Signs for the Sick

Week of Sunday July 26 - Pentecost 9
Gospel: John 6:1-21

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.  2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 10Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going… 6:35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Five thousand people fed? We need to get this story right, because otherwise we are promoting a God who is an arbitrary monster, or we are talking plain stupidity. The world would be right to say, in utter disgust, "Go home— you're drunk! What sort of God can do this feeding miracle, but then leaves the world suffering lack of food for millennia?" (Which is not to mention all the other things such a God could fix!)

Bill Loader's First Thoughts tells us that the Gospel of Mark

has developed the symbolism of bread to represent the gospel and to celebrate that this good news is both for Israel (5000) and for the Gentiles (4000) … The framers of the Lectionary take us away from Mark just when we might expect Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5000 and switch us to John[, but this] is not altogether inappropriate because John has developed the symbol of bread even further, to the point where Jesus himself becomes the bread…  As the healing of the blind man in John 9 points to Jesus as the light of the world (‘I am the light of the world’) and the raising of Lazarus in John 11 points to Jesus as the resurrection and the life (‘I am the resurrection and the life’), so here: Jesus declares, ‘I am the bread of life’ (6:35)… [It all builds to the message that in] effect, to relate to Jesus is to relate to God.

His succinct outline gives us a way into understanding the story, and I recommend reading his full post. But, as he says,

For many who are sensitive to world poverty and disaster the images of multiplying food or walking on water are painfully unreal, almost a cruel fantasy.

If we don't deal with this issue, it will not matter how erudite our theology, we will simply be a drunk muttering to ourselves. And we may one day wake up with a massive hangover of reality as our imagining of God comes crashing down. That day when suffering smashes into our lives in a way we can no longer ignore with words about faith, because it is in our house rather than down the street, or far distant in a concentration camp.

In this post, I want to sketch out how I will read the text— how to "get it right—" before beginning. I want to be clear about the presuppositions I might bring to the text.

I come to the text with three premises which I will sketch out with work from people who are waypoints for my finding a credible theology.

The first premise is that we live in a world where our material existence is not the totality of existence. There is more than us. We live within the realm of spirit. We are not autonomous. We are not our own selves who can make decisions with impunity. Spirit puts boundaries around us— it is our reality. Healthy living as individuals, and as a culture, means paying attention to spirit.

Within this, the Gospel of John is a work which seeks to speak to us about spirit. The stories are about how we relate to spirit. They are symbolic. They point us to spirit. Building on Bill's words: to relate to Jesus is to relate to spirit. "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:24)

The second premise is that God's power is a weak force: the "weak force of God," the force of "love." And in so far as love abides and rules then the kingdom of God is instantiated. Christ is made "King" and "Lord." (This is Richard Beck, reflecting on John Caputo.) Here are more of his reflections quoted my own website:

Weakness is all

that is to be said about the power of God in the world. God's power is weakness. Straight up. There is no Big Power sitting behind the weakness of the cross backing it up with a reservoir of force. The weakness of God exhausts the meaning of what it means to say God is "powerful." Beck

God is the source of good and its warrant. That is the stamp or the seal that God puts on creation; that is God's covenant with us. But God is not the power supply for everything that happens… says Caputo.

Beck concludes 

... in his book The Weakness of God Caputo rejects [the God of strong power.] Beyond the cross there isn't a reservoir of awesome force. The power of God just is the weakness of the cross. The cross exhausts what we mean by "the power of God," with no remainder. As Bonhoeffer says, God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which God is with us and helps us. 

We need this to be true. If this is not true, then God is a monster which willingly allows horror to envelope and annihilate people, and God is a monster who thinks the means justify the ends. Either we rethink power, or we rethink goodness.

On this reasoning, our faith; that is, our trust in God, is that living the life-sacrificing love which Jesus shows us, is the power which will bring the world to fulfilment. Unlike a knee-jerk reaction which might respond that affirming the weakness of God is a lack of faith, I think this is real trust. It is a trust which is not guaranteed by some "Big Power sitting behind the weakness of the cross backing it up with a reservoir of force." It is also a statement that we are co-creators of the Kingdom of God. It makes us key players instead of beings whose role seems largely only to be rescued. And it makes us incredibly vulnerable.

In this position of weakness, where is the miracle? Where is the offense to common sense and the possible, which is the essence of what a miracle is popularly thought to be? I think the miracle is far greater than the allusions to Jews (5000) and Gentiles (4000), and a feeding for all people, although all that is clearly intended by the text. It is indeed a looking forward to a final feast of celebration when the world is fulfilled. And, in John, it is a sign that Jesus is himself the bread and that " to relate to Jesus is to relate to God." (See here and here for more detail on this, as well as Bill Loader's post.)

But the real miracle is the claim that in a world which every instinct tells us is a world of scarcity, God is a God of plenty, and offers this plenty to the world.

