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Pentecost 10B Sermon
John 6:1-21
29, 2018


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May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us, in the name of his risen son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.

John 6:1-21

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.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. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 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.’
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.
When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.

The Gospel of John has a complicated relationship with the other three accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry in our Bible. The writer of this gospel shares many of the same stories with those we call, “The Synoptic Gospels,” Matthew, Mark and Luke, but often does uncommon things with them. For example, on Jesus’ last night before he is tried and crucified, he celebrates the Passover with his disciples – all four gospels tell us this. But in John’s Gospel, Jesus never eats the meal with them; he teaches and prays for quite a long time and washes their feet, telling them to do the same for each other.
Here in the beginning of the sixth chapter of John’s gospel we get something of a Synoptic smash-up of two stories which are very familiar to us: the feeding of the 5,000 and the walking on water. In the case of the latter story, you notice that the disciples are in a boat at night without Jesus when a storm comes up. Jesus approaches walking on the water. They are terrified and he comforts them. But in John’s version, he never calls Peter out of the boat to join him, and he never gets into the boat with them – they suddenly, and maybe miraculously, reach the other side of the lake: subtle but striking differences from the other three accounts. In the case of the story that makes up the majority of our reading, John makes two distinct points from the other gospels: he calls this miracle a sign, and he tells us that Jesus himself feeds the huge crowd gathered on the grass instead of his disciples.

John calls Jesus’ miracles, “signs” throughout his gospel. More importantly than the fact that Jesus holds this supernatural power, we are being pointed to something about Jesus and God that these actions reveal to us. The problem is, signs are tricky, and can easily be misinterpreted. As we move forward in this chapter of John’s gospel over the next five Sundays, we will see that Jesus not only wants to bless us to satisfy our physical, material needs, symbolized in bread; more importantly he wants our spiritual needs to be satisfied as well.

As the chapter is set up with today’s passage, the people in the crowd don’t quite understand all of that. They fail to perceive the spiritual significance of this amazing sign. They merely want from Jesus more of what he has given them – more barley loaves and fish to fill their stomachs! How can we tell? Verse 15 says that Jesus realized they wanted to make him king, so he fled away by himself. The king is a physical, earthly ruler, and as such is the one who ensured that all of the people had enough to eat. Their own king was too busy tending to his own greed to care for their needs, so they wanted one that would reliably keep them satisfied with bread and protein.

At this point in John’s gospel we really cannot blame these people though. Jesus has done much to supply all of their material needs, and yet he is adamant that he has come for something more. He has come as a prophet, not as a king. Kings are to look after the material needs of the people; prophets are to look after the spiritual needs. That is why John so closely likens this event in Jesus’ life with the event of Elisha feeding the crowd in our first lesson. Jesus is a prophet – one who is sent from God to speak God’s work and to point us to God’s presence in the world. That presence has something to do with our physical needs … but it certainly does not stop there.
This sign from the beginning of John 6 points us to the essential character of God as is lived out by Jesus – he is loving, accessible and available to all people. It may or may not be what we want to hear, especially during those times when we are convinced that material possessions will make us happy; but as a prophet, Jesus has come as an agent of God, for our joy, peace and love.

This is not always an easy passage for us in the church to hear. Our congregation does a lot to help folks meet their physical needs – we collect food and money for pantries, health kit items, school supplies and clothing or gift items, to name a few things. How are we also being concerned about the spiritual well-being of ourselves and our neighbors alongside of these efforts?

The timeliness of this passage is incredible! Last Saturday we co-hosted a free community meal with our friends with the Intercessor Lutheran Mission (ILM), the African group that worships here after we do every Sunday. They came to me with an idea to offer a monthly meal for anyone who was hungry, and I thought it was an opportunity for Clinton Heights to partner with them in outreach. In reflecting on my experience at the meal I must admit to you that I have never been more uncomfortable. There were glaring cultural and theological differences, and our friends with ILM saw the meal as more of a way to get folks into the doors, so that they could tell them about Jesus. I don’t have a problem with that in general, but the way it came off felt like a kind of “bait and switch” - get them in with the promise of food, and preach at them.

As I read, consider and pray about this particular passage of scripture today, I wonder two things: One: aren’t we supposed to be about sharing more than just food for the physical body? Aren’t we called to share more in the form of spiritual sustenance with our neighbors? Two: how can we do this without seeming confrontational or turning people off? We set up the tables in such a way that it looked more like a classroom than a lunch room. When the gentleman from ILM spoke, he wanted everyone’s attention. It was not effective evangelism. I have been asking myself and others from our congregation and our synod how we can best make this an effective tool of evangelism while not making people uncomfortable, or turning them off from our congregation.

It seems to me that the answer comes with that second distinction of John’s account of this event – that Jesus himself served the meal. If we can see ourselves as human agents of Jesus’ care and concern for others, then the importance of relationship that makes Jesus’ love incarnate flows naturally from us. I picture Jesus in John’s account walking around, not only pulling more and more bread out of the proverbial “hat”, but asking folks who they are, where they are from, what’s going on in their lives, and generally engaging them in conversation. I picture him not using food as an enticement to confront people on what is missing from their lives, but as a gift which opens a door to genuinely sharing love in ways that help people really connect with it. I picture Jesus joyfully sharing not only bread and fish, but love, peace and joy with the crowd.

As we begin this chapter which is often called, “The Bread of Life Chapter,” we hear the challenge to use those things good gifts around us not as the sole blessing from heaven above, but also as a means to a greater blessing, a spiritual blessing – a blessing that does not come from an earthly political power or government, but from a prophet who works as God’s agent on earth. Anyone can feed a meal to the hungry; it takes the voice of a prophet to share God’s love in such a way that it touches the lives of those who are spiritually hungry. May we, our friends in ILM, and all Christians everywhere seek to share of our bread, and to share the bread of life, Jesus himself with each other and with this hungry world. For he has come to us to bless us abundantly more than we can even imagine! May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.