Sermon for Ordinary 17 Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

Miracles and the bread of heaven

[Note: For more on miracles in general in related passages, see the introductory note to the sermon for Ordinary 12, Faith or fear: Who then is this? ]

About a year ago when we had the story of the feeding of the five thousand from another gospel (Matthew 13:14-21) we related the fellowship meal which Jesus shared with the crowd in Galilee to our sharing in the Lord's Supper and to our obligation share to what we have with people in need. The miraculous feeding of the crowd has meanings of that kind. It would have been remembered in the early church as a precursor to their fellowship meals just as it reminded them of other meals like the Last Supper they shared together with Jesus. The presence of Christ himself was the most important thing about those meals, just as it was his presence that made all the difference to the thousands gathered on the hillside in Galilee. Later, the followers of Jesus also made collections among themselves to assist churches in need and the poor amongst them. In the developing life of the church over the centuries, such sharing has traditionally been linked with the celebration of holy communion, so that a special offering for the poor was taken regularly in our churches in the past whenever they had communion. The memory of the feeding of the five thousand was both deeply spiritual and practical in an everyday sense.

Today I would like to share some perhaps more challenging implications of the feeding of the five thousand. The greater challenge comes when we focus on the miraculous character of feeding five thousand people with a few small loaves of bread and a couple of dried fish. That is to move beyond its symbolic character. We know that symbols can be powerful, but in our human understanding they do not necessarily requires us to go beyond our normal understanding of natural events. You can see feeding the crowd as a psychological or social miracle along the lines of what happens when sharing is encouraged. You might say that the willingness a boy inspired by Jesus to share his lunch led to everyone present sharing whatever they had amongst them, with the result that they were all satisfied. I am not wanting to argue one way or the other about that. It is plausible; but the disciples who remembered the event and passed on the story believed there was more to it: as John described it, it was a sign of who Jesus was; and most significantly he went on to link it, as do Mark and Matthew, with the story of Jesus walking on the water and then with his being the bread of heaven. It is one thing to accept a psychological or social miracle, and quite another to accept the so called nature miracles which appear to involve physical events contrary to what we call the laws of nature. Are we asked to believe that there really was a multiplication of the loaves and fishes in the hands of Jesus, and that Jesus really did walk on water? That has something to do with whether he came down from heaven and what the implications are for us if he did. Behind the miracles of feeding the crowd and walking on the sea is the nature of Jesus as the bread of heaven.

The bread of heaven

As we noticed last week from Mark's account (Mark 6:30-44), Jesus stayed to teach the people when they followed him although he had planned to take his disciples apart for a while. He stayed because he had compassion on the crowd "because they were like sheep without a shepherd" and his care for them extended from teaching them to feeding the crowd when it had grown late and then he went on to another place to continue his ministry of healing. So we saw his feeding of the five thousand as part of his pastoral ministry which foreshadowed the kind of ministry for which he was preparing the apostles, a ministry in which we share in the church, the ministry of word, sacraments and pastoral care. When John tells the story he links the feeding of the five thousand, which is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels, much more explicitly with the Lord's Supper, going on later in the chapter to tell of the teaching Jesus gave about being himself as the bread that came down from heaven, the bread of life he would give them to eat. He taught them by starting with the meal they had enjoyed, and telling them to work for the food that endures for eternal life.

This bold claim soon led to disputation when he affirmed that sharing his life in the body would give them eternal life:

It was a shocking thought but he insisted:

We are told later that

But he did explain that the meaning of the sign was the life and the spirit:

Here we have some of the deepest and most significant mysteries in the teaching of Jesus. At the heart of it lies the question Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? The real question was whether Jesus had come from God. Could he ascend to be with God, and could he have descended from being with God from the beginning (cf John 1:1-3). Was he able to bring new life in himself, to share eternal life, because he came from the source of life, being himself the bread of heaven? Was there not then more to the sharing of bread in the presence of Jesus than a moral lesson about the value of sharing what you have, even if it was a miracle that people could actually share so that everybody had enough? What kind of a sign was Jesus giving when he fed the five thousand?

The Lord of Creation

It may be that even those present on that day understood it as political act. After all John concludes his account of the "sign" by saying that not only did they say "This indeed is a prophet", but they wanted to make him king!

Then John tells of how when evening came his disciples got into the boat and started back to Capernaum:

The answer to their terror was to know who Jesus was: It is I, do not be afraid. The implication is that they need not be afraid if they know who he is. And apparently they were no longer afraid because they wanted to take him into the boat -- though that too might make them feel more at peace in part because it was more within their normal experience to have him in the boat rather than doing strange things out there on the sea! I am asking you to suspend disbelief as you would in a theatre and put yourself in the boat seeing things as we a told they saw them. The question remains, "Who is this man?" The phrase "It is I" is significant, especially in the way that John tells it.

In our colloquial speech we would be inclined to say "It's me" as we would on the telephone. Who uses the correct "It is I" in which the verb "to be" takes the subjective case? My mother used to tell a story, against herself as much as anyone as she had been a teacher and was rather fussy with language. The story goes that someone knocked on the pearly gates and St. Peter called out, "Who's there?" and the reply came "It is I ...." And Peter cut in immediately with, "Go away, we have too many teachers already!" But the Bible translators being teacher types give us the formally correct English usage. Indeed, "It is I" is exactly correct as far as Mark's and Matthew's versions of it are concerned, but, oddly, as the translators of the NRSV say in a footnote, they have not followed the Greek precisely in John, for what is written there is not "It is I", but rather "I am". Literally what he said was "I am, do not be afraid." Now what is point of that? If the important question for the disciples and everyone else was, "Who on earth is this man?", what does it mean when he says "I am"? Who else in the Bible says "I am" to identify himself? It is God who says "I am", indeed "I am" is his name.

Here is something much more suggestive of who Jesus was than the correct if ordinary "It is I". Was the great "I am", being itself, present there with them?" That is the whole point of the story and of all the signs that he gave. If the Lord of Creation was present in the person of Jesus then the so called nature miracles might not be out of order. It is the same as the question about the bread of heaven who shared his life with the people.

You might still want to give a naturalistic explanation of walking on the water, just as you might prefer a social or psychological explanation of feeding the five thousand. If you must, then John gives you a way out.

So although they had rowed three or four miles they were unexpectedly near land. It was dark, early in the morning, they were straining at the oars against a head wind; Matthew and Mark read as if they were far from the land, but John says that although they had rowed some miles, "immediately the boat reached the land". You might imagine that in the midst of their struggle with a storm in a dim light, not knowing where they were, they mistook someone on the shore for someone on the water far out on the lake. If that is so, why make so much of it? It is not possible for us to get behind the message that the apostles carried forward from their experience with Jesus. To them, even if he did limit himself to the form of a servant in earthly life, and may well have chosen to observe his own natural order in the world, it was their belief that he could have done whatever the Lord of Creation could do. Whatever gave rise to the experience, to them he was the Lord of heaven and earth, the bread who came down from heaven to give life to the people, the one who was with God at the beginning, through whom all things were made. As we say in the creed:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God, begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,
was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and became truly human.

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