The British newspaper columnist Bernard Levin once wrote a column called ‘Life’s Great Riddle, and No Time to Find Its Meaning’. In it Levin – who by the way has stated emphatically that he is not a Christian - wrote these words:
Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with such non-material blessings as a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet, and at times noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well-balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of it… it aches.Levin is talking about the spiritual hunger and thirst that are alive and well in the world today. Advertisers want us to satisfy that hunger by buying their products. Entertainers want us to satisfy it by going to their concerts or buying their CDs. We try to satisfy it ourselves, by meeting our personal goals or living a balanced life or by having strong relationships and happy families and so on. But at the end of the day, if we’re honest, deep down inside we have to admit that we don’t really know how to satisfy this spiritual hunger. Someone – someone who really knows what they are talking about – will have to give us some guidance about this.
This spiritual hunger and thirst are the theme of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, which we will be reading in our lectionary over the next five weeks. The chapter starts, in today’s reading, with two miracle stories – the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’ walking on the water to meet his disciples in the middle of a storm on the lake. But John follows on with an extended theological dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees, in which he brings out the meaning of what Jesus has just done – what it says to us about who Jesus is and how he can satisfy our spiritual hunger. Today we’ll look at the two miracle stories – though not without a glance at their theological meaning! Starting next week we’ll be gradually going through the dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees in the rest of the chapter.
But I have to start by giving you some background. As John told these stories about Jesus, he knew that his first hearers would remember some much older stories, stories that had been told in the Jewish community for over a thousand years. The people would remember the stories of how God had miraculously led his people through the waters of the Red Sea, and how he had fed them miraculously with bread from heaven – which they called ‘manna’ – when they were wandering in the desert. They would remember how the people of Israel had grumbled against God and put him to the test in the desert. And they would also remember how Moses had made a promise to the people. There was no need for them to consult mediums and wizards to find out what to do, he said; ‘The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet’ (Deuteronomy 18:15). The people would remember these Old Testament stories, and John alludes to them as he tells the story of the miraculous feeding and the miraculous walk on the water.
But above all, the people would remember how, in the Exodus story, God had given himself an unusual name. Moses was talking with God on the mountain of the burning bush, before he went back to Egypt to lead the people out of slavery. There he asked God, “If I tell them that God has sent me to set his people free, and they ask me, ‘Which god? What is his name?’, what shall I say?” God replied, “I AM WHO I AM”. He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14). The words ‘I am’, or ‘I am who I am’ translate a Hebrew word which may sound something like ‘Yahweh’. Later generations of Jewish people considered that name too sacred to pronounce, and so they combined its consonants with the vowels of their word for ‘Lord’, which produced a word something like ‘Jehovah’, but ‘Jehovah’ was not the way the name was originally pronounced; ‘Yahweh’ is more accurate. John will allude to this name too, in a rather shocking way, toward the end of our story.
So here we have two very simple and amazing miracle stories. They take place in the vicinity of the lake of Galilee. A large crowd has been following Jesus, but they’ve got an ulterior motive; they want to be healed, or to see some more amazing healings. On the whole, John’s Gospel takes a dim view of this motivation: the writer seems to think that the people were looking for something sensational rather than genuinely seeking God. But still, Jesus has compassion on them and decides to satisfy their physical hunger. In the Old Testament we read that the people put God to the test by grumbling about the fact that they had nothing to eat in the desert, but in this story it is Jesus who puts his disciples to the test; he knows what he’s going to do, but first he wants to find out how much they’ve learned about him from the signs that they’ve already seen. So he asks Philip, “Where are we going to get enough bread to feed all these people?” and Philip replies, “I dunno – six months’ wages wouldn’t do it!” Andrew does a bit better; he points out a boy who has five loaves of bread and two fish, “But what good are they among all these people?”
So Jesus gets everyone to sit down, takes the five loaves and two fish, gives thanks to God and starts giving them out. Miraculously, they multiply, and everyone has enough to eat, just as in the Exodus story the people ate the manna and the quails and had enough to eat and more besides. When they had all eaten enough and were full, Jesus sent his disciples around with baskets to pick up the leftovers, and there was so much left that they filled twelve baskets - one for each disciple. It would be funny if Jesus had made each of them sit down and eat what was in their basket as a lesson in faith!
But now the crowd got really excited. ‘This must be the prophet that Moses promised us!’ they said; no doubt they were making connections between the way their ancestors had been fed in the desert through Moses and the way Jesus had just fed them. The next verse is even more dramatic; Jesus realises that they are about to take him by force and make them their king. What a great thing it would be for them, instead of having a king who gouged them with taxes, if they had a king who gave them free food every day instead! But Jesus would have none of it; he immediately withdrew to a mountain by himself.
