In John’s gospel, the miracles of Jesus are called “signs,” because they reveal the true character of God. As such, they remain within the mystery of God and cannot be brought under human control.
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people? 10Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11Then Jesus 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. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
15When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
16When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
Grace and peace to you, people of God, in the name of our creating and redeeming Triune God. Amen.
Imagine, if you will, one of your favorite movies. Specifically, I want you to think about the plot and the characters. It can really be any movie because I think pretty much every movie involves at least one common element, without which the movie would quickly lose our attention. Every genre I can think of – comedy, romance, documentary, drama, thriller – all have one thing in common: a goal. And the movie is judged based on how they describe that goal being, or not being, attained. And every character in every plot line is chasing some form of success. They are working toward title or a place of success, every single one of them. Find a movie, TV show, or book that does not, in some way, describe a goal and people moving toward it, and I will be able to tell you which movie, TV show, and book are the most boring in the world. We like drama, in that we are attracted to stories of people overcoming obstacles in order to achieve success.
Compared to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) there isn’t really a very big drama unfolding during the feeding of 5000 and walking on water. We don’t tend to hear these stories from John. These stories tend to be told from the other gospels and I believe it is because the drama is different. In John’s account, the disciples don’t beg Jesus to send the crowds away, nor does Peter try valiantly to walk on water after Jesus just to fall in as he notices the waves and storm. Nobody is asking Jesus to do anything in John. No, in his telling of these events, Jesus is the instigator. Jesus asks Phillip how he is intending to feed the large crowd that has gathered. Nobody asks who is walking on the water: he volunteers the information. Don’t get me wrong, though, I’d still be super impressed to see anybody do that (like I’ve said before, if I could feed even 50 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish, I probably wouldn’t shut up about it until the day I die).
It really seems that the larger drama comes from him fleeing to avoid being made king by the people he just fed. Jesus flees from the people who adore him and are trying to make him king, yet, 8 chapters later, he does not flee from the people who would eventually nail him to the cross. There is a lot to notice in this dichotomy.
It seems that Jesus is less concerned with titles than he is about identity. He did not ask to make sure that everybody in crowd of 5000 were Jewish, or had the right credentials, or were ritually clean. Instead, he sees them as they are, hungry people in need of salvation and healing. He runs away to the mountain nearby when people try to make him king, yet, when he walks on the water, he boldly proclaims, “It is I.” In all other places in John that phrase in Greek (Ἐγώ εἰμι) is translated to “I am”. This phrase is the same that we hear God speaking through the burning bush when Moses asks who is sending him back into Egypt to lead the Israelites to freedom. This phrase, “I am”, is holy and to use it would be claim to be God. He doesn’t need anyone to give him a title to know who he is. He already knows.
This relationship between identity and title is exactly what lead Jesus to the cross. Jesus doesn’t ask, “What are you?” and expect you to answer “clean”. Jesus does not ask for your title and expect you to answer with “most likely to succeed”. He doesn’t care about perfect Sunday School attendance, kosher meals, or a clean criminal record. Jesus is not a cosmic vending machine, exchanging perfect prayers, the right clothes, saying the right things, and attending the right kind of worship for favors and salvation. Instead, Jesus asks, “Who are you?” and, before we can answer, he answers for us. Instead of the title of sinner, he identifies us as child. Instead of the title of hated, ugly, stupid, or broken, he identifies us as beautiful and, most of all, beloved. Instead of a title, Jesus gives us an identity. Just as he said, “I am he” or “I am”, referring to himself, we can boldly claim, “I am his.”
Now, this is a radical shift in how we look at the world. Often, we see ourselves based on what we do and how others perceive us. We convince ourselves that we are good enough or not good enough based on our actions, which means that, if we can just do a little better, then we are better. But God isn’t interested in behavior modification. God isn’t interested in you earning a good title or good standing. Titles can be taken away as quickly as it takes to make the wrong people angry. Identity, how you see yourself, is much stronger and deeper than a behavior.
Out of our identity flows the passions and desires of our lives and Jesus knew that. He knew that a kings could order people and lead people, but kings almost never serve people. Jesus isn’t interested in ordering people around, but wants to serve the people he saw, hungry and lost. Christ came not to be served, but to serve.
And that servanthood may be one of the best things Christianity, the followers of Christ, can offer the world. Because when you follow a servant, you serve too. Imagine what that meal, with 4999 others (give or take) must have been like. How did it look? It looked like a mob of people sitting on grass, passing along a seemingly endless supply of loaves and fish to each other. What did it sound like? It sounded like excited laughter, surprised gasps, the whispers of wonder. What did it feel like? It felt like the everyday foods of the time, making sacred what was once considered ordinary. What was it in its entirety? Grace in its fullness. This experience used every sense and so does new life in Christ. The fullness of Christ is not experienced in an isolated manner, but in a holistic manner, affecting every part of our lives, every sense of our bodies.
Jesus is not interested in what titles we have to offer. Titles only separate and prioritize people, making one group more qualified, more moral, more worthy than another group. He is only interested in our identity and identity cannot be quantified or qualified. He has done what needs to be done. His death and resurrection claims our place, your place, in the eternal kingdom of heaven, not the temporary kingdom of earth. And, I hope you realize, that the eternal kingdom of heaven includes now, too. His sacrifice of love, like the blessing of five barley loaves and two fish, fills our needs more than a king, more than success, more than a title ever could. His identity has made our identity possible. From his identity as Savior, he chose to die on a cross so that we could die to ourselves and from his resurrection, we have been raised to new life.
Nowadays, we often obsess with success, with titles, with achievements. And I won’t stand here and tell you that working for something is bad. I’m in seminary now, and afterward I’ll have earned the title of pastor, minister, and a Master’s degree. But even if I fail, even if everything else is stripped away, that, in no way, affects God’s love. Even in our brokenness, when we are not, Jesus still stands, with outstretched hands, showing the scars of love and death, and boldly proclaims, “I am, do not be afraid.” So, let us sit in the grass and wait for the sustaining bread of life and then get up and follow our servant leader’s example. In God’s love, we find our place and our identity. Jesus wasn’t interested in all that other stuff, anyway.