When I lived in Texas, I became very familiar with hurricanes. Initially it was the wind that impacted you. Anything that was not well anchored could be picked up and moved to the most unusual places. Boats in people’s front yards. Garages sitting on top of houses. The wind was unpredictable. I saw a trailer house cut in half with the cup and toothbrush left sitting on the bathroom counter, visible as you drove by. The second force in a hurricane is the water. There is the storm surge, water that is pushed up on the shore by the wind. You can prepare for that. But then there is the stall. When the hurricane picks a place and just sits there pouring rain in one spot for days.
The scriptures often use images of nature to describe the spiritual workings of the Trinity. Moses saw God in a burning bush. God used plagues from nature to convince Pharoah to let the Hebrew children go – frogs, flies, rivers of blood, and death. The Israelites saw God manifested in smoke, fire, and quaking suggesting either a fierce thunderstorm or an active volcano at Sinai. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit arrives as a mighty wind and as tongues of fire.
We are, in our lectionary readings, going to stall like a hurricane over this particular story in the gospel of John – Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, his walking on water, and his proclamation that he is “the bread of life.” We are going to spend three weeks letting the words of this story soak into our souls.
In a quick re-cap of last week’s lessons. Jesus feeds 5000 hungry people with one small boy’s lunch of five barley loaves and two fish, then he goes up on the mountain, alone, to pray. The twelve disciples leave him there and go out in their boat on the Sea of Galilee. A storm comes up in the middle of the night and Jesus takes the short cut walking across the top of the water frightening the disciples as he calmly walks past them as they struggle in their boat to get across. He joins them in the boat, the sea calms, and they find themselves on the opposite shore save and sound.
While all of this was going on, many from the crowd of 5000 had camped out on the opposite shore, presumably in the hopes of spending more time with Jesus. When they realize he and is disciples have gone, they get in their boats and cross the lake (the Sea of Galilee is really a big lake). When they find him on the other side, they question him about how he got there. Some must had seen the twelve leave without him, but they are less interested in the answer to that question than they are benefiting from Jesus’ presence again.
Jesus understands the hearts of the people that are following him. Their interest is not spiritual, they are not seeking God, they are seeking free food. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote a paper in 1943 describing what he saw as a hierarchy of human needs. The lowest and broadest level, the base of his pyramid, was physical needs. He states that until those needs are met, the survival instinct keeps one from seeking things like relationships, education, and self-awareness. The people that were most attracted to Jesus were those whom we might describe as living below the poverty level. Food, water, shelter, and rest were daily struggles for them.
Jesus tells them to set their sights higher. In fact, Jesus tells them to set their sights beyond Maslow’s hierarchy and to seek that which is eternal. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (John 6:27)
They ask him “What must we do to perform the works of God?” (John 6:28) We are accustomed to hearing the answer to that question as the summary of the Law, which assuming most in the crowd were Jewish, they already knew “Love the Lord your God with all you heart, with all your mind and with all your strength” (Deut. 6: 5) and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). Jesus goes deeper than even this. He says, “believe in him (Jesus) whom he (God) has sent.” (John 6:29)
The people standing there had no difficulty in believing in the historical person of Jesus, he was standing right before them. What Jesus wants them to do is trust that what he says is the truth. Trust in him to the point of being willing to place their lives in Jesus’ hands. In the previous chapter, the writer of the Gospel of John states that the Jewish leaders had tried “to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5:18) This is the truth that John is saying Jesus wanted the people to believe. This is the truth that John is declaring, from the beginning of this gospel “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) to the end of the gospel where John declares “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31).
The people ask Jesus for a sign, for proof that he is speaking the truth and they give as an example Moses calling down mana from heaven when the Israelites were hungry in the wilderness. I can only imagine Jesus’ frustration. Just the day before he multiplied bread and fish to feed them and walked on water, but the people are spiritually blind unable to see what is right before them?
Jesus shows amazing patience with this group and reminds them that it was not Moses who gave them mana, it was God. He then speaks to them in a more spiritual sense stating, “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:33). Jesus is speaking of himself. He is standing right in front of them, and it is Jesus that gives life to the world. They are still looking for flour, water, and oil baked to create something to fill their stomachs.
We end today’s reading with Jesus’ statement, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
How much time do we spend focused on gaining material things? Things that satisfy us for only a moment and then in no time we are looking for the next meal, another new outfit, the next thing to entertain us, the next opportunity to make more money.
How much time do we spend looking for God’s hand in our lives? How much time do we spend building a relationship with Jesus, learning to trust that what he says is the truth? Acting like we believe what he says is the truth?
How often do we stare at a miracle and blindly ask God for a sign?