We have great needs, the world has great needs, and we wonder why God doesn’t seem to provide for all. Instead of giving us what we think we need, Jesus offers us himself, what we and the world truly need, and through him, life abundant and eternal.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 18, year B; texts: John 6:16-35 (adding 16-21 from last week); Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Last week I was reading on the Internet about a magician who invented an astonishing card trick back in the 1970s, a man named David Berglas. Once he hands the deck to the people from the audience who’ve volunteered to help, he never touches it again, yet is able to predict the card they will pick. What’s interesting is that no one has ever been able to figure out how he does it, not even professional magicians, and the only other person who does this trick is his close friend, whom most assume he taught. Berglas has said he will never reveal how he does it.
Of course, that’s the only way he keeps it valuable and impressive, isn’t it? Sleight-of-hand artists aren’t interesting except for the tricks they do that amaze and befuddle us. The trick is everything; once we know how he or she does it, it seems easy, the mystery is gone.
What we learn today is that Jesus is exactly the opposite. The last reason he’d want anyone to follow him is because of his miraculous signs. He makes no attempt to hide that his power comes from God, in fact, through what he does people begin to believe that he is himself God. But what he makes clear in today’s story is that he’d rather people believe in him for his own sake. The sign, the miracle, is not important to what the people need. He, however, is.
And that’s something of a challenge for us, even today. When Jesus says things like, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” we tend to get confused. What exactly is he offering us? How is it possible never to hunger? Like the woman at the well a couple chapters earlier in John’s Gospel who wanted never to be thirsty and for Jesus to provide a never-emptying pitcher, we wonder what all this means. How is he our food?
We have company. This entire sixth chapter of John, which provides the Gospel readings for the whole month of August this year, tells of people struggling to understand what Jesus is saying, even his closest disciples. It’s an exploration of what Jesus is offering and what people would rather have, an examination of the difficulty in believing in Jesus instead of magic tricks, and a beginning of a series of promises in John’s Gospel that whatever Jesus is offering, it is life for us.
And we start by talking about signs. Because John seems to suggest that signs are important, but at the same time, they’re not the point.
You may recall that John is the only evangelist who uses the term “signs” to refer to Jesus’ miracles. It’s intentional. In his Gospel, he tells far fewer of these stories, but each in more detail, and claims that these things Jesus did were signs to lead to faith. Water becomes wine, a man blind from birth now sees, even a dead man lives. If John is to be understood properly, these signs point us to the Son of God, present with the Father from the beginning of time, who is come to give us life.
But the confusing thing is that John also seems to ask for and commend faith without signs. Thomas, who wants to see Jesus’ wounds before believing him alive, is told that those who believe without seeing are the blessed ones. And in today’s story, immediately following last week’s account of the feeding of the 5,000, an admittedly enormous sign, Jesus dismisses those who have come to find him because of their meal yesterday. “You are looking for me,” he says, “not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Well of course that’s why they’re looking for him. But what does he mean, they didn’t see signs? And apparently he’s right, because even though they’ve witnessed that awe-inspiring miracle of bread and fish, here the next day they ask him, “What sign are you going to give us?”
The point seems to be that the signs themselves are not the point. Believe in me, Jesus says, and find life. In other words, if you’re only looking for the miracles you’re missing the point of everything. Someone at Tuesday’s Bible study suggested, and I think they’re correct, that when they ask for a sign in today’s story, it isn’t that they didn’t think the miraculous feeding was a sign. It’s that they want it again.
They bring up Moses, whom we heard about in our first reading, and through whom God provided manna, bread from heaven, not once only, but daily for years in the desert. For hungry, poor people, one meal only fills your stomach for one day. It makes sense that they were hoping for another round. That’s why they wanted to make him king, as we heard last week.
But if we pay attention, John seems to be telling this story in a way that he downplays the importance of the miracle in order to point to the importance of Jesus. We get a hint of that in the walking on water story with which we began. It was assigned to finish last week’s Gospel, but I moved it to this week because it makes more sense to split the story this way, and start today with the episode on the sea.
But if you look at how John tells this story compared to Matthew and Mark, he almost implies it wasn’t a miracle. He uses the same expression in John 21 where it’s always translated Jesus walked “beside the sea.” Commentators are split over whether he even wants to suggest Jesus walked on water here, very unlike the other Evangelists who clearly tell that he did.
And look what he does emphasize: when Jesus says, “it is I,” then they want to receive him, take him into the boat. Then they believe in him. They do what Jesus asks of the crowds after the feeding today: the disciples believe in Jesus, not the sign.
In fact, that expression “it is I,” “I’m the one,” is the big clue here. The phrase in Greek is “ego eimi” and it can be translated “it is I,” or, “I am he,” or simply, “I am.” By it John ties Jesus to Moses’ experience at the burning bush when God’s name was revealed as “I am.” When Jesus persistently uses this expression, his hearers would clearly connect him to God. It occurs about 25 times in John’s Gospel, including seven great “I am” statements, the first of which we have here, “I am the bread of life.”
