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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 07/29/2018

Apart from all four gospels having a story about Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion, there’s not much else that they all have in common. There’s lots of overlap between Matthew, Mark and Luke but John is usually the odd man out. All four though, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, have a story about Jesus feeding 5000 people with just a few fish and a few loaves of bread. Some of the details vary a little bit, but the essence of the story is the same: where there appeared to be a scarcity, in and through Jesus a miracle took place so that there was an abundance, enough for everyone.

The feeding of the 5000 is one of the best known of Jesus’ miracles but you also know that miracles have fallen on hard times. Enlightened, rational people tend to be dismissive of the possibility of miracles and because of that there are efforts to explain them in ways that make them more understandable. Such efforts to explain are really nothing new though; in some cases they even show up as part of the story. Think about the miracle of water into wine. The initial reaction of some was that nothing miraculous had happened but instead the bridegroom had been holding out on the good wine; it had been there all along so nothing miraculous.

Efforts to explain the feeding of the 5000 aren’t part of the text but they have been around for a long time. One that’s kind of interesting dates back to the 1700’s when secret orders and religious societies had developed in Europe leading scholars to conclude that such secret orders must have also existed in Jesus’ time. Of particular interest were a group called the Essenes who focused on love of God and love of the neighbor, moving away from animal sacrifice and superstition. The thinking was that Jesus himself belonged to the Essenes and that they were behind the feeding of the 5000 having gathered loaves of bread in a cave near where Jesus was preaching to the crowd. The bread was then handed to Jesus out of the darkness by his Essene associates and then was distributed by the disciples, so again, nothing miraculous, just a little sleight of hand.

We’re perhaps amused by that explanation but how about the one that says that following Jesus’ prayer, some people in the crowd took bread out of their pockets and began to share it with their neighbors, then the sharing became contagious as others followed suit and lo and behold, there was enough for everyone. You’ve probably heard that preached before; I’ve preached it before, the message being that such generosity is as much of a miracle as if Jesus himself had provided for everyone. It’s a useful message, encouragement to be generous, and it’s a good reminder.

What we’ve got today is John’s version of this story and with that it is again important to remember that John’s approach to his gospel is different than the other three. In John, Jesus never asks the key question, “Who do you say that I am?” as he does in the other gospels. Instead, while not stated directly, it’s a question that’s always kind of in the background as John uses various symbols and stories and images and statements along with various reactions to them in order to provide an assortment of possible answers to who Jesus is. Keeping that question in mind as you read miracle stories like the feeding of the 5000 is more helpful than getting too hung up on how it happened which can just become a distraction from what John is really up to.

In John’s version of this, it’s perhaps best to start with the reaction of the people following the feeding and the gathering of twelve baskets of leftovers. “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world,” they say and you might recall that “prophet” was also one of the answers given when Jesus asked “Who do people say I am?” in the other gospels. It’s a logical response insofar as people at that time would have been familiar with Deuteronomy and God telling Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren.” They were waiting and hoping for such a prophet.

The prophet like Moses connection is further suggested by the timing of the miracle as it takes place during the Passover, the Passover which commemorated Israel’s deliverance from Egypt under Moses’ leadership. Among other things, Moses was remembered as a miracle worker and one of the miracles he was connected with was manna in the wilderness when God told Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you.”

I don’t think there’s much question that John is reusing the symbol of bread and that he’s expecting people to make a connection between Moses and Jesus.

Part of what you should see here is how the gospel writers, in this case John, interpret Jesus through the lens of the Old Testament. The New Testament can be seen as a new layer of interpretation built on themes and images and symbols and stories from the Old Testament but now with Jesus at the center of those themes and images and symbols and stories.

It makes sense then, for prophet to be one of the identities John proposes for Jesus and it is part of his identity. The next possible identity in this narrative is that of king; the people wanted to make Jesus king but knowing that, Jesus withdrew. This was not an identity he would say yes to, at least not in the way that they wanted.

What is portrayed in the feeding of the 5000 is an act of grace. There’s no request for anything on the part of the people. The initiative is all on the side of Jesus and that’s grace. In wanting to make Jesus king by force though, this act of grace is cheapened. Rather than just receiving the gift and giving thanks, the people want to work it to their own advantage. It’s an act of grace that they want to turn into a meal ticket.

While Jesus doesn’t ask “Who do you say that I am?” in John, he does ask questions and we should pay attention to those questions. In this story he asked Philip, “Where are we to provide bread for these people to eat?” The question is then answered as those gathered are fed, the answer being that God will provide. The twelve baskets of leftovers say that there’s also enough for the next gathering. But they don’t get it. Rather than having eyes to see Jesus as the revelation of God, they want him to be their king in the hope that his administration would provide for them. Their faith was in what they could understand, a king and his court, not in the mystery of God revealed in Jesus.

That mystery is encountered in the next part of today’s reading, when Jesus walks on water. It’s been said that this story in John is like a photograph in which a central image is clearly focused while the rest of the scene is fuzzy and out of focus. What’s in focus here is not what Jesus does but what he says. In our translation what he says is, “It is I; do not be afraid.” In Greek though, what it really says is “I AM; do not be afraid,” I AM being the name of God revealed to Moses in the story of the burning bush, “I AM WHO I AM,” so yet another Moses connection.

With that “I AM” statement out on the water, John identifies Jesus as more than a prophet and more than a king, but the 5000 weren’t there. It probably didn’t matter because they weren’t ready for that identity anyway, at least not yet; they weren’t ready for Jesus as “I AM,” but they were, as we say, on the journey. I do think that in John, the feeding of the 5000 followed by Jesus walking on water is as much about a journey that symbolically explores various identities for Jesus as it is about the miracles. John’s gospel is full of stories and dialogues and symbols and images that lead its characters and us on a journey that explores Jesus’ identities, moving us toward Jesus as ‘I AM”

The 5000 weren’t ready yet for Jesus’ full identity. But…but…having been fed and having been satisfied one hopes that despite not being clear on Jesus’ identity, maybe having recognized him as a prophet they started to understand the alternative vision of Jesus, a vision that was about abundance, not scarcity. One hopes that as they continued their journey that they started to see with Jesus’ eyes.

One hopes that maybe they saw themselves as being part of this alternative vision and because of that they set up a food table in the narthex and every week people started to bring canned goods and other non-perishable items. One hopes that there was a Marie Chilman to remind them that they could be part of Jesus’ theology of abundance.

John has some very imaginative and thought provoking ways of engaging the journey of faith but for all of us, faith is a journey; sometimes we get it, sometimes we don’t but regardless of where we are on the journey, nourished through word and sacrament, there are always ways we can participate in the vision of Jesus who is the great I AM.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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