‘The people, seeing this sign that he had given, said, “This really is the prophet who is to come into the world”’ (John 6:14).
Today the lectionary begins a five week diversion away from the gospel of Mark taking us to explore the uncharted waters of John 6. I say “uncharted waters” because even though the chapter opens with the perhaps very familiar story of the feeding of the five thousands – the only miracle performed by Jesus to be found in all four gospels – the rest of it contains material only found in John. This unique part is commonly called the Bread of Life discourse where Jesus presents himself as the true bread from heaven, broken and offered for the life of the world.
For John the miracle of the feeding of the five thousands is more than just the manifestation of Jesus’ extraordinary power over creation, it is something that he performs in order to lead his audience to understand some deeper reality. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke refer to the feeding of the five thousands as a miracle, John describes it as a “sign”. In this sense, this and every other sign recorder in John’s gospel are much more than just supernatural events; they are precious occasions for Jesus to reveal something about the nature of God. So for example, among other signs performed by Jesus we can think of the turning of water into wine at the wedding of Cana in chapter two, or the healing of a man at Jerusalem on the Sabbath day in chapter five. In these instances Jesus provided miraculously to certain immediate needs – be it more wine for a feast or restoring health to someone – in order to show us something much greater through the working of these signs. At Cana Jesus ‘revealed his glory’ (2:11) and the coming of a new creation; at Jerusalem he manifested his authority over the Sabbath. Likewise, at the feeding of the five thousands Jesus presents himself as the one able to provide bread for the people of God – even better than Moses could ever do in the wilderness – and eventually revealing himself as the actual Bread of Life given for the life of the world. So signs are worked on the surface, but Jesus invites us to understand the deeper realities they contain.
|Die Ottheinrich-Bibe - Feeding of the Five Thousand|
It may be the same for us as well. Jesus may not represent a source of free food to us, yet we may still find ourselves unable to see beyond the sign he operates here and to understand its richer meaning. The feeding of the five thousands and the Bread of Life discourse reveal something of great importance about God and about our faith; so it is well worth the effort of digging a little deeper in the text over the coming weeks. But even in today’s reading, if we look closely to the very gestures of Jesus as he feeds the crowds, we find an echo of the Eucharist while in the words of the Bread of Life discourse we will find the foundation of the Church’s belief in the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament of the altar. At the feeding of the five thousands and at the celebration of the Eucharist, we catch a glimpse of God revealed to the world as provider, sustainer, and generous giver. At the feeding of the five thousands and at the Eucharist we catch a glimpse of God as “essentially loving”, the One who offers everything up for a chance of a relationship with us, the one who presents himself as the true bread from heaven, broken and offered for the life of the world.
Lord Jesus Christ,
you gave us the Eucharist as the memorial
of your suffering and death.
May our worship of this Sacrament
of your Body and Blood
help us to experience the salvation you won for us
and the peace of the Kingdom
where you live with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.