Where Elephants Swim
The Rev. Dr. Ross McGowan Wright
The Church of the Good Shepherd
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, July 29, 2018
Text: John 6:1-21
St. Augustine observed that the Gospel of John is shallow enough for a child not to drown, yet deep enough for an elephant to swim. Augustine’s insight is particularly appropriate as we wade into the sixth chapter of John. This section of John’s Gospel records the famous miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand. And it includes one of Jesus’ longest teachings, the Bread of Life Discourse. The lectionary – which is the calendar of readings that we follow – devotes five Sundays to this chapter – the most Sundays devoted to any chapter in the Bible.
Now, in one way, the message of this chapter is easy to gasp: shallow enough for a child to swim. Jesus is the bread of life. Just as we need food to live biologically, we need Jesus Christ to live spiritually. So why, you may ask, does Jesus spend so much time talking about it? And why spend five weeks working our way through this one chapter?
Because this material is also deep enough for an elephant to swim. By means of this simple image of living bread, Christ opens a cornucopia of rich and deep themes about who God is for us and for the world and about the Christian life. For example:
- Here, in the Bread of Life Discourse, Jesus opens our eyes to the difference between the things in life that really last versus the things that seem important but turn out to be superficial: the difference between food that perishes and food that endures to eternal life.
- Here, we learn about what really motivates us to seek after Jesus Christ: Are we motivated by what he can do for us or by what we can do for him? Do we follow Christ because of the benefits we will gain in some future heaven, then and there, or are there rewards in this life, here and now?
- Here, Jesus reveals something of the mystery and the beauty of the working relationship between God the Father and God the Son – about the division of labor, so to speak, that exists at the heart of the triune God.
- Here, the Lord reveals why he can speak authoritatively to us about life on the other side of the grave. Jesus is the only human being who has come to us from the other side, lived and died among us, and crossed over again into the presence God in the heavenly realm.
- Here, Jesus speaks about how he is present among us through his teaching and through the mystery of the Holy Eucharist.
But now, I must issue a listening alert. Be advised that Jesus’ words here are controversial. They stirred up people when he first delivered them; and they have been the source of considerable controversy throughout the history of the church, down to the present day. For example, Jesus’ claim to be living bread that comes down from heaven very quickly arouses the objections and hostility of the crowd. They fire back with a series of questions: Who do you think you are to make such claims? How can you say that we must eat your flesh and drink your blood?
Jesus’ Bread of Life sermon quickly begins to resemble a Sunday morning talk show like Firing Line or Face the Nation, in which a well-known, controversial figure is subjected to rapid-fire questions by an aggressive, provocative interviewer. The Lord’s answers get people stirred up. At the beginning, some in the crowd are calling for a revolution with Jesus as their political leader. By the end, most are so offended that they walk away, mumbling: “This is a hard teaching – who can accept it?”
The miracle of the loaves and the fishes and the subsequent Bread of Life Discourse signify a watershed event in Jesus’ ministry. It is the only miracle in Jesus’ public ministry that is recorded in all four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This chapter is absolutely crucial for our understanding of who Jesus Christ is for us and for the world.
Let’s picture the scene. We are in a remote mountainous area of Northern Israel, near the Sea of Galilee. It is early spring – right around the time of the Passover celebration. Jesus and the twelve apostles have gone to this remote area to get away from the crowds and to enjoy a little R and R. As he settles down for a leisurely conversation with the twelve, he notices that a large group is slowly making its way from the lower elevations to their little encampment. As they draw closer, Jesus sees that this is a huge throng – well over 5,000 people. So, Jesus motions to one of the apostles: Philip, and asks: Where are we going to get food for all these people?
You know what happens next. The apostles tell Jesus that feeding such a crowd with the resources they have is a preposterous idea. But they find a little boy with some small barley loaves and a couple of dried up fish. Jesus has the crowd sit in groups. Then he takes the bread, blesses it, and has the apostles distribute it. And then something happens. As the food is being distributed, rather than running out, it is mysteriously replenished. There is food enough for everyone. When everyone has eaten their fill, Jesus has the apostles collect the leftovers. They return with twelve full baskets, which they lay at his feet.
We would like to know how this miracle occurred. If someone had been there with a camera or an iPhone and recorded the event, what would it look like? But a veil of mystery hangs over this event. The Scriptures pull back from showing us the details. What we know is that Jesus took the bread, broke it, and distributed it to those who were seated. This blessing and distributing reminds us of the Last Supper, which will occur on a future Passover in Jerusalem. Jesus will bless the bread and the wine and say: “This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, poured out for you and for the world.” The miracle of the loaves and fish points to Jesus’ act of sacrificial love – a love so deep that it takes Christ to the cross; love that gives without end.
So this morning and in the coming weeks, we are invited to the banquet table of love. We are in for a real feast. The purpose of this first sermon is to whet your appetite by suggesting the depth of this text. In the miracle of the loaves and the fish, the Lord has given us a sign of his power to give life through the bread of his teaching and through his flesh, which is real food. So come to the banquet table, and take your place at the feast that will never end. As you partake of the bread of life, you will be changed.