First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 9

William Loader

Pentecost 9: 26 July John 6:1-21

In recent weeks we have been looking at passages in Mark which precede and then surround the feeding of the 5000 and its sequel, the walking on water. Mark has developed the symbolism of bread to represent the gospel and to celebrate that this good news is both for Israel (5000) and for the Gentiles (4000). The disciples are slow to recognise the symbolism (8:16-21). The framers of the Lectionary take us away from Mark just when we might expect Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5000 and switch us to John. It is not altogether inappropriate because John has developed the symbol of bread even further, to the point where Jesus himself becomes the bread.

In both Mark and John two events are linked: the miraculous feeding and the miraculous walking on the water. Both are well known stories and profound in their meaning, but both are also problematic. If your hearers are likely to sense some unreality in the stories and you ignore their concerns, there is a high probability that they will read your silence as indicating you see no problems and perhaps draw conclusions about your hold on reality. If, however, you focus too much on the problems, you may derail anything else you seek to say.

These are two of the most significant stories of our Christian heritage and deserve to be handled with integrity and sensitivity. For many who are sensitive to world poverty and disaster the images of multiplying food or walking on water are painfully unreal, almost a cruel fantasy. It does not happen. Whether people believe it nevertheless happened once will depend on their philosophical and christological presuppositions. Nothing indicates that the gospel writers thought the events did not occur. A slavish commitment to taking everything the writers say as gospel and yet also acknowledging the problems has led some to imagine that the gospel writers were not really reporting a miracle, but, for eyes that can see, really only a large shared lunch. Our integrity suffers when we try to explain away the text like that, however profound our intentions.

It is nevertheless clear that the gospel writers used these stories in ways which went far beyond the focus on miracle. It is also possible that in their origin the stories may not have had a miraculous focus. We may never know. It is hard to assess at what point symbolism entered the stories and to what extent it created them. In the feeding of the 5000, for instance, there is a strong military flavour, especially in Mark: the crowd is organised like Israel’s army in the desert in 100s and 50s. Jesus is portrayed as the Davidic shepherd king. Was this already symbolism on Jesus’ part? In John we may have a further echo of this where the crowd wants to make him king. Did the feeding motif then enter the story secondarily, suggested by the symbolism of manna in the desert? John’s account stands under the influence of 2 Kings 4, according to which Elisha multiplied ‘barley loaves’ presented to him by his ‘lad’, just as happens here. Many stories of Jesus echo the stories of Elijah and Elisha.

If anything, John’s account heightens the miraculous character of the story by emphasising Jesus’ foreknowledge. At the same time we find John again cautioning against making the miracle the focus without going beyond that to appreciate the person of Jesus, as he had done in 2:23-25 and 4:48. John has little sympathy for the crowds who follow because of the miracles (6:2). They will reach the wrong conclusion by trying to make Jesus king (6:14-15). They fail to see the miracle as also a sign of something more (6:26).

John is not denying the miracle, but he is making the point that there is something to be seen here which goes beyond the miracle. The rest of the chapter will expand the bread image, so that the real meaning of the event is that it was a symbol that Jesus offers the true bread, is the true bread and will be broken and shared in the bread and wine of the eucharist. As the healing of the blind man in John 9 points to Jesus as the light of the world (‘I am the light of the world’) and the raising of Lazarus in John 11 points to Jesus as the resurrection and the life (‘I am the resurrection and the life’), so here: Jesus declares, ‘I am the bread of life’ (6:35).

John consistently takes stories from the tradition about Jesus and moulds them so that they now make statements about who Jesus is for us. Using images of daily necessity, like bread, water, light, life, which were earlier used of Torah, God’s Law, John is declaring that our deepest needs are to be found in him. They are found in him, because for John he is intimately linked to God, as God’s unique Son. In effect, to relate to Jesus is to relate to God. In this way John merges diverse traditions and images into a single simplicity: our relationship with God. The result is a profoundly ‘spiritual gospel’, to use Clement of Alexandria’s language.

We find a similar focus in the episode which both in Mark and John is closely linked with the feeding: Jesus’ walking on the water. Again there are questions about its origin. Did biblical imagery produce the miracle in the story or did a miracle attract biblical allusion or both? As with the stilling of the storm the image of the deep as threatening and the source of danger is to be assumed, so that to walk over the deep is already a statement about victory over powerful forces. In Mark the question asked by the disciples after the stilling of the storm, ‘Who is this?’, finds its answer in this matching story. The imagery is rich and may recall both the crossing of the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan. In Mark there are also allusions to Yahweh passing by Moses on Sinai.

In John as in Mark the story mirrors the image of Yahweh walking across the deep (Job 9:8). In John as in Mark, Jesus declares: ‘It is I’ or, perhaps, ‘I am’, deliberately echoing the language of self presentation of a god and linked with Yahweh’s self presentation at the burning bush and echoed in Isaiah 43. The point being made is that here we learn the truth about Jesus – and about the feeding of the 5000. The crowds misunderstood the miracle of the loaves according to John 6:14-15. 6:16-21 reveals the truth. It is as though John has expanded Mark’s cryptic note with which he concludes the episode where he declares the disciples did not understand about the bread because their hearts were hardened (6:52).

It is never the case that John makes a simple equation between Jesus and Yahweh, as if Jesus were to say, ‘I am God’. John has Jesus protest against ‘the Jews’, that such a simple reading will not do (5:17-23; 10:30-39). On the other hand, as we have already noted, for John Jesus so much represents God, that divine attributes easily transfer to him. To relate to him is to relate to God. The two are one. ‘The Word was God’, yet never to the extent that John could not say: the Word was with God and the Son came from the Father to do the Father’s will. Our tradition found ways of formulating that relationship more precisely and sustaining its mystery. What matters most is the relationship of shared life, of Jesus with God and of the believer with God. Ultimately only in that and its consequences in daily living do the stories of Jesus find their fulfilment, not in the role of propaganda to sustain a following. Where they primarily serve the latter end, their point is missed and people are left like the crowds and Nicodemus in 2:23 - 3:3 and the crowds in 6:14-15, believing but needing to be reborn.

Epistle: Pentecost 9: 26 July  Ephesians 3:14-21