2 Kings: 4: 42-44
Psalm 145: 10-18
Ephesians 3: 14-21
John 6: 1-21
There is a lot of weird stuff going on in this reading from John today – forget the feeding story, which is strange enough. But after that, Jesus goes off by himself, as he is wont to do, to pray, and maybe just get some sleep without having to heal anyone or cast out any demons. He stays there from what seems to be brunch time to dinner, but who knows? It seems like the feeding of the 5,000 was a supper but maybe it was brunch, after all. So, was Jesus on the mountain for a night and a day? Or just a few hours? Anyway, evening comes, and Jesus hasn’t come – and his disciples just look around, check their watches, shrug – “I guess we’ll just leave him on the mountain.” They just get in their boat and start to sail across the sea. They just sail right off. Why? It doesn’t make any sense. Now John says the disciples, now 3-4 miles – I’m not sure that the Sea of Galilee is much ore than 4 or 5 miles across at its widest point - so they’re almost to where they’re going- rowing hard against the wind and the storm. But suddenly Jesus shows up walking on the sea. In some version of this story Peter leaps out. In some versions, the disciples think they’re seeing a ghost – but in this version, Jesus simply tells them, “It is I – do not be afraid.” Then they want to take him into the boat, but they don’t. They just – arrive. That’s it. End of story. Come back next week.
We’re about to take a four-or-five-week dive into this chapter of John, and you’ll see what I’m talking about- lots of confusion, lots of miracles, and a lot of cryptic responses from Jesus – like, “It is I, don’t be afraid. Look we’re here!”
Signs are strange things – there’s no doubt that the feeding of the 5,000 is an important sign. And Jesus, over the following weeks, will take some time to explain it to everyone. But it’s been 2,000 years, and we still can’t agree on what it means. Some people say – “look, this is a sign of the power of the Word of God!” Others say, “yes, you can tell by the way Jesus inspires everyone with that little boy, so they all share their food.” Still others say, “that’s not what happened – that’s Jesus’ word making the loaves and fish enough for all, as a sign of the Eucharist.” Still others disagree with this and insist it’s a sign of the power of believing in Jesus. Meanwhile, Jesus just wants to go on a hike and get some rest.
One of my standard OSA jokes is to say, “If you want to announce something and get absolutely no one to pay attention, put up a sign.” This is so true in our building. There’s a door with a sign that says “Stop. Do not open this door.” I have to close it almost every day. There’s a sign on the fridge that tells you what to do with your food. I have no idea what it says – I just read it and think “that’s right”, and then probably break all the rules it announces. There’s a sign on the garden gate that spells out the rules of the garden, but despite those rules and that sign, I’ve discovered I get a disturbing amount of satisfaction from yelling at people who haven’t read the sign. And, of course – there are the parking signs in the city, which can be subject of an entire field of study, and no none seems to be able to understand them or even follow them.
Except – except for signs that somehow stand in the right place. Highway signs work. And the signs that seem to continually work for our church are signs by the door and the sidewalks – the ones that aren’t rules but explain who we are and what we are doing – the ones that you can expect, say, to be on a church, that will tell you when worship is, the pastor’s name, the name of the church, and so on. The signs make sense and work because people see this is a church and know to look for signs that say more – or, knowing that it’s a church, try even harder to ignore them.
Signs don’t work if they don’t say something about more than themselves, and if they can’t inform about something else. Signs are real things that point to something more, just like the sign outside the church points, one hopes, not just to the building, but to us, the people who meet here. And of all these signs, John is continually clear that none of the things, these signs, matter if they weren’t part of God’s story, and if they didn’t take their meaning from the death and resurrection of Jesus. Miracles matter because they point to God. And this feeding miracle, this water walk, only matter because of the cross.
There is already a tension in the passage between the sign the people see and the reality to which it points. After the feeding, the people want to make Jesus king – a similar response that comes from Pilate, when he interrogates Jesus before his crucifixion. There Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to free me. “So”, Pilate then says – “so you are a king”, and Jesus says – “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth, listens to my voice.” Shortly after that, Pilate has Jesus killed. What is truth? he famously asks.
The problem with these miracles is that they’re temporary. The people are hungry – Jesus feeds them. The disciples are scared – Jesus calms them. These are the symptoms, not the diseases. Hunger and fear are signs of a world that is not listening to Jesus, that doesn’t care for truth, but rather power and dominance. Hunger and fear are signs of the power of death. Jesus is truth in the middle of fear.
These miracles only make sense when they’re seen as signs of the resurrection, which puts an end to death and all its powers. “It is I, do not be afraid,” is the same voice that spoke to Mary in the garden, as she cried, hopeless in the morning. The temporal signs of loaves and fish point to the eternal sign of the banquet of heaven. It is the death of Christ for the world and his rising that interpret not just these signs, but our whole lives. Out faith in the victor over death gives us hope and joy because we know the truth- nothing can stand between us and God’s love.
I know it is hard not to be afraid. As much as we wish that we were wiser, we, too are hungry and scared. If you don’t believe the world is a dark and terrifying place, just read the testimony of the children held in custody by DHS. The least harrowing is the child who testified her ham sandwiches were black and inedible.
We, like the disciples, know the forces of darkness and fear all too well and we experience the reality of evil far too often. The reality of God seems to come as a surprise. It’s hard to believe in the resurrection when we are surrounded by so much death.
But we have not been abandoned. Rather the fulness of the risen Christ is all around. And to see it we have signs, signs that fit with the story. The signs we see today are the people here who have come to eat. Every time you come to this table there is enough. There is bread and wine, signs of the reality of the risen Christ, who fills all above and below. Even a little bit of infinity is enough – and Christ is here for all. Take this food, and with it take heart. Death is dead; truth lives. Amen.
Rev. John Z. Flack