Two weeks ago I wrote about the pattern in the Gospel of John with which Jesus sows and sends someone off to reap the harvest of his word. Today’s reading is the Johannine version of the feeding of the multitudes with bread and fish, and I think the same pattern is here. All four Gospels tell the story of the loaves and fishes (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-14). . Matthew and Mark even have a second feeding narrative (Matthew 15:32-39 and Mark 8:1-9). John is, as always, a little different from the three synoptics.
In this version of the barley loaves and fishes, Jesus goes up a mountain and sits. People come to see signs. Unique to this Gospel are details of the negotiation for food to feed the crowd. Once again it is Philip who is called, this time to be tested. How to buy food for so many, costing six months wages? Andrew points out a boy with five loaves and two fish. We are told it is nearly Passover. And the loaves are barley loaves, the rough bread for the poor. The spring barley harvest is around Passover, so the bread and the season testify to each other. Two weeks ago I wrote that the calling of Nathanael by Phillip and the calling of the Samaritan town by the woman at the well were related. Both times Jesus speaks a prophecy referring to an Old Testament passage. We see this pattern again. Jesus’ question about how much bread needed evokes several bread miracles in the Old Testament. The prophet Elisha fed the many with twenty barley loaves, and there were leftovers there, too (2 Kings 4:42-44). In Exodus 16, when the people had arrived at the Valley of Sin and were grumbling for food, Moses (who always went up a mountain to see God) told them that God would give them manna enough to eat, but it could not be gathered and saved for another day. As in John 2 for Nathanael and John 4 for the woman, Jesus used the familiarity with Scripture to sow meaning through the boy’s loaves, brought to him by two disciples. Jesus blesses and sows this barley bread and fish to the five thousand. And the crowd gets it. They remember Elisha and Moses and the manna especially now that Passover is near. “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” Or almost get it. Moses led the people out of slavery. Here the crowd wants to crown Jesus king to lead them out of the slavery of Rome. They are the crop to be reaped by the coming of the Christ, but not quite yet. Yet the pattern in John is still here. Jesus is presented with the person who will be intermediary to seed his message (the boy and his bread through his apostles), the message (bread and fish) is carried to those who recognize him through his prophetic utterances and acts. Eventually they will go forth to carry the word that the Messiah has come, reaping the presence of him amongst them. Not quite a clear as before, but the elements are there.
Later in John 6, after Jesus has walked on water to the boat that was taking his disciples across the lake, that very observant crowd notes that they hadn’t seen him leave the shore and here he was on the other side. But Jesus disparages them saying that they only look for signs, and ate the bread only to satisfy their bellies. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” And then he teaches who he is and how his followers must believe in him. Here he reminds them that the manna came from God but did not last. But his bread would, saying, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” And all who are sent to him by his Father would rise up on the last day. It is through that divine authority that Jesus makes clear what is required of those who belong to him. All these bread narratives show the abundance of the Table on which Jesus’ Body and Blood are called down to feed us, and heal us, and teach us. At every Eucharist we receive the barley loaves to make us fishers of the world. And the cup of salvation, which, in some mysterious way, brings forth the promise of forgiveness and eternal life. So that we can go forth and bring the Light.
It all comes back to sowing and reaping from John 4. We so often find our sowing in social actions for justice. But the Spirit which drives us to those acts must derive from the belief in the one who is the Bread of Life, the Blood of Salvation. Otherwise it is our gift, not God’s. This is very difficult, even in the season of Lent, when we are asked to reach deep to see our hidden sins, our patterns of self-service, pride, greed. And, unfortunately, we also have a tendency to reduce these explorations to slogans, often ones with harsh emotional content. Kill the patriarchs. White shame. All prone to create as much division as self awareness. These can never replace the deep, often wordless opening of the heart to our Father in Heaven, a heaven which is a place that is every place, and no place, and deep inside us. We are too used to identity politics as shorthand to rigidly define us, when what we need is so much harder, and so ephemeral, and yet is the Rock on which we stand. The ability to let go, allow change, listen to God, to bind ourselves to the one who came to feed us and quench our thirst. Only Jesus knew who in the crowd turned from Moses and manna to the living God amongst them who fed them eternal barley loaves and fish. Can we hear the message that it is not about worldly bread, but the Bread of Life? Are we seeking the Lord’s righteousness, and not a quick fix? Are we the people on the hill, or those in the boat with Jesus?
That turning, repentance, metanoia has a cost, the cost of recognizing our human sin, of taking up our Cross daily, not only in suffering from injustice and violence, but in knowing in ourselves our need for Christ’s healing grace, his showing us the way to be more loving, more patient, more forgiving, as he was and is. We say in liturgy that we are one Body sharing the one bread. Why didn’t those on the mountain see that? It took time, God’s time, Jesus’ time. And we are inheritors of that bread and that Body. And Lent is the time when we are given the time to remember that, and seek Jesus in the fullness of his will for us. And we, sinners as we all are, are to sow, scatter the baskets of fragments to feed the world so that none may be lost. To reap the Kingdom for our God.
Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.