July 25, 2021 - Proper 12 (9th Sunday after Pentecost)
I can see the headlines in the newspapers, had there been newspapers in Jesus’ day. IT’S A MIRACLE!!! I can imagine seeing the stories filling my Facebook feed and the trending topic on Twitter: Jesus feeds 5,000 people and you’ll never guess what He does next #BreadMiracle #TheProphetHasCome
Perhaps people begin to change their profile pictures to be images of this Jesus guy, and maybe Facebook even offers a “Jesus-ify your profile picture” to help people celebrate.
Something exciting is happening here… Jesus’ behavior is not normal. In today’s Gospel story, Jesus is attracting attention. Crowds are following him.
But why are they following him? The writer of John states that the crowd “saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.” Immediately before this story, the text in John tells us of Jesus healing the lame man at the pool of Bethesda. God is up to something special, and the people know it… we have signs and wonders, and shock and awe.
Everything is going well, and a huge crowd gathers together. They’re ready to hear what this Jesus guy is teaching. They’re ready to see what he’s going to do. And then -- in a nightmare that I imagine all professional wedding planners experience at some point in their careers -- there’s a huge problem: it’s time to eat, but no one brought any food.
Either these people are all terrible at advance planning and didn’t realize that they’d need to eat, or Jesus’ teaching is so engaging that they couldn’t help listening and lost all track of time. I’d be inclined to believe the latter -- so the crowds were immersed in Jesus’ teaching.
Digressing for a moment, it’s interesting to note that this feeding miracle is the only one of Jesus’ miracles that appears in all four Gospels. There’s only one significant difference among the accounts - in the other three Gospels, the disciples come to Jesus and ask him about food. But in John, Jesus notices the problem and asks Philip what the plan is for feeding the people.
It’s typical for John -- Jesus is completely in control, already knowing what he’s going to do. He’s just testing his disciples. Apparently, Philip fails the test, since his perfectly logical response is essentially, “I have no idea.” If it were me there, I’d pick a really large number to tell Jesus - just as Philip does. Basically, more than they have. Feeding all the people there would take a miracle.
Fortunately, Andrew comes to the rescue. “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” He’s right! Five loaves and two fishes are not going to do much good; it would take a miracle.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’m rather uncomfortable with the idea of miracles. They don’t fit the way our world works. Yet they are central to John’s stories about Jesus. The entire Gospel of John is organized around seven of Jesus’ miracles. Today’s reading includes miracles 3 and 4. Miracles are important to understanding Jesus in the writer of John’s eyes.
Jesus has the people sit down, divides them into groups, takes the bread, gives thanks, and distributes it to the people. Everybody gets free food, and everybody’s happy. Actually, everyone is REALLY happy. People like the free food so much that they want to make Jesus king.
And why not? Think of the economic ramifications of having a king who can miraculously multiply stuff. Think of the increase in the nation’s GDP! But - as usual - what the people want is not what Jesus wants.
At the beginning of the story, the crowds were following Jesus because of the signs he performed. In the next story, which will be next week’s Gospel reading, Jesus begins his teaching by telling the crowd, “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Then he will go on to talk about bread, but not the kind of bread that the people are expecting.
Jesus doesn’t meet the people’s expectations. He doesn’t fit into their box.
Switching gears, next in today’s Gospel reading, we get a quick story about the disciples getting into the boat ahead of Jesus and going on ahead to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. As they’re going, it gets stormy. A few miles into their trip, they see someone walking towards them on the water. The writer of John documents, “They were terrified.” Now I don’t know about you, but I’d be terrified along with them… people just don’t walk on water.
Jesus reassures them, but then instead of calming the storm, they immediately reach the land they were headed towards. To me, that’s weirder than the calming of the storm. Jesus, the teleporter, has performed another miracle.
Now these stories are great to read, and our minds fill in vivid details that probably didn’t happen. But what are we to do with these miracle stories? The followers of Jesus while he was alive didn’t seem to have any problem with them. They followed Jesus because of the signs, because they were fed.
But why do WE follow?
The fact that I can’t put Jesus into a nice little box is somewhat unnerving to me. I’m sure I’m not alone in being a little - or a lot - afraid of what happens when I believe in a God who doesn’t follow rules.
I have lived on this earth for over a quarter century now. I know how the world works, and the descriptions in John today are not it. Bread doesn’t come for free. People don’t walk on water.
The stories don’t fit into a nice little box. They are miracles. They don’t make sense. They aren’t explainable.
Today’s stories are hard to believe when all the evidence says they are impossible. In a world where there are starving people, in a world where there is constant violence against people who are our neighbors, where there is so much wrong in our lives, how can we possibly believe that God provides for us?
Bread doesn’t multiply People don’t walk on water.
But then again, people don’t rise from the dead either.
Our God isn’t bound by our understanding of physics, by what we think is possible, by our rules. God is capable of more than we can understand. Maybe, just maybe -- because of the cross, because of the rest of the story -- we can dare to believe that our God is present and active in a broken world, even where we can’t see it.
In a world of rules… a world that says “How dare can you claim to be loved? How dare can you claim to be forgiven?” We believe in a God of miracles.
We believe in a God who gives freely, not according to worldly rules. A God of grace. A God whose power is not in obliterating what is bad in this world, but in empowering us to build something good in this world.
God DOES love you. God DOES make you worthy. God DOES forgive. God DOES provide.
And even though we might be afraid to believe it… even though we don’t understand how it works… God IS present.
God loves you. No exceptions. It’s a miracle!