Shrinking the Crowd, Pastor Kinsey
Today we reach the conclusion of John’s discourse on Jesus as the Bread of Life. We’ve now read through the entire 6th chapter of John in the last five weeks. Next week it’s back to Mark’s gospel.
This 5 week journey of the Bread of Life all began when, John, the master story teller, recalls his account of the Feeding of the 5,000 for us – one of the few stories that’s common to all 4 gospel writers. It’s also the story this assembly chose, a few years back, to express our congregation’s Vision. And it’s where the phrase – that all may be fed, as Jesus feeds us – comes from!
Some of you may know, or even have visited, the church of Multiplication on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, that marks the spot where pilgrims and tourists can commemorate the Feeding of the 5,000. It’s on a beautiful grassy hillside, just such a place, as the gospels describe! Inside the church is the original floor mosaic of the fishes and loaves from a 5th century church built there, before being destroyed a century later. No one knows for sure if the claim of Egiria, the 4th century pilgrim from Spain, is true, that this is the spot of the Feeding of the 5,000, but certainly the tradition, and the popularity of the story in the gospels, speaks to the importance of this feeding story, to followers of Jesus ever since.
In the 3 Synoptic gospels – they all tell the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 and then move on, letting the account stand by itself. But, as the writer of the gospel of John is so good at doing, he spins out the deeper meaning of the feeding, in his own well-polished Greek – just as he does with the Woman at the Well story, and the Raising of Lazarus story – creating a multi-layered meaning to who Jesus is, as the Bread of Life.
One of the more curious layers of meaning, I think, is the reaction of the crowds, to John’s discourse on Jesus as the Bread of Life. By the end, in our reading today, the crowds have all but disappeared, in John’s telling of it – the 5,000 have abandoned Jesus, leaving only the committed, but equally bewildered, 12 disciples, remaining. Lutheran scholar, Paul Nuechterlein calls this, the Great Shrinking of a Crowd, story! As Jesus teaches about who he is, he offends 4,988 people! That’s 99.75% of the crowd!
So, how does this happen? And why?
Part of it is the language John uses. If you are put-off when Jesus says, ‘those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,’ or if you take offense at, ‘whoever eats me will live,’ you’re not alone! There’s no doubt that the first hearers of John’s gospel would have been scandalized by this language too. All the more so, because in the original Greek, the words John uses are not the words for you and I eating a meal together, but different and distinct words used for how ‘animals eat’ in a loud and obnoxious way. If you know German, it’s sort of like the difference between, essen and fressen. Jesus is trying to shock the crowds into seeing and accepting him for who he truly is, and not as they want to see him – a very common and persistent theme throughout John.
And this theme is also evident in the layer of the story of Jesus as the Bread of Life, when he debates with the crowds about what the manna is, that Moses gave to the Israelites when they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.
Jesus teases them, throughout chapter 6, that they’re only following him, because of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, and that they had their fill of food. They’re following, basically, for the free meal. But, who doesn’t want a free lunch? Or seriously need a helping hand, from family, or Care for Real, from time to time?!
Jesus insists that the bread he offers is not like the manna in the wilderness that the people ate and they died. But the bread Jesus gives is the true bread from heaven, and whoever eats of it will live forever. Also, that his flesh is bread for the life of the world!
So Jesus is not just another Moses, as great as he was. And here, I think that John’s interpretation of Moses seems a little unfair. But that’s another story for another time.
But there is this, other layer of Jesus as the Bread of Life, where he distinguishes himself from being just a kingly leader, like Moses or, especially David. And the way he makes that distinction with the crowds is definitely another reason why they abandoned him. Jesus is not a leader that was willing to sacrifice others, either in war, or in scapegoating the poor and the sick, in order to elevate himself, or mount an “us against them” battle for building an identity as the people’s leader, and as God’s anointed. Jesus has learned from the long line of Israel’s, and every other nations’, flawed kingly rulers. Earlier this summer we read Samuel’s account of God’s warning against raising up a king in Israel, just before David is anointed king.
So Jesus is serious about himself as the Bread of Life for us, that is, a free gift of love and grace, that offers a new way of life and salvation. Here in chapter 6, it is, a negative example, if you will. One that challenges the misperceptions we have about the all-powerful leaders we desire to come and save us, no matter who they sacrifice along the way, but which are always the defenseless and weakest.
Later, at the Last Supper, Jesus will offer himself as a positive example, of how to live a life of self-sacrifice, one that doesn’t give up the integrity of Self, but that is strong enough to give life to the world. Instead of putting on the armor of a king, Jesus will take off his outer robes and get down on his hands and knees and wash his Disciples feet, as a sign of how true leaders, must serve God’s world.
But here in chapter 6, after the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 from 2 fish and 5 loaves, Jesus performs the great Shrinking of a Crowd! Jesus does not come to perform miracles to razzle-dazzle, and become God’s Messiah, like earthly kings, but is a servant-leader, come to save and heal the whole world. Someone once summarized John’s message as, the good news will set you free, but first it will make you miserable! Jesus is a stumbling block to our human desire for success through power – offering the power of love as the true gift of God for the life of the world.
We are not wrong, of course, to think of the Feeding of the 5,000 as a sign of our Sacrament of Holy Communion. The symbol of food enough for all, freely given by our Savior, the Anointed Child of God, is a beautiful picture of that part of Communion we share each week. We are only human, and filling our bellies is a daily struggle, and an important one to share with our siblings in the faith and all our neighbors.
But Jesus also tells us today, in his final words in chapter 6, that “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life…” which was the last straw that alienated all but ¼ of 1% of the 5,000, leaving just his 12 disciples!
This ‘spirit and flesh’ is the polarity, and the conundrum, of the Incarnation, that Jesus is for us – fully human and fully divine. He comes to reveal to us, who the true God is, which in turn opens our eyes to what our true humanity is.
We live by the Word and truth of God’s love, which have been incarnated for us in the servant-leadership of Jesus, the Son of Man, and Rabbi-teacher, who washes his students’ weary feet – and who goes to the cross to make plain the violence of revenge we have all lived with, to expose it as utterly useless and destructive – unable to provide a foundation for our ‘life together’ (as Bonhoeffer liked to say) in our communities and families, in our institutions and nations.
Chew loudly on my flesh, says Jesus – so that you may digest this truth: I have come to offer you the gift of life, God’s love and grace, which alone is strong enough, and non-violent enough, to cement and provide a foundation for, your communities, and your congregations, and your nations.
Whenever we eat the Bread of Life at Communion, we have a taste of this free gift of life, given and shed for you. So, Come let us eat, for now the feast is spread!