July 27, 1999
Wesley, Doncaster East
© John M. Connan
All Christians hold the Bible fundamental to their faith. Those within the Uniting Church who advocate the ordination of gays and lesbians living in long term right relationship base their belief on their interpretation of the Scripture. Those who are unutterably opposed to allowing homosexuals any position of leadership in the Church base their belief on their interpretation of the Scripture.
How come there can be such totally different readings of the same sacred Scripture?
There are at least two different ways of reading the Scripture and they can lead to very different understandings. One attempts to read just what’s there: the other attempts to discover meaning within what’s read. This means even within the one brief incident in Jesus’ life quite different understandings can emerge.
Is one wrong and the other right?
Yes! And no! It would be nice, if it was possible to give a simple answer – but it’s not that simple!
Let’s look at the two parts of our Gospel reading this morning.
The read-just-what is-there approach says there are two miracles in what we read this morning.
The first is the story of the feeding of the five thousand – a story so important to the early church that it appears in all four gospels.
John’s account is a little different from the other three. Though in this account John says the crowd followed because they’d seen Jesus work miracles, he doesn’t suggest that Jesus healed anyone or taught those who’d pursued him. It seems John wants to make another point. He alone says that Passover was near. It seems once again John is writing at two levels.
It’s as though he’s subtly suggesting parallels to the original Passover, Jesus is a new Moses leading a new exodus though the wilderness to the Promised Land. Just as the people needed to be fed then, so these people need to be fed now. Matthew, Mark and Luke say Jesus looks up to heaven, blesses and breaks the bread and fish, making what happened seem remarkably like the breaking of bread and sharing of wine at Jesus’ Last Supper. In their accounts the disciples distribute the food. John says Jesus merely took the bread and gave thanks – before he himself distributed it. His allusion to the Lord’s Supper is much more subtle – because his Gospel doesn’t include Jesus’ final meal with his disciples in the same way as the Synoptic Gospel-writers. He has other things in mind.
So here’s a story which is still miraculous, but points to the old Exodus and the new; which points to the old feeding of the People of Israel on their way through the wilderness to the Promised Land and the new feeding of God’s People on their way through their wilderness to the new Promised Land by Jesus himself. It’s still a story about the glory and power of God found in Jesus but for John the miraculous is always a sign pointing to layer upon layer of meanings to be found in the story of Jesus. And I’ve skipped over much more that could be said about that first story!
The second story is about Jesus coming walking across the water to the disciples, as they rowed across the lake.
Mark - in his terse way - merely has Jesus tell the terrified disciples that now he’s with them they have nothing to fear. The storm ceases and they’re utterly astounded.
Matthew provides more details. Jesus’ words are the same. But Matthew adds Peter trying to walk on water and finding that without Jesus’ help it doesn’t work! And the disciples’ reaction is not astonishment, so much as awed worship: “You really are the Son of God!”
Luke doesn’t have the story at all!
John does, as we know. Surprisingly his account is even terser than Mark’s! There’s a strong wind blowing, but it appears to be more hindrance than threat. When Jesus appears the disciples are more startled than terrified.
Jesus uses the same words as in Mark and Matthew, but in John’s Gospel hey have added significance. His is the Gospel of the great “I ams”: “I am the Bread of Life” “I am the living bread which came down from heaven”; “I am the Light of the World”; “Before Abraham was, I am”; “I am the door of the sheep”; “I am Good Shepherd”; “I am the resurrection and the life”; “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”; “I am the true vine.” For John the “I ams” have great significance. The name of God given to the first Moses on the mountain of God can be translated as “I am.” It’s a claim that Jesus is God. And Jesus’ words to his disciples, as they find themselves rowing against the driving wind, is not so much “It’s me” as it is “I am.” And that makes all the difference.
Yes, it’s a story that can be seen as miraculous – even though the Greek translated as “they saw Jesus walking on the sea” is used elsewhere in John’s Gospel as “alongside the sea.” It’s a story again of a sign pointing to layer upon layer of meanings to be found in the story of Jesus.
That – believe it or not – is the simple reading of the story. But then nothing is ever simple in John’s Gospel. Layer upon layer of meaning is there, because his Gospel comes from long after the Synoptic Gospel, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John had had time to think and reflect and incorporate into his story of Jesus much, much more than the historical facts!
