John 6:1-15 — Laetare (Lent IV)

What You Really Need

John 6.1-15 After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. 2And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. 3Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. 5Lifting 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?” 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. 7Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii[a] 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, 9″There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” 10Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. 11Jesus 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. 12And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” 13So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”
15Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

“What this church really needs is …” How many times I have heard that said, in this church and every other church of which I have been associated. How many times I’ve said it myself! “What this church really needs is …” How would you answer the question? What does this church really need? Heat? Better lighting? Maybe you have boiled it down to what you consider to be the essentials and you would answer the question by saying Emmaus’ needs money and members.

Today’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand is recorded in all four Gospels, and in Mark’s account, we are told specifically what Jesus thinks we need. St. Mark tells us that Jesus “had compassion” on the crowd, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

What do you think we need?
Today’s Gospel shows us what we truly need, compared to what we think we need. If is food that we need to quiet our grumbling bellies, we see in the Gospel account that Jesus can easily, effortlessly, satisfy our need. But before doing so, He would have us SEE OUR TRUE NEED. That is why Jesus says to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” Jesus is testing Philip – or perhaps it would be better to say Jesus is examining Philip. The Son of God incarnate does not need Philips answer to know his heart, for to Philip’s Lord and Master “the thoughts and intentions of the heart…are not hidden from his sight. …For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” [Heb. 4.12f]. All of your lustful desires, your greed and envy, your anger, apathy, and laziness are seen by the LORD, though you imagine they are hidden from sight. Instead, Christ’s question is designed to cause Philip to confess where his true trust lies. He is pointing out to Philip—and to us—what man truly needs.

What do we think we need? We think we need possessions and earthly prosperity. In today’s first reading, the people of Israel imagine that they have lost all earthly goods. Not content having the God who made heaven and earth, they are overcome by despair: “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” [Exodus 16:3]. The LORD gives them one day’s portion at a time—their daily bread—to test whether they will walk in trust, or in rebellious unbelief. They did not need possessions and earthly prosperity – they needed the God who delivered them.

What else do we think we need? We think we need human “leadership.” In the Church, to desire the charisma, charm, or persuasive powers of a man is to place your trust in man. Today Christ is teaching Philip, the disciples, and all of us, that if we are going to be filled, we are going to have to look to Christ. When Jesus says to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these peoples may eat?” notice he doesn’t say “How shall we buy bread?”, but “Where?” Philip wants to answer the “How” question – he says, in essence, “We don’t have enough money.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus as saying at this time, “You give them something to eat.”

And of course, they can’t. That’s the point. Philip, Peter and Andrew, James and John, Matthew, Judas, and all the rest, cannot feed the crowd. If the solution to this problem depended on the disciples, the people would not have received a crumb apiece. What does this mean? It means that the Church does not depend on her businessmen or even the leadership of her pastor; she depends on Jesus. When we look to the leaders in terms of resources, and abilities, the Church will fail, though ever-larger structures are built and every pew occupied. Listen carefully to these words: “And Jesus took the loaves, and when He had given thanks He distributed them to the disciples, and the disciples to those sitting down.” What the disciples—or, the pastors—do here is distribute Christ’s gifts. The Church does not need leadership development institutes, boards and programs, and tote-boards of figures. We need pastors who dish out Christ’s gifts–His food, His forgiveness, His life.

Jesus teaches us to starve.
What do we need? WE NEED TO SEE OUR NOTHINGNESS, that is we need to see that in the Fall, and by our own sins that we have added, we have become nothing, that our sin separates us from God. The season of Lent is carefully designed to lead us to this realization. On Ash Wednesday, Jesus in the Gospel lesson calls on us to fast. “When you fast,” He says, “Do not be like the hypocrites.” Then, on the first Sunday in Lent, we are told that Jesus fasted for forty days, and He responds to the devil’s temptation to turn stones into bread by saying, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” What are we being taught in all of this? Jesus is teaching us to starve and be hungry, just as the Israelites were taught to be starving and hungry in the wilderness … Why? Because we have a twisted God who likes to torture us and see us writhe? No; He is teaching us to starve in order to lead us to the realization that our hunger, our need, only be satisfied by God Himself. Our hearts are restless until they rest in Him [Augustine].

