Get out of the boat...
Bible: John 6:22-25
You remember that Jesus performed a sign in the wilderness, feeding 5,000 men, plus women and children. The story continues...
22 The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the lake saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ 26Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ 28Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’29Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ 30So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” 32Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which* comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ 34They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’
35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
The people of Jesus time expected that God would send another prophet like Moses. Indeed, Moses himself had once said, " The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet... I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command..." (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18)
And the people at the Feeding of 5,000 understood this. It says that "When the people saw the sign that [Jesus] had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’" (John 6:14)
And yet the part of that crowd which came across the lake in the boats from Tiberias seem curiously blind. They have seen the feeding, they have eaten, and they want more food. And like Jesus, they know what God has said: "one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord." (Deut 8:3)He's quoting the Old Testament, after all; Deuteronomy Chapter 8. And we expect they knew the tradition, the midrash on scripture, that said "As was the first redeemer so was the final redeemer; as the first redeemer caused the manna to fall from heaven, even so shall the second redeemer cause the manna to fall." (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1.9)
So how could they not see that Jesus had done something even greater than Moses!?? In the old stories of Moses, the manna would decay if you took more than you needed. In the sign that Jesus had done, the bread was collected up in baskets so that nothing would be lost. It did not spoil and, what's more, there were twelve baskets, a sign that the broken 12 tribes of Israel— only two were left— would be restored!
How could these people who had been there, who had eaten— how could they not see!? What was making them so blind?
Well, William Barclay said the crowd "did not regard the bread which had fed the five thousand as bread from God; it had begun in earthly loaves and [it finished with] (issued in) earthly loaves." (Barclay's John Commentary) They thought the manna was something much greater than Jesus' loaves.
To be something from God, a sign had to be somehow truly spectacular. It couldn’t start from five ordinary barley loaves, which may even have been a bit grubby from a little boy's backpack... even if it did feed 5000 thousand men, plus women and children. These people were sure God did not work like that. (Even though something like that— to our eyes— has 'God written all over it.')
You know... we do something the same as this in our time; I'm talking about us church people, here.
When William Barclay wrote his commentary on John's gospel, he hinted that maybe that feeding of 5,000 people was not some fantastic miracle "out of the sky," so to speak, but was a great miracle from somewhere else. He said
There may be another and very lovely explanation. It is scarcely to be thought that the crowd left on a nine-mile expedition without making any preparations at all. If there were pilgrims with them, they would certainly possess supplies for the way. But it may be that none would produce what he had, for he selfishly--and very humanly--wished to keep it all for himself. It may then be that Jesus, with that rare smile of his, produced the little store that he and his disciples had; with sunny faith he thanked God for it and shared it out. Moved by his example, everyone who had anything did the same; and in the end there was enough, and more than enough, for all.
It may be that this is a miracle in which the presence of Jesus turned a crowd of selfish men and women into a fellowship of sharers. It may be that this story represents the biggest miracle of all--one which changed not loaves and fishes, but men and women. (Ibid. Emphasis mine)
I don't know what your experience is, but I've certainly been places when someone has suggested something like this may have happened, and seen other folk get quite upset. "This is a denial of the miracle. It's a denial of God's power and glory," they say. "This is not God... this is not what God is about. The Feeding was a real miracle, not some weak and paltry sharing. Don't deny God's power— that glorious power of heaven," they say.
Well, there's a musician called Jacob Wright who wrote on his Facebook page this week:
The idea that God dwelled in the pristine safety and perfection of a location called heaven where he was comfortably sitting on a golden throne being worshipped by angels blissfully removed from the sufferings of the world, and that he traded this in order to go to the cross, [well, the idea] ... that this is somehow awe-inspiring, in my opinion is bunk and not at all going to the depth of what the cross reveals. That’s not really even impressive. So God gave up living like a privileged rich brat to show how much he loves us so he could be worshipped more?
God didn't leave heaven for the cross. The cross is the revelation of heaven. Self-giving love. It is the lamb who was slain that occupies the throne of heaven, which symbolizes the power center of the universe. Love is the engine of existence. And this was not just after the cross, rather it is a new revelation of who God is and has always been... It's not like Jesus didn't have to go to the cross, but made the choice to. No, Jesus had to go to the cross, because it was God’s nature to give himself (sic) and God cannot act contrary to his nature..." Jacob M Wright
The sign that Jesus worked in the wilderness is that God gives of God's self... Jesus gives of the loaves and fishes he has to hand, and Jesus gives even his own life...God gives. God shows us that love, and giving in love "are the power centre of the universe."
What about us? Where is the power centre of our love?
We know that there is more than enough food in the world. Yet people starve by the millions— somewhere between 1 and 3 and a half thousand people will die of starvation and hunger related diseases during our service this morning. (Here) This is simply because we do not share— there is enough food in the world. If we would give and share, then our tables would be full and our cups would overflow, as the Psalm said.
Indeed, our refusal— and it's more than this— our inability to share, even when part of us wants to, and our compulsion to get and keep stuff for ourselves at the expense of other people's lives, is a pretty good expression of the doctrine of original sin. Being safe at the expense of others is the defining human thing which keeps us from God, and which resists God's kingdom!
So why could the crowd not see this? Why could they not see the love of God in their midst? Why could they not see that this feeding by sharing is far greater than golden thrones and singing angels? Our own government fights tooth and nail in the courts to keep little children who are sick unto dying in Nauru rather than share of the plenty we have in Australia. (Here or here.)Why do God's people, the church, sometimes think that the sharing of food is somehow not a miracle!?
Because it would mean we have to change. We would have to give of our goods. We would have to share.
There is an interesting little detail in the gospel story. When the disciples are on the lake and it's windy and rough, and they see Jesus, they "wanted to take him into the boat." But the boats that the crowd get into come from Tiberias; they are not Jesus kind of boats. Why does John put that little detail in there?
The boats from Tiberias are boats from the city of Empire. Tiberias was named after the Emperor of Rome. Empire does not share; empire takes to itself. Empire keeps itself safe. If we get into the boats from Tiberias we will not see God's love working in people. We will not see need; we will see dole-bludgers and lazy beggars.
I'm haunted by seeing a girl on the footpath, a few weeks ago, begging. She was shaking with cold, sitting on the cement in that wind tunnel we call Grenfell Street. I still ask myself, "Why didn't you stop, Andrew? Why didn't you simply say, "You look like you are freezing. Could I buy you a cup of coffee?""
Well, last Tuesday, I saw another young woman, scarcely a year or two older, freezing in a blanket in the same street. And I remembered, and I walked past, anyway... because I simply did not have the energy, and did not have the courage, to get involved in one more act of compassion.
It's little enough that I do for folks, but I'm exhausted. To care, to share, to love, to abandon safety, is like Peter getting out of the boat. It sinks us in short order!! You know this.
But let me warn us most seriously. If we get into the boats from Tiberias— if we make our home in the boats from Tiberias; if we live with the idea that we have a right to be safe and rich while others are not safe and fed, then even if Jesus himself comes and gives us bread from heaven, we will not see it. We will have neat theological arguments that mean we can step around him, like some annoying beggar on the foot path.
But when we care, when we share, when we love those who are difficult and who drain us, when we are the one in the family who looks after the elderly, while our siblings keep themselves distant and safe, it will heal us. It will exhaust us. It will let us see— it will open our eyes in most unwelcome ways— to see the suffering of the world. But it will heal us.
Because to trust Jesus, and live compassionately like Jesus, is to do the works of God. It feeds us. It means we receive a depth of life, a way of being that ceases to be hungry and thirsty, and becomes satisfied, and at peace.
Andrew Prior (2018)