Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sermon, Proper 12B, John 6:1-21

Delivered by the Officiant at Morning Prayer while I was out of town


For the last several weeks we've been following the exploits of Saul and David in the Old Testament. The challenge has been for us to hear God in those stories, some violent and most strange to our ears. The God of the New Testament is also the God of the Old Testament, and God is in those stories, we just have to take some extra time listening for him. Today, however, we switch gears from the Old to the New. Today begins a five week discourse from the Gospel of John, often referred to as the Bread of Life discourse. Over the next five weeks we will hear various versions of Jesus saying, "I am the bread of life."

One of the unique things about John's gospel is that signs and miracles lead to faith and belief; which is just the opposite from the approach of the other three gospels. In John, people come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, because of what he does. We see it in passages such as the changing of water to wine, Jesus' meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well, the healing of the young boy in Capernaum, and in today's story of the feeding of the 5000.

This use of signs as a path to belief, or as an aid to belief, is not only directed to the characters in John's gospel, but is also directed to the readers of the story. Signs and symbolism permeate this gospel like no other; everything has a deeper meaning. Light and dark symbolically represent what is true and what is false, what leads to life and what leads to death. Nicodemus comes in from the darkness of the world into the light of Christ. Judas leaves the light of Christ for the darkness and his betrayal of Jesus. Jesus' first miracle, the changing of water to wine at the wedding feast in Cana, occurs on the third day -- a direct reference to the resurrection and our own anticipated wedding feast with Christ. Symbolism plays an important part of John's gospel.

Because of that symbolism, there is a lot going on in this sixth chapter of John; which is why we will spend the next five weeks delving into and exploring it. Although there is a lot going on, it can seem incredibly redundant, as John is apt to do on occasion. Jesus feeds the 5000, tells the crowd he is the bread of life, tells the religious leaders he is the bread of life, again tells the leaders he is the living bread sent by the Father, and finally confronts his disciples about his self-giving nourishment.

We begin this journey of John 6 with the feeding of the 5000, a story common to all four gospels. As you might expect, there are some differences between John's version and the versions found in the other three. First Jesus goes to the other side of the Sea of Galilee where people continue to follow him. The "other side" is a little vague, but it is commonly thought of as the east bank of the sea. In other words, Jesus is leading people out of their comfort zones, the places they knew, into unknown or rejected territory. Jesus is moving his followers into Gentile territory. He is moving them to reach out to other people, people not like us, people who are different in a variety of ways

And when Jesus leads them out, he feeds them. This is similar to when Moses led the Israelites to the other side, to a place they didn't know, far from the only homes they had ever had. When this happened, God nourished his people with manna. But the manna of Moses' day was temporary and liable to spoil. And the people who ate of it would eventually perish. We begin here, with the feeding of the 5000, but the overall theme of this discourse is to show that Jesus is the nourishment that will not spoil, that he is the food that, when eaten in faith, will keep us alive forever.

So, back to the actual feeding. John writes, "Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated." Two things we want to focus on here. First, Jesus gave thanks. In all the other versions, Jesus "blessed and broke" the bread, but here he gives thanks. That word, thanks, is a form of the word we know as Eucharist. This is what we do at every celebration of Holy Communion: we celebrate the Eucharist, we joyfully give thanks.

Second, this is also the only version that explicitly says Jesus distributed the bread. In this discourse, Jesus is the bread of life on which we feed. What we have here, then, is Jesus willingly giving of himself, and distributing himself, to those who would feed on him for eternal life. He is the giver of a holy and imperishable food, the body and blood of our Savior, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him.

Another thing to notice in this story, and this is in all four gospels not just John, is the amount of food available compared to the number of people -- five loaves for 5000 people. This certainly speaks to God's abundance and desire to care for all his people. This, probably more than any other gospel story, should speak especially to us, us of the low numbers and limited resources. Through this story we can come to realize that we are part of God's abundance and if we live into that abundance then there is nothing we can't accomplish, whether that be building issues, worship issues or missional or evangelism issues.

This, then, brings us to the end of the meal. After the people have been fed we come to yet another of John's differences. In the three synoptic gospels it isn't clear who collects the leftovers. Matthew, Mark and Luke all only say that "they collected twelve baskets full." In John, however, it is specifically written that Jesus "told his disciples, 'Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost'."

This is more than simply making sure you clean your plate because people are starving in China. We are a throwaway culture, to be sure. The food we waste in restaurants and in our own homes should embarrass us. But this isn't about that.

Generally speaking, doesn't it seem like the majority of food we throw away is the food we don't like? More brussel sprouts go uneaten than does corn. More eggplant goes uneaten than turkey or ham. More burnt pot roast gets tossed out than moist meatloaf. The stuff we most often throw away is the stuff we don't like or the stuff that doesn't live up to our standards.

But not so with Jesus. He instructs his disciples to gather up the extras, the unwanted, and the less-than-perfect so that none may be lost.

As we begin our journey through the Bread of Life discourse, there are a few things we need to remember. We need to remember that Jesus is leading us into unfamiliar territory, territory we've never been, territory on the other side. We need to remember that we are called to live into a theology of abundance, not a state of fear and scarcity. We need to remember that Jesus gave himself for us so that we might be fed with holy food and have new and unending life in him. And we need to remember that Jesus desires to gather up everybody, even those whom we dislike or attempt to get rid of, so that none may be lost.

Follow Jesus, live in the abundance of new life in Christ, and help to gather up those whom others have discarded. This is where the Bread of Life discourse begins.



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