Friday, May 8, 2020

The Word Became Flesh and Fed a Crowd

Read John 6:1-15

After Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem where he heals the man at the pool of Bethesda, Jesus rejoins his disciples in Galilee. You might remember when he was there before, he was a bit perturbed at the people because they were clamoring after him to perform some kind of sign or miracle. It seems that things hadn’t changed much. Word had gotten out about him healing people, so instead of asking to see a miracle people just followed him around hoping to catch him in the act. This wasn’t a small entourage, John says it was a “huge crowd.”

When I was in Middle School, they called it Junior High back then, I had a friend from church, Lonnie, whose mother had some kind of breakdown and had to be institutionalized for a summer. Lonnie’s dad was a long haul truck driver and would be gone as long as a week or so at a time. When Lonnie’s dad was gone, Lonnie and his brother Lance would stay with us.

Lonnie was the same age as me, thirteen, and Lance was 3 or 4 years younger. When you’re 9 or 10 years old, you don’t realize that a middle school boy is probably the most confused, unpredictable, bi-polar creature on the planet. All you know is they are older than you which automatically makes them mysterious, worldly and godlike. 
Lance stuck to Lonnie and me like glue; he followed us everywhere.

Looking back, I can’t blame the kid; there was no one around his age to play with. Even my kid sister was older than him, and she was, well, a girl. But I remember how annoying it was to have someone following me everywhere I went and watching every move I made. It was particularly frustrating when some of my other friends would come over. We would go to great lengths to ditch Lance every chance we got.

One time we ditched him so well we actually got him lost—after all, it was an unfamiliar neighborhood for him. When he didn’t follow us home, we were ecstatic. My Mother, however, did not share our excitement. She wasn’t sympathetic to our pleas that he was annoying and embarrassed us in front of our friends. Neither did she think Lance’s dad would be enthusiastic about us permanently misplacing his son, even if he was annoying and embarrassing. Mom made us go find him and bring him home.

If it was that disturbing having one nine-year-old kid following me around, I can only imagine what it might have been like for Jesus. He couldn’t get away for his quiet time in the morning. He couldn’t get time alone with his friends. Imagine what it must have been like sitting around the campfire at night reviewing the day with his disciples and seeing the firelight reflect off of dozens of pairs of beady eyes in the dark and knowing that the eyes didn’t belong to owls or coyotes or raccoons but to people watching to see if you’ll conjure up hotdogs or s’mores out of thin air. Or, imagine visiting a friend’s house for dinner and trying to recline at the table and have a conversation while a crowd of people clamored to watch you through the window—and remember windows didn’t have glass panes in them then.

This was Jesus’ life when this story opens.

In an attempt to get away with his disciples Jesus takes them up on a mountain. It didn’t work; the crowd followed him up the mountain. Instead of getting upset and chasing the crowd away, or lecturing the people about personal space or rights of privacy, Jesus had compassion on them. He decided to feed them.

John tells us the Passover was near. That is important for a couple of reasons. Most Jews who were physically capable and could afford it would travel to Jerusalem for the Passover. After all, it was the major event of the Jewish calendar so this crowd probably did not represent the cream of society. Chances are these people were too poor, too weak, too sick, or maybe considered themselves too sinful to be able to, or want to, travel to Jerusalem for Israel’s most sacred religious observance.

There is another reason John wants us to know the Passover is near. This is the second of three different Passovers recorded in John’s gospel. During the first Passover mentioned, Jesus clears the temple. John means for us to connect that with the first deliverance of God’s people, the Exodus. During the Exodus, initiated by the first Passover, Israel received the Law through Moses. When Jesus cleansed the temple, he was passing judgement on the laws, and particularly the temple worship and sacrifice system’s inability to deliver God’s people—to truly set them free. John wanted his readers to realize that Jesus was taking on that role himself.

During the third Passover in John, Jesus is crucified. That again connects Jesus to the first Passover, particularly the Passover lamb which delivered God’s people from death. Again, John is showing how Jesus is taking over that role.

In this second Passover John tells us about, Jesus again is connected to the original Exodus story, this time the manna in the wilderness.

In the gospels, Jesus is often compared to Moses. Moses was the first deliverer; Jesus is the new deliverer, Moses wrote down the law; Jesus fulfills the law. As we read last week, Moses even wrote about Jesus. John goes beyond comparison here; he ups the ante.

