Loaves, Fishes, and Walking on Water
Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class, Originally aired on February 11, 2007.
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. In teaching young people through the years, I’ve learned to make sure that they learn that Lent is spelled with an “e” rather than an “i.” I’ve wondered about students who thought the church observes a season of Lint. Another mistake that high school students sometimes make is thinking about our passage for today is that it is about loafers and fishers rather than loaves and fishes. It’s an easy mistake since some of the disciples were fishers and some were probably loafers, too.
Chapter 6 overview: The 6th chapter of John is very long, so it might be helpful to give a little overview. There are two miracle stories in this chapter: the feeding of the multitude and Jesus walking on the water. Following the two miracles are discourses of Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples. The crowds turn hostile as he talks. Chapter 6 repeats some of the themes as the miracle at Cana and the discourse with the Samaritan woman. Those stories dealt with wine and water; this one deals with bread.
Read: John 6:1-14
Synoptics: When we began our study of John, I emphasized that John is quite different from the other three canonical Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called synoptic because they look at the story of Jesus in a similar way. Matthew and Luke tell the story of the feeding of the multitude and Jesus walking on the water much like Mark does. There are some interesting differences in details that we do not have time to discuss this morning. Matthew and Mark include a different version of the same event in which Jesus was said to have fed 4000 people. What is surprising is that John’s Gospel, which was not based on Mark, has these same two stories linked. Jesus feeds a multitude with just a few loaves and fishes, and then he walks out to the disciples who are in a boat. There are enough differences to be confident that John’s account is not based on that in the other gospels, and may in fact be closer to the original. So, in the New Testament itself we have six versions of the original story in which Jesus feeds the multitude. The only events in the life of Jesus that have such documentary evidence are those related to his execution. When we have a similar story in multiple sources that are independent, historians are more apt to say that such an event took place. We can confidently say that these stories themselves are older than the four written gospels and that this feeding story had a great impact on the participants and the church.
Historicity: Miracles are remarkably hard to verify for many reasons, one of which is that people have often made up miracle stories or simply came to wrong conclusions about the cause of an event. In the 19th century, many Protestant scholars tried to come up with reasonable explanations for the miracles reported in Scripture. Some did so in order to defend the historical reliability of the Bible. Others did so for the exact opposite reason. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, literally cut all miracles out of the New Testament because he thought the church had invented stories to increase the power of priests and preachers. During this period of skepticism, many scholars proposed that the two stories we are discussing this morning actually had natural causes.
For instance, some said that Jesus appeared to be walking on the water because he knew where the sandbar was that led out into the sea. The trouble with that explanation, of course, is that you would expect Jesus to get in the boat and say “Wow, I’m glad I knew where that sandbar was.” You’d also expect experienced sailors to know where the sandbar was, too. The explanation often given for the feeding of the multitude is that when Jesus started sharing the limited food he and the disciples had, people in the crowd were moved by the generosity and began sharing their food, too. It is interesting that the accounts of the feeding do not specifically rule out that explanation. Remember, in John, the signs point to things and not important in themselves.
I bring all of this up this morning to let you know that there have been debates over these two stories for over 200 years. There have been a lot of good Christians who decided that these miracles are exaggerated accounts of important events. Others have been just as convinced that these stories recount miracles unlike any others and that these stories point to the unique status of Jesus as divine. As the bumper sticker quips, “The next time you think you are the Son of God, try walking on water.”
I think we should avoid being too extreme in our judgments and seek to understand these stories in the context of John’s Gospel. Debates over historicity cannot be resolved since we cannot repeat the events with Jesus working under controlled conditions. I do not think that doubts about the historical accuracy of these accounts should undermine your faith or keep you from following Jesus as Lord. Nor does belief in miracles make you a Christian if that belief is the same for you as believing in UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster. Let’s turn away from the debate over the supernatural and focus on the meaning of these stories. What do they teach us about Jesus and about faith?
