I’m going to try and keep you awake during this sermon. So, if you hear me say: ‘bread from heaven’ you reply: ‘feed me now and evermore’. You get bonus points if you sing the response.
Have you ever tried the 3-cracker challenge? The challenge is to eat as many cream crackers as you can in a minute without the help of a drink. Might sound easy but it isn’t. Your mouth very quickly becomes completely dry and most people don’t get past 3 crackers. We’ll come back to the challenge later!
Moses and Elisha
The story in our reading today appears in all 4 Gospels. So, that makes it both unusual and important if all 4 writers thought it worthy of inclusion. And you’ll have heard countless sermons on it. Maybe they were about the comparison between what Jesus does here and what Elisha does in 2 Kings (4:42-44) or with Moses and the manna (Exodus 4:1-17).
Or how we might be seeing a foreshadowing of the Eucharist here, with Jesus’ blessing and sharing the bread. And then in the verses that follow how he explains that the miracle was symbolic since he himself was the bread of life and that it is God who gives the true bread from heaven.
Perhaps the focus was on the walking on water at the end. That whilst many translations have Jesus say: “It is I” it can equally be translated as Jesus saying: “I am”. Jesus using the same words to describe himself as God used to Moses at the Burning Bush.
Philip or Andrew?
But I’m not going to dwell on those. Instead, I want to briefly look at a number of other snippets or vignettes from today’s story which should leave us with some questions for us here now, today.
Firstly, are you a Philip or an Andrew? Jesus, probably with a twinkle in his eye, asks local lad Philip where they were going to buy food for everyone. Philip doesn’t answer the question. Instead, he looks around at the thousands of people and points out that they don’t have the resources. Andrew doesn’t answer the question either but instead brings forward the lad with his packed lunch. Even though Andrew asks ‘what are these amongst so many’ he still had the gumption to bring the lad forward. He could have just dismissed the food as being so insignificant it wasn’t worth the mention. But he didn’t.
I wonder what question God is asking of us in our home churches or in our own particular circumstances and how we’re responding? Do we just get stumped by the impossibility of the situation and give up before we start? Or do we think there might be a possibility in even the smallest piece of hope? That something might be made of it. That, once we agree with God and join-in, God can do amazing things with what we have. So, which are you? Philip or Andrew?
On the back row
The next thing I noticed was that both the young lad in the Gospel and the man who brought bread to Elisha in 2 Kings are not named. But without their contributions the miracles wouldn’t have happened. Every church or community will have characters who are up-front and get all the attention – but how many miracles happen because of the contributions of those who remain quietly in the background? Perhaps sometimes we need to turn round and notice those who sit at the back as well as the front.
Bread from heaven
Dried fish and coarse bread
Then John’s Gospel has a particular detail that isn’t in any of the others. The loaves that the lad brings are barley loaves. Barley loaves were what the poorest people ate, little better than animal feed. The Roman army even had a punishment which was for the soldier to be given barley rations instead of wheat rations.
And while the other Gospels use the Greek word ichthus for the fish, John uses opsarion, meaning fish which is salted and dried. So, the lunch was salted and dried fish together with the coarsest of bread – which reminded me of the 3-cracker challenge…
On the face of it what we have – our skills, abilities, resources – might seem not just meagre but poor, dry and unappetising too. But we should offer it up and let it be used by God just the same. Who knows how many hundreds or thousands it could touch – with enough to spare at the end?
More than enough
And talking of leftovers, there is more than just a certain tidiness going on here don’t you think? They pick up all that’s left after the people have had their fill and it fills 12 baskets. Did it go the poor in the local village who weren’t there with them or did the crowd get to take some home? Like the Hebrew laws allowing gleaning from the harvest in the fields, perhaps we see an early picture here of what’s happening today with surplus food from supermarkets being distributed to those suffering from food poverty rather than it being thrown away.
But if the bread given that day is symbolic of Jesus as the bread of life, as the bread from heaven, then how are we to interpret these leftover baskets? Do we learn that there’s more than enough of Jesus to go around? That nothing of him is wasted? Maybe that he doesn’t want to lose hold of what is broken and in pieces? Perhaps something to think about and draw your own conclusions?
The miracle happens, and the crowd see it as a sign of The Prophet – a prophet who should be made King and lead them out from oppression. We’re told this was Passover. All those who could, would be in Jerusalem now. Was this an opportunity for the thousands who couldn’t afford the time or money to get there to not just have a rival event but a rival ruler?
This was not what Jesus wanted. In response, verse 17 says that Jesus withdrew, departed to the mountains to be alone. Some scholars think the word is stronger than withdrew – it should be translated as ‘fled’. That Jesus fled to the mountain. Perhaps not an image we’re comfortable with? But it does seem that he left quickly without explanation. The disciples waited awhile for him to return and then took the initiative and cast-off from shore.
Invite him in
So, we come to the end, where the bread of heaven risks getting soggy and walks on water. It’s another storm and another boat. The other 3 Gospels show this from Jesus’ perspective: from the hills Jesus sees the disciples struggling on the lake and he comes to them. But in John, we’re placed in the boat with the disciples. Jesus had made himself scarce, so they’d taken to the water. It’s dark and it’s stormy and they’re terrified but they want Jesus in the boat with them. He waits to be invited. And once they did it was as if they immediately got to where they were going – once he was there with them.
Doesn’t that make you think about the last 18 months? Each in our little boats being buffeted around and scared – sensing Jesus was close by but wanting him in there with us? But we need to invite him in because he won’t force his way in unasked. Have you invited him in?
Someone once pointed out that when you’re rowing a boat you’re not looking where you’re going, you’re looking at where you’ve come from. Perhaps we need to remember that? The past is just a reference point. It’s useful for determining your direction. But at best it just shows where you’ve been, not where you’re going. Your destination is somewhere else. However, you need someone else in the boat looking forward to tell you exactly where that is.
So, invite Jesus in to look forward, to take you safely to the other side – wherever that may be! Amen
“Bread from heaven” was delivered by Ian Banks at Four Lane Ends Congregational church on the afternoon of Sunday 25th July 2021. It was based on John 6:1-21.
Other resources used in the service: