“Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world. When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone.”
We continue our study of the Fourth Gospel. Chapter Six of John begins with the words, “After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee…” which means after he healed the cripple man by the Pool of Bethesda and after he preached to the Masters of Israel in the Temple — those who went after him for healing the cripple man on the sabbath;” after which he left Jerusalem with his small band of disciples and “went over to the Sea of Galilee” which is about 75 miles. Chapter 6 is a big chapter in many ways. With 71 verses, it is the longest chapter in the Gospel and it covers a wide-ranging piece of geography beginning with the miraculous feeding of 5,000 mostly Galilean Jews at the foot of a mountain; which is followed up with Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee which miracle was not public; and then across that body of water onto a synagogue in Capernaum.
This is what happened. John tells us that Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee to the side opposite Capernaum and that a crowd of about 5,000 followed him because they saw his miracles. All four Gospels contain this narrative albeit with a mix of different details that come to us by way of several eyewitnesses. Thus John’s observation that the grass was flourishing coincides with the nearness of the Passover, just as Mark’s notation in his Gospel that the grass was green identifies the specific time of year. But one point that I am making is that the Gospels are not the works of skilled artists using details like an MFA writing graduate would for the sake of verisimilitude; rather the Gospel writers are eyewitnesses or they have consulted eyewitnesses in order to present to the Church what actually happened. But bear in mind only the Beloved Disciple makes it a priority to set the event within the context of the Passover. The Passover which recalls the historic occasion of Israel’s liberation from bondage, gives meaning to this historic event in the life of Jesus and his disciples. Furthermore, Jesus’ sermon in the Synagogue in Capernaum, which is the Lion’s share of chapter 6, opens up the great spiritual significance of the Feeding of the Multitude which is that our Lord Jesus intended to offer up his flesh for the life of the world and the manner in which real life, God’s eternal life, would be appropriated, made real for his disciples, would be by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. What, after all, is central to the Passover? The Paschal Lamb. And what happens to a Paschal Lamb? It is eaten. Thus the Feeding of the Multitude when the Passover was at hand is the foreshadowing of the institution of the Holy Communion of his body and blood, on the night in which he was betrayed, when the Passover was at hand.
Now, back at the foot of the mountain, John tells us that Jesus saw all these people coming and he wanted to provide food for them. After asking some leading questions to his disciples he finally had everyone make use of all that grass by sitting down. He then took five barley loaves and two small fishes that a little boy had given him and he proceeded to multiply the food — passing it on to his disciples who in turn passed it on to the people sitting in the grass, who ate until they had eaten all they wanted. Afterward Jesus had his disciples gather up the fragments that filled twelve baskets. There have always been unbelievers who dismiss miracles like the feeding of the five thousand or turning water into wine. Their unbelief seldom rises from concentrated thought or reasoning, but generally it is a knee jerk bias against the idea of any reality beyond the material creation. I realize this is becoming a big yawn by now, but their prejudice has its origin in Enlightenment Rationalism which assumptions have become the cherished little darling of the Academy. It is an astonishing thing to see a professor of English or even Religious Studies tacitly defend the presuppositions of crude materialism which undermines his own discipline, but such is the strength of that bias today. Their they consider their own prejudices, their own presuppositions to be beyond scrutiny because they believe them to be self-evident. The prejudices and blind spots of Francis Bacon, or Hume, or Daniel Dennett or most Hollywood actors, are actually taken for intellectual sophistication as over against the ancient, primitive blindness that afflicts the followers of Jesus Christ. Belief in the miraculous, so say the materialistic priests of our day say, is the pathetic delusion of pre-modern, non-Europeans, which “reasonable” people have nothing to do with. But I submit to you that it is unexamined bias of our high and mighty Western culture that is out of touch with reality: presuppositions against miracles in the Academy or anywhere else today is most of the time a hangover from the age of Deism and its unimaginative mechanistic world view. It is prejudicial, unproven, and outdated. The truly modern, or the so-called post-modern understanding of reality, rightly sees this academic obsession as culturally conditioned, historically relative, and in no way absolute. It seems that the anti-supernatural iceberg is beginning to feeling the heat. You may rightly ask, “Is that all there is? Is that all there is to their unbelief?” Yes, that’s all there is. So don’t let them push your around! That iceberg of naive empiricism is slowly and surely sinking into oblivion once again. I say, “once again,” because returning to our text, we discover in the Feeding of the Multitude, a similar lack imagination and unwillingness to see beyond the merely natural and literal. The problem is that naive empiricism shows up in the New Testament — very weirdly — not in persons who dispute the miracles of Jesus, but in persons who draw all the wrong conclusions about it. They are still stuck in materialism. The problem with these naive and unimaginative materialists is that they take matter, the material of creation, to have a life of its own, in and of itself, a “natural” end, a “natural” finality apart from the supernatural life of the God who is God. Look how the story ends after they have filled their bellies:
“This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world. When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone.”
