Text: John 6:1-21
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
July 29, 2018
Have you ever had the occasion when you sat down with a couple you met for the first time and asked them to tell you how they got together? The husband would go first and tell an interesting story that he had obviously told a hundred times before. As he tells the story, his wife smiles and shakes her head at several points and bites her tongue to keep from interrupting. Finally, it is her turn. She looks at her husband lovingly, smiles and then says, “That’s how he remembers the occasion, now let me tell you how it really happened!”
We remember things differently, don’t we. And if there was a movie camera recording the occasion that is being remembered and described, it would undoubtedly have supported many points of both the husband and the wife and disagreed with both on other details. At that same time the movie would highlight several points that they agreed on.
Now let me ask you a second question. Have you ever been part of a Bible Study and are reading one of the Gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke or John; about an incident in the life of our Lord. Suddenly it hits you that the author, say it is John, is telling the story very differently than Matthew or Mark had told it? Sometimes, it may have simply been an additional detail, sometimes it seemed like the details contradicted each other, and sometimes the significance of the story that Jesus told or the miracle that he performed seemed to be one thing to John by the way he told it, and something completely different to Mark.
For my birthday this year, I got a new book which I am now reading that addresses this very question. Its title is “Jesus Remembered.” As I read it as part of my daily devotions, it will probably take me a year to finish. Among other things in this book, the author discusses how biblical scholars handled these differences. The attempt eventually led to a quest to discover the real Jesus behind the gospels. It ended in failure. James Dunn, a Methodist Biblical scholar, draws two conclusions: 1) First he says it doesn’t matter that we can’t get behind the gospels. The remembered Jesus conveys to you and me the impacted he made on those first disciples and that is sufficient. Just as any lawyer knows, eye witnesses who differ on details but agree on the main points of what happened make a far stronger case. If all of them agree on every point, the court will be convinced there has been collusion. 2) The second point Dunn makes is that it is important to look at all the of the gospels that record an event to try to get a composite picture of what happened. On the other hand, it is equally important to look at each account separately if you want to understand how the event impacted that eyewitness and to comprehend what he understood to be its significance. Today, I want us to reflect upon our Gospel reading from both perspectives.
We have just heard read John’s account of Jesus feeding the 5000. It is the only miracle of Jesus that is included in all four gospels. This fact alone makes it is obvious that this miracle held great significance to all the authors. Let’s first look at the compost picture that emerges when put all four accounts of this miracle together.
The miracle occurs at the end of our Lord’s second year of ministry, most of which took place in the Northern part of Israel that we know as Galilee. The next thing on the agenda will be our Lord’s Transfiguration. Then he will set his face toward Jerusalem—his final year of his ministry will take place as they head south.
But before they change course, our Lord decides it is time for them to have a little R & R. so they withdraw from the crowds and head across the Sea of Galilee to a remote place. But, alas, the plague of being celebrities is working against them. The Paparazzi spotted them. By the time they crossed over, people were already streaming toward them walking around the north end of the lake.
It is at this point the other three gospels begin to differ in detail from John’s account. They say that Jesus had compassion on the crowd and began to teach them and then held a healing service. As the sun was setting, some of his disciples came to him and said: Master, it’s getting late and the people are hungry, its time to break up the meeting so that they can go to the nearby villages and get something to eat.” Jesus responds by saying: “You give them something to eat.” The disciples protest: “We have only five loves and two fish.”
While we speak of Jesus feeding 5,000. Two of these other authors specify that there were 5000 men present. One of them added there were also women and children. One commentator speculated, assuming a family of four (and of course families were far larger in our Lord’s day than in America today), there could have been 20,000 people present. I remember all the planning Connie Cunningham and Katie Judnich did in preparation for our Jubilee banquet of 200. Can you imagine 20,000 showing up on your backdoor for dinner!
Two of the other authors tell us that Jesus had them sit down in groups of fifty. By doing so, it provided walkways making it easier for the disciples to get to everyone to feed them. It also made it easier for the disciples to count how many were present. Can you image if 5,000 plus showed up worship at St. Paul’s some Sunday morning? What a task our ushers would have getting the count right so that we could consecrate enough bread and wine for communion! Many commentators also state that 50 is significant because it was the number in a cohort of soldiers in Caesar’s Army. As we shall soon see, this may be an important part of the composite picture.
