You never seem to come to an end to this reading from St John’s Gospel.
When I was about nine years old, I discovered a book on my grandparents’ shelves called The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas… or was it A.J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom? The book explained the miracle of the feeding by suggesting that the little boy sharing his lunch shamed all the people into sharing the picnics they had brought with them.
And maybe that’s part of what John is saying to us: that when we recognise that people are hungry, we should share the little we have with our friends and neighbours and that will encourage a spirit of sharing in the community, and there will be enough to go around and more.
I think I knew even at nine that this explanation was a brush-off. Obviously sharing is a good thing, far better than the alternative, but a little disappointing if that was all Jesus was teaching. All the sharing that has happened since then has not made a dent in world hunger, and in any case, the people in the story were hungry, not for food, but for teaching and for a leader, a Messiah.
This is a story about two shocking events: a man who can feed 5,000 with virtually nothing, and who can walk on water. The story is firstly about who Jesus is, not about our puny efforts to feed the world.
I don’t know what to make of the two events. I don’t do miracles. But that in fact is the point. John is introducing a person who does things that cannot be done; a person who doesn’t fit the normal world we live in. We can’t go back in a time-machine and see exactly what happened, but we can be sure that Jesus was so far out of the ordinary that John shocks us into a new recognition: Jesus is no ordinary man. I may not do miracles; but I have spent my life trying to come to terms with who this Jesus is.
On the basis of John’s evidence, I can’t come to an honest conclusion. Jesus continues to escape my understanding. But if he feeds human beings with bread, and, not only with fish and bread, but with symbolic bread, himself, his presence, then, like the crowds, I want to keep following him. If his presence in stormy seas makes the journey more bearable, then, like the disciples, I’m glad to invite him aboard.
The crowds couldn’t pin Jesus down. They saw the signs he had been doing on the sick. These signs pointed to something important, something good, but exactly what Jesus was doing when you closely examined the signs was a bit harder to grasp. Not universal health-care; not every human being without health problems, but a sign that God’s kingdom was breaking in in a new way. While it may seem that evil and disease have the upper hand, the signs Jesus were doing on the sick were pointing to a different reality, and therefore worth following up, worth finding out more.
Maybe he was the Messiah who had come to throw off the Roman yoke. Jesus organised the crowd into men and women. In Mark’s version, they were in companies of 100 and 50, just like an army.
It’s a three-day forced march from Galilee to Jerusalem. There were, presumably, Roman spies in such a large crowd. The crowd acclaimed Jesus as the Prophet, and calculated that they could get to Jerusalem before spies could get to Roman headquarters at Caesarea and alert the Roman legion there, who would take many hours to prepare and then two days to march from Caesarea to Jerusalem.
A popular uprising could just work on that timetable. On the other hand, an uprising like that could be violently put down too. As soon as Jesus saw the way the crowd was thinking, he disappeared. He was not a political Messiah.
If not a political Messiah, then something else. The disciples stuck around to find out.
They were intrigued by Jesus’ handling of the fragments. Twelve baskets full. And of course John, as a master story-teller, is well aware of the symbolism. By the time John writes his Gospel, the Temple has been destroyed, the Jewish nation has been smashed, and only fragments are scattered throughout the Middle East. The twelve new tribes, the twelve fragments, so carefully and lovingly picked up by Jesus, are the new Israel, the followers of Jesus, the Church.
So is Jesus the new Moses? Like Moses he distributes bread to people in the wilderness. Like Moses he teaches on a mountain. As with Moses, the Passover is at hand. Jesus is to lead his people out of slavery to a new promised land. However, this cannot be a geographical Exodus. So what will this new Moses mean? What will his Exodus look like?
John doesn’t tell us that Jesus is God. He doesn’t make the equivalence. But he does tease us, and shock us, into asking the question, well, if not, what? If not God, what is Jesus? If not a political Messiah, what sort of Messiah? If not a new Moses, what sort of Moses? If not only a healer, then what sort of healer?
As I said earlier, I don’t have an answer. Of course, you can’t turn five barley loaves and two fish into bread for five thousand with twelve baskets left over. Of course, you can’t walk on water. But the response of the crowds, and the response of the disciples tells me that Jesus did things that cannot be done, and just like them, I want to know more.
In nearly 50 years of trying to find out who Jesus is, I have found that he feeds me. I gain an enormous amount spiritually and personally from exploring the scriptures and from sharing the Eucharist with you, my brothers and sisters. I have found that when life is hard, frightening, worrying, then in the midst of that, Jesus is there, and suddenly, I am through the storm.
And who Jesus is keeps just out of reach. I need to keep on following someone so intriguing whose only attitude to me is one of enormous love and goodwill.