Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

The feeding of the multitude is the only miracle story told in all four Gospels.

July 26, 2009

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Commentary on John 6:1-21

The feeding of the multitude is the only miracle story told in all four Gospels.

Perhaps this story has such a secure place in the memory of the church because of the Eucharistic themes which it carries. This is especially true in John where Jesus’ action over the bread is described with the verb eucharisteo, “give thanks,” rather than the Synoptic Gospels’ “blessing” (John 6:11, 23).

While each Gospel includes this story, each also strikes distinctive notes in the telling. Only John tells us that this event takes place near the festival of Passover (John 6:4). What may seem like an insignificant detail in fact is at the heart of what the entire chapter claims about Jesus.

At the end of chapter 5, Jesus complained that his opponents did not understand or believe what Moses had written (John 5:39-47). We then are ushered immediately into a scene that not only takes place at Passover, one of the great events associated with Moses, but into a text that overflows with echoes of the Passover event. Some examples include:

  • At the beginning of chapter 6, events of supernatural feeding and of salvation from the sea are joined together, just as the crossing of the sea and the manna in the wilderness were part of the story of Moses.
  • There is “testing” here (John 6:6), as there was in Exodus 16:4.
  • Jesus commands that the pieces be gathered up so that nothing is wasted, just as Moses commanded in Exodus 16:19.
  • Jesus is said to go up “to the mountain” (notice that it is not simply “a” mountain in verse 3). In fact, the text strangely says that after the feeding, Jesus (again?) withdrew “to the mountain” (verse 15). Perhaps this repeated mention of “the mountain” (another piece unique to John’s account) is intended to recall that other mountain in Israel’s story, where Moses met God.
  • The people will grumble (verse 41), just as Israel did in the wilderness (Exodus 16:2).

Thus, this text is an echo chamber of the Passover-Exodus story. If chapter 5 ended with complaints about a shallow, superficial understanding of Moses, then chapter 6 intends to show a deeper, fuller understanding of Moses and the Passover which is now revealed in Jesus.

Verse 14 indicates that the people have made the connections. Faced with this feeding miracle in the wilderness, they remember the promise that God will raise up a prophet like Moses, and they confess that Jesus is that prophet. But they fail to realize what this sign actually reveals. Instead of seeing in Jesus the very embodiment of God’s glory, love, and Word, they see a king, a political or military figure who might serve their desires.

We ought to remember the Passover was a festival of national liberation from a foreign oppressor. It is an act of revolution to want to make Jesus king. The crowds are certainly acting on their beliefs, and acting boldly; but they have missed the point of what has happened. They see Jesus’ gracious gift, but they want a glory for him that fits into their assumptions and serves their goals.

How often do we fail to see the depths of what God is doing, because we are focused only on what serves our immediate desires and needs? We fail to realize how graciously God is acting among us, for our sake and for the sake of the whole world. We only see partially and in distorted ways. We need the continuing word of Jesus, and the gift of himself, if we are to move more deeply into the glory of God. This is what the crowds need as well, though it will take all of chapter 6 to tell the story.

When the scene shifts from the feeding to the sea, the echoes of Passover continue, and it becomes even clearer that we are dealing not simply with miracles, but with a theophany.

Jesus’ response to the disciples’ fear is not simply “it is I,” but “I am” (NRSV footnote), the language of divine presence and revelation (Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 43:10, 25; 51:12). “Do not be afraid” is likewise the language of theophany (Genesis 15:1, Exodus 14:13). The feeding “miracle” is no mere miracle at all, but a theophany. In John’s vocabulary, it is a “sign,” a window into the glory of God present in this world through Jesus.

It is at the cross that we see the full depth of God’s glory, and the cross cannot be avoided. Notice that in this scene, the storm is not stilled. Rather, the glory of Jesus is revealed in and through the storm, just as it will be revealed through the cross. The storm is not removed, but the disciples are brought to salvation.

Like the crowds in John 6, we have been fed by God’s grace, fed with God’s mercy and care and steadfast love; and, like them, we often fail to see what God is doing among us. We look for the “wrong” kind of Jesus, one who will simply serve our programs, our desires, and our wishes.

Jesus will have no part of this, because God is up to something far greater. Jesus comes to us as God in the flesh, the one who reveals to us the Father and draws us into the Father’s love. Jesus comes across the fearful, lonely, empty, threatening times and places, and says “I am.” The “I am” has come to be with us and bring us to the goal God has intended.

This divine presence means we find ourselves called, as the disciples were, to feed the hungry. Of course this means we are to provide food and clean water to so many in this world who lack those things. And of course, our resources are not sufficient for such a task. But this cannot be an excuse to refuse what Jesus’ gives, and to bring it to others within the world. is no excuse not to receive from Jesus’ hand what he gives, and to go into the world with this gift.

All life and all good gifts come from God. Jesus comes to open our hearts and our hands to those around us. We can do that only because he also comes to open our eyes to his own presence as the grace-and-peace-filled “I” in the middle of the storm.