During this past Presidential election, the Republican candidate for Vice-President, Paul Ryan, had an awkward moment. Ryan is a member of the House of Representatives where he serves a district from Wisconsin. He has earned a reputation as a person who is very knowledgeable about the details of government fiscal matters – the kinds of things that make most of us yawn. He has been a fiscal conservative, calling for reduced government spending in the face of an ever growing federal deficit. Naturally, in the context of this position, he had opposed the President’s large stimulus bill that had marked the beginning of his administration.
Once Ryan had become the Republican candidate for Vice President, his Democratic opponents produced copies of several letters from Ryan that were embarrassing to say the least. In these letters Ryan had written to various government agencies supporting firms in his district who were trying to get stimulus funding.
Needless to say, it’s not exactly consistent to oppose the stimulus bill and then to turn around try to help people get money from the stimulus bill. Ryan’s explanation, was plausible enough. He said that the letters came out of his constituent case work system and that he did not know directly about them because his office sends out thousands of letters. I guess I would say that the idea of congressmen sending out thousands of letters and having no idea about their content is not the most comforting one.
The letters from Ryan’s office do illustrate the fact that if the government is going to hand out money, everyone is going to line up to get some. And really, it’s always been that way. During the time of the Roman empire the emperor had funds that he could use at his discretion to benefit cities and towns with building projects. And they all sought to ingratiate themselves to him in order to get a piece of the pie.
In our text today, Jesus performs a miracle as he uses five barley loaves and two fish to feed more than five thousand people. When it is done he has to leave because the people want to make him king. From comments later in the chapter it becomes clear that one of the reasons they want to make him king is because he will be able to give them bread for free. He can be their “bread king” and they will never have to worry about eating again. However, in this attitude they have missed what the sign of the miracle is all about.
Our Gospel lesson tells us that Jesus was in the area of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. A large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up on a mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. And then our text adds, “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.”
That little reference to the time is an important one. The Passover was the remembrance of how God had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. It was a time that heightened expectations that God would act again in order to rescue Israel – this time from Roman domination. Large crowds made their way to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Passover and the population of the city swelled. The theme of the Passover and the large numbers of people made it a time when revolt or violence was always a possibility. And for that reason the Roman prefect made his way from the beach life at Caesarea on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea up to Jerusalem as he took extra troops with him.
Large crowds were nothing new when it came to Jesus and his ministry. However this crowd had probably grown to be one that was large even by his standards because of the Passover pilgrims. In our text we hear, “Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?’”
John tells us that Jesus asked this question in order to test Philip, since Jesus already knew what he was going to do. Philip’s answer emphasized how impossible the task was. He said, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” A denarius was a day’s wage, so Philip was emphasizing what a huge task this was.
We learn that Andrew then reported, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” Now we aren’t told anything about Andrew’s motives in doing this. Why bother mentioning it to Jesus? Was he hoping that Jesus would do something with it? The text doesn’t tell us one way or the other, so we will never know for sure. But the other times Andrew is mentioned in the Gospel he is doing the kinds of things you would hope a disciple would do. He follows Jesus when he meets him. Andrew then wants his brother Peter to meet Jesus because he says, “We have found the Messiah.” He helps some Greeks come and see Jesus. It’s at least plausible that he was hoping that Jesus might do something with them.
As it turned out, Jesus did. He had the people sit down on the grass and he used the five loaves and two fish to feed the entire crowd – five thousand men, plus women and children. Everyone got to eat as much as they wanted, and when they were all done they were able to gather up twelve baskets full of leftovers.
It was a stunning miracle. And the people reacted. We hear, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”’” They identified Jesus as an end time figure who was going to be involved in bringing God’s rescue. And so they decided take things into their own hands. In fact we are told in our text, “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
The people had seen the miracle. But they had drawn all of the wrong conclusions. In the setting of the Passover they wanted to make Jesus king. They wanted to make him king because in Jesus they thought they had a leader who would supply their needs. That’s exactly what Jesus told them when later they tracked him down in Capernaum on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.”
The crowd had not seen the sign. Instead they had only seen the food that Jesus could provide. And as a result, they came to him looking for the wrong thing. Jesus told them not to be focused upon the food that perishes. Instead, they needed to seek the food that endures to eternal life.
How often does that description fit us? When do we really think about God? Is it when there is some kind of crisis in life and we feel like we need help? Is it when we want something and as we face the uncertainty about whether we are going to get it or not we turn to God and ask for his help? Is it when things are going well – when life is cruising along and in the glow of success we give thanks to God because it just feels good to do that?
Naturally there is nothing wrong with these in and of themselves. Yet as a general orientation the problem with them is that they are all about us. None of them are focused upon God because he is God. None of them are focused upon God as the One who alone gives purpose and meaning to life. None of them are focused upon God, because of the way that our sin prevents and hampers life with God.
Jesus said to the people, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Jesus declares that he is the One who provides life. He is the One who can truly satisfy our deepest needs.
Our text tells us that the crowd was following Jesus because they saw the signs that he was doing as he healed people. They saw the sign of the miracle with the bread and fish. But rather than put their faith in Jesus – rather than believing in Jesus and his ministry they decided to take him on their own terms.
And by doing so they missed what the sign of the feeding miracle really meant. After Jesus turned water into wine at Cana, John tells us, “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.” Jesus’ miracles are signs that reveal his glory as the incarnate Son of God. They are signs that invite faith.
Yet they are also signs that point to the ultimate means by which Jesus will reveal his saving glory. The signs point forward to how the saving glory will be revealed in Jesus’ death on the cross. During Holy Week Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” And then John adds that he said this to show- literally, “to sign” - by what kind of death he was going to die.
Jesus Christ was lifted up on the cross as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The Word became flesh in order to be nailed to the cross – in order be the sacrifice for sin. And then on the third day he rose from the dead. He demonstrated that he had come to give life – a life that overcomes sin and death itself.
In our text Jesus gives a sign as he uses bread to work a miracle and feed the large crowd of people. And now as he gives the life that he won by his death and resurrection he continues to give us signs. He gives us signs as they are found in Holy Scripture. John says near the end of his Gospel, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” We continue to experience the faith creating and sustaining signs in God’s Word.
And our Lord continues to use bread to work a saving sign in our midst. Jesus says in this chapter, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” These words find their fulfillment in the Sacrament of the Altar. There Jesus gives us a sign that is far more than a symbol. It is a sign in that it reveals Jesus and his salvation. But it is more than symbol because it is the true body and blood of Jesus Christ.
In our Gospel lesson the crowd wants to take Jesus by force and make him their bread king. But instead, at Jesus’ invitation we come to him in order to receive the bread of life – to receive his flesh and blood which gives forgiveness and eternal life. And because the risen Lord gives us this gift we know that we will share in the life of the resurrection on the Last Day.