Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church ● Albany, California ● July 25, 2021
2 Kings 4:42-44
When I first read today’s Gospel from John 6, I said, “Good. This is John’s account of the Last Supper. This Gospel is perfect for helping us prepare to gather next Sunday, after such a long absence, for in-person worship and the reception of Christ’s body and blood. This reading from John reminds us that as we celebrate the Eucharist, we experience the abundance – with leftovers – of God’s grace.
Unlike the other three Gospels, John does not include an account of the meal Jesus partakes before his crucifixion, when he tells his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me. Instead, John shapes his account of the feeding of the 5,000 – a story told in all of the Gospels – to highlight links to the Eucharistic celebrations practiced by the first Christians. Jesus starts by giving thanks (Eucharist in Greek), and Jesus – not the disciples – distributes the food.
But whenever I start to study a particular Gospel for a particular Sunday – that is re-read the text and the rest of Gospel, examine specific words and phrases, and sample what scholars have to say – I end up at a different place from where I started.
Yes, today’s reading is about the Eucharist, but the second part of our Gospel makes the even more astounding claim: Jesus gets into the boat of our lives, and we are glad that he does. We willingly receive him.
In the other three Gospels, the point is that Peter needs to get in the boat with the other disciples – to be part of the community that trusts Jesus’ power to save.
What is so startling about John’s account is that it is Jesus who gets in the boat. He doesn’t take us out of the boat and whisk us away to some fantasy land. No, Jesus is here in the midst of our uncertainty and our fears as we struggle with the storms of our lives.
How Jesus gets here and why we willingly welcome him is set forth in the very first verses of today’s Gospel.
Last Sunday, while I was on vacation, you reflected on those memorable words of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside the still waters.”
Today’s Gospel reading shows us these verses are more than just beautiful words to comfort us. We hear today that Jesus is our shepherd, that we want for nothing, and that we are surrounded by green grass and calm waters.
The Season of Bread
First, though, let’s step back and sort out where we are this Sunday. We’re at the Ninth Sunday in the long season of Pentecost, so-called ordinary time. This is the liturgical year B, so the Gospel lessons are generally from Mark. But Mark is about half the length of Matthew and Luke, so we interrupt our regular program to fill in with readings from John’s Gospel. During the next four weeks, which I’ll call the Season of Bread, we will read the very long chapter six – with 71 verses – of John’s Gospel.
Today, in this first Sunday in the Season of Bread, we hear the story of the actual feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves and two fishes. This miraculous feeding is a story told in all four Gospels, followed by the account of Jesus walking on the water to the disciples in the storm-tossed boat. The rest of John 6 is Jesus’ long conversation about what this feeding meant, including the famous Bread of Life discourse.
John is reminding us that we are part of this abundant feeding today. He is saying that the “fragments” – a word used for the bread in the Eucharistic liturgy – were so abundant that they were left over. Indeed, enough leftovers, if you will, to keep feeding all those who gather into the future to feast on Christ’s body and blood.
But the real miracle of this feeding is not that five barley loaves and a couple of fishes – provided by a small child – went so far. No, the real miracle is that we experience this abundance in the midst of suffering, persecution, and loss.
Who is this Jesus in the boat with us?
That’s the point that John makes in the story that follows the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus, like Moses, goes back to the mountain to communicate with God. The disciples end up on a boat without Jesus in the middle of the lake, full of fear as they are tossed about by the stormy seas. Then Jesus, as in the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus story, comes walking on the water. The disciples “wanted to take him into the boat.” Or more accurately translated, “they willingly took him into the boat.”
They – and we today – are willing to receive Jesus because he tells them – and us – who is. And that makes all the difference.
First, John notes that this feeding takes place at Passover, the feast that remembered when, during the final deadly plague in Egypt, God passed over those houses where a lamb had been sacrificed. This is John’s way of telling us that Jesus is the new Moses, the one who is leading a new exodus, a new liberation from captivity. And this new Moses is creating a new people of God. This was especially good news for John’s first readers who were being kicked out of synagogues, excluded because their faith in Jesus labeled them as apostates.
Second, the Jesus in the boat with us is the Good Shepherd. That’s why today’s reading notes that “there is much grass.” As in Psalm 23, Jesus leads the people to green pastures where they will experience no want.
This reference to the Good Shepherd was also a signal to John’s readers that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who gathers us together and who lays down his life for our sake, the paschal lamb who saves us from death.
Third, the Jesus in the boat with us is I am. Those two words are way the NRSV has translated as “It is I,” but the actual phrase is “I am.” Those words were the answer to Moses when, at burning bush, he asked Yahweh who he was. This “I am” pronouncement by Jesus sets the stage for “I am’s” we’ll hear later in chapter 6 and in other chapters: I am the Bread of Life, I am the Way and the Truth, I am the Vine, and I am the resurrection and life.
So, the Jesus is the boat with us is God, the power and being that creates and loves everything that is. The Word that became flesh and dwelt among us. The Word that was with God and without whom nothing is created. The good news isn’t that Jesus is like God, but rather that God is like Jesus. God gets into our storm-tossed boat of life. God listens to our fears and anxieties. And God suffers with us, laying down his life that we might be raised to new life.
Keeping Jesus in the boat with us
What freedom from fear and joy for living becomes possible when this Jesus is the boat with us! But John knew that his community found it hard – generations after Jesus had lived, died, and rose – to trust that Jesus was with them. They, like us, wondered if they were better off without Jesus, whether it really made any difference to trust his presence among them.
For those first readers of John’s Gospel there was lots of evidence that God had abandoned them, that they had no status or place, that suffering and persecution were their fate. And we today often struggle to believe that all this enthusiastic Jesus talk amounts to anything. The world around us, the people close to us, and our own minds and bodies seem to betray us again that again.
That’s why John links the feeding of the 5,000 – Jesus the Good Shepherd feeding us all that we need, making sure that no one is lost – to what happens when we gather for the Eucharist next Sunday. John knew that to sustain their faith and hope his community needed to hear those words about Jesus – and feast on the Bread of Life – Sunday after Sunday.
John’s Gospel is organized around a series of misunderstandings about who Jesus is. Mary his mother doesn’t understand why her son doesn’t solve the wine problem right away. Nicodemus can’t understand this business about being born again in the Spirit. The Samaritan woman at the well misunderstands the type of water Jesus is talking about. Later in chapter 6, the disciples fail to make the connection between the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus as the Bread of Life. And, in the pivotal chapter 11, Mary and Martha don’t understand what Jesus is saying about the death of their brother Lazarus.
This pattern of misunderstandings is completed – and resolved – in chapter 20 when Thomas’s so-called doubt is actually his understanding of who Jesus really is – and why he’s in the boat with us. The Risen Christ – our Lord and God – is the One whose hands have been nailed and whose side has been pierced. Our Lord is wounded for us, and our God has suffered death that we too might live in resurrection time.
The Eucharist and our gathering together again and again to hear Jesus’ words enables us to join Thomas – seeing Jesus’ wounds – to say, “My Lord and my God.” In the Eucharist, we put our hands on Jesus’ broken body, we partake of his life poured out for us.
And because of this meal we partake – Sunday after Sunday, hearing the Good Shepherd call us by name – we are happy to sing while the boat rocks, we pray while the storm rages, and we are glad to be in this boat together. Amen.