Signs of a different kind of nourishment

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Our Gospel (John (6:1-15) appears to be almost a direct copy of the account of the feeding of the 5,000 in Mark 6:35-44. John includes this sign. In Mark it is described as a miracle, and the precursor to the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist, as in the other two Gospels, but something significantly different is going on with John’s adaptation of this incident. Mark places it quite early in Jesus’ ministry, immediately after the death of John the Baptist and follows the account, as will John, with the miracle of Jesus’  ‘walking on the water’, but there is a sense in which for Mark this is all simply part of his strategy of piling miracle on miracle to convince us that we are in the presence of the one he calls ‘the Son of God.’ John’s gospel, as we are rapidly coming to discover, is significantly short on ‘signs’, and very strong on explanation, exploring as he does who Jesus is through the words and actions of the one he has already told us is God’s Word made flesh, come to dwell with us. That flesh, that communication through physicality will be very important for John’s portrait of Jesus.

In this account we have already seen the great hostility between Jesus and those John will term ‘the Jews’; those who would both kill Jesus and with whom John’s relations and those of his community would have deteriorated to the point of no return by the time the Gospel was written. Significantly then, we are told that this incident occurs on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, suggestive of an audience of non Jews. At the end of his account John will add that the people were desirous of making Jesus king ‘by force’, and that he escapes them. As we know that many in Judaism at the time of Jesus were looking for a warrior Messiah who would lead the nation in a successful war of liberation from Rome, we can easily understand this both as Jesus’ rejection of their misplaced understanding of his messiahship, and of John’s world view as it came to support a largely Gentile Church after the failed Jewish revolt.

With all this in mind we begin to see that this very familiar story plays a different role in John’s story of Jesus.  In John’s presentation, the role of the feeding of the five thousand is not to add to the list of identifying signs of Jesus, impressive as that is, but is the prelude to Jesus’ extensive teaching in John 6 on the meaning of the Eucharist, commonly known as the Bread of Life Sermon. This is especially necessary when we consider that John, unlike the synoptic writers, does not have an account of the institution of the Eucharist in his account of the Last Supper. Unlike them however, his Eucharistic teaching is lengthy and of vital significance for the life of the Church, and for our appreciation of the nature of Jesus himself. Time and time again in this lengthy sermon we shall see Jesus insist that the Mosaic Law is redundant and that salvation can only come through his own person, a being so intimately connected with God the Father that he consistently rewrites the entire Jewish salvation story. Now no longer is the Exodus/Moses epic the foundation and enduring story of Israel, but the new Israel will be moulded and shaped by the sacrificial death of Christ.

Our reading from Ephesians (4:1-6) picks up one of the central points of Eucharistic teaching, that of Church unity and it’s emphasis – one Body, One Spirit, one and the same hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism – would have been something very close to John’s teaching of Christ. Perhaps Paul found it essential precisely because of divisions, or threats of them, within the churches in the area. Almost certainly such unity would have been essential from a very early date in protecting Eucharistic practice and understanding, as the heart and centre of the new faith.

Jesus is the one who has the power to achieve fantastic miracles. Here, feeding 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. Now this would immediately have alerted ancient readers and hearers to other equally miraculous God-given feeding events in the Old Testament. The principal one would have been God’s giving of manna and quails to the escapees fleeing from slavery in Egypt. Now the amazing this about this account is that it happened every day and over a long period, represented by 40 years, indicating that the God of the Hebrews continually watched over and fed his people. Moreover, he gave them just enough for their needs every day. In sharp contrast, our Gospel account speaks of enormous abundance with the feeding of the 5,000 plus the 12 basketfuls of left-over’s, truly a messianic banquet, a foretelling of the life of God’s kingdom finally and irrevocably come on earth.

Old Testament stories expound similar themes. There is the one of Elijah and the continually generating food supply granted to the pagan widow who cared for him, and also our first reading (2 Kings 4:42-44). Now the interesting thing about this story, as well as its parallel to the 5,000, lies in the fact that Elisha, like his now dead master Elijah, was not one of the court prophets – indeed was often in fiercest opposition to them. Elisha was loved and respected by the people however, as our reading shows, for one would have expected the first-fruit offerings to have been presented to the priest-prophets of the state temples dotted in profusion all over the land, well before the centralization of Jerusalem hundreds of years later. Elisha, like Jesus, stands out as strangely detached from the state cult, from the respectable and ordered religious life controlled by those in the cities, by the powerful people whom Jesus would continually be at loggerheads with. Perhaps then the parallel between Elisha and Jesus draws our attention to the fact that God’s power and abundance works not where we might expect it, but in out of the way places and among the needy, those desperate for his care rather than with those who already have more than enough.


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