The Gospel Truth

As most of you know, we use a three-year lectionary for our Sunday readings in church. In Year A we read through the Gospel of Matthew; in Year B we focus on the Gospel of Mark; and in Year C we read Luke. The Gospel of John is read on special occasions, during Holy Week and Easter and at other times.

This is Year B so we are reading Mark, but because it’s the shortest of the four Gospels (only sixteen chapters!) we often supplement it to get through the year with readings from the Gospel of John such as we have today and will for the next several weeks. Today, we focus on the Feeding of the Multitude or the miracle of the loaves and the fish.

The four Gospels are not just simple biographies of Jesus. They are theological statements about just who this Jesus is! And each of them has its own perspective. Matthew is the “Jewish Christian” gospel. He sees Jesus as the New Moses and as the one who brings the New Law down from the Sermon on the Mount.  Mark is best known for “the Messianic secret” where Jesus seems to want to keep his messiahship a secret and seldom admits to that title. Luke is the Gentile gospel where Jesus reaches out to all people, not just to just to those who share his Jewish roots. There is also special concern in Luke for the poor, for healing, and for women and children.

John is the most “spiritual” and “theological” of the four gospels. Jesus is seen, from the very first chapter, as the Word made Flesh, the Incarnate Son of God who seems almost to be above the action as it plays out and is always in charge – even from the Cross! John is also a master of symbolism and multiple meanings to many of his stories. Nowhere is that more clearly seen than in today’s reading about the Feeding of the Multitude (John 6:1-15)

On the first level, this is simply a story about Jesus feeding hungry people. He was being followed by a large crowd and, by the time they reached the top of a mountain, it was time for dinner! The disciples notice this and are panicking about how to provide food for them all. Andrew points out that there was a little bit of bread and fish to be had, but that certainly wouldn’t be enough to feed them all. And yet, it was somehow!

The second level of meaning might be called “the Jewish understanding” of this story. It was getting close to Passover time, and the author of John’s gospel is quick to point that out. This miracle was going to have something to do with their Jewish heritage! Of course, the Passover hearkens back to Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the desert. And the desert was where, among other things, the people were fed with manna from heaven, a similarly “miraculous feeding” miracle which saved their lives from starvation.

But there is more to it than even that. We’re told near the end of the story that, after the feeding had taken place, the people “were about to come and take (Jesus) away by force to make him king.” (John 6:15) Why in the world would they do that? Moses wasn’t a king. And other prophets were purported to be miracle workers and they weren’t kings. Yet there was a popular understanding that, when the Messiah finally came, he would usher in the new age with a great banquet – a Messianic banquet. We hear about it in Isaiah:

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.” (Isaiah 25:6-7) Well, the loaves and the fish may not seem like such a lavish banquet, but with Jesus standing on top of that mountain, perhaps with the sun shining behind him, and a multitude of people being fed…it was close enough. This was a banquet, so perhaps Jesus was the Messiah.

Then, of course, there is a third level of the miracle itself. Whether one believes that the lad’s five barley loaves and two fish were miraculously multiplied, or whether the boy’s generosity in sharing softened the hearts of the crowd to break open their own backpacks and share with their neighbor, some kind of miracle happened that day — as they had so many times throughout Jesus’ ministry.

Finally, the fourth level to this story developed over time in the early church. Because the Last Supper became such a central part of Christian history and worship and because that highlighted other times Jesus was made known to his disciples “in the breaking of the Bread” (such as on the Road to Emmaus and sharing breakfast with his disciples on the beach after the Resurrection) this feeding miracle began to have Eucharistic significance. It’s often pointed out that Jesus follows the same four steps here as he did at the Last Supper – he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the people. Take, bless, break and share. The same thing he did at the Last Supper. The same thing we do each week at this Eucharistic banquet!

We’re going to be hearing a lot about the Eucharist — what John calls “The Bread of Life” — over the next several weeks in our Sunday readings. Our story today introduces the 6th chapter of John and most of the rest of the chapter follows the Bread of Life theme.

So, in summary, the Feeding of the Multitude, the Feeding of the 5,000, has at least four levels of meaning for us. First, Jesus fed hungry people and so should we. Second, Jesus stands in a long line of Moses and the prophets which will eventually lead to him being understood as the long-awaited Messiah, God’s Anointed One.

Third, however we want to understand it, the overwhelming testimony of the Gospels and the early church is that Jesus was a “miracle worker.” He did things no one had ever done before!  And finally, when Jesus fed people (like he does every Sunday for us here in the Eucharist) he didn’t just slake their physical hunger…he fed them spiritually as well!

Four levels meaning. Which one should be choose? Well, actually, in John you don’t have to choose. He always means two or three things at the same time! Such is his genius as an author.

Truth can have many levels of meanings…and still remain absolutely true!

 

 

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