Kingdom Signs -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 9B
John 6:1-21 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
6 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.[a] 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages[b] would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him,9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they[c] sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles,[d] they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I;[e] do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
Many have taken up the quest for the historical Jesus. They want to know who this Jesus really is. Is he a mere human or is he more than a human? Is the post-Easter Christ the same person as the pre-Easter Jesus? Many who affirm the divinity of Christ seek to offer proof for this appellation. They seek to offer signs—usually in the form of miracle stories as proof that Jesus was not simply a man. In the modern age many of those stories have been questioned by historians and other scholars. Following David Hume they ask a useful question—how often have you seen people healed, raised from the dead, etc.? Since few of us have actually seen something like what the Gospels describe Jesus doing, we are put in a tough spot. We could quote C.S. Lewis’ famous retort that due to the claims Jesus made for himself, he was either “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic.” The problem with Lewis’ response is that we’re not sure whether Jesus made those claims for himself. So the quest continues. We seek to discover who Jesus was, and once we answer that question perhaps we can answer the question of who he is for us today.
The Gospel reading for this Sunday focuses on two signs—the feeding of the 5000 and the story of Jesus walking on water, though this isn’t the account where Peter gets out of the boat as an act of faith (and then unfaith). We are told that a large crowd has begun to follow him because of the signs he had been performing. For the most part these signs involved acts of healing, though Jesus had turned water into wine at Cana as well at the request of his mother (John 2:1-11). So here we encounter two more signs.
The feeding of the 5000 is one of those stories that we find very attractive and at the same time confounding. In some accounts of this story, which appears in all four Gospels, Jesus acts out of compassion for those who follow him, but that doesn’t appear to be true in John’s case. Jesus sees the crowd forming and decides to test his disciples by asking them what it would take the feed the crowd. We’re told that Jesus already knew what he was going to do before he asked the question. He just wanted to see what they would say. Philip responds by suggesting it would take six months wages. Jesus then tells them that they should feed the people. If you had been in the shoes of the disciples how would you respond? You probably would respond as the disciples did—yeah right! Peter notes that there’s this boy who has five barley loaves and two fish, but that’s not enough. That is if you’re working with a limited imagination or vision.
I pastor a small church, which once was large. We feel the pressures of being small, but in at least some ways we act bigger than we really are. In part that has to do with the legacy left to us through endowment gifts that allow us to engage in some significant community ministries. But I’m not sure we could get our heads around feeding 5000 people. We do pretty well—in partnership with two other congregations hosting a homeless shelter (we alternate sites with another congregation so that we host every other year)—but my imagination isn’t big enough to take care of 5000.
The usual ways in which we approach this story is to either focus on the miraculous. The problem with that is two-fold. There’s the questions asked by Hume, but perhaps even more telling is the question of why there and not elsewhere. Wouldn’t it be great if we could multiply food to feed the hungry? If God did it then, why not now? There are a lot of hungry people in our world. Indeed, this is one of the most troubling questions raised by the idea of the miraculous. God ends up appearing capricious.
The other “solution” is popular in Mainline churches. In this scenario, what Jesus did was encourage the people to share their picnic baskets with each other. Those who had much shared with those who had little. It’s a good solution. It’s one that I find attractive. It is a call to justice and fairness. The problem is, there’s no suggestion in the text that this is what happened. This is especially true for John who is focused here with the sign that the feeding produces.
In response to the sign, the people determine that he is the prophet who has come into the world. Their response raises another question, which prophet are they talking about? But according to John it’s not just a prophet that they were hailing. It would appear that they were intent on making him their king, and that’s not what Jesus was ready for—at least not the kind of king they were envisioning.
It might be helpful at this point to look to an episode in the Hebrew Bible where the people demanded a king. It was during the time of the Judges. Samuel was getting old and was no longer able to provide Israel with the kind of leadership they desired. They wanted someone to fight their battles for them—just like all the other nations and tribes. They wanted to be able to play with the great powers, or at least be on par with the Philistines. In response God gave them Saul, who proved to be a disaster as a king (1 Samuel 8-9). Seeing what they intended to do, Jesus withdraws to a quiet place, staving off for now this attempt to crown him king of Israel (and thus fight their battles and provide them with bread).
The lectionary writers pair this sign with another, and that is the scene in which Jesus is walking on water. This occurs as well in both Matthew and Mark. As with the other accounts Jesus sends the disciples off across the lake while he goes off by himself. In all three the seas get rough and the disciples are terrified of their plight and the sight of this person walking toward them. Unlike Matthew’s account, there’s no story of Peter wanting to test his faith and walk on water as well (Matthew 14:22-36). What the disciples do is invite him to get in the boat. Although not explicitly stated, this too is a sign. Jesus is someone extraordinary. For their part they invite him into the boat. Could that invitation have an even more significant meaning? Could they be ready to accept him into their lives (their boat), so that they could reach their spiritual destination?
Who then is Jesus? What do these signs suggest to you? Do you need more signs, or will these suffice to cause you to give Jesus your allegiance as ruler over God’s realm?