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Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

We contemporary people tend to wrestle quite a bit with stories like we just heard in our Gospel reading. Grains of barley loaves multiplying in the hands of Jesus; a midnight stroll across the turbulent sea to join the disciples. The category of miracle is most often justified away to make stories like these palatable. We construct theories of what might have happened – the willingness of the young boy to share his meager meal compelled the many others sitting on that grassy knoll to break out their secret stashes of food and share with one another. The moral of the story is usually that we already have all the resources we need, and we just need to be willing to share them. I wonder, though, what this kind of interpretation leads us to believe about God? Is the point of this story, really, behavior management, manipulation by the Son of God to shame the crowds into sharing their food? And the walking on water bit – clearly Jesus was not actually walking on water, right? There must have been a sandbar, or the disciples were closer to the shoreline than they thought, or Jesus must have projected his own image out on the sea (which would maybe give it a ghostlike appearance, thus leading the disciples to think they’d seen a ghost). 

For John, at least, these kinds of interpretations run counter to the kind of power and authority that he ascribes to Jesus. They shift our eyes (and therefore our understanding) away from what John intends for us to focus on. Just before our story picks up, John recounted how Jesus’ healing ministry ruffled the feathers of the religious elite. When questioned about his practice of healing on the sabbath, Jesus defended himself by claiming that he does only what he sees the Father doing and since his Father was “still working,” Jesus must also continue to work. In fact, Jesus and the one he calls Father are so united to one another that the signs and works Jesus performs testify to Jesus’ relationship with the Father. In the framework of John’s narrative, the miracle stories are intended to be revelatory rather than a kind of song and dance, and so we must see in the miracles that John recounts here a revelation of the very claims that Jesus has just made. So, what if, this morning, we set aside the empirical explanations and let these miracle stories reveal what they intend to reveal about Jesus?

Throughout the Judean countryside, Jesus’ fame begins to spread. And now, as pilgrims begin to flock to the region in preparation for Passover, they hear of Jesus’ healing ministry and decide to seek him out. Perhaps some were skeptical, wanting to see for themselves if what they’ve heard is real. Perhaps some seek Jesus thinking they’re going to be entertained by the song and dance of a lunatic. Others perhaps seek Jesus out because they hope for healing – for themselves or for a loved one. And still others perhaps heard the stories and wondered whether this Jesus is the hoped-for Messiah, the One who would victoriously break Israel free from the oppressive Roman occupation. 

Sitting on the hillside with his disciples, Jesus sees a crowd of thousands walking toward him. He decides, according to John, to use this situation as a “test” for his disciples. He asks Philip, “How will we feed all these people?” As the disciples’ eyes take in the crowds thronging toward them, Philip immediately assesses that such a great number of people would be nearly impossible to feed with the monetary resources they have – six month’s wages would not be enough for everyone to have just a morsel of bread! Andrew gets a little more creative – if they themselves do not have the resources, perhaps there are some among the crowd who might have something they could share. But he comes up with just 5 loaves of barley bread and 2 dried fish – and, “what are they, really, in the face of so great a need?” The “test” that Jesus administers seems insurmountable. What the disciples see mirrored in the need presented to them is inadequacy, scarcity of resources, impossibility… 

Jesus tells the disciples to seat the people. He takes the bread and the fish, gives thanks and then distributes the food to the people. Miraculously, the bread and the fish seem to replenish themselves with each portion broken and given to be consumed. If this is an act of self-revelation, what is it that Jesus is trying to reveal to us? In light of the “test” Jesus gives to his disciples, I wonder if part of what we’re to receive in this narrative is an understanding of the limits of human knowledge. When faced with greatest needs around us, it can be tempting to get discouraged when the resources we have to meet those needs seem so scant. Perhaps John’s Jesus intends for us to recognize that our capacity to meet the greatest needs in our own lives and in the world around us will never be enough to satisfy. Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the multitude underscores that when the limit of human knowledge, of human understanding and ability, is reached, Jesus opens the door to divine abundance, showering grace and mercy upon us and satisfying even our deepest needs.

But there is another detail of this story that builds on this point – Jesus invites the people to sit down together, to share a meal with one another. Here is the formation of community, of people gathering and being fed directly by the Son of God, whose power is demonstrated in the multiplication of loaves and fish. Behind the physical need of hunger is the deep human need to be tended to. When Jesus saw them walking toward him, he recognized this need and he met it by offering a kind of fullness and satisfaction that can only come from direct communion with Jesus. The invitation to sit down with one another was not just about filling the stomachs of those who sought after Jesus. Rather, as my friend Debie Thomas points out, Jesus “encourages the hungry, needy, weary people to sit down together, to notice and attend to each other.” Jesus meets their need in community.[1] 

If we read the other gospel writers’ account of this narrative, we learn that the disciples attempted to have Jesus send the crowds away to meet their own needs in isolation. In John, Jesus’ “test” proves that human response alone is not enough to satisfy our needs. And comparing John’s version with the others, we can recognize as well that isolation will always leave us wanting, that satisfaction and fullness are stifled when we go it alone. Somehow, direct communion with Jesus happens in the context of community. And I wonder if this isn’t just as much a part of the miracle Jesus performs by multiplying bread. That somehow, the gathering of the people is as integral to Jesus’ self-revelation as the abundant reproduction of bread and fish?

And what if this is our invitation today? To sit with one another, to tend to one another, to notice the injuries and hurts in one another, the longings, and desires for which we seek Jesus’ miracles? What would we see in one another if we tended to one another today? We have, collectively, experienced a great deal of trauma in the last handful of years: rumors of scandal; broken relationships; mistakes in handling tension; the sudden departure of a rector only to be suddenly thrown into the uncertainties of pandemic life; another sudden departure of a rector. When we look at the cycle of crises we have experienced, do we see lack of resources for our deep need for healing? Do we feel inadequate to meet our need for restoration, for satisfaction? 

I wonder if that is exactly what Jesus intends for us to see today. I wonder if through this story of Jesus’ miracle, the Spirit is reminding us of the limits of human knowledge and inviting us to receive the miraculous abundance of God. In light of the turmoil of this last week, are we willing to accept this invitation, to gather with and tend to one another? Can we, in our common life and work, testify to the power of God within and around us so that the miracle of God’s abundant provision can be seen, heard, and experienced? This question certainly concerns our witness to the world in our work to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. But it also concerns our life together, the way we engage with one another, the way we accept the invitation to gather with one another, to notice one another. We cannot bear witness to the power of God if we don’t recognize where our power (whatever that may be) ends and Jesus’ begins. And perhaps this is why three of the four gospel writers pair the story of Jesus walking on the water with Jesus’ miraculous multiplication of the loaves – for whatever reason, the disciples leave Jesus behind after the crowds have been fed. Out on the water alone, they encounter a turbulent storm. It is only when they receive Jesus into the boat that the chaos around them seems to calm, that the fear of not getting where they were going was laid to rest. 

The work of healing that we have to do will not happen by simply pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We cannot set our own broken bones, stitch up our old injuries, or find respite from the chaos within and around us by relying on our own resources – individually or collectively. The only power strong enough to bring us to a place of health and wholeness is found in the abundant mercy and grace of God. 

In the words of St Paul, “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.”

Today, let us hold fast to the power of God to heal and transform, and may we find in that power the miraculous abundance we need to find nourishment with one another.

[1] Debie Thomas, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/3081-the-miracle-of-gathering