That crowd is going to meet Jesus again on the next day, but before they do, John adds a little ‘P.S.’ to the story. For some reason – we aren’t told why – the disciples leave Jesus on that side of the lake and cross over toward Capernaum without him. A storm blows up during the night as they are crossing. During the night they see a shadowy shape on the water, following them; it looks human, but it is walking on the water, which they know is impossible. No doubt the first word in their mind was the word you would think of in that situation: ‘ghost’. But as it gets closer, they see that it is Jesus. However, they are still terrified, and we can understand why; this is completely outside their experience! Who on earth can this be? But Jesus answers that question. The NRSV translates his answer like this: ‘It is I; do not be afraid’, but the Greek says this: ‘I am; do not be afraid’. John has taken advantage of a little idiom in the original language, where the Greek words ‘ego eimi’, which literally mean, ‘I am’, can also mean colloquially ‘it’s me!’ But remember what we said about the name God gave to himself in Exodus: ‘Yahweh’, which means ‘I am’. It’s not an accident that John has Jesus using this name for himself. Many things in John’s gospel have a double meaning, and that double meaning is almost always intentional.
Right – so what does this all mean for us today, in 2009, living in our homes and working our jobs and, deep down inside, trying to find a way of satisfying our spiritual hunger and thirst?
The crowd in this story made two mistakes: they thought they knew what their most important needs were, and so they used categories to think about Jesus that would lead to him meeting those needs for them. They thought their most important need was bread, and so Jesus must be the prophet like Moses, the one who had given their ancestors bread from heaven in the wilderness. Or again, they thought they needed a leader to deliver them from the Roman oppressors and their puppet king, Herod, and so they thought Jesus must be a political and military leader who would set them free.
We do the same thing today. We think we know what our most important needs are, so we choose categories for Jesus to make him fit those needs. Perhaps we feel we want counselling for our problems, so we see Jesus as a pop psychologist handing out warm fuzzies to all and sundry. Or we need a nice comfortable religion that won’t offend anyone, so we make him a great religious teacher, on a level with others like Muhammad or Confucius or Moses.
But Jesus will not accept our categories. He has his own agenda, based on the categories he claims for himself. There are two of them in this passage, and they are both very shocking, both to his original hearers and to us. Let’s take them in reserve order.
‘I AM’, says Jesus; ‘don’t be afraid’. Jesus uses this name of God for himself many times in John’s Gospel, and each time he will make it a little more explicit. A couple of chapters later, he is having a controversy with the Pharisees, and they accuse him of making himself out to be greater even than Abraham. Jesus willingly accepts the charge: “Very truly I tell you”, he says, “before Abraham was, I am”.
So this is who we’re dealing with here: not just a great religious teacher or a king like David, but the living God who has come among us in Jesus. And if that’s the case, it’s no use us trying to enlist him in our own personal agendas and our own little wars. Jesus won’t go along with that. I’m reminded of the words of one of the characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Treebeard the Ent; the hobbits Merry and Pippin ask him whose side he’s on, and he replies, “I am not altogether on anyone’s side, because no one is altogether on my side!” I suspect that’s the sort of thing God in Christ might say to us as well!
But because God has come among us in Jesus, he can claim another category for himself later on in this chapter: in 6:35 he says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. He will use shocking language to illustrate this, talking about people ‘chewing’ his flesh and drinking his blood. Two thousand years of Christian worship lead us to immediately conclude that Jesus is talking about the Eucharist here, but John does not explicitly refer it to the Eucharist, although he must have known that his hearers would make the connection. In fact, John doesn’t even mention the Eucharist in his story of the Last Supper. But he tells us what he means by ‘eating the flesh’ and ‘drinking the blood’ of Jesus: he has Jesus saying, ‘Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’. To come to him, and to believe in him, is to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Jesus, who is ‘I am’, is essential to eternal life, just as food and drink are essential to this present life – and the way to satisfy our spiritual hunger is to come to him and believe in him.
Of course, the Eucharist is one way that we do this. When we step out of our seats, come forward and hold out our hands, we are indeed ‘coming to him’ and ‘believing in him’ – at least, if we’re doing it truly, and not just by rote. But the Eucharist doesn’t exhaust the meaning of these words of Jesus. There are many other ways of coming to him and believing in him, too – by committing our lives to him, by turning to him in prayer, by chewing on his words and putting them into practice in our lives, and so on.
Toward the end of his gospel, John says this:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name (20:30-31).In other words, John is writing as an evangelist. He doesn’t just want to give us information this morning; he wants to give us life. We may be alive biologically, but we may not yet have found that truer and deeper life that God wants to give us. How are we going to find that life? The feeding of the five thousand and the walking on the water show us the way, because they tell us who Jesus is. ‘I am; do not be afraid’. In Jesus God has come among us, and just as he satisfied the hunger of the five thousand, so he can satisfy our spiritual hunger too. He is the bread of life; if we are hungry and thirsty, we’re told to come to him and put our trust in him. He will lead us to the Father, and knowing God for ourselves though him, we will find that our spiritual hunger is satisfied at last.