The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner
St John's Gospel describes beautifully the mystery of the identity of Jesus. It contains some of the most powerful stories we know about Jesus, such as the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, some of the best known sayings of Jesus such as 'I am the way, the truth and the life', and some of the most profound and mystical teaching that we find in the Christian Scriptures, such as the opening words of the gospel about 'the word' that became flesh. It's also filled with long discourses describing Jesus's divinity.
St John's Gospel has been described as being rather like a pool in which a child may wade and an elephant may swim, in other words simple enough for a child to enjoy and profound enough to satisfy the most demanding philosophical mind. At the heart of this Gospel is the mind-blowing concept that the universe is centered on love. Many, many people have come to faith in Jesus through reading or hearing John's gospel.
In Matthew, Mark and Luke we're told that Jesus takes the loaves and fish and blesses, brakes and gives them to his disciples to give to others. But here in St John's Gospel, it's Jesus himself who distributes the food, and the people eat as much as they wanted. Jesus gave the people the food himself. There's something particularly Eucharistic about this. Jesus himself feeding the people, as he regularly feeds us in our close, intimate encounter with him in bread and wine. Here we receive not only physical food, but spiritual food as well. This food that Jesus gives us, his own Body and Blood, is what we shall soon receive at this Eucharist. This is the food of life that we need to fill ourselves with. Just as the Word we listen to must take root in our hearts and minds, so that we may grow closer to Jesus and pass on that word to those around, the Eucharist should feed and strengthen us with the life of Christ.
We welcome Jesus into our lives, and he becomes part of us in a unique way. This great meditation in chapter Six, really is the pivotal moment in John's Gospel. Indeed the extra hidden gem in this story of the feeding of the 5,000 is all about feeding on the word of God and taking Jesus into yourself as if you were eating him. Here we clearly see Jesus wishing to pass on to his followers the gift of himself. When all this first happened the disciples and other followers didn't really understand who Jesus was, except that they followed him because of the signs they had seen him perform. After this experience they're challenged to understand him at a far deeper level.
Today's story of the feeding of the Five Thousand tells the profound truth that Jesus wanted to feed those who were hungry and wished to be nourished by him. Perhaps we should begin there, and let our hunger for Jesus teach us what we really seek in him. Are we hungry for him? Do we want to be fed by him? As a short aside it's interesting to note that St John Chrysostom interprets the five loaves as the five senses that will be filled by the experience of Christ.
Bishop Tom Wright, a former Canon Theologian here at the Abbey, develops this very point in his commentary on the Gospel. Andrew brought a mere boy with a small basket of food to Jesus to enable Him to feed the five thousand. This is just what God calls us to do. We bring what we have to Jesus in prayer. We tell Him what we need. We then let Jesus bring the two together and make it enough for all. Underlying all this is the tremendous love that Jesus showed his disciples and followers. Even after all their moans and groans, and their missing the point at almost every possible teaching, he still loved them enough to answer their problem and feed them. It's always very humbling when we witness Jesus' unlimited love which still flows out to us today. So it is that after this eventful day Jesus withdraws to the mountain to be still, to be with his Father in prayer.
The disciples get back in their boats and cross to the other side of the lake. That's when Jesus comes to them, with another sign walking on the water, and calming the storm as they cry out in fear. The next day some persistent followers find Jesus and the disciples on the other side of the lake. They want him for the miracles he can do. They want more magic. But Jesus pushes them to go deeper to look for the true bread, not the bread that perishes. And then when they ask for that true bread, he says 'I Am.' I am the bread of life.