One of the great success stories of publishing in recent years has been a series of books entitled Chicken Soup for the Soul. These books had their beginning in the work of two motivational speakers, Jack Canfield and Mark Hansen. Canfield and Hansen were in the habit of sprinkling their motivational talks with a liberal dose of inspirational stories, and many people in their audiences suggested to them that they should publish these stories. Eventually they decided to act on this suggestion and they collected 101 stories for publication. The original title came from Jack Canfield’s grandmother, who apparently claimed that her homemade chicken soup would cure anything!
The manuscript of Chicken Soup for the Soul was refused by over a hundred publishing houses before it was eventually accepted by Health Communications, Inc. It was published in June 1993, and by Christmas had become a huge favourite. By April 1994 it was at the top of all the bestseller lists in the United States and Canada, and it went on to win many awards including the prestigious American Booksellers Book of the Year award. The original book has since given birth to many children with names like Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul or the Fisherman’s Soul and so on. Altogether there have been 65 titles which have been published in 37 languages and have sold 80 million copies.
So I think it’s safe to say that in our culture we instinctively understand the idea of a hungry soul! We understand that it’s not just our bodies that need food, but our minds and hearts as well. And junk food won’t do – we need deep nourishment from something wholesome and solid.
Many people today are painfully aware that they are not finding that nourishment. They feel a deep spiritual hunger, and are longing to find something to alleviate it. This spiritual hunger is 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.
These two miracle stories 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. 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 little 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 like in time of Moses when God fed the people in the desert with manna and quails. Jesus underlines the point of God’s generosity by sending his disciples around with baskets to pick up the leftovers, and there is so much left that they fill twelve baskets full.
Now the crowd gets really excited. In the Old Testament Moses had promised that God would send his people another prophet like him to lead them; 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). And now in today’s story we have the crowd saying, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world” (v.14). 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. And 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 that in the Old Testament God gave himself a name: ‘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 2012, living in our homes and working our jobs and, deep down inside, trying to find a way of satisfying our spiritual hunger?
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 ways of thinking about 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 our ways of thinking about Jesus are completely inadequate. Jesus 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 a look at them.
First: ‘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 a second 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 Holy Communion here, but John does not explicitly refer it to Holy Communion, although he must have known that his hearers would make the connection. In fact, John doesn’t even mention Holy Communion 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, receiving communion 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 that 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.
So today as you come to Holy Communion, let me invite you to come to the one who is not just a prophet or a counselor or a great religious teacher, but the one who John describes in the first chapter of his gospel when he says ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:1, 14). “I am”, he says to us; “Do not be afraid”. So let’s get up out of our seats and come to him, and stretch out our hands to receive the bread and wine, putting our faith in the one who tells us “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). “Oh taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).