The story of the grumbling Israelites in the Old Testament reading sums up our own despair and hopelessness in this world, going all the way back to Genesis chapter three. The curse that God lays upon man is that we must work for the daily bread that we need to live. And yet, even after working and eating we die. The bread doesn’t save us. Hardly a cheery message! But in manna, and again in the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the curse of Genesis is lifted, albeit temporarily. Man receives his daily bread not through his own effort, but purely by God’s gift. The rebel receives God’s absolution, in the midst of his grumbling.

Some people are like the children of Israel, they BLAMING GOD for their problems. “Why have you brought us out into this wilderness to kill us?” More, however, I suspect do not blame God, because they don’t have sufficient faith in God even to blame Him. Instead we merely wallow in self-pity. When the Prodigal Son down among the swine sees that the pigs are better off than he is, that is exactly where God wants him to be. Now the LORD can do something with that wasteful rebel. He can bring him home. His dire circumstances bring him to remember the love of his Father. Remembering his Father’s kind and generous disposition, he returns home with a prayer of confession on his lips. And returning home, the Father feeds the lost son, who was dead and has been brought back to life.

We can rattle off a thousand things that could make us happy, if only we had them. But when confronted with the one thing that can satisfy, we don’t recognize it. It has always been here for you – the Father’s love. Only we are too blind to see it. When the Israelites saw the bread, they said, “What is it?” Or, in Hebrew, “Manna?” “What is it?” Here at this altar God gives forgiveness, but we see a wafer. “What is it?” Answer that question, and all the other questions and problems disappear.

How easily, like Philip, we forget who we are, who God is, and what God both has done and promises to do. Lost in the desert, the people grumble against their pastor, Moses. God gives those grumblers Manna, but before they ate the Manna, they had eaten the Passover. So we don’t miss the point, St. John reminds us in the Gospel of the Feeding of the Five Thousand that “the Passover … was near.”At the first Passover, the lamb whose blood was dripping down the door was roasted and set on the table, next to unleavened bread. “Take and eat,” said the LORD through Moses to the Jews. “Take and eat, for I am about to deliver you.” After Jesus gives bread to the 5000, He says, “You are seeking Me … because you ate your fill of the loaves. 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” [Jn. 6.26f]. “And the bread that I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh.” That’s what this church really needs. That’s what you really need. That’s what the world really needs. And no matter what we do, from renovation to rewiring, from occupancy permits for the school, to potluck suppers to raise the very necessary funds to put heat in the sanctuary, if it doesn’t lead people to the font, and to the altar, it isn’t worth doing. What is it that we really need, all of us? What we really need, what gives life to the world,is the flesh of Jesus.

Here, at this altar, His holy flesh consumes and transforms our sinful flesh. What is flesh, in the Holy Scriptures? When God’s Word speaks about “flesh,” it means “that part of us that is constantly saying no to God” [Scaer]. The flesh is called sinful because it resists His will for us (as seen in the 10 Commandments). Certainly we will admit to some shortcomings, inadequacies, failures. But what we want from God is a boost up, a pat on the back, an encouraging word, and to be told, “Get back out there, kid, you can do it, I believe in you.” But the repentant heart born of faith doesn’t say, “I think I need some help,” the repentant heart says, “I am lost, I am damned, I am totally devoid—by myself—of any worth or merit. My flesh is inclined to sin, what I really want is to gratify myself, I find my enjoyment in what is passing away. I am flesh, part of humanity careening in ignorance toward doom and everlasting death.” ­

We’re going back to that ground, to sleep the sleep of death-as we confessed on Ash Wednesday “from dust you came, to dust you will return”. “But Jesus is the bread not from earth but from heaven, a divine food promising not disintegration into dust but elevation into heaven” [Scaer]. Our work stops, and His begins. Like a shepherd, He feeds His sheep. He leads us to green pastures. He feeds our dying flesh with His life-giving flesh. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory.” ­

What do you need today? What does this Church really need? What does the world need? The same thing that has always been needed—life with Him—life that He gives us in Holy Baptism, life He sustains with His Body and Blood. In this precious and holy Sacrament, He feeds not merely 5000, but many more with the bread from heaven which has been sacrificed for the life of the world. Here He gives us what we need. May He also give us the grace to find all our joy and desire in what He gives.

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