How It's Done

Proclaim Sermons
July 28, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: In the Gospel of John, miracles are signs that point to Jesus. Jesus realized the people who came to hear him needed to have their basic hunger for food satisfied before they could realize their eternal hunger for the Bread of Life. And we too need to see to it that the basic and crucial needs for water, food, shelter and security for the suffering are fulfilled, so they can appreciate and claim the significance of the signs of Jesus that invite all to recognize our eternal needs. The signs invite us, once nourished, to walk further toward the Bread of Life and eternal security.

There's an amusing scene in the movie Shrek where the ogre tries to explain to annoying Donkey that ogres are not one-dimensional. They have layers. To illustrate his point, he yanks out an onion from the earth, and instructs his companion that ogres are like onions. Because they make you cry? asks Donkey. Because they're all dirty and smelly? No, Shrek argues. Because they have layers. The conversation wanders further afield because Donkey realizes parfaits also have layers and everyone loves parfaits.

Onions or parfaits aside, one of the important things about the Gospel of John is that it, too, has layers. John's vocabulary is the simplest in the New Testament, and it is often the first thing a new seminary student studies in New Testament Greek 101. But though the Gospel may seem simple, it's subtle and multi-layered. No matter how deep you dive, there's always more stuff worth digging up.

Take the deep dive Jesus and the Samaritan woman share, moving from his thirst to her empty water bucket and the offer of "rushing" or "living" water. The idea of a never-emptying bucket of water appeals to a woman alienated from the rest of her village, but she realizes rushing water is also "living water," which leads her to realize there's more to Jesus than meets the eye. This leads her to evangelize her whole Samaritan village - not by haranguing them but by inviting them to answer a question: "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?"1

Deeper and deeper. But to get to the deeper layers you have to start with a basic need like Jesus' thirst. And similarly in chapter 6 of John, a long dialog between Jesus, the crowds and his disciples leads to an offer of the Bread of Life, but before anybody could listen they had to eat real bread.

First things first. Nobody can listen to the words of life on an empty stomach. The basic needs of security - housing, clothing, food - have to be fulfilled before a person can truly listen to the good news. That's why children need to be fed before they start school, and why school meals are so important. That's why some pastors, locked out of their pulpits at the start of the pandemic a few years ago, took part in delivering lunches to homes because the schools were closed and therefore many children, trying to learn remotely, had no school lunch. And that's why Christians volunteer to work with disaster relief. If there's no roof, no clothing and no food, there's no security, and therefore no life.

In this passage, John makes an important point that the Passover was near. Festivals are important to John. He weaves three years' worth of festivals throughout his gospel. Indeed, it is John who tells us the ministry of Jesus encompassed three years. If we were to judge the length of his ministry by Matthew, Mark or Luke we might well think it lasted only a year or so.

Passover is a meal eaten in haste on the edge of disaster and death, but also on the doorstep of freedom. The meal in today's Gospel reading - the feeding of the multitudes - institutes the new life of freedom from sin (singular in John, signifying more the net of the fallen world that traps us rather than individual peccadillos). And more than the miraculous meal, the presence of the Living Bread, the Bread of Life, in whose life we partake, is part of the true meaning of the communion service. As Jesus demonstrates, there is enough, and there is enough for everybody.

On the job training

Before we can share the Bread of Life we first have to share bread. Jesus is concerned enough that he wants to feed these people who have followed him. But the way Jesus goes about this is to ask his disciples what they're going to do about it. Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?"

God still does this! Though it is God's sun and God's rain that make the harvest possible, God still asks us what we're going to do about the hunger of the world.

The gospel assures us Jesus did this to test them, because he already knew what he was going to do. It's the question that's asked of all athletes. No matter how skillful we are, how will we do in game conditions? This test is designed to see how we'll do. And we don't always do that well. According to Deuteronomy 8: God sent the Manna "to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good."2 Once we've been tested, we'll know who we really are.

Now Peter and Andrew, like us, aren't sure they can pass this test from Jesus. All Peter can see are the barriers: "Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." But the longest journey begins with the first step, and you have to take that first step. Andrew puts one foot forward, with a little help from a young person. "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish," he says. And even though he adds this question, "But what are they among so many people?" he has made a start!

Many of us are quick to see why a task is impossible. How does one congregation go about establishing world peace and abolishing world hunger? But there are steps we can take, both individually and as a congregation, joining with other congregations in our communities working together, with the Body of Christ worldwide and all of humanity.

In the other gospels the disciples distribute loaves and fishes. In John it is Jesus who does it. I think it's because here in John's Gospel we are meant to see God at the heart of all of this. "No one has ever seen God," it says in John 1:18. "It is God the only Son, himself God, who is close to the father's heart, who has made him known."

Case study

Now there is an interesting parallel to this story from the Hebrew scriptures. It involves the prophet Elisha during a time of harvest that was also a time of famine. Harvest is a time of festival, where one celebrates a time of abundance by eating, and even overeating, with friends and family. However, this particular harvest was cruel, because there was a scant harvest to celebrate. Despite this lack of food, one unnamed man comes forward to offer Elisha the first fruits of his meager harvest: "twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack."3 Now this unnamed man might have felt justified in foregoing this offering that year because there was so little for himself and his family. But he brought it anyway. And Elisha might have felt justified if he had accepted the gift for himself alone as a hedge against hunger. Instead, he said, "Give it to the people and let them eat." His servant objected. "How can I set this before a hundred people?" but Elisha insisted, "Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the LORD: They shall eat and have some left." And indeed, like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, a hundred people ate and there were leftovers.4

There will always be people who criticize any act of generosity. We ought to take care of our own, some will insist, even as the circle of people they consider their own gets smaller and smaller and smaller. But as folks at church potlucks have learned, when you have faith, there's plenty and then some.

Folks, there is enough to go around. There's enough food. There's enough grace. There's enough love. We can do this. This is doable. We have a fear of scarcity. And we lived through a time of false scarcity, of panic that created scarcity. People say there's not enough. But there's plenty to go around, and plenty to share.

John tells us this sign took place as the festival for Passover approached, a festival of freedom, freedom from want by sharing, but they are unable to take this next step.

In this passage the people see this sign and recognize it as a symbol of power. "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world," they say. But then the scene pivots as people interpret this sign to mean Jesus is a king who gives free bread. Unlike the Samaritan woman who moves from a desire for rushing water to living water, these people can't move from bread that sustains life to the Bread of Life. They want more bread, so they decide to force Jesus against his will to become their king.

It doesn't work.

As we share the presence of the Living Bread, the Bread of Life, in whose life we partake, let us resolve that there is enough, and there is enough for everybody because these works of wonder not only fulfill our basic needs - food and security - but if we are willing, they refocus our attention on their author, the Lord of Life!