“All you can eat.” There was a time in life when that phrase was music to my ears. When I was Matthew and Timothy’s age – my high school and college years – there was nothing better than a restaurant that was going to give you as much food as you could eat. Usually this happened in a setting where they had something that I wanted to eat a lot of, like pizza or fried catfish. What could be better? And actually I felt that way until I turned forty at which point, as if a switch had been flipped, prodigious eating suddenly showed up on the scale and didn’t go away. Alas, how I miss the days of “all you can eat”….
In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus serves an “all you can eat meal.” That’s exactly what our texts says: “Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted.” This “all you can eat meal” is a sign that reveals who Jesus is and what he has come to do.
Our text begins by saying: “After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick.” The Gospel of John describes Jesus’ miracles as “signs.” In the second chapter of the Gospel we are told: “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.” It was the signs that brought Nicodemus to see Jesus. He said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Jesus and his disciples went up on a mountain and sat down. When the Lord looked out, he saw a large crowd that was coming towards him. John tells us the Passover was at hand. Jewish pilgrims were making their way to Jerusalem and so a large crowd had gathered.
Jesus asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” John tells us that Jesus said this to Philip to test him, because the Lord already knew what he would do. To Philip, the situation was hopeless. He commented that two hundred denarii – two hundred days wages – would not even buy enough for each person to get a little.
Surprisingly, Andrew noted that there was boy who had five barley loves and two fish. One wonders why he bothered to mention it since he himself commented, “but what are they for so many?” However Jesus had the crowd sit down, which numbered five thousand men, not counting women and children.
Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. He did the same with the fish and all received as much as they wanted. Then he had them gather up the leftover fragments of bread, and they filled twelve baskets.
Our Lord had worked a great miracle in feeding the crowd of more than five thousand people using five barley loaves and two fish. It was another great sign. However, crowd’s reaction to the sign is not what we expect, and it reveals a great deal about how they viewed Jesus. John tells us, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’”
The Passover was a remembrance of how Yahweh had dramatically rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. As Israel found herself under Roman domination, it was a time that caused people to think about what God might do again to free them. These kinds of thoughts were the very reason why the Roman governor, who normally resided in Caesarea on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, came to Jerusalem with extra troops at the time of the Passover.
In Deuteronomy Moses had said, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers--it is to him you shall listen.” There were many forms of end time expectation among the Jews in the first century. Some of it was focused on this prophet like Moses promised by God.
Jesus recognized that in their excitement, the people were about to come and take him by force to make him king. This had nothing to do with the reason the Father had sent Jesus into the world, and so Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
All of the signs performed by Jesus pointed to the great sign of his death and resurrection. They called forth faith in Jesus Christ who had come as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But this is not what the crowd saw in Jesus. The next day the crowd tracked Jesus down in Capernaum. Our Lord said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Jesus said that their interest in him was not about faith. It was about their stomachs. They wanted Jesus to be their meal ticket.
Sometimes we aren’t all that different from this crowd. Our interest in Christ becomes wrapped up with what he can give us – what he can help us with. And the things we want are the things we want. Jesus seems to be really important when we are concerned about our health – like when a global pandemic comes calling in southern Illinois. He seems really important when circumstances threaten the income from my job or the investments that I have in the stock market. But where does he rank when things are going well? How do Jesus and the gifts of his Means of Grace stack up against our sports, our hobbies, our interests?
Jesus said to them, “Do not labor 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.” Jesus promised food that endured forever. So they asked him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” And Jesus responded very directly: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Jesus called them to faith in himself, because he is the One who gives life – eternal life.
Our Lord told them to believe in him. So they responded, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?” They asked for the proof of a sign. After all Moses had given Israel manna in the wilderness.
Jesus had just worked the sign of feeding more than five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. And yet now they ask him for a sign! So Jesus said, “ Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
The Father sent the Son into the world to give us life. Jesus came to overcome sin and death by being lifted up on the cross and then rising from the dead. Jesus told them, “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The Word – the Son of God – became flesh in order to give his flesh for the life of the world. The sign of feeding the five thousand, and all of the miraculous signs that he did, pointed to this single great event as Jesus cried out “It is finished” and died on the cross for us. In order to defeat death for us, he passed through it himself.
But in John’s Gospel, Jesus death and burial is part of one single arc that swings back up to resurrection and ascension. Jesus said, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
Jesus Christ took his life back up again on Easter and then he ascended in glory. He has conquered sin and death, and now he gives us life. He gives us life with God – life as the children of God. He gives us eternal life – eternal life that is already ours now. And he promises that he will give us resurrection life on the Last Day.
He gives this life to us now. He does it through his Word as the life giving Spirit sustains us in the life of faith. And just as we see the miracle with bread in our text, he continues to do so in our midst this morning. In the Sacrament of the Altar our Lord uses bread and wine to give us his life giving body and blood, given and shed for us.
In this chapter Jesus goes on to say, “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 eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”
Notice how our Lord promises that all who eat his flesh and drink his blood “have eternal life.” It is already yours now and you can live in the confidence that nothing can change this – not even some virus that comes from China. And so while we should not act in irresponsible ways that are a threat to our neighbor or ourselves, we also cannot live and act in fear. We are the people who already have eternal life with God and not even death can change this fact. We have life in Christ and so we can live confidently in the present.
And we also live as the people who know that bodily death is not the end for our body. Jesus says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of our own resurrection. And in the Sacrament, it is the risen Lord who gives his body and blood into our bodies. This is the pledge and assurance of our own resurrection. For our Lord will return and raise all those whose bodies have received his body and blood.
In our text today, Jesus works a miracle – a sign – as he feeds more than five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. This sign points to his death, resurrection and ascension for us. Jesus is the living bread – the bread that has come down from heaven and gives life. He gives eternal life to all who believe in him because he has given his flesh for the life of the world. And now in his Sacrament he gives us his body and blood so that we may continue as people who have eternal life and know that he will raise us up on the Last Day.