In the Gospel today, we hear a story that is familiar to many of us. We call it “The Feeding of the 5,000.” If we let it remain a story only about feeding a multitude of people, remember it was 5,000 men, but there were also women and children there, then we might miss many, many important things. By performing this amazing miracle, Jesus is teaching us something about himself that is vitally important: he is revealing who he is.
Jesus and his disciples have retired to a mountain to rest, but a large crowd has followed him and are hungry. Jesus sees them, he is moved with pity for them, and he desires to feed them. Jesus sends his close disciples out to find out if anyone in the crowd has food. In that vast multitude, the only food they find is five loaves of bread and two fish. The disciples don’t think that’s enough, but Jesus proceeds. He says a prayer of thanks—notice that even Jesus prays before meals, in full view of those around him—and then distributes the food to the people. The people eat as much as they want, and there are still 12 wicker baskets full when they’re done!
This miracle might remind us of another time God saw a vast multitude of hungry people and decided to feed them: while the Jews were wandering in the desert after escaping Egypt, God fed them manna and sent quail for them to eat while they were in the desert. The people could eat all the wanted, and they couldn’t take the leftovers with them. There are a lot of parallels. If the Jews had seen it this way, they might have recognized Jesus as God. Instead, they recognized the miracle of Elisha that we heard in the first reading. They thought Jesus was an amazing prophet, like Elijah and Moses. They wanted to make him king, but only a worldly king, so Jesus withdrew again to the mountain to pray. In the meantime, the 12 disciples who would later be called the apostles got in a boat and started heading back to Capernaum. They were, I imagine, exhausted, and looking to take a break from all the work they had been doing.
We don’t read the next few verses in John’s Gospel, but I think that they are critical to understanding the whole point of this all. In the verses we don’t read, Jesus performs another miracle. Well, actually, he performs three miracles. We join the disciples in their boat, they had already rowed several miles. It is night-time; the Gospel says it was dark. The sea is “stirred up” because of a heavy wind: when it gets windy out, the Sea of Galilee can get quite angry. Jesus had not left with them. Then, suddenly, they see Jesus walking on the water, near the boat. They were afraid. Jesus says to them “It is I” or “I AM,” and tells them not to be afraid. The storm calms, and they then immediately arrive at the shore of Capernaum. Three miracles: walking on water, calming the storm, and the sudden arrival of the boat.
This whole episode tells us one critical thing about Jesus: one critical thing which changes everything about what has happened and will continue to happen in John’s Gospel. By walking on the water, Jesus does something totally unique. Nobody else in the history of the Jewish people had walked on water. Moses and Elijah, the great law-giver and the great prophet, had walked on dry land after God parts the water for them. Jesus walks on the water. Something greater than Moses and Elijah is here. By calming the storm, Jesus shows that he has direct power over nature. Again, Elijah was able to pray for droughts and rain, but it was always God who acted: never Elijah. Jesus simply calmed the storm. Something greater than Moses and Elijah was here. Walking on water and calming the storm are two miracles that show Jesus could directly control the forces of nature. Throughout all Jewish history, the Jewish people knew that only God can control nature in such a way. If Jesus was doing this, the soon-to-be apostles could come to only one conclusion: Jesus is God. So, they were afraid. All through the Bible, whenever someone comes face-to-face with God, it says they are afraid. Jesus responds as God always does when people are afraid: he says, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” He says to them that it is me, Jesus, you friend. Yes, now you known my true identity, but do not be afraid. I am here with you always. I will always be here for you. Then he demonstrates his loving care for them, his knowledge of their desires, because the boat miraculously arrives at their destination.
The feeding of the 5,000 and the episode of walking on water are here in John’s Gospel for a very important reason. They show us who Jesus is. He is God. He has God’s authority. We need to know that Jesus has this authority, because what comes next in the Gospel according to John is hard to accept and understand. The next day, Jesus gives to his followers a teaching which leads to many of them to abandon him. If the apostles didn’t know, absolutely, that Jesus had Divine authority, that Jesus was God, they might have left too.
For the next four Sundays, we will be working our way through this hard teaching of Jesus. Today, though, we take a moment to ponder something that we may not think about as much as we should: Jesus is God. Jesus is the Son of God, the Divine Word, who took on human flesh and became one of us. Not only does this mean that we humans received a gift of which the angels could only dream, God has never become an angel, but it means that Jesus has all the authority of God over creation. How did Jesus use his authority? He used it to give us himself in the Eucharist. He used it to give his apostles the authority to forgive our sins. He used it to die on the Cross and open for us the gate of Heaven, so that all who choose to follow him will be saved.
July 29, 2018
17th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B
2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalms 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15