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Text: John 6: 1 – 21
I wanna give you a bit of a peek behind the sermon writing process. Well, one of the ways, anyway. You can have lots of different “forms” of a sermon, ways to get the message across. But the quick and easy one I usually fall back on is the one my homiletics professor at Emmanuel College, Scott Wilson, taught, one he came up with, which is the four page sermon. Like you have three-paragraph essays, you have four pages of a sermon (these are metaphorical pages, mind you, but it also keeps you to a reasonable length).
Page one, you talk about the trouble in the text; what’s going wrong, what’s the matter with everyone or with the situation? Page two, you draw a comparison between what seems to be going wrong in the text and what’s going wrong in our world. Page three, you talk about God’s grace; God does something to turn the trouble around in the text and make it better. Page four, you talk about what God is doing to turn around that same trouble in the world and how we can be a part of it. Through all of this, you have a theme statement—God does something good—a pastoral need you’re addressing—some anxiety or spiritual need in your congregation—and a mission—something for the people listening to go out and do. Fill in the blanks and you have an easy-write sermon, which is useful when you have to write these every single week.
This story, the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, is kind of the perfect example story for this kind of sermon, because it fits so neatly into the slots. The trouble in the story is that there wasn’t enough food for everyone to eat. The trouble in our world is that we think there isn’t enough for everyone, that we would like to help but it seems we don’t have the resources to tackle huge problems like hunger or climate change or whatever. The grace in the text is that God takes what little there is and, through sharing, there is enough. The grace in our world is that, whatever little we have to offer, it will be enough. Our anxiety is not having enough for ourselves, the theme is that God provides, and the mission is to share our gifts and blessings and not hoard them. There, very simple, very straightforward sermon.
There, I don’t have to preach anymore. Go forth and serve the Lord. Amen.
But, that’s not all I have to say, and getting that out of the way can allow us to do a deeper dive into the themes of this story. If that’s all you need, the message that God will provide, then by all means take that and go out and be part of God’s providing to the world. Let the world experience God’s love through you.
It’s a good story. And it’s an important one. There’s only a handful of the stories of Jesus that appear in all four gospels. John’s gospel is different from the other three, and so if there’s a story that appears in John and Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we should pay attention.
John’s gospel is extremely, extremely symbolic. There is not one thing that Jesus says or does that doesn’t have deep resonance with something else in the Christian tradition. Here, there’s a parallel of the miracles of Jesus and the miracles of Moses (manna in the desert, crossing the Red sea), but Jesus’ miracles go a bit above and beyond. He doesn’t make bread appear magically; he makes it so just five loaves are enough. He doesn’t part the water to walk through it; he walks right on top of it. Jesus is even more fantastical and unbelievable than Moses.
Here also, is a parallel between Jesus taking a loaf, blessing it, and breaking it and giving it to his disciples, and another time when he blesses and breaks a loaf of bread and gives it to his disciples and says, “Take and eat.”
John’s Gospel doesn’t have the story of the first communion, the “institution narrative,” as it’s called. Why not? Did the Johannine Christian community just not have the Eucharist as one of its rites? No, because communion language is diffused throughout the Gospel; the Gospel overflows with Eucharistic imagery. “I am the Bread of Life,” says Jesus. And here, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, and breaks it.
The writer of John wants us to hear that imagery and imagine ourselves as being out there among the crowd, vast numbers of people, more than any amount of bread or fish could feed. Whenever we take communion, whenever we feel ourselves blessed by God, we are sitting there, and somehow, the grace we receive is enough, as long as we pass it on.
And that is the core of the story. It isn’t just Jesus who makes the bread and fish be enough; it is in the sharing, in the passing from one to another. So it is with God’s love. In loving, we are loved. In forgiving, we are forgiven. In giving, we receive. In caring, we are cared for. In opening our hearts, we are welcomed.
If we do not love, we will not be loved. If we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. If we do not give, we will not receive. If we try to pull ladders up after ourselves, if we try to close doors behind us so we’re the last ones through, that’s where the anxiety of not having enough comes from.
Unfortunately, we see this far too often, in ourselves and in our society. “I’ve got mine, so forget about you.” People from one minority that has historically been oppressed will hate another, in the hopes that the majority will accept them. People who have received financial help from charity or the government will say that others who rely on those things are just lazy. Christians, who know they are not perfect but believe that God loves and forgives them anyway, will judge others.
We think that there isn’t enough of God’s love to go around, so we try to hoard it. And by hoarding it, that’s how we make it so that doesn’t seem to be enough.
And saying to God, “Well, if you provide for me, then I will give to others” or “I will only give back what others have given to me, to make it fair,” it won’t work, because it ignores the way that Her love works. God created us in love; He is love. Therefore, we can only be connected to Them through love. The only way for you to actually experience God’s love is to love another with that same unconditional love.
I believe that. Faith, hope, and love and the greatest is love. That’s because love gets you closer to God than any church, than any prayer. No religion, no ritual, no amount of reading your Bible is a substitute for love.
That’s why I dislike looking at Christianity as self-help, that believing in God is just a way of calming anxieties. “Shouldn’t religion help calm people’s fears? Shouldn’t religion be a place to spiritually uplifted?” Only if it is through love. If you’re hear simply to hear an uplifting message that God loves you unconditionally, but without a command to “go and do likewise,” find another church. You have to go out and represent that unconditional love if you want to claim it for yourself.
You have to break bread, even when you feel like you don’t have enough. Because Christianity is not a spectator sport; you don’t get to read about these miracles without being a part of them. You are the athletes out there representing your country, to make a topical analogy. You’re not watching on TV and doing your part just by cheering.
What happened in the miracle is not that Jesus magicked more bread into existence; it wasn’t just Jesus doing the miracle. It was the people doing the same thing he did; breaking the bread and sharing. They were part of the miracle.
So, as a way of drawing this to a close and making some kind of conclusion: We have this second story tacked onto the end of the feeding story, another story that appears in all four gospels, but John puts right here: Jesus walking on water. On the surface (pun not intended), this seems like a simple demonstration of power. Jesus walks on water, this proves that he is the Son of God, therefore follow/worship him.
Which it may be in other tellings of the story, but of course John makes it symbolic. Jesus appears to the disciples, walking on water, and says, “Don’t be afraid; it’s only me.” But what Jesus says in the original Greek, appearing on the water is literally, “I am.” And in John’s gospel, any time Jesus says “I am,” it is really really important: “I am the bread of life,” “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” “I am the Good Shepherd.” There’s a really important part of chapter 8 where Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Anytime Jesus says “I am,” he connects himself with God when She tells Moses, “I am that I am” in the burning bush.
So Jesus appears and says, “I am.” Just simply, “I am.” I am the broken bread. I am the walking on water. I am the miracle itself. To follow me is to be a part of the miracle; to be the calm amidst the storm, to be the multiplication of the loaves and the sharing in God’s bounty.
We are, for we are the hands and feet of Christ in this world, as the Church, as Christians. Walking on water and breaking bread to share. This is the love of God made manifest, and we are a part of Her sacrament to all the people. Amen.