What are the meanings which can be drawn from these two incidents?
Dusk was coming up after a long and tiring day. Jesus turned to Philip, a local boy: “Where can we get enough bread for these people?”
“Jesus, don’t you realise that to feed this mob would cost us $15,000 just for bread? Where do you think we’d get that sort of money?”
You’ve come across Philips in your time. Suggest something a little out of the ordinary and what do they say? “It can’t be done. Not enough money. Not enough people. Not enough time. Forget it! It’s out of the question. It can’t be done!”
It’s drilled into us. “”Don’t do it. You can’t do it. You mustn’t do it.” We’re given a negative, pessimistic view of life. We come to believe what we’re told. We think the range of things we can do is extremely limited. Possibilities for us are few and far between. We believe it – and set out to prove it. And, if we lay down life commands for our children that are as limited and limiting, they set out to prove it too!
We are what we’ve been told to be. We become what we’re told we are. We are what deep down we believe we are. Shaking free of these life commands imposed on is is very difficult. That’s why we need a word from God to become what God intended us to be!
An eaglet was hatched in a chicken-yard. He thought he was a chicken. He pecked and scratched in the dirt, just like the other chickens. Just as they did, he kept his eyes to the ground. Just s they cackled and squawked, he cackled and squawked – or at least tried to.
One day a great shadow drifted over him. He looked up. An eagle was flying overhead. The fowls raced for cover. He went with them. Something about the eagle’s beauty and its ability to soar in the heavens tugged at his heart. But he knew that wasn’t for him. Eagles came, and eagles went, but he saw out his days packing and scratching, cackling and squawking, until the day he died.
Andrew too was a local boy. His life commands were a little different. He had a way of bringing people to Jesus. That day he brought a lad with five barley loaves and two fish.
Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first great English dictionary, defined oats as: “a grain which in England is fed to horses, but in Scotland forms the staple of the people.”
In Palestine barley was fed to animals, and made into bread for the poorest of the poor. Galilean pickled fish was equally “common,” though famous throughout the Roman empire.
Five barley loaves: two fish! Not much at all! But it was as though Andrew was saying: “Let’s see what we can do with what we’ve got – and trust Jesus to make of what we’ve got more than enough!”
Possibility thinkers, under God, make things different. With the belief that things can be and will be different because of Jesus, the impossible becomes possible; the miraculous becomes commonplace.
Jesus makes the difference, liberating us from stifling life commands. The negativity is shattered. We become God’s possibility people. We may not have much, but in the hands of those whose faith is in Jesus, it’s enough to change us – and change the world!
Lift your eyes from the dirt in the fowl-yard. Look to the heavens. See what you really are. Beautiful! Soar into the heavens.
Do you believe that’s where you belong? Believe it in the power and in the name of Jesus, and take flight!
But it was a lesson of allowing Jesus to make the difference was one the disciples had to learn again and again.
They’d been with Jesus. Their spirits had soared. Whose spirits wouldn’t have soared, after being with this man who’d enabled them to be a part of so much happening – even though they were as tired and in need of a break as he was?
And when the wind blew against their efforts to move on, Jesus wasn’t with them. It probably felt as though he’d deserted them, when they most needed him.
Life can often seem like that. When we’re most in need and life seems to be going against us, where’s Jesus? When life seems as its worst and out to torment us, where’s Jesus? When the gloom seems to be shrouding us and nothing’s running our way, where’s Jesus?
Then when we realise Jesus will come to us across anything that’s taking us back into ourselves and beginning to stifle all our newfound hopes. He comes. He makes all the difference. We’re glad and take him on board. And suddenly we’re where we’re meant to be – with Jesus, ready for the next challenge and the next adventure!
Two different ways of reading the Scripture that lead to very different understandings. One attempts to read just what’s there: the other attempts to draw out meaning from within what’s read.
Is one wrong and the other right?
That depends in the end on how we let God speak to us through what we read and what we hear.
 Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:32-44; Luke 9:10b-17; John 6:1-15.
 6:35; 6:48.
 6:51; c.f. 6:41.
 10:1; c.f. 10:14.