With the incident by the sea, it could simply be read as identification. They’re afraid, he says, “it is I,” and they are relieved. But once he starts saying it with these images – here bread, and in later chapters, light, resurrection, life, Good Shepherd, vine, way, truth – he makes it clear. He is the one we are to believe in. As he says to the people today, the only work they need to do is believe in the one whom God has sent. As for Moses, he says, Moses didn’t give you daily manna, God did. And I’m not a prophet like Moses, I’m the bread from heaven itself.
And this is the hard place we find ourselves: Jesus says, I am. It is I. I’m the answer from God, not miraculous signs. And we say, “What do you mean? It’s incredibly abstract. How are we to make sense of this? Jesus says, “I am. “I am food. I am bread. And I will keep you from hungering ever again.” He says “don’t worry about miracles, don’t focus on them. Focus on me. I am life for you.” And that’s what we need to understand.
The problem we have comes from not knowing what we really want or need.
The request of the people here is reasonable. They’re poor, hungry. He fed them. They’d like this daily. If we were to compare ourselves to these people, it would be on less dire grounds. We’re not starving or desperately poor. But we do live by the same sense, that there are things we need from life, from God, from others, from ourselves, that will make it all worthwhile. How often do we say to ourselves, “If I only had this, or that, then all would be well.” “If only these things were different, if only this blessing were mine, then I’d have what I need.”
It’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t dismiss these things as foolish, at least in this story. After all, before ever getting into this conversation he feeds the crowd first. The miracle came first. Then he said, “But what you really need is not more bread. You really need me.”
So that becomes our great question: what does it mean for us to really need Jesus more than anything else? To receive him as the disciples did, as the great I AM from God, the one who answers all our deepest needs?
It all has to do with life, real life. That’s what Jesus is offering here. And it’s only the start for Jesus.
In all seven of the great I Am statements in John (and remember, today’s is the first), life is a part of the promise in one way or another. Abundant life, he calls it in John 10 when he says “I am the Gate of the sheep.” The gift Jesus offers in each of these is life, full life. Abundant life. In fact, the key to this seems to come in chapter 5, just before this whole episode we’re focusing on this month. Jesus is involved in a dispute with some Jewish authorities who are unfavorably comparing him to Moses, a theme which we heard continue today. And Jesus says this: “You search the scriptures because you think that is where you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (5:39-40)
It’s all there, he says, in the scriptures, which point to him. Yet somehow we don’t know how to come to him to have life. Somehow we’re settling for second best, for less than life. So what is this life he offers? How does this life look among us? Or maybe we should ask, “what do we really need? What truly sustains life?”
Of course the physical things: food, clothing, shelter. Without these we would die. But what makes life truly worth living?
Well, look at the things Jesus has given us in the Church, in our discipleship and we begin to understand.
He has given us the gift of community, people around us who make life worth living, people who support and pray for us, who are life to us. Without the fellowship of the community of believers, would we know life?
He has given us the gift of forgiveness and restoration to God. Regardless of whether or not we’re always ready to admit our brokenness or failings, the incredible gift of God to us in Jesus is the forgiveness of our sin, and the way to healing of our lives and of this world that this gives. That in forgiving us God restores our relationships with each other and with God is a tremendous source of life.
And he has given us the gift of eternal life, life with God in relationship that begins now and continues with God even after we die, for we are brought into newness of life. There is meaning and purpose to this life and a promise of life with such meaning and purpose in the world to come. This is the greatest part of the gift of life Jesus gives.
And that, my friends, is our bread. These gifts are life to us. Without them, we’d starve. It’s true that people can live without knowing this life from Jesus. But we who know it would claim that knowing these gifts makes life abundant, powerful, different. It feeds our heart, our soul, our spirit – in ways that nothing else can.
And that also doesn’t mean that we don’t care about people’s physical and emotional needs, the things that literally fill stomachs, quench thirst, provide shelter and clothing, provide love. It’s pretty hard to think about abundant life if you’re starving to death, or oppressed and persecuted, or homeless. The letter of James helps make that clear.
But it’s our job to take care of those things. Jesus, before feeding the 5,000, tells the disciples to give the crowd something to eat. In John’s version, he asks them what they should do. That’s their job. It’s our job. As Jesus said in this very Gospel after the resurrection to Simon Peter: if you love me, feed my lambs. So our job is to help people meet those needs. And to point to Jesus. Because once those needs are met, we can introduce the One who really gives life.
And that’s the point: in our love for each other and the world we make it a place where all physical needs are met, and in our love for God we become part of God’s love for the world in Jesus which gives life. Abundant, rich life, in spite of any circumstances.
Maybe Jesus shouldn’t have fed the 5,000 at all, since it obviously distracted people from what he wanted them to know about him.
But of course he did it because his compassion compelled it. And that’s our reason for working for justice and peace in this world in his name. And these signs can mislead and distract, that’s true. But they also can point us to the One who gives us, and the world, life.
Because that’s ultimately what we want to remember: there is nothing that gives us what we need that is comparable to life with our Lord Jesus. He feeds and fills us in ways nothing else can. It’s why we can go from here to make a difference in this world, because we’ve been fed abundant life by the risen Lord of all, and there is nothing else we need. Our deepest hunger has been filled, and that gift is ours to share with the whole world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen