Prepared for First Presbyterian Church, Apopka
Primary Scripture: John 6:25-38
Before we can dig into today’s passage, I feel like I need one of those video recaps that starts with a knowing voice saying, “Previously on…”
This passage in John is actually right in the middle of the sixth chapter, which means we have to back up a bit to find out where and when all this is happening. It turns out that Jesus and the disciples are on the shores of the Sea of Galilee as the time of passover nears – so about this time of year.
They are being followed by large crowds, a fact made clear when they go up from the shore into the hills nearby and can gain a little perspective. As they survey the crowd, Jesus decides to give Philip a bit of a test. He asks the disciple where they might go to buy bread for all of the people to eat.
Philip does what most of us would do, looking out over the crowd and doing some mental arithmetic. He estimates how many people were there, how much bread would be needed and he realizes that even if there were someplace nearby selling large quantities of bread… It would take the equivalent of 8 months’ wages to provide anything more than a morsel for everyone in the crowd. Then Andrew points out that a young man nearby has 5 loaves and 2 fish – and then not-so-helpfully wonders aloud what good that small amount would do. Apparently followers of Jesus were snarky even way back then.
We know what happens next – you combine loaves and fishes with Jesus and all of the people are fed. And then the leftovers filled 12 baskets. This was another in a series of miracles Jesus performed in the area around Galilee, which of course had people talking, starting to speak of Jesus as a prophet, a miracle worker, maybe even as someone who ought to be their leader.
Now, Jesus knew what was likely to come of this line of thinking… they would be looking to crown a king, someone who would be a protector and provider in ways the people hadn’t seen in generations. Jesus also knew that this was not the way he would come to power, nor the time. He would not reign as an earthly King would. And so, to avoid possible trouble, he retreated even further into the mountains to be alone.
Which still doesn’t help us understand how the crowd came to find him on the other side of the sea.
Well, later that night, the disciples load into a boat and begin rowing across to the other side – to Capernaum. It’s not clear why they didn’t wait for Jesus. Perhaps they had directions we don’t read about. Perhaps they wanted to get a head start on looking for bread at their next stop. Whatever the reason, they probably had second thoughts when the wind kicked up and the water got choppy.
They were 3-4 miles out, about halfway across, fighting the waves when they looked up to see Jesus, walking near them on the water. Can you imagine? They probably couldn’t either. And they must have looked a bit scared. Otherwise, Jesus would have said something besides, Do not be afraid. It is I.*
Scared or not, they were ready to bring him into the boat, and then somehow they found themselves immediately at their destination. It’s full of mystery, but that is how John tells us that Jesus and the disciples crossed the sea..
Meanwhile, the crowds who were still on the other side of the lake knew that Jesus wasn’t with the disciples when they left in a single boat. Many of those who sought Jesus had been there for the miracle, had eaten the bread and helped fill the baskets with the leftovers. Others had only arrived by boat after hearing the stories about the loaves and fishes, coming across by boat to join the crowd. So the next day, when they didn’t find Jesus nearby, the boats filled quickly with people hoping to find him on the other side of the sea.
Chances are good that the majority of them were hungry. The people who came in search of the Messiah weren’t seeking someone who was good at religion. There were certainly plenty of theological experts of many varieties – Pharisees, Saducees, and everything in between. These people were on the lookout for a leader who would challenge the regime that imposed the taxes that kept them destitute. And hungry.
Meat was a luxury. Animals like goats and sheep provided milk for cheese, and might even be set aside for rituals of sacrifice. Bread was a staple in their diets, not a treat or a side dish, or a carb to be limited. The grain sacrifices at the temple meant that bread was often made from barley, a less valuable grain. The loaves offered by the young man were like peasant loaves, simple and common.
So.. when the crowds caught up to Jesus, their conversation takes on a form that is common in John’s gospel, one in which the layers of meaning in the words are revealed bit by bit. Here, we are reminded that there is food and then there is food.
In some ways we see this earlier – in Jesus’ carefully avoiding being lifted up as the king the people wanted. Instead he laid down his life, and even before that stepped down from his place in heaven at the right hand of God, so that he might be raised up again, recognized as being one with the God who is the King above all kings.
The food for which the people looked was food that would fill their stomachs, which they definitely needed. The signs and miracles they sought could provide bread and fish enough to sate that hunger.
But there was a deeper hunger the signs and miracles could meet – they would sustain hearts and souls that were in desperate need of hope. I wonder, if we’d asked the people in those crowds, if they could have put that hunger into words… if they were truly aware of it…
I don’t know about you, but once in a while I end up in conversations like this…
Hey – want to meet up for lunch today?
Sure – where?
You can choose.
Well, what are you hungry for?
I don’t know.. I’m just hungry
Sometimes we get too distracted or busy to give any thought to what our body is craving or what it actually needs. Sometimes there are just too many choices – even when we’re standing in front of the pantry or fridge at home, as if our hunger will become more clear and choices more obvious if we stare long enough.
Here’s the thing – Jesus could have turned every stone in the surrounding countryside into bread. He could have commanded all the fish out of the sea and into baskets then turned the water across which they had rowed – into wine. All with just a handful of words. He could have fed 10,000 or 20,000 people that day. He could have called down manna for the 12, 100 or 500 people who surrounded him on any given day.
The crowds would have been full. They would have been amazed. One hopes they would also have been thankful. But until they took the next step… recognizing who Jesus was, who he was pointing to, the food would only ever be as filling as bread made from barley.
Jesus is the bread of life, come down from heaven. He offers in himself food the will never spoil, that will remain, that will satisfy even that deepest hunger you have never been able to name.
He stood in the middle of the hungry, anxious crowd, calmly passing the bread**, teaching and preaching all the while.
He walked calmly alongside the boat filled with men exhausted from rowing in turbulent waters, understood their fear and saw them safely to the far shore.
He walks into our chaos, too. He knows our hunger…
Our hunger for stability when finances become uncertain.
Our hunger for forgiveness and healing when relationships are broken and trust is shattered.
Our hunger for assurance when the medical experts can only shrug and use words like inconclusive.
Jesus enters into the chaos of humanity and says, “Don’t be afraid. It is I.” Or perhaps more accurately, Don’t be afraid. I am.
Not I am here or I am strong.
Simply and completely – I am.
And all that is required of us, should we hunger to experience the fullness of Jesus the Christ in our lives, is to echo back this simple affirmation of faith: You are.
All the rules, all the litmus tests, the workload we put onto the church and each other – they distract us from the truth. They keep us from seeing Jesus for who he is: The son God sent to all the world to say Don’t be afraid or overwhelmed. Don’t feel abandoned or forgotten. I am… I am, therefore, you are loved. You are forgiven. You are mine to feed and care for, mine to hold and to guide, mine to set free and to heal.
If we can hear and believe that good news, if we chew on it long enough to taste and see that the Lord is good, then we can more readily see Jesus in the midst of our chaos, offering peace, justice, compassion and mercy. We can trust that he is and ever will be here to feed our deepest hungers.
And then… then we can follow Jesus into the midst of the world’s chaos, offering the bread of life to those who hunger for dignity, freedom, safety, love and friendship.
*Of course, I imagine Jesus sidling up next to the boat and saying something like “Hey guys, what’s up?”
**Major tip of the hat to Rev. Deb Avery (@jazzpastord on the twitters) for sharing this image just as I needed it.