Why were they about to take Jesus by force and make him the King of Israel? Because Jesus from their point of view may have well magically produced all the food they wanted. After they followed him to synagogue in Capernaum Jesus spoke plainly about their pathetic vision of life:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life…”
But they were only interested in the food that they will eat today and the next day and the next day. They are literalists — tedious, monotonous and dreary like so many others we have seen in the Gospel of John. So over toward the end of Chapter six when Jesus began to teach all these people who had followed him to Capernaum, he told them to seek the food that provides eternal life. And then they said to Jesus:
“What must we do to do the works of God?”
“This is the work of God – believe in him whom God has sent.” In other words, “Believe in me, Jesus the Messiah, whom the Father has sent.”
That is what he had said to Nicodemus:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony…Whoever believes in him (Jesus) is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already…”
That is what he said to Masters of Israel in Jerusalem after he had healed the cripple man:
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life… I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me.”
And they responded to him in the synagogue in Capernaum and remember this is after he had fed 5000 at one time:
“Then what sign do you do that we may see, and believe you? God fed our fathers in the wilderness with manna. Do that! Let us see manna raining down from heaven like Moses gave us.”
With cynicism like that these folk would have a promising career in American politics. Their naive literalism is matched only by their self-interest. “Dear Jesus I know it been a while since we what have you done for me lately?” The reality is that they are clinging to death. They do not want to really see Jesus and believe in Jesus. They want king, a political messiah who will bring not only liberation from Rome, but liberation from labor. They do not care about liberation from their sins and the beauty of the Kingdom of God.
But we only have one Jesus and he is certainly not an earthly king:
“Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness and they are all dead. And Moses did not give even that bread – my Father did that. But now the Father has given the Bread of Heaven for the life of the world.”
They all cry out:
“Lord, give us this bread, always!”
Then Jesus said:
“I am the bread of life… I have come down from heaven to do my Father’s will. And the Father’s will is that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him will have eternal life.”
And then the Galilean Jews who flocked to Jesus at the foot of the mountain, turn out, like Nicodemus, and like the Rulers of Israel in Jerusalem to reject the Son and the Father. The Bible says that the Galilean, many of whom were Jesus’ disciples, started grumbling to one another:
“Hey wait a minute! Isn’t this the son of the carpenter? We know his mother! And now he says he came down from heaven! He says he is the Bread of Heaven sent down from God!”
Then Jesus said:
“Unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood there is no life in you! My flesh is true food. My blood is true drink. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.”
Not only those who were hoping Jesus would raise an army, but most of his disciples turned out to be naive materialists and they left. And that is when Jesus said something that seems to have contradicted everything he had saying:
“The flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”
This is what we will pick up next Sunday. This is the mystery we have to explore: God created flesh capable of participating in divinity and when flesh participates in the life of the God who is God it is not transitory, but eternal, by the power of God. It never withers, it never dies. It is always maturing, ripening and blossoming. We belong to Jesus not the worms. But naive materialists who treat flesh as though that is all there is, as though it has life and reality in itself apart from God are already perishing, already crumbling to a remorseful finality.