Today we hear John’s account of one of the most famous episodes of Jesus’ ministry, the feeding of the five thousand. I’d like to begin our reflection by pulling our focus away from the details of the story to make note of a significant and intentional distinction that John makes between a “sign” and a “miracle.” John never uses the term “miracle” to describe Jesus’ actions. For example, John writes, “A large crowd kept following [Jesus] because they saw the signs that he was doing…” For John, it is essential that we understand that Jesus’ actions are “signs” because signs point us towards something other than what they are. Signs prefigure, explain, and guide us towards the Truth, but they should not be confused with the “substance” of Truth itself. Before we examine the profound way that today’s story functions as a sign, allow me to give you a couple of examples to illustrate the distinction between what we might call “sign” and “substance,” because that distinction is vital to our understanding of the Gospel.
One of my advisees at the boarding school where I teach in Virginia loves cars. When my wife and I purchased a Volkswagen Atlas in 2019, he was excited to share with me everything he knew about the car. He listed off all kinds of stats that I didn’t know then and can’t remember now, but I do remember him telling me at the time that the Atlas was basically an Audi SUV in a Volkswagen shell. Some of you may know that Volkswagen and Audi are two branches of the same car company that also owns the “premium” brand Porsche. For the purposes of this sermon, all you have to know is that “luxury” brand Audis tend to be more expensive than “economy” brand Volkswagens. After a long discourse on this subject, my advisee sighed and said, “The only problem with the Volkswagen Atlas is that nobody will know that you are basically driving an Audi.” (unless, of course, one preaches a sermon to let everyone know…ahem…)
Fifteen years old at the time, and my advisee already had a profound understanding of the difference between “sign” and “substance.” He intuitively understood that one of the major appeals of “branding” is to create a “sign” of wealth or value. And yet, the substance of the car and the sign that points to the substance of the car are separate realities. On some level, this is so obvious to us that we barely bother to stop and take notice of it. We live in a world of signs. Learning to navigate signs is essential to our functioning in society. Our baby, Grace, is learning to wave in order to sign "greeting" and she is learning to smash her fingers together to “sign” that she wants "more food." The dynamic complexity of our lives depends on our ability to become fluent in signs. Language itself is a complex series of signs. Spoken words are created by vibrations that we make with our mouths, and those vibrations become signs that are interpreted by pressure sensors in our ears and associated with particular phenomena in our lives.
All of that is to say that signs are powerful, and we might even say that signs are indispensable. So suggesting that something is a "sign" does not diminish its power; on the contrary, signs point to something much more than what they are. Nonetheless, John is adamant that we should never confuse a sign with the substance of the Truth towards which a sign points. To put the same thing more bluntly, just because we say something is true does not make it True. The Truth and the sign that points to the Truth are separate realities.
Here we can return to the sign that Jesus performs by feeding the five thousand in today’s lesson. It is tempting to get caught up in the details of the sign. How could so little feed so many? Did everyone only take a crumb? Did the bread miraculously multiply or did the crowd add to the original five loaves and two fishes so that there was enough to go around? These kinds of details are, frankly, not important for John. The essential questions that John wants us to ask are, “Where is the sign pointing?” and “Is what the sign pointing at True?”
John leaves us almost no room for doubt about where this sign points. He layers image upon image to make it painfully obvious that this sign is pointing to the Last Supper and therefore also to the crucifixion of Jesus. First, John tells us that the sign takes place near the festival of the Passover, the very same festival, one year later, during which Jesus is sacrificed like the Passover lamb. Second, the disciples ask Jesus where they should get food, and Jesus instructs them in the same way he instructs the disciples to find a room in Jerusalem before the Last Supper. Third, Jesus uses the exact same signs of Holy Communion that he invokes at the Last Supper when John writes, “Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them.” Taken together, these three connections points make it clear that the feeding of the five thousand is a prefiguration and explanation of Jesus’ body, being broken on the cross. On the cross, Jesus models for the world what perfect love is, a love that is not imprisoned by self-gratification or mutuality. This Love is symbolized and made real in our souls through Jesus’ sacrifice in the same way that a piece of bread is broken and consumed to nourish our material bodies.
From a Christian perspective, all of our problems arise from our fear that we are not loved. This is a simplification, but bare with me. From this perspective, all humas are fearful, both consciously and subconsciously, that our lives might be meaningless and have no real value, so we behave in all kinds of peculiar ways. We steal, we lie, we cheat, we manipulate and wound others, all so that we can establish power to create an illusion of value for ourselves that we fear does not otherwise exist. What would our lives be like if we sat down, just like in our story today, and feasted on the knowledge that we are forgiven, loved, and freed from our fear that we are not enough? It seems like such a small thing, to believe that we are forgiven, loved, and free, perhaps even as small as five loaves and bread and two small fish. How could something so small fix the big sticky problems of our lives? Our world? These questions mirror the question that the disciples ask Jesus, "How could so little feed so many?" And yet, today’s story is a sign that points us to the possibility that the forgiveness, love, and freedom revealed on the cross IS enough, more than enough, in fact, to create an abundance of life, more than we can possibly imagine.
Because we are human, every one of us walked into our chapel today carrying some fear. Are we enough? What is the purpose of my life? Where am I going and does it matter? Will anybody even pay a wink of attention to my sermon? In spite of all those fears, and because of them, Jesus is inviting us to sing our Gospel hymn today:
We come with joy to meet our Lord
forgiven, loved and free
in awe and wonder to recall
his life laid down for me.
Not unlike the way that we made an analogy at the beginning of this service during our "Lesson from Creation" between God and the energy that pulses through our universe, we might say that the substance of God’s "energy" is forgiveness, love, and freedom. And not unlike the way that we observed how wood is bursting with material energy that is stored from the Sun’s light, ready to combust and reveal the starlight trapped inside, so too might we say that our bodies are bursting with the spiritual energy of God’s forgiveness, love, and freedom. If only we would sit down, give thanks, and receive the bread that Jesus offers us, we might just come to see that there is more than enough to go around. Perhaps even enough to set the world on fire with God's Love. Amen.
Let’s finish by singing that first verse of Hymn 304 again...