Glynn Cardy John 6:1-14
Sun 25 Jul
I choose to read this gospel text today as a story of a child who fed God.
You can choose to read it quite differently than that. As with all the stories about Jesus this text is a painting, an image, an imagining, based maybe on a received oral or written tradition, then adapted and shaped to address a particular community, with its particular needs, making particular points.
With this gospel – commonly called ‘John’s gospel’ or ‘the 4th gospel – there is nothing historical. So, Jesus did not say ‘I am the Good Shepherd’. Or ‘I am the Light of the World’. Or ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life’. Nor anything else in this book.
Rather this is a painting by a very talented artist who was part of what scholars call the Johannine community in the early part of the 2nd century (some 70+ years after Jesus’ death). And the paints on his palette come from oral and written sources, the experience of his community, and the circumstances of his time. He creates a kerygma (a preached word), a message, an image that speaks.
Some of the paints he had on his palette come from the stories about Elijah and Elisha. Like with our first reading today. This is why John 6:14 has the people say “This is indeed the prophet.” Indeed, if you read the stories of Elijah and Elisha you will find most of the miracles later ascribed to Jesus. Think paints, palettes, and painters. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Thomas are paintings created for their days with some splashes of colour from earlier days.
You can choose to read this feeding story as a part of a sermon about communion – with its references to the Passover, and to ‘taking, giving thanks, and distributing’ (v.11). You may have smiled when the painter put ‘Passover the festival of the Jews’ – an explanatory note to his audience who were not Jewish. Or you might have grimaced. For we know this gospel became a sourcebook for Christian antisemitism.
You can choose to then take this kerygma of feeding a multitude and hold it up beside our contemporary communion practices, and play ‘spot the difference’. Like where is the wine back then, and how come we don’t do fish? Like did anyone check the baptism status, or communion cards, or membership status of the multitude before the food was distributed? Like how come we only get a scrap of bread and a sip of juice, while they had a decent feed? And like maybe the challenge of communion is not about choosing to participate in a rite of personal holiness, but is a challenge about what we do with what we’ve got in order to feed the world?
Maybe the next time we meet for communion we should each bring a supermarket bag full of what the PSN foodbank needs, and we make together at least 12, or 24, baskets full to share. Maybe in organizing that, each of us shopping for goods to share, arranging delivery to the foodbank afterwards… maybe these things are the preparatory and subsequent disciplines of a holy sacred communion.
You can also read this story as Jesus the superman from off the planet doing his saving thing. The Eternal Logos come to earth. Jesus the Divine. Jesus the Son of God. He who makes bread miraculously expand and form in his hands. This is the way it was presented to me in Sunday School. Feeding the multitude was a miracle to be wrought by God, then and now.
We might, like the boy with his five loaves and two fish, bring what we have to share, but it is Jesus who does the magic. It is great magic, done by a great Jesus, who is the great divine Logos. And to get some magic we need to believe all that and all that.
It is this gospel, John’s, the 4th, that paints Jesus in super-God colours – i.e., God the supreme being – all knowingly and all powerful. It is this Jesus that seems to take everything, including the crucifixion, in his stride. It is this Jesus about whom we wonder: is he really human, like us? Or does he have a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card when it comes to suffering?
It is this Jesus that makes some theologians refute Scripture as an absolute norm – for the norm of this gospel has Jesus portrayed as something akin to the Marvel superheroes gallery.
The problem with the superhero genre is that it locates God as supersized, beyond, out of reach, to whom we relate through emissaries. Emissaries, representatives on earth, like popes, bishops, ministers, kings, emperors, governors, fathers-in-God of both sacred and secular spheres. And its these representatives who mediate the miracles. They exercise control over what is said to be God’s doings, and what’s not. Authority is given from on high. And we must be obedient if we are to receive any benefit, like bread.
Such a reading would have the multitude on that hillside all accepting the Lordship/divinity of Jesus from that day forth and following him. Such a reading would have us first and foremost believing the miracle and miracle-worker, rather than doing the miracle and being the miracle-worker.
I choose to read this gospel text today as a story of a child who fed God. I choose to read it as a parable – one that didn’t happen, but always can happen.
It begins with a need. Jesus is on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. In Syro-Phoenicia, not Galilee. And a multitude of foreigners seek him out. Lots of people. Lots of people who are hungry. They might want to see healing miracles or hear from the learned rabbi from over the lake, but right now they are hungry. This story is not about spiritual need but physical need.
And Philip, the foil, gives a correct accountancy assessment as to both need and the cost. A cost beyond the financial resources they have.
Note there is no blaming in the story. No blaming of individuals (who goes up a mountain for the day without lunch?). No blaming of parents or communities and synagogues. No blaming of foreigners or accountants. No blaming of local government, provincial government, the empire, or even Caesar.
Not that all these were blameless. Hunger, like poverty, like unemployment, like housing shortages… has multiple causes – from the unpredictability of climate to the predictability of greed, from the depletion of emotional and motivational resources of the many to the systems that favour the accruing of vast financial resources by the few.
But in our story, blame doesn’t feature. There’s no talk of systemic structural change. Which is not to say the Jesus movement were opposed to such change. Indeed, they were akin to anarchists. Rather this story is local and specific.
For it is a painting about a child.
It is a painting about the magic of little.
A child was low, very low, in the cultural hierarchy. The boy had to go through Jesus’ minders. Kids didn’t get to the front of the queue in those days. So, an acknowledgement of the story’s Andrew is important.
Andrew facilitates the access of this boy to Jesus. Andrew sees the child not as a problem, not as pretentious, not as a nuisance. He simply sees the child having a wish, and is prepared to help it be granted (even if his fellow disciples might disagree).
I guess there might have been lots of people wanting access to Jesus. People who wanted to touch him and be touched by him. People who wanted to be healed in mind and body. Important people and needy people. A boy with a lunch to share wasn’t – for most of the disciples I guess – a priority.
The boy offers his magic of little because he too sees the need. And he wants to respond. Not by wishing the needy would have planned ahead, or would go away. Not by wishing someone else would do something. But by doing something himself. Offering his little. His act of holy communion with a hungry community. His five barley buns and two fish.
His act feeds God.
I’m not talking of course about some anthropomorphic deity, or a supreme being of any shape or size. I’m talking about an understanding of God as the power between and within human beings that joins with us, flows with/in us, as we make love and justice in the world. A power by which we empower others. A renewable energy in which we participate, that lights us up so that we can light others up. I’m talking about a small ‘g’ God that needs us, needs to be fed by us, as together we make god (mutual transforming relationships) in the world.
This is what the mystics meant when they used the phrase about us giving birth to God. As Sr. Ilia Delio says, “Christian life is a commitment to love, to give birth to God in one’s own life and to become midwives of divinity in this evolving cosmos.” Or Annie Dillard: “We always find God in our lives as Jesus was found in Bethlehem at Christmas, a helpless infant in the straw who must be picked up and nurtured into adulthood.”
So, this boy in making an offering to feed the hungry, feeds, succours, G/god (hope, mutuality) into being. He cooperates with G/god, to feed G/god, and expand this life and light-giving goddish energy of grace. As does Jesus.
And it is enough. The need is met by enough.
May we share our little, and know when we have enough.