The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13B)
Sunday, 5 August 2018
O Lord, we beseech thee, let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church, and, because it cannot continue in safety without thy succour, preserve it evermore by thy help and goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Today we leave the world of the Gospel of Mark and enter the very different
world of the Fourth Gospel. Mark’s version of Jesus’ story, most probably originating
in Judea as a one act oral performance, is the closest in time to Jesus’ life, death, and
Resurrection. The Fourth Gospel arose as a text from the Jewish-Christian Johannine
Community in Roman Syria (perhaps at Ephesus or Antioch) some forty years after
Mark. The time that separates the two gospels (and their respective distance from the
Jesus Event) informs the contrast between the two. It is like comparing an account of World War Two written in the 1970s with one written today. The former would be
informed by living memories, eye witness accounts, and a certain immediacy, where
the latter would have a greater sense of history, a perspective that allows for more
interpretation, more room to make meaning.
Last week we read the story of Jesus’ walking on water in Mark that follows the feeding of the five thousand, in which we learn that Jesus went up the mountain to pray, and from his high vantage point saw the disciples in distress on the water, “making headway painfully.” Jesus sought to help his friends, bringing them comfort, bringing them his very presence, which he identifies as “I AM,” using the Divine Name of Hebrew Scripture. When Jesus lands on the other shore, he disembarks and immediately takes up his healing ministry. Mark gives his listeners an affective experience of Jesus’ actions, providing a lens through which they can see their own suffering, their own “making headway painfully.” Where Mark emphasises the connection between Jesus’ command of the forces of the cosmos and his work as a healer, John uses the story very differently.
In John’s version of the maritime miracle, Jesus still comes to his disciples
walking on the water, announcing himself as “I AM,” but we loose the pastoral
perspective. Jesus comforting the disciples is de-emphasised. John focusses on this
identification of Jesus as “I AM,” his unity with God as the Word made flesh, his ability
to manifest divine majesty, to master the forces of nature like water, in continuity with
the mighty acts of God, as in the Crossing of the Red Sea at the first Passover.(1) John
does not follow the waking on water with healing, but rather with the text we have for
today’s Gospel, returning to an exploration of the feeding miracle and its true
John’s world, which still takes very seriously the events of Jesus’ life, is one in which the philosophical and cosmic perspective takes on a new and powerful dimension. What Jesus does certainly has an impact in the moment—in this case he feeds the people and calms the waters—but it is also revelatory of deeper truths, and leads the people to more profound connection with the divine. Nowhere in John’s text is this more powerfully seen than in the discourse on the Bread of Life.
Where in Mark, Jesus was able to simply dismiss the crowds after he fed them,
John’s crowd becomes very excited and seeks to make Jesus their king. In the face of
this possibility that “they were about to come and take him by force,” Jesus flees to a
place of solitude, from which he descends to manifest himself to the disciples on the
water. That next morning, the crowds have pursued him and they confront Jesus and
seek to know more about how he has fed so many people. While they seem to have
abandoned the idea of forcing Jesus to be their king, they still seem focussed on the
physical nourishment they received from the barley loaves and the fish, as Jesus
observes when he says “you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate
your fill.” While it is easy to discount the people’s need for actual food with Jesus’ next
remark, “Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to
eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you,” it is, however, more complex.
Recently my friend and colleague at Yale, Andrew McGowan has pointed out that one of the ways that the powerful exercised their patronage over the crowds was by feeding them. Throughout the Roman Empire, the great and the good fed the people, certainly to alleviate hunger, but also as a means of control and gaining their loyalty. Jesus is telling the crowd that he is not like these other men. He is saying that this “is not a feeding program,” as they conventionally understand it, and yet, as McGowan puts it, “it is a feeding program too, one whose material and spiritual realities are assumed to be aligned.”(2) Jesus is telling the people that he has not simply brought them food to fill their hungry bellies, but that he is giving them so much more. Yes, he has met the physical needs they recognise so painfully, and yet the people do not fully understand. He is giving them himself, “I AM.”
The people begin to understand that there is something more at work. They ask
Jesus what they can do to be fed more deeply and Jesus responds: “This is the work of
God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Jesus is telling them that their work is
faith, to believe in Jesus, actively cultivate a relationship with him, participate in his
presence and in his life. John is saying that works and faith are one in the same. Faith,
belief is something practised. (3)
This saying is not enough for the crowd, however, they need to know more, more about Jesus, more about the bread, more about the work, God’s work and their work, so they ask Jesus,
“Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.”
The people could connect what Jesus gave them for nourishment with the manna given the people by Moses. They could see that the food was both filling and heavenly, but did not make the final leap. Jesus puts the all pieces together for them. Jesus tells them that the food he gives does not perish like the manna—and by implication like the food offered by worldly patrons seeking to expand their networks—but offers connection with God, with the eternal truth that lies beyond the here and now.
The people are inspired by what Jesus tells them and say to him, “Lord, give us
this bread always.” Jesus then explains exactly what this new bread is, the bread that
does satisfy them in this moment and yet gives the new life: “I am the bread of life; he
who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” This
claim, parallel with his assertion to the disciples that "I AM," is the supreme claim that
we will explore in our Gospel readings over the next few weeks. Jesus offers himself as
the bread of life and the people who gathered around him were excited at the
prospect, much in the same way as the woman at the well in another story in John’s
gospel was beside herself to receive the living water Jesus offered her. They must know
When the crowds had seen saw how Jesus had fed them, they wanted to make
him their king. They saw a leader to whom they could be loyal, whose patronage and
favour they could seek and who would meet their needs. They saw a secular king or,
perhaps, a divinely sanctioned monarch like David. Yet, as I often discuss on the last
Sunday after Pentecost when we celebrate as Christ the King, while Jesus is our king
and lord, he is unlike any ruler human history has ever seen. Here, with the feeding
miracles, Jesus certainly does the work of human leaders, but transcends it so much as
to turn the very ideas of leadership, kingship, lordship on their heads. Jesus, the bread
of life, feeds his people, doing the work of God, showing us where our work lies.
We come to this gospel, this Good News, with a desire to cooperate with God in the transformation of the world, in bringing about the Kingdom of God, where none are hungry and all receive justice, where all know they are loved. The feeding story in John should not leave us thinking on only heavenly matters, but rather see the work Jesus as doing as a something that meets all of the world’s needs, both in the here and now and in the age to come.even in this moment.
Andrew C. Blume✠
Feria, 3 August 2018
1 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, the Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), I, 254-255
2 Andrew McGowan, “Your fill of the loaves: The Johannine sign of the loaves and the ancient bread economy”
3 Brown 1966, I, 264-265.
© 2018 Andrew Charles Blume