Readings: 2 Samuel 11:1–15; Ephesians 3:14–21 & John 6:1–21
Critics of the Bible often point out the apparent contradictions between stories that appear in more than one of the Gospels as proof that much of what is contained in the Bible is unreliable. Richard Dawkins, for example, argues that because the Gospels weren’t written until many years after the death of Jesus, they therefore suffered from decades of word-of-mouth retelling, and the result was that the stories told in them became distorted and exaggerated before they were finally written down.
Critics such as Dawkins, miss the point that much of the contradiction and inconsistency between stories in the Gospels is due to the fact that each of the Gospel writers were often sending very different theological messages to their respective audiences, and were therefore emphasising different aspects of the stories to convey those messages.
Today’s gospel reading is from the Gospel of John, and it contains stories of two miracles – the “feeding of the 5,000” and “Jesus walking on water” – that are also found in two or more of the other Gospels. John’s account of both miracles is different to that of the other gospel writers, again because he is making different theological points. The first thing to recognise is that John refers to these two events as “signs” rather than miracles. They are signs that point to Jesus as the revelation of God in the world, which is a different emphasis from that which the other gospel writers place on the stories of these two miracles.
The actions of Jesus in John’s telling of the “feeding of the 5,000” are reminiscent of the others Gospels’ accounts of Jesus giving the disciples the ritual of the Eucharist during the Last Supper. Jesus has fed the large crowd in a way that recalls a Christian celebration of Eucharist, and this feeding takes place at Passover time, so in this sense the Jewish tradition of Passover and the Eucharist are blended, which is of course is what happened when Christianity itself was first established. It was a blend of Jewish religious tradition and the teachings of Jesus, teachings which were often reinterpreting the Jewish religious tradition in light of Jesus being the revelation of God in the world.
Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells people that He is the “bread of life”, so when Jesus commands the disciples in today’s reading to gather up the remaining fragments of bread, “so that nothing may be lost”, he is really saying that the gift of life that people receive when they come to Him for sustenance must be preserved, and that it is the job of the disciples to preserve it.
It is therefore no surprise that when the remaining fragments of bread are collected into baskets, the number of those baskets is twelve, which of course is a reference to the twelve Apostles, whose mission it will be to offer the gift of life to people in the name of Jesus once Jesus has gone. The story is therefore a foreshadowing of the celebration of Eucharist in the church, and a demonstration of how we are sustained, both physically and spiritually, through the gift of life that we have in Jesus, when we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion in the Eucharist.
And when we think of the church, in today’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul reminds us that the final goal of salvation in history is the eternal glorification of God, both in the church and in Christ Jesus. Paul tells us that God is glorified in the church as it displays his power and love, and God is glorified in Christ because his death brought the church into existence.
The final thing I wish to say in relation to our readings this morning, is to compare the actions of Jesus at the conclusion of the feeding of the five thousand, with those of King David in today’s reading from the Second Book of Samuel.
We hear that following the miracle which Jesus performed, the crowd were about to come and take him by force to make him king, but Jesus knowing this, withdrew to the mountain by himself. This is not his mission. His objective is not to bring glory upon himself through his actions, but rather to glorify God the Father. So he refuses to allow himself to take advantage of any of the material benefits that he would have access to as a king.
David, on the other hand, uses his position as king to first satisfy his lust for Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and then ultimately to have Uriah killed when he fails in his attempts to have Uriah sleep with Bathsheba, in order to conceal the fact that she is pregnant with David’s child.
In a way, David is a reflection of all human beings. Despite his love for God and his faithfulness to God, David is still fallible; he is human, and he suffers from human failing and weakness. All people, regardless of how well they try to live a good life, are bound to stumble at some point and do the wrong thing, for as Paul said in the Letter to the Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.
That is why we are blessed to have the gift of the Eucharist. The Eucharist provides us with an opportunity where we can come before God with our fellow members of the church to publicly confess our sins and receive the sacrament of Holy Communion which refreshes and nourishes us both as individuals and as a community of faith.