Finally, all agree that when the meal was over, the disciples gathered up 12 baskets full of fragments that were left over. They each had a basket of provisions that that would last them for a week! Then Jesus left the crowd and went up the mountain to pray while the disciples got back in their boat.
Now that we have described the composite picture, let’s look that the unique details that John remembered which give additional information and some which seems to contradict the over-all composite portrait to learn what he remembered as the significance of the event.
Look again at the Gospel printed in your bulletin as I point these details out to you. The first new detail is that John notes that the Sea of Galilee is also known as the Sea of Tiberias. It was so names by the Roman Occupation Force in honor of the Caesar who reigned during the time of our Lord’s ministry Herod also built a city by the same name along the northern shore of the lake where he had his headquarters. During our Lord’s ministry the city had grown to 40,000, making it the largest city in Israel. Undoubtedly many of the people who came to hear Jesus and seek healing came from this city. John notes in v. 23 that there were many boats from Tiberias anchored nearby. About half of the people living in this city were Gentiles and half were Jews. By mentioning the Roman name of the lake and the boats from the city, John is signaling to the reader that Jesus came to minister to both Jews and Gentiles.
The second unique detail John mentions is that upon seeing the crowds Jesus and his disciples climbed the mountainside and the people met him there. Immediately what comes to mind is another occasion when Jesus met a great crowd on a mountainside and gave them the Sermon on the Mount, the new law that would transcend the law of Moses. It is more likely, however, that John had Moses himself in mind as he received the Law from God on Mount Saini, for he immediately inserts another unique detail – “Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews was near.” Moses instituted this Passover meal the night before God delivered them from Egypt. John sees Jesus as someone who is like Moses.
The next difference we note from the other accounts is something John leaves out. In the other three Gospels upon seeing the crowds, Jesus begins to teach and heal many. Only late in the afternoon do the disciples come to Jesus and say: “Master it is getting late, the people are hungry, send them away so they can get something to eat.” As John experiences and later remembers the event, these details are not important. As John remembers it, Jesus seeing the crowd coming toward him says to Philip: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He sees Jesus as the gracious host and this is His response to the question. “Guess who’s coming to dinner.”
At this point in the story, there are many details where John differs from the other accounts. Instead of the disciples coming to Jesus with the concern for people’s hunger, it is Jesus who takes the initiative And John specifies two disciples, Philip and Andrew, who Jesus interacts with. Philip responds to Jesus’ question by stating: “It would take six months wages to feed this crowd and they would still be hungry.” It is Andrew who tells us that it is a lad who has five loaves and two fish, but then adds “But what is that among so many?”
It is from John’s account that we know the purpose of Jesus’ question. It was to test them. They have now been with him for two years, they had seen him do incredible things. Would they now believe that he could do it again? They completely blew it! I can think of so many times in my own life when I have been in a tight place. I have come to realize these occasions have been a time of testing. Can I trust God to get me through this situation? Then something unexpected happens that seems inadequate at the time, but points to a possible way out. And when I seize it, it proves to be far more than sufficient! John is the only one who tells us that it was a young boy who had the loaves and the fish.
The next unique detail we discover is that John is the only one who tells us that the loaves were made of barley. This detail connects this miracle to Elisha in today’s Old Testament reading. Like Philip and Andrew, Elisha’s servant protests that the is not sufficient food to serve the people. But Elijah responds, there is more than enough, there will be food left over. And like today’s Gospel, there was! It also would remind him of Elisha’s predecessor, Elijah
John remembers two other details that are not mentioned in the other accounts. After they are fed, the people recognize Jesus as “The Prophet” and sought to make him King.
While the other gospels call the feeding of the 5,000 a miracle, John calls it a sign. A sign signifies something beyond itself. Of course, he sees it pointing back to the Passover when God delivered His people from bondage and gave them the law and fed them in the desert. But he also sees it pointing to the next Passover, when Jesus, again as gracious host, says to his disciples: “This bread is my body which is broken for you. This cup is my blood which is shed for you, as oft as you do this, do it in remembrance of me.”
Today, this same Jesus is in our mist. He stands before us as a gracious host and again he feeds us which his own sustaining life. Amen