Interpreting the Signs

By Jennifer Strawbridge

Today is the first of five Sundays when we will read from the sixth chapter in John’s Gospel, all focused in some way on bread. There is a great hymn with the refrain “Feed me ’til I want no more” and I fear that “want no more” is how we might all feel four weeks from now. But perhaps not, if we really sink into the message John is trying to share in this lengthy chapter.

The story we start off with this morning is found in all four gospels, but John has a rather complicated relationship with the other three gospels in the Bible. He has fewer miracles, for one, and he likes to add in little details that are significant but easy to miss.

The other thing that John does is that he calls his miracles “signs” and he never leaves them without a discussion. And this is what makes chapter six so long. For this morning we have one of the signs, the feeding of 5,000 people, and it’s over four weeks that John unpacks for us what difference it makes to us that Jesus can feed so many people with such a small provision.

Signs, of course, are easily misinterpreted and in a sense are different from a simple story of Jesus performing a miracle.

When I took the U.K. driving test last year, one of the things that most worried me were the number of different signs that I could be asked about. Road signs in the U.K. are rather different from those in the U.S.. And some of them demand that you know extra information to understand them. In the States, for example, when you see a sign that says Speed Limit at the top with a large number at the bottom, you know that is the speed limit for that road. It’s a sign that is difficult to misunderstand.

The U.K. is rather different, as many roads have the same sign of a circle with a line, but it doesn’t always mean the same thing. It requires you to know what it means for different kinds of roads and to know what kind of road you’re driving on, be it a dual carriageway or a single-track road into a village. For a foreigner, this sign is tricky and makes no sense until you know what you are looking for.

And John’s gospel can be a bit like this. One the one hand, this sign looks like the American version. It’s rather straightforward. People come to Jesus, they are hungry, and Jesus feeds them. The sign is that Jesus meets us where we are and feeds our material, physical needs. And this isn’t wrong. But this isn’t the only way we can understand this sign. For it’s the little details that we don’t find in the other gospels that tell us something vital about who Jesus is and, in turn, about God.

For instance, in John’s gospel Jesus is the first one to notice that the people are hungry. Unlike the other gospels, no one comes to tell him this is the case. Rather, it is Jesus who approaches his disciples and says: they are hungry, what do we do? Philip is the first one subjected to this so-called test and he’s a bit of a realist. He can see the mountain of hunger in front of him and he immediately calculates that it would take more than half a year’s salary to touch it. He points out the obvious to Jesus: it will take a lot to make any difference to such a large need. And we know a bit about where Philip is coming from, that hopeless feeling that we have when we wonder how we will ever be enough and how we can do anything to meet the profound needs of the world around us.

And this is the point at which John introduces Andrew into the story. Andrew does seem to get it, at least more than Philip. He gets that Jesus is going to feed everyone, but he doesn’t know how. So he finds a little boy willing to share his lunch of bread and fish and brings him to Jesus. And here we see that Jesus knew what he was going to do all along, as he takes the bread and fish, and prays. Of course Philip’s response was reasonable, of course Andrew was only trying to be helpful. Thankfully the boy was willing to share. But it is the work of God and the promise of life that puts Jesus in control of the situation.

And Jesus prays in words that we, more often than not, connect to the night before Jesus dies and the Last Supper. He takes the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he gives them to those who were gathered. Here, the words of the Eucharist are connected not with Jesus’ death but with his life at the start of his ministry. As Jesus heals the sick and feeds the hungry, he tells us later in this chapter that he is the bread of life.

And just like our gathering around this table, in the prayer Jesus prays to God over that bread, he meets the people where they are and gives them what they need in that moment. He doesn’t check their credentials, he doesn’t ask for their C.V., he doesn’t demand a profession of faith. Jesus simply welcomes all who come, all who are hungry, and he feeds all of them. Where there is want, there are now baskets of extra food. Where there was doubt, there is now astonishment.

And yet, like Philip at the start, the people don’t quite get it. For they can only see that Jesus satisfies their immediate needs, and they want more of what he has to offer. They want more food. And so they want to take him by force and make him their king. And who can blame them? Jesus has healed them, he has fed them, and they — like us much of the time — are focused only on themselves and their needs. There is nothing wrong with sharing our deepest fears and desires with Jesus. He invites, he welcomes, our prayers and lamentations.

But our world looks down on what it sees as desperation and especially that shown by this crowd. They follow him because he heals; they want to make him king because they are hungry. Being desperate for material things is something our culture gets, but following Jesus to realise these desires isn’t the recommended method. Most bread advertisements point us to a sale at Tesco’s, not our local parish church. But the thing is that the abundance that Jesus offers is not the same thing as wish fulfilment.

We understand the impetus of those who want to make Jesus their king. It’s the same desire we have to be in control, to capture Jesus so that he can always be there when we most need him. To ensure we always know where he is and he can’t escape from us up the mountain. But this isn’t how God works, and more often than not our fear is more complicated. For at times we worry Jesus has abandoned us. And other times, we are convinced we have abandoned Jesus. And there are times in our lives when both of these things feel like a reality, the reality that Jesus has just gone one way up the mountain and, like those disciples, we get into a boat and go the other.

And yet that’s where we see that this story, this sign, isn’t just about bread and fish and physical hunger. Rather it is one about Jesus meeting us, seeking us out, being with us in the midst of the most difficult, unfulfilling, and even confused moments in our lives. For as the disciples think they have put miles of distance between themselves and Jesus, he suddenly appears with them, walking across the water by their boat.

He walks on the water in a way that pulls them outside of their worlds and their self-focus and challenges them with another sign, a sign that he is with them always, which makes no sense. The same way that love that feeds hungry crowds makes no sense. And love that doesn’t turn anyone away and doesn’t seek credentials makes no sense. And the love that sacrifices itself for the sake of others makes no sense. But this is precisely the love we encounter this morning in the story of the bread and the fish, of the crowd and their king.

And when we get the magnitude of this love that God has for us, we can see why this morning’s reading from Ephesians was placed with the story of this great sign. For that which was hidden, we are told, has now been revealed. Through this great sign, we are aware in new ways that Jesus is among us, and through the breaking of the bread, he has given those crowds, and has given us, access to God, who is always with us.

So as we journey deeper into this sign of God’s abundant and extravagant love, we pray in the words of Paul that we might have the power to grasp the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, which can accomplish within us far more than we can ever ask or imagine.


The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Strawbridge is associate professor in New Testament at Oxford, Fellow in Theology at Mansfield College, and associate priest at St Andrew’s, Headington.

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