It turns out that the ship was sailing in an area of the ocean called “the River Sea,” where the mouth of the Amazon River extends an area of fresh water for many miles out into the ocean. I’ll come back to this.
Today’s gospel is an immediate follow up to the story of Jesus’ feeding of the multitude in John’s gospel, which we heard last week.
All four of the gospels include feeding stories; Matthew and Mark actually both include two each. These stories are powerful for several reasons:
I think the stories also work in an effective way because being hungry and thirsty, and then having hunger/thirst satisfied is as powerful metaphor for all of the ways in which we hunger and thirst spiritually – we feel a deep need to make sense of our lives, to feel that our lives matter.
Jesus’ feeding the crowd physically also suggests an assurance that we will be fed spiritually.
And this is what John is addressing in today’s gospel. As always, the fourth gospel, written decades after Matthew, Mark, and Luke, focuses not just on what Jesus did, but also on what Jesus did means – often attributing to Jesus himself lengthy explanations of the mystical implications of his life and actions. The explanations we hear in John’s gospel are probably reflections of the faith of the early church more than they are historical memories of what Jesus actually said.
In this gospel text, then, having just fed the multitudes, Jesus seems to turn on them with accusations:
Jesus’ listeners really do want to be concerned about the right things: “What must we do to perform the works of God?”, they ask. At the same time, they can’t help going back to talking about being fed, and in this, they inadvertently prove Jesus right.
In suggesting that “We’d really like some proof that what you’re saying is true”, they refer to the way their ancestors’ faith was strengthened when the ancestors received manna in the wilderness from Moses. They want to be spiritually focused, but can forget worrying about their hunger.
John concludes passage with one of Jesus’ “I AM” statements that constitute a thread running through the gospel: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
This passage sounds a very familiar gospel theme: both disciples and crowds have a had time hearing and understanding what Jesus has come to teach.
The disciples, despite years of travel with Jesus, still see with eyes of the world, rather than eyes of God’s Realm.
As Kathryn observed last week, faced with hunger of the crowd, they can still see only scarcity: Philip seems rather desperate when he observes that “Six months’ wages would not buy enough.”
The disciples’ worries reflect lives lived with real anxiety over having enough; it’s hard to unlearn the need to worry about providing for the future, despite their actual experience that life with Jesus is a life of abundance. Jesus needed to show them, yet again.
Those in the crowds themselves, despite really wanting to be concerned with living lives faithful to God, also unconsciously revealed the underlying power of their concerns about their worldly needs.
I think John has put his finger on one of the fundamental spiritual struggles that we live with as human beings. We want to focus and direct our lives around what our faith tells us is important, the selfless and generous lives that God calls us to, but we constantly slip back into prioritizing and pursuing the outward symbols of success that the world tells us to value.
Rather than living primarily in gratitude for what God provides, it’s hard to stop fretting over what is missing in our lives - the “something more” that feels unfulfilled.
Even when we manage to free ourselves from material longings - easy to focus on what we don’t have and wish we did have – more time, better health, more love, more recognition…
I don’t mean to suggest that the deficits in our lives are trivial. We have just come through a period of really difficult deprivation as the Covid virus has forced us into isolation, separated families, and caused countless losses. These are not unimportant, and they’re not illusions.
And as you know, the news of the pandemic seems like it is getting worse again. The world has changed as a result of the pandemic, and what lies ahead of us is unclear: we don’t know what familiar parts of life are just not coming back.
When we are worried about whether we will have enough, or how we will manage in a changed world, or hurting over what we have lost, it gets hard to see beyond those concerns.
This is where Booker Washington’s story comes in:
John’s gospel reminds us that God has given us what we need.
The important message in the story of the feeding of the multitude is that God can do very much with very little – that when what we have is blessed by God, what we have is more than enough. Our challenge is to notice what we have, and to cast down our buckets and let ourselves be filled.
We probably spend too much time worrying about the what is to come, rather than living fully in the particulars of the moment.
God loves us as we are. God is ready to bless our strengths, and to use them.
Having begun with the words of one great thinker, I want to leave you leave you with the words of another, writing about a century after Booker T Washington. Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest and writer. She says this, in An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith:
No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X [that marks the spot where the treasure is] is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no special equipment, no superior aptitude or special company. All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.*
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