israelite army for forty days before David killed him.
1 Kings 19 – when Elijah was on the run from Jezebel, an angel fed him a meal of bread and water, and on the strength of it he walked forty days from Beer-Sheba to Mount Horeb.
Jonah 3 – Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh was that they had forty days to repent.
And Mark tells us in his Gospel that after Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, he went into the wilderness for forty days and was tempted by Satan.
If you follow the schedule for the Psalter as it is laid out in the Book of Common Prayer, you would have read Psalm 106 last Thursday evening. It’s a long psalm – 48 verses. The purpose of the song was to remind Israel of their history, of who they were as a people. Beginning at the Red Sea, it moves through the history of the nation, reminding the listener of events they had been learning about all their lives, as they were set down in the Pentateuch.
Here are some of the highlights of Jewish history as recounted by Psalm 106:
Thirty or so years ago, my aunt and uncle were pastors of a little church in Calgary, and for a while they did this show on one of the local public access tv stations. I don’t remember very much about it. I think they played music and sang and preached. They probably had guests on. It was 100 Huntley Street without the production value. But I do have one clear memory about their show. When their oldest grandchild was born, my aunt did a segment where she held him in her arms while she read scriptures and talked about the hope and promise that he represented to her. That baby, firstborn of her firstborn, held for her in his tiny being at that moment all the promises of God for the future of her family.
As a nine-year-old I found all this vaguely embarrassing. My aunt on tv talking like she’d invented being a grandparent. And sure, baby Jordan was cute and all, but he was just a baby. There were already a bunch of us kids running around. No one else talked about how the future of the world rested on our shoulders. Still, this particular memory has stayed vivid for me. I carry that image of her holding Jordan and looking into the camera, her belief in God’s promises for her future shining out of her. She is what I always imagine when I read this story of Simeon and Anna.