Parable: There are seven wonderful works that Jesus performs in the Gospel of John that John calls “signs.” As in the account in the other gospels, Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee followed by a large crowd, but John adds the geographical detail that the sea was also named for Tiberius. He reports that the crowd was following Jesus because he had been healing the sick. This makes more sense in the other gospels where there are many accounts of healings leading up to this, but this is a reminder that John knew of more miracles than he narrated. Jesus went up on the hill and sat with his disciples, which was the proper thing for a teacher to do with his students. Up to this point, the story in John sounds very much like the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. We are being prepared for a teaching. Like many prophets, Jesus used symbolic actions to teach people when words were insufficient. This story is a parable in action.
Passover: Only John indicates that the Passover was near, which is curious because Jesus just celebrated Passover in chapter 4. Many scholars have used this as evidence that John’s gospel had been rearranged in recopying, and that this chapter originally came before chapter 5 or was even chapter 4. That makes some of the chronology and geography work out, but it creates other problems. It is, of course, perfectly plausible that this event simply took place six months later than the events in chapter 5. It is just as plausible that John simply put his gospel together in a way that made thematic sense without worrying about chronology, as we have already noted.
I think that the most likely reason for mentioning the Passover festival was to cue the listener or reader that what follows is a Passover sermon by Jesus. The story of Passover is the story of the liberation of the Israelites from the oppression of the Pharaoh. Part of the festival includes eating unleavened bread as a reminder of their flight. After the Exodus the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, and when they were in danger of starving, God sent manna. There are a number of parallels between John 6 and the story of the manna in Numbers 11.
Barley: There are some interesting details that are unique to John’s account. For instance, it names Philip and Andrew as the disciples who play the most important role. Both were honored in the churches of Asia Minor, which is where John’s Gospel was probably written. The strangest detail is that the boy had five barley loaves and two dried fish. The word used for the fish here is not the famous ichthys, which is used in the other gospels. By the 2nd century ichthys was a code word for Jesus and even today you find fish on the bumpers of cars driven by some Christians. John’s word was opsarion, which was the word for preserved fish, just what you would expect a boy to have for his lunch. This is one of the indications that John’s account is probably the closest to the original story. The barley bread is interesting because that would have been the bread used in the spring, particularly by poor people. This rings true historically, but this may also reflect Old Testament parallels. In II Kings (4:42), the prophet Elisha feeds a crowd of people with 20 barley loaves. Thus, feeding with barley loaves could have been seen as a sign that Jesus was a prophet.
Eucharist: In the other gospels, the feeding of the crowd is clearly influenced by the ritual of Holy Communion or the Eucharist. In fact, some of the differences between Matthew, Mark, and Luke may reflect the different liturgies their churches used for communion. In those gospels, Jesus acts like a priest who takes bread, looks into heaven, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it the disciples to distribute to the crowd. But Jesus does not do this in John. He is reclining on the grass when the crowd comes to him. He does takes bread and offer thanks – the word is Eucharist in Greek – but this looks like a typical thing for a Jewish man to do before any meal. The blessing may well have been: “Blessed are you, O Lord, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” The specific rituals of Holy Communion are missing in John.
It is interesting that Jesus served the people himself in John. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is the mediator between humans and God, but there is no need for a mediator between us and Jesus. Some of you know that Moravian pastors go into the congregation to serve communion rather than having the people come forward or sending the bread and cup from person to person. Given the importance of John’s Gospel to Zinzendorf, I would not be surprised if this image of Jesus serving the people influenced the Moravian practice.
Messiah: It is also only in John’s Gospel that Jesus instructs the disciples to gather the fragments so that nothing may perish. One of the themes of John’s Gospel and letters is the importance of bringing the community of faith together so that none may be lost. Twelve baskets were filled with the fragments alone, which may well be a reference to the 12 tribes of Israel that will be gathered when the messiah comes. This connection to the messianic kingdom is not overt, but in the story the people proclaim that Jesus was the prophet who was to come. This could be a reference to Elijah rather than the messiah, but the basic point is clear. The crowd correctly perceived the identity of Jesus as the promised prophet, but still missed the point.
