Seventh Sunday After Pentecost

by Crossings

Reading Behind the Signs
John 6:1-21
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12)
Analysis by Cathy Lessmann

John 6: 1After 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. 7Phillip 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, 9″There 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 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, got 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.

Writer’s Note: John does not use the synoptic word dynamis (act of power) for miracle. Instead he uses the words ergon (work) and semeion (sign) to remind us of the deeds God accomplished in the Exodus and the signs God did through Moses. For John signs are significant not so much because they are miraculous but because of what they reveal to those who can see beyond them. Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries are intently “looking for a sign”- namely a sign that this one is God’s end-time messenger, the Messiah.

DIAGNOSIS: Deadly Sign Reading

Step 1: Initial Diagnosis (External Problem) – Everyone Reads the Signs
There are three “sign-reading” incidents described in this Gospel lesson. First, the crowd starts to follow Jesus because “they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick” (v. 2). Then, right around Passover (v. 4), Jesus feeds 5000 people with five barley loaves and two fish and they are in awe. The latter sign reminds them of Moses feeding all of Israel with manna after the first Passover. Finally, the disciples see Jesus walk on the water-a sign perhaps reminiscent of Moses walking through the Red Sea. Both the crowd and the disciples accurately read Jesus as “the prophet who is come into the world” (v. 14). But then they quickly jump to the wrong conclusions: The crowd wants to make Jesus a king (by force if necessary), and the disciples are terrified of him.

Step 2: Advanced Diagnosis (Internal Problem) – Misreading the Signs
The crowd and the disciples reach the wrong conclusions because they misread the signs and so misread Jesus. They try to read Jesus’ signs through the wrong lens: the Law. In a way, they can’t help themselves because the Law is the lens they were first equipped with; the Law instructed them that everything- even God’s favor-is conditioned on their actions. The Sinai Covenant and Moses made that clear. So the crowd asks Jesus (in the same chapter), “What must we do to perform the works of God?” (v. 28). With such a powerful lens, it’s no wonder they interpreted all of God’s involvement in human history through the Law-including what kind of a Messiah God would send, and what that Messiah would do. They expected that Jesus would be a second Moses. Even when the disciples witness Jesus’ divine power as he walks on the rough water, they feel only terror. Of course, the crowd and disciples had another option: They could have read Jesus through the lens of the God’s abundant grace (demonstrated in feeding the multitude, vv. 11-12, and in calming the disciples’ fears, v. 20). If they had, they might have reached a different conclusion.

Step 3: Final Diagnosis (Eternal Problem) – Misreading that “Dead Ends”
The disciples and the crowd could only see Jesus through the Law. But a Messiah who operates only according to the Law leads followers down a dead-end road. That’s why, when the crowd misreads Jesus, he resists their impulses and literally separates himself from them (“he withdrew again to the mountain by himself,” v. 15). Just so, Jesus distances himself from all of us who read him using the lens of the Law; when we manipulate him to be our personal guarantor of happiness or success or security, he separates himself from us. Such attempts only lead to deadly ends.

PROGNOSIS: Sign Reading That Gives Life

Step 4: Initial Prognosis (Eternal Solution) – The Sign of the Cross
When Jesus blesses the loaves and fish, and reassures the disciples on the rough sea, he foreshadows the abundant grace he will provide for all people through the cross. He demonstrates that it is not what people can do for God, but rather what God will do through him that matters. In Jesus God will save sinners from perishing and give them eternal life (3:16). Just as Jesus remained with the hungry crowd and joined the disciples in the boat, so he also accomplishes life for us by joining himself to us dead-enders through the cross, and forgiving all the ways we have misread him.

Step 5: Advanced Prognosis (Internal Solution) – Believing the Sign
Before Jesus blessed the loaves and fish, the crowd had no hope of being fed by the disciples. Before Jesus joined the disciples in their boat, they had little hope of arriving on the opposite shore. But when Jesus joins the crowd and then disciples, they are fed and they arrive at their destination. So it is for us who have been joined by Jesus (in baptism, in faith). Jesus calls us to believe in him: “all who see the Son and believe in him … have eternal life” (6:40), and the more we come to know him the more our eyes are opened to God’s grace. You could say that through faith we believers receive a new set of lenses, and through these lenses we see God’s role in history (even in our own lives) as gracious.

Step 6: Final Prognosis (External Solution) – Sharing the Sign
When Jesus joined himself to the disciples on the boat they arrived! And joined by Jesus, we believers have arrived too. We have the assurance of eternal life. And all the things we expected Jesus to accomplish for us before (when we misread him) seem insignificant. Who needs Moses and manna when we have the Bread from Heaven (6:32)? With Jesus we have more than enough of God’s abundant grace, and that means we have nothing to fear: We can share Jesus and his abundance with our neighbors because we will never run out.


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