Principle Lesson: John 6:1-21
There’s a story from the Zen Buddhist about three monks who walk to the other side of the lake from their small hut. The sat by the lake, deep in meditation when one of them stood up and said, “I’ve forgotten my mat.” Stepping on to the waters before him, he walked across to the other side to their small hut and retrieved the mat. When he returned, the second monk said, “I just remembered that I forgot to put my cleaned clothes out to be dried.” So, he too strode calmly across the water to the other bank and returned in a few minutes by the same way.
The third monk watched them intently. Figuring that this was a test of his own skills, he loudly declared, “Is your learning superior to mine? I think not! I too can match any feat you can perform!” ” With that the young monk rushed to the water’s edge so that he too could walk upon the water. The young monk promptly fell into the deep water. Unfazed, he waded out and tried again, and again he sank into the water. Again and again, he tried but to no avail. After watching for a time in silence, one of his fellow monks asked the other, “Do you think we should tell him where the stones are?”
For the next five weeks, we will begin a little diversion from our regular reading from the gospel according to Mark as we dive headlong into John 6! Today, the lectionary has us recall two signs: the feeding of the five-thousand and Jesus’ walking on water. For the two weeks following, we enter into Jesus’ dialogue with the Jewish opposition, as we hear Jesus proclaim, “I am the bread of life.” At the end of the dialogue, Jesus will begin the discourse, proclaiming that the bread that he gives for the life of the world is his own flesh (from which we will draw a deep Eucharisitc connection). Finally, in ending his discourse on the bread of life Jesus will announce “those who drink my blood and eat my flesh abide in me and I in them.” And because of this teaching, some of the disciples (as we will learn) turn back and no longer follow Jesus.
So this narrative in John 6, what is often called collectively the “Bread of Life Discourse,” is a pinnacle moment! Maybe we get a little bored by it because we hear it so often and know it so well, but this is a make or break moment for the disciples – not the twelve but for some of the larger group of disciples. These signs and the accompanying dialogue and discourse induce some of the disciples to leave Jesus. So there is a trajectory that prompts an important question: Where will we be in five weeks? Will this teaching be too much for us?
The part of the story that we heard proclaimed today begins with the feeding of the five-thousand. It’s a story that is told by all four evangelists, and we know it well! But because it’s a story we all know so well, sometimes we might miss the details of what is happening. For today, then, I want to take a closer look at three details to get a fresh look at what Jesus is doing in this scene. Notice first, however, the immediate context in John’s gospel: Jesus and the disciples have crossed to the eastern side of the Sea. and the crowds have followed Jesus, gathering to him. And then we learn that “the Passover, the festival of Jews, was near.” So, it’s almost Passover, the second of three occurrences of Passover in John’s gospel. Where would the Jews normally have gathered for Passover. In Jerusalem at the Temple! That is where they gather in the other two Passover scenes in John! But, here, it’s almost Passover and the crowds are gathering around Jesus! This whole passage is an upending of the Passover expectations. (That’s not one of the three details; I just think it’s interesting.)
The first detail: Notice that in John’s gospel it is Jesus who brings up the question of feeding the hungry crowds. In the Synoptic versions, the disciples raise the question of food, with Jesus responding, “You give them something to eat.” Here, in John’s narrative, it is Jesus who asks, “Where will we find food to feed these people?” And it is Philip who responds. But Philip doesn’t actually answer Jesus’ question about where to find food; but, instead, Philip raises a concern about how much it will cost, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Andrew pipes in that there is a boy “who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” So Jesus asks, “Where will find it?,” and Philip responds, “We can’t afford it” and Andrew responds, “We don’t have enough. Jesus wants to feed the crowd but the disciples only see scarcity!
But Jesus responds to the protestations of scarcity by having the crowd sit down. The scarcity is completely a non-issue for Jesus. Now notice where Jesus has the crowd sit, and here is the second detail. Look at the sentence in John 6:10, “Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.” I often overlook this little detail, and maybe you did to, but Jesus has them sit down for “there is plenty of grass there.” When I saw this detail, maybe for the first time in a long while, I immediately went to the Psalm,
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. (Psalm 23:1-3)
The Lord is my shepherd… Jesus is the Good Shepherd (a name he will take in John 10). How does the good shepherd tend the flock? Shepherds take the flock to the place with good grass so that the flock can be fed. What does a good shepherd do? The Good Shepherd leads the flock from scarcity to abundance.
The third detail: Note that there were five thousand fed. The Synoptic narratives, of course, make the additional note, “not including women and children” but John’s narrative instead claims “five thousand in all.” Now, maybe I am making too much of the number but it is a rather large and specific number. In his comments on this passage, Allen Dwight Calahan points out that five thousand would have been the general headcount of an ancient army (True to Our Native Land, 186-212). I think that there might be a subtle illusion here of the imperial Roman army. So, on one level, Jesus has here taken an unruly army, a force of violence and made them into his sheep! On another level, the narrative seems to contrast the offer made by Caesar and that made by Jesus the Good Shepherd. Consider, for example, that one of the tools that the Roman Empire used to control its army (and not just the army but its people) was to control the distribution of bread. Rome would, quite literally, rule the economy of who got bread and who got nothing! Controlling the distribution was the way Rome stayed in power. Scarcity was a tool of Empire. But Jesus is completely upending that system! Jesus is completely dismantling the system of scarcity because Jesus instead provides an overwhelming abundance, enough for everyone to be filled and for there to be leftovers.
IT IS INTO THIS ABUNDANCE THAT JESUS INVITES!
Where does this leave us? Here are a few items for our reflection:
First, too often we scoff at our own gifts and resources. Surely they cannot be enough! But brainstorming, collecting voices and opinions, and pursuing ideas that might seem foolish at first can lead to miracles. But we ask what good is this with problems such as we have? The world’s needs seem so big, and our efforts feel so small. Remember, however, that when the disciples saw what the young person had, they scoffed; but, with Jesus, it was enough.
Second, this narrative of the feeding of the multitude and the story of the disciples on the road to Emaus, among other stories, were most likely originally told as stories of Eucharist and the Eucharistic life! What if our Eucharist was not just a remembrance of the Last Supper but also and equally a celebration of this miracle? What if it was a remembrance of the abundance of Jesus? How would this reframe our own liturgy and understanding of Communion? More to the point, what would such a reframing mean at our dismissal when we are told to go into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit?
In other words, what does this lesson mean for us as we go home, into our neighborhoods, and into the marketplace? Do we sink back into the myth of scarcity? Do we operate by controlling and ruling the bread? Or, do we respond to the Good Shepherd and become good shepherds ourselves, leading people to the green grass, demonstrating abundance in forgiveness, mercy, grace, compassion? This is our witness!
And, lest you think my sharing of the story of the Zen monks was for naught, will you show your neighbor where the stones are?