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Whose boat are you in?

Australian Suburbia

Week of Sunday 5 August - Pentecost 10
John 6:24-35

22 The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the lake saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.* 24So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ 26Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’28Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ 29Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ 30So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’32Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which* comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ 34They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’

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.

There is an unsung miracle just before this week’s text, in the couple of verses the lectionary omits. Enough boats for 5,000 people came from Tiberias and carried that crowd that ‘kept following’ (6:2) Jesus, back across the lake! If we insist on reading the chapter literally, what do we get? An impossible feeding, an impossible feat of transport, and maybe a discussion about why, on that particular day, a whole lot of boats just happened to come from a Roman city to transport Jewish people to listen to a bush prophet; no more or less foolish than suggestions about another miracle story that, really,  Jesus was walking on a sand bar or wading in the surf. (See Wikipedia for references to Taylor et al)

To focus on whether it happened, or not, is to make a category mistake. I think the scholars who suggest such stories are “’creative symbolism’, or myth, which probably was understood by a part of the audience literally and by others allegorically,” are likely correct. But the happening, or not, is largely irrelevant.

John takes a story and loads and layers it with symbolism which teaches us something about Jesus. It invites us to “believe into” Jesus, as the Greek text has it. John could have made the same invitation using a story about Jesus meeting the Man in the Moon! The issue is not whether the Man in the moon is Real, or even how much John thought the Man in the moon was Real, or that Jesus met him, but whether what John taught us about Jesus in the story of the Man in the Moon, brings us closer into believing Jesus.

I’m making this almost overstatement because I could not help notice how on Sunday, although we delighted in a dialogue during the sermon time about the multiple Old Testament imagery in the feeding of the 5,000, people afterwards came to tell me they didn’t really believe it happened.

I remember being here. Much of the  beauty and power of John was hidden from me because I was caught up in modern concerns about literality. Truth is more, or has more vehicles, than literal happening.

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There is a great crowding together of loyalties in John 6. The chapter begins with the comment that the Sea of Galilee is also called the Sea of Tiberias, and notes that the action takes place near the time of the Passover of the Jews. (6:1,4) All the main players are on stage; Jesus, Galilee, the Romans, and the Jewish religious apparatus. The fact of Tiberias, and the boats from Tiberias, is not important. Tiberias is, instead, a device to get the sphere of Roman power and influence, into the story of the feeding of 5,000, and the subsequent meditation on bread. Rome is a competitor for our allegiance, as is the Passover. Will you choose them over Jesus, asks John?

John makes a very nasty allusion about the crowd which seeks to enthrone Jesus by force and then seeks only to fill its belly; it is in the same boat as the imperial power of Rome. (6:15,26)

We recognise a pattern with this crowd. In chapter 2, “during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.24But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them...” And then, immediately following, Nicodemus comes, by night; i.e. in the dark, and cannot understand what Jesus is talking about; how can a man who is old be born again? The crowd, says Bill Loader had “a kind of Nicodemus faith.” Bill makes a sharpish comment about all this:

They were like the crowds in 2:23-35. Their understanding and enjoyment of miracles gave them a kind of Nicodemus faith (see the link between 2:23-25 and 3:1-5) which could satisfy only at a superficial level and did not lead to real change, rebirth. Such religion was popular then as it is now, also among those who love to use the language of being ‘born again’.

Are Christians “who love using the language ‘born again,’” in the same boat as Rome!? Has a delight in the spectacular, an enjoyment of miracles, in some way “come near” to a misuse of power, to an allegiance which is not to God? The apparent correspondence between ‘born again’ theologies, and mega-churches, and political conservatism in my country is suggestive.

Verse23 is worth reflecting upon. The place where Jesus had given thanks-- eucharistesantos –has the boats from Tiberias lurking around, coming near the place. What lurks around the place of the Eucharist? What wrong power or bad allegiance will tempt us right at the place where Jesus himself feeds us?

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As an aside: Bill Loader begins his commentary this week in this fashion.

The Lectionary skips two verses, John 6:22-23, beginning today’s passage at 6:24. These two verses serve to enhance the drama of the preceding miracle by underlining that Jesus could not possibly have crossed the sea by boat. 6:23 then makes incidental mention of the place “where they ate bread, when the Lord had given thanks” (eucharistesantos), almost an allusion to the meal as Eucharist. The brief introduction leads to the question in 6:25: “Rabbi, when did you come here?”

Obviously, I think eucharistesantos is more than “almost an allusion!” What really interest me are Bill’s words “then makes incidental mention...” This is a characteristic of the gospels, and especially of John. Incidental mentions are a favourite literary device; e.g. “also called the Sea of Tiberias,” and “the Passover... was near...” To risk another overstatement, nothing is incidental in John. Everything is there for a reason. What seem, from our cultural perspective, to be incidental comments, are little flashing signs that will guide our insight into the text, if we pay attention.

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 The other allegiance set up by John to challenge this man who owns the Sea of Galilee and crosses it however he wills, is the Passover. Untroubled by the anti-Semitism we have in part justified from his writing, John clearly attacks those old allegiances of his faith in the Father God which go no further than Moses. The people effectively tell Jesus (6:31) that his miracle is no big deal; Moses did the same thing. What else can you show us? Who will be next month’s international speaker?

Here is the point: “Moses did not give you the bread from heaven. It is my Father who still gives you the true bread from heaven.” (32) And the bread which comes down heaven gives life to the world. Like the woman at the well, the people do not understand: Sir, give us this bread always. (‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ John 4:14) They say the right words; give us this bread always, but do not truly know what they mean.

I am the bread of life, Jesus replies. And the name of God is there: ego eimi; I, I am. We are linked right back to chapter four in the intricate tapestry that is John’s gospel; whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (4:14) Because I am.

In my comments so far, I have emphasised allegiance and understanding. John has the two linked together.  Our deeper understanding of Jesus and his signs pointing something to deeper; to the love and life given by God, is only truly understanding when we make a choice of allegiance. We only understand when we stand under; a bad pun, but true. If we do not understand fully we will have an allegiance elsewhere, to the powers of the day, or perhaps to an old somewhat superseded tradition.

I said last week, that in saying I am, John is telling us Jesus is in-some-sense-God. To be free of the incessant hunger and thirst that keeps us coming back to an unsatisfying well, we need not only to understand. We need to commit, and to give up our other allegiances.

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. 

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