In the Exodus story God’s people were hungry and began complaining. God heard their complaints and gave Moses instructions for the people. Moses was merely a messenger who passed along information then sat and watched while God provided bread and quail for the people.

As John shows us, Jesus sees the need, and he himself is the one who breaks and multiplies the bread and fish and feeds the people. He is not a bystander or messenger. He provides the bread that feeds them, and later in the chapter we see that Jesus himself takes on the role of “the bread of life.”

One of the things I love about the Gospel of John is its many layers. While John gives us the big picture by highlighting the signs that point to Jesus as Messiah and focusing on stories and events that teach us about the kingdom he came to initiate, he is also careful to show how Jesus interacted with people in their everyday lives, in everyday situations, with everyday problems, and everyday fears.

I know there is no real everyday problems or fears. Every person’s situations, problems and fears are unique. As the saying goes, “there is no such thing as minor surgery when you are the patient.” The point I am trying to make is that everything in John is not prophetic or big picture, most of it is real life situations—except that maybe the way Jesus related to people in their everyday life is the big picture. Anyway, that everyday, person to person, picture of Jesus is what I want to focus on here.

Jesus looks out over the crowd and has compassion on them. Instead of taking charge and barking out instructions, Jesus turns to Philip and asks, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?”

Philip was most likely the youngest of the disciples, so chances are he was on the bottom of the disciple pecking order. When a task came along that no one else wanted to do, I suspect the other disciples passed the job off to Philip. He would have been the last disciple to think that anyone would be interested in his opinion.

Put yourself in Philip’s shoes for a moment.  When Jesus asked Philip that question it must have been exhilarated and terrified for him all at the same time. Here you are the youngest, least experienced and least qualified of the disciples yet this man who you suspect might actually be the Messiah (although you’re not sure yet whose version of the Messiah he will turn out to be) is asking your advice on how to accomplish a task. The problem was, the task was impossible.

Philip’s answer sounds like someone who has no idea how to proceed, but wants to sound smart at the same time. He knew he was the disciple of an itinerant rabbi, and he knew that whatever funds they did have were gifts of generous benefactors. They didn’t have the means to be so extravagant. “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.” A denarius was equivalent to a day’s wage. So in essence 200 denarii was nearly a year’s wage (considering festivals, sabbaths, etc.) “A year’s salary couldn’t buy enough to feed this crowd” Philip was implying.

Pause the story here. Notice how Philip doesn’t answer Jesus’ question? Kind of reminds me of the man at Bethesda.

“Do you want to be healed?”

“It’s not my fault, someone always gets into the pool ahead of me.”

“Where can we buy bread to feed this crowd?”

“It’s not our fault we don’t have money to feed them.”

I think Philip avoided Jesus' question because he thought it would make him look foolish. Maybe he thought if he answered Jesus’ question directly Jesus would laugh at him and say something like, “do you think we have the money to buy food for all these people?” Perhaps Philip was uncomfortable with the question Jesus asked so he answered a question that he felt comfortable answering.

When I first arrived on the Submarine and was working on my qualification, I had to go to specific qualified members of the crew and get oral checkouts in order to qualify to stand watches.

To qualify for the Auxiliary Election watch (AE for short), I had to be checked out by the Electrical Division Chief Petty Officer. He was the one who made out the watch bill and assigned all of the tasks for our division right down to field day assignments—he decided who had to do the bilge diving—and he even determined who slept where. What I’m trying to communicate here is that whether my life on the Submarine was miserable or relatively pleasant depended largely on his opinion of me.

I know my main motivation going into that oral exam should have been to qualify so I could be a productive member of the crew. But I confess that my main goal was to not look stupid.

For a couple of weeks I had tailed the AEs around, and I knew where all the readings were that I had to monitor and log. The normal range for every reading was engraved on my memory and could be recited without thought. I had studied all of the electrical systems in the boat and understood how they worked. I was confident; I was ready—I thought.

I sat down on the stool facing the Chief and waited. I kind of hoped he would ask me a complex question right off so I could dazzle him. He slowly lit a cigarette and leaned back against the bulkhead. “What is the first thing the AE does when seawater gets into the ships battery?” That took care of my confidence instantly.

Three things flashed through my mind. First, when the sulfuric acid in the battery mixes with seawater it causes a reaction that releases chlorine gas. In the confined spaces of a submerged submarine chlorine gas makes people start dying quickly. 

Whatever it was I was supposed to do had to be done fast.
The second thing I thought was that the battery compartment was located in one of the hardest parts of the ship for seawater to get to. If seawater had made it to the battery compartment, a bunch of other really bad things had to have already happened. 

Mentally I could envision seawater gushing out of burst valves and feel the Sub beginning to nose down and accelerate as it sank.

I knew I had to do something, but so much was happening so fast. It was overwhelming.

The third thing that went through my mind was, “I don’t know the answer.”

I wasn’t about to say that to the Chief, so I grabbed for something I did know. I launched into a detailed explanation on how the battery worked and how it connected to the other electrical systems on the boat .

The Chief let me go on for several minutes.

When I finished, he just sat and looked at me for a moment. “That was a fine answer, Stef, but you must have been answering your own question because you sure didn’t answer mine. He looked at me for a moment more as if he was waiting.

“You don’t know, do you?”

That was it; I was toast. I came in determined to not look stupid but it only took one question to expose me as exactly that. At least I was smart enough to realize that anything I said to try and recover would only make things worse.

“No, Chief.”

He sat for a moment, “Tell me, where does the AE stand his watch?”

“All over the boat. It’s a roving watch,” I answered.

“So, where would he be if seawater got into the battery?” he continued.

I was puzzled at where this was going, “he could be anywhere.”

“So, do you think we would assign a specific action for a battery casualty to someone who might be anywhere in the boat?”

“No, I guess not.”

“What is the first thing everyone on the boat is supposed to do when seawater gets in the battery?”

“Put on their Oxygen Breathing Apparatus so they don’t die.”

“So what is the first thing the AE does when seawater gets in the battery?

“Put on his OBA so he doesn’t die.”

He nodded almost imperceptibly. The compartment suddenly felt really hot.

He crushed out his cigarette, “Let’s take a break. Go play some cards or something and clear your mind. Come back tomorrow and we’ll try again.”

I was devastated, but there was nothing I could do. “Okay, Chief.”

As I stood and turned to leave he said, “A couple of things for tomorrow.”

I turned back toward him, “yeah?”

“Don’t try to solve the whole problem by yourself. Trust your shipmates to do their job; you worry about your job.”


“And the second thing--answer the question you’re asked.”

Maybe Jesus was just setting Philip up to state the obvious so the eventual miracle would be understood as the miracle it was. But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Philip had actually answered Jesus’ question. What if he had said, “Gennesaret is a couple miles away,” and then waited to see what Jesus would do next. I think Philip was trying to figure out the whole problem himself instead of just answering the question he was asked.

Jesus never responds to Philip’s answer. I wonder if he just looked at Philip for a moment the way the Chief looked at me.

Just then Andrew walked up followed by a boy carrying 5 loaves and 2 fishes.  “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?”

I think this is the heart of the story. Andrew’s offer seemed ridiculous, even to him. He offers Jesus the loaves and fishes but acknowledges that they are not nearly enough. That may look like a lack of faith, or even sarcasm, on the surface, but the exchange between Jesus and Andrew is very different than the one between Jesus and Philip.

This whole story is about not having enough. The crowd didn’t have enough to eat, Philip didn’t have enough money, Andrew only had a boy with a lunch to offer—which wasn’t enough—and the boy only had 5 loaves and 2 fishes—which wasn’t enough. None of them had enough, and, in fact, if they had all pooled their resources they wouldn’t have had enough.

Philip came to Jesus and essentially said, “I don’t have what you need.”

Andrew and the boy came to Jesus and said, “this is what we have. It isn’t enough but you can have it.” See how different that is? Jesus took what was offered to him and made it enough. In fact, he made it extravagant.

What if Philip had answered the question and left it up to Jesus? Would Jesus have multiplied their coins so Philip could have purchased enough bread? We’ll never know. Philip didn’t offer, so Jesus had nothing to work with. Andrew offered and Jesus took it from there.

This is an important lesson. It must be because this is the only miracle recorded in all 4 gospels. It also must be important because there are 12 baskets full of bread left over. Coincidence—12 baskets, 12 disciples? I suspect not.

I’m not a painter, but if I was, I would love to paint a portrait of what each disciple might have looked like later in life as they carried the gospel to the rest of the world. I would paint each one carrying a basket on his back, a basket that had once been full of leftover bread and fish, a basket that served as a reminder that when something insurmountable faced him and he didn’t have enough, his job was to give whatever he had to Jesus. Jesus’ job was to take it from there.

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