Paul Nuechterlein says this better than I can. He says of 'Girardian anthropology,'

The mimetic nature of desire leads us to desire the same objects -- which therefore seem scarce, even when they are not. When two children fight over the same teddy bear in the nursery, that bear seems scarce even if there are a dozen others just like it. Thus, the gods of the Sacred are gods who rule over scarcity, doling out who gets the blessings and who gets cursed. Jesus invites us to know another God, the God who gives life abundantly.

… Which is the god of capitalism, a god of scarcity or abundance? In our later forms of capitalism, after generations of mass production have flooded the markets with an incredible abundance of goods, it sounds silly to say that capitalism is based on scarcity. But original capitalist theory has as one of its basic tenets that there is a scarcity of goods and resources which must thus be fairly distributed by the mechanisms of the market. I went to a three day seminar on economics several years, taught by a Ph.D. economist, and he began with the tenet regarding scarcity as his first principal. I resisted him, and he became extremely frustrated because scarcity seems patently obvious to him. He couldn't imagine another starting point. Everything was messed up if one actually assumed that God created enough for everyone.

So am I simply saying that the old "little boy shared his lunch so everybody else did" explaining away of the miracle is correct? No. I think Bill Loader is correct.

A slavish commitment to taking everything the writers say as gospel and yet also acknowledging the problems has led some to imagine that the gospel writers were not really reporting a miracle, but, for eyes that can see, really only a large shared lunch. Our integrity suffers when we try to explain away the text like that, however profound our intentions. (Loader)

There is a miracle in the story. God is a God of abundance. "There is enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment necessary for a healthy and productive life." "The world produces 17% more food per person today than 30 years ago." The problem is us. In our lack of trust in God, we compete rather than share. We westerners have codified this lack of trust in a capitalist system which makes scarcity as its basic tenet of faith.

My third premise concerns our fear of death. Christopher Hitchens thought religion poisoned everything, but I think our fear of death poisons everything.

We live with a fear of scarcity because we are finite beings. We have evolved as creatures who know what it is to starve, and are creatures which, at the animal level, will do anything to survive. We fear dying.

And that's the problem with the "little boy shared his lunch so everybody else did" explaining away of the story of the feeding of the five thousand. It misses where the miracle is located. It reduces the story to a platitude about sharing.

Richard Beck quotes Arthur McGill.

 [The love which is proclaimed in many churches] carefully disregards the outcome of love. These churches speak of love as helping others, but they ignore what helping others does to the person who loves. They ignore the fact that love is self-expenditure, a real expending, a real losing, a real deterioration of the self. 

…Too often in our churches we hear the gospel of love without the gospel of need. Too often we hear the lie that to love is to help others without this help having any effect upon ourselves.

Beck considers "that our fear of death is the greatest obstacle to love." It is the greatest obstacle to our finding that the world is a world of plenty. Like Beck, I am challenged by people about this fear of death. His answer to this is compelling.

… we also struggle with basic anxiety--worries about physical survival--even in affluent parts of the world. True, we don't worry about being killed. But we do worry about becoming depleted, exhausted and used up. It's hard to make room for others in our lives because we have no margin. We feel that if we "add one more thing" to an "already full plate" we'll be pushed too far, pushed over the edge.

And these worries, if you ponder it, are expressions of death anxiety. We are worried that we don't have the resources to carry on or forward. And that fear--a depletion of vital resources like time and energy--is rooted in survival concerns.

And these fears, I contend, undermine our ability to love. We don't love freely or fully because we feel we'll be used up and depleted.

I bet you've experienced this fear. For example, if you've ever felt called to share your possessions with those in need you quickly encounter the basic anxieties associated with self-preservation and survival…  you might claim that you don't fear death, but once you start loving others you'll quickly find out that you do… And second, love is very much about our ability to transcend that fear.

The end result of Jesus' loving was his death. If he had loved less, and given less, they would have left him alone.

So who, and what, will I trust when I read this text?

Will I trust the reality of spirit, or just make the best of my short material being?
Will I trust that the defining essence of spirit is generosity and plenty, rather than scarcity and malevolence?
Will I trust that the way of love, weak power as it seems, is the way to fulfilment— or will I seek only to preserve the limited being I am now?

Indeed, will I trust that God who is spirit is even plentiful in forgiveness, and will not condemn me for my little trust?

Or will I tell a story of a God of power, who literally walks on water, but chooses not to heal the sick and feed the hungry with that same power? This would not be faith. This would be an un-merciful ideology where I sought to impose upon the world a manufactured reality so that I could feel safe. And it would be the deepest insult to those who suffer. For my "gospel" to them would say, "Your suffering does not matter. All that matters is that I stay safe in my undisturbed tradition."

Tell me yourself, I challenge you— answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and  rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture  to death one tiny creature-that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance— and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect of those conditions… And can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy forever? The Brothers Karamazov pp269 (Also quoted here.)

And now,

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.  2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick…..

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.