Jesus fled from those he had just fed so that they would not attempt to make him a king. Herod Antipas killed John the Baptist because he feared that the prophet would lead a popular rebellion. Jesus knew that he would suffer the same fate if the crowd proclaimed him the true king of Galilee. John’s Gospel reports that he fled from the crowd and ran up the mountain to get away from them. This may be another sign of the antiquity of this text because the church later would never say Jesus ran away and hid. In the synoptic account, he simply goes off by himself to pray. This story may have been intended to reflect the story of the prophet Elijah who ran to Mt. Sinai and hid from Jezebel. Whatever the purpose behind verse 15, it does explain why Jesus was not in the boat with the disciples. Were they also fleeing the crowds, which is why they embarked late in the day?
Walking on Water: This brings us to the second miracle, that of Jesus walking on the water. It is somewhat surprising that John kept the link between the stories since the discourse that follows is tied closely to the feeding miracle. Most likely, this indicates that the stories were firmly linked in the oral tradition before John wrote his gospel. The differences between John’s account and the other gospels are so striking that some have doubted whether this was the same event. The synoptic gospels add a lot of dramatic detail that magnifies the supernatural aspect of the story. There is a great storm at sea that Jesus walks through and then calms with a word. The disciples feared he was a ghost until he spoke to them.
John’s says that the sea was rough but there was no storm. Though they were about half way across the lake, it is not clear how far from the shore. The Greek is actually ambiguous over whether they saw Jesus walking on the shore by the lake or walking on the lake itself. He tells them not to be afraid, and in no time at all they have reached the shore. Strangely, the story does not even say that Jesus got in the boat with them. When we read this story, we tend to supply the details from the other accounts, which can confuse things. The other gospels focus on the miracle, but John focuses on Jesus.
Jesus says to the disciples, Ego eimi, “I am. Do not be afraid.” This is often translated, “It is I,” but that may obscure the most important part of this passage. John uses this phrase in key discourses of Jesus that we will discuss this in detail later. Note that this scene of Jesus reads like a revelation of God in his glory in the Old Testament. God speaks to Abraham, Moses, and the prophets as “I am” and tells them not to be afraid. Here the disciples were terrified, as all mortals are when they see God. Jesus claims the divine name and tells them not to be afraid. Now the connection between the feeding miracle and the walking on the water becomes more clear. Psalm 77, which was read at Passover, speaks of God walking through the water with unseen footprints. Jesus would not let humans make him a king to fight against men like Herod, but he does reveal himself to his followers as the Son of God who saves.
Lovefeast: In conclusion, let’s take another look at the tableau painted by John. It is a beautiful scene. A crowd of people sits on a mountain slope in front of Jesus. Andrew presents a boy who has some food. Jesus takes the gift, says a prayer of thanksgiving for the food and the generosity of the boy. Then he moves through the crowd distributing the food. There is nothing dramatic here; no special effects. Something similar to this happened in Bohemia in 1419. Thousands of people had gathered on a hill to await the coming kingdom of God. For three days the crowd lived together as one community and no one was hungry because rich shared with poor. They called this a love feast, like the love feasts of the early church. They recognized that they were imitating the actions of Christ on the Sea of Galilee, and they renamed the hill Mt. Tabor. Was there a miracle in Bohemia similar to the miracle that Christ performed by the Sea of Galilee? Anytime those who have plenty share freely with those who have none, it is a sign and a wonder. In our day, the rock star Bono saw the suffering in Africa and dedicated his life to their cause. He went on a hopeless mission to talk to Senator Jessie Helms about debt relief. He spoke about Jesus and Africa. Jessie Helms changed his mind gave debt relief to the poor. Was there a miracle in Washington, DC? Certainly there was a sign and wonder.