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  • Rev. Diane Curtis

Bread and Water

John 6:1-21

New Revised Standard Version

Feeding the Five Thousand

6 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 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. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

Jesus Walks on the Water

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

Two familiar stories. Two familiar miracles. We know these, don’t we?

At the end of a long day with the crowds, the disciples, concerned about the welfare of the people, go to Jesus with a suggestion to send the people home for dinner. They haven’t located any food except for the small lunch a young boy brought.

Jesus takes the lunch, blesses it, the disciples distribute the bread and fish, everyone eats, and there are leftovers – enough to fill 12 baskets. In the interlude, Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray, sending the disciples ahead to the other side of the sea. He’ll get there on his own.

The disciples row most of the night. Suddenly they see a strange image on the water, then realize it is Jesus walking towards them. He isn’t swimming and doesn’t sink. He simply walks on top of the waves. Peter recognizes him, jumps out of the boat, and while looking at Jesus walks on the water, too. When he looks down at the water he begins to sink. Jesus reaches out his hand, pulls him out of the water, and they get in the boat together.

Two stories about faith, or lack thereof. Two miracle stories demonstrating Jesus’ compassion for those who are hungry, who find themselves in a difficult situation, who need saving in one way or another.

Let’s put on our Sherlock Holmes detective hats and grab our magnifying glasses to take a closer look at these two stories as told in the gospel of John. Hmm…

On closer inspection, we see that a few of the details we know from other accounts of these two miracles aren’t there. Philip and Andrew are the named disciples. These two seem to have heads on their shoulders. Philip has already calculated how much it would cost to feed everyone. Andrew has surveyed the crowd to see how much food is available on site. The boy’s lunch, all that Andrew could find, is specifically described as barley loaves – the common bread of the poor – and dried fish, a staple for those who can’t afford to buy fresh fish every day.

Here’s a subtle detail that is easy to miss. Jesus distributes the food himself, by his own hand. The disciples only collect the leftovers (the same 12 baskets full). And those 12 baskets full of leftovers? Here, Jesus tells the disciples to collect the fragments left from lunch so that none would be lost. So that none would be lost? Hmm…

Another detail that’s easy to miss – these events happen near Passover. We also note that the people in the crowd recognize Jesus as someone special – the expected prophet. Jesus realizes their intention to make him king so escapes to the mountain. Interesting…

When we look at the second story, many of the details appear familiar although there are a few, possibly significant, differences. The distance the disciples rowed is specified – three or four miles. Jesus walks towards the boat and the disciples identify him when they see him. We are told they wanted to take him into the boat but when he got close to them, they immediately reached shore. Jesus didn’t get in the boat. Curious…

As we review the second story, we realize someone is missing. Where’s Peter?

What are we to make of John’s account of the feeding the 5,000 and Jesus walking on water? As is true with each of the gospel accounts, the author writes for a specific audience and for a specific purpose – to tell a particular group about Jesus in a way that would make sense for those people. Each writer includes details, stories, miracles, and events that best strengthen their message.

John is no different. Each detail John includes has a purpose in communicating his message. This gospel was probably written by a Jewish-Christian to a Jewish-Christian community in conflict with the synagogue authorities of the day. Thus, references to the Hebrew Scriptures and an understanding of what was written there were assumed.

In John, three occasions are noted where an event happened near the Passover. The first was when Jesus overturned the tables at the Temple. This passage is the second. The third was when Jesus returned to Jerusalem for the last time. Passover, then, is an important clue to understanding John’s message. He hoped that his readers would make the connection with the Exodus story of the first Passover. The story of God freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and leading them through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

The overall theme of chapter 6 is that of Jesus being the bread of life (next week’s sermon!). The bread that is blessed by Jesus and then is multiplied so all 5,000 people were fed is food provided by God. Just like the bread from heaven – manna – provided to the Israelites in the desert when they were hungry. Bread represents sustenance.

John identifies two disciples that we hear little about anywhere else. Philip and Andrew are two that seem to be attentive to the crowds that gather around them as well as paying attention to Jesus’ teaching and instructions. These two, maybe more than the other disciples, see people’s needs and connect with them. They recognize that the crowd will need to eat and have determined that they don’t have the resources to feed everyone. So, they put the problem in Jesus’ hands trusting that he will know what to do. Philip and Andrew demonstrate their faith in Jesus.

The people who have listened to Jesus and then have eaten their fill call Jesus the prophet who is to come. They are identifying Jesus with Moses, the one who led the Israelites from slavery to freedom. The crowd assumes that Jesus must be the predicted one, the Messiah. By extrapolation, they equate him to the king who they believe will lead them from Roman oppression to freedom. They don’t understand who Jesus is and he knows they don’t.

In the story of Jesus walking on water, John assumes that his readers will continue to connect with the Exodus story – particularly the importance of the water. Then, at the beginning of the Israelites’ escape to freedom under Moses’ leadership, God parted the waters of the Red Sea so the people could safely cross, then roared back to cover the Egyptian soldiers who tried to follow. God provides water as a means to new life.

Other details help guide us in the direction John is leading. Jesus distributes the food himself. He tells the disciples to collect the leftovers so none will be lost. John’s clues point to who Jesus is and what he came to do. The other three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, focus on how Jesus interacted with the disciples and the people he encountered. These gospels tell us how Jesus treated people. On his compassion for those in need and those others push aside or forget. When we talk about following Jesus, we usually see this compassionate Jesus as the one to emulate.

The familiar words of John chapter 1 lay the foundation for his gospel. God is the Word. The Word is God, the creator. The Word, God the Son, became flesh, lived among us. The Son is the light shining in the darkness that people don’t understand. The darkness of sin that all people deal with. John tells us we have seen his glory. We have seen God in Jesus, the Son.

Jesus is God in the flesh. God who has come to save God’s people. The Messiah who leads the people out of slavery, the slavery of sin and darkness. For John, this is the focus – God has come to earth to save the world and Jesus is God.

John doesn’t forget that Jesus is also human. That he is compassionate and caring. He feeds people who are hungry. He takes care of those in need including the disciples. Not in the same warm and fuzzy way of the other three gospels but caring, nonetheless.

He portrays Jesus as one whose relationship with God the Father is the foundation of the work he has come to do. Prayer is necessary for Jesus. Time alone with God is his sustenance.

The gospel of John is about Jesus and what he does to save people. All people. None are lost. Not the disciples in the boat or the people in the crowds. He comes to save everyone including us.

Jesus doesn’t forget who we are or the challenges we face and the needs we have. Just as Philip and Andrew brought the need they recognized to Jesus, we can bring our concerns and needs and put them in Jesus’ hands. Jesus is our Savior in all aspects of life. He cares. He loves. He comes to us and says, “It’s me. Don’t be afraid. I will save you.”


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