John 6:1-21, The Feast and the Crossing

[July 26, 2015] My final sermon among people I have served for fifteen years.

Today’s Gospel repeats the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand and adds the story of the disciples crossing the sea in the dark of night, during which Jesus comes to them and says, “I am. Don’t be afraid.” What follows is the discourse on the Bread of Life.

Two weeks ago we heard the story in Mark’s gospel of the feast Herod held, in his palace, for those in positions of power, in which the prophet’s head was served on a platter. Last week was the story of the feast Jesus held, in the wilderness, for a crowd of five thousand poor. Today we consider this same story from the Gospel according to John.

The story of the sea-crossing is literarily at the heart of John’s gospel. The gospel radiates from here. The passages before and after the sea-crossing are connected: the first tells how the crowds were fed and the one after is the interpretation of it. John associates these stories with the Passover. The sea-crossing alludes to the crossing of the Sea after the people ate the Passover meal. In the sermon that follows Jesus connects the miracle of the loaves to the manna in the wilderness, how God fed the people until they reached the Promised Land.

The sea-crossing also alludes to the creation of light in the midst of chaos on the first day of creation. The feeding of the five thousand, with Jesus’ saying he is the bread that’s come down from heaven, alludes to the second day of creation, when the dome of heaven was created.

On another level the story of the sea-crossing alludes to baptism and the story of the loaves to the Lord’s Supper.

John’s gospel proceeds like a labyrinth: we walk round and round towards the center and then out again. It’s like a mandala that paints the shape of the cross. Stamped across it is that to which it all ultimately points: the death and resurrection of Jesus as the meaning of it all: the Passover, the new creation, the sacraments, the life of the church.

What does this text say to us here and now? This is my last service of worship with you, the last time I break the bread of the Word in this place. From here I cross the sea to another shore.

It’s also your last service with me, after which you will continue to feast on the Word after I’m gone. The sea crossing for you is this transition; in the midst of this stormy transition Jesus comes to you as the  “I am,” the one who is present in your midst, removing your fears of the rough sea and the blowing wind, and getting you safely to the further shore.

Imagine the boat the disciples are in is the congregation. The pastor is leaving and in a few days will have gone into the hills. You need to get to the other shore, to Capernaum where Jesus will be, where he will continue his ministry among you. But night has fallen and it is dark; the wind is strong and the sea is getting rough. This picture describes the difficulty of this time. The congregation is undergoing a transition the likes of which it has never known. It has changed hands from an English-speaking council to a Spanish-speaking one; from the leadership of an ordained and installed teaching elder, a male turned female, to the leadership of a man and a woman, two ruling elders commissioned by the Presbytery to carry out the same role that a long succession of previous pastors had filled. The congregation will become a base for mission to the Latino community in a wide area, with a continuing presence among non-Latino peoples. These changes did not take place smoothly. There was turmoil and unhappy feelings. There was, and perhaps still is, fear.

 “They had rowed three or four miles when they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming towards the boat. They were afraid, but he said, ‘I am. Don’t be afraid.’” Jesus’ words, “I am,” here at the center of this gospel, John sprinkles throughout his gospel: seven times without a predicate, just, “I am,” and seven times with a predicate, like, “I am the Bread of Life.” Each time they identify Jesus with the “I am” of YHWH, the God of Israel, who is one: with no rival, no second. The message today is: God is with you—in your midst—if you continue to cling to the Gospel of Jesus.

“Don’t be afraid,” he says. They took Jesus into the boat, and when they did, they reached the shore to which they were headed. This is the congregation.

When the crowd found Jesus again, he was teaching in the synagogue. Jesus says to them, “Do not work for food that goes bad; work for food that endures for eternal life.” Then he said, “It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, it is my Father who gives you the bread from heaven, the true bread; for the bread of God is the bread which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world: I am the bread of life.”

This is how the church lives. We cross the wilderness of Sinai by living on the Bread of Life, the Lord Jesus himself, who is given to us in the Gospel. The community needs to marinate itself in him, not Christianity, not the commandments, not anything else, but in Jesus, and then it will become people who can feed the hungry of the world, including those who come to Ridgefield Park from foreign lands.

Let’s return to miracle of the loaves. Here’s this crowd of five thousand. Jesus asks Philip, “Where can we buy some bread for these people to eat?” How are we going to feed them? Philip realizes it can’t be done. If we don’t understand this, if we still have faith in our strategies, we have not come far. Like the small boy, all we have is five barley loaves and two fish. Our resources are limited. “But what is that among so many?”

Jesus “took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were sitting there; he did the same with the fish, distributing as much as they wanted.” There was enough for everyone with lots left over. If we feed the people with ourselves there will be hunger. If we feed them Jesus there will always be enough, more than can satisfy.

This congregation never needed me. It only needs Jesus. Jesus is here, in the Scriptures, just waiting for you to open them up, and invite him out and into your lives. Do not be afraid. Jesus has been behind you; he is with you now; he will go before you.

“Obey your leaders and give way to them,”—”____ and ____, the congregational council, the Committee on Ministry—“they watch over your souls because they must give an account of them; make this a joy for them to do, and not a grief—or you would be the losers” (Hebrew 13:17).

I will pray for you when I am gone. I ask you to pray for me and my family.

Now I give you my benediction: “Rejoice, siblings, be perfected, be comforted, think the same thing, be at peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

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