The Sign of Abundance

John 6:1-15

During this season of Epiphany, of a-ha! moments, we’ve been studying the seven “signs” that Jesus does in the gospel of John. Other gospels might call them miracles, but John never calls them that. He calls them signs, because they are about more than just the act itself. The point of the sign is not what Jesus does; the point of the “sign” is that it points to something about who Jesus is. The first and second ones that we have already looked at both resulted in deeper trust on the part of the people who witnessed the signs. 

But not everyone who sees a sign increases their trust in Jesus. Because some people can’t see past the sign. Some people are interested in the miracle for its own sake. This is the problem with miracles. They never quite satisfy us, because humans are silly creatures with short memories. If we get what we want this time, we’re happy. But if we don’t get what we want next time, we’re out. Unless we have a relationship of active trust with the God of the Miracle, the miracle itself will never be enough for us. We see that pattern in the gospel of John as well. Some people see a miracle and it sparks a deeper active trust in the one who did the miracle. Some people see a miracle and just want to see another one, like some kind of divine Las Vegas show. We’ll see that in this morning’s story. 

John’s gospel includes seven specific signs. But it also includes lots of references to Jesus doing other signs that don’t get retold in detail. Apparently, Jesus was doing signs the whole way through his ministry. Jesus was constantly demonstrating who he was, not just what he could do, and inviting people into deeper relationships of active trust. Some people “see the signs” and their lives have more meaning as they live more fully. Some people see the miracles, but miss the signs. 

This morning we are going to hear one of the only stories that shows up in all four gospels. Remember that the early church affirmed four distinct spiritual biographies of Jesus, written by four different people, with four different purposes, for four different communities of readers. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a lot of similarities. The gospel of John is very different. This is a reminder to us that our spiritual ancestors thought four gospels were better than one, that diversity was better than uniformity. So the story you are going to hear this morning will probably be very familiar, even if you don’t know a lot of Bible stories, and I’ll point out where it’s different from some of the other versions.

Let us listen now for the word and wisdom of God in the gospel of John chapter 6, verses 1 through 15.

After this Jesus went across the Galilee Sea (that is, the Tiberias Sea). A large crowd followed him, because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. {They are coming to see what he can do.} Jesus went up a mountain and sat there with his disciples. It was nearly time for Passover, the Jewish festival. {John is the only one who says this happened at Passover.}

Jesus looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward him. He asked Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” Jesus said this to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do. {In some of the other stories, this happens near Philip’s hometown, which might be why Jesus calls on him.}

Philip replied, “More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit.”

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?”

Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass there. They sat down, about five thousand of them. {That’s 5,000 men which means there were at least double if not triple that many people when you include women and children.} Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, {The Greek word here is “eucharisto” which is where we get our word “Eucharist,” another name for Communion}he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted. {This is different, and significant. In all the other stories, the disciples distribute the food.} 

When everyone had plenty to eat, Jesus said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted or lost.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that had been left over by those who had eaten. {In all the other gospels, the story stops here. John keeps going, giving us an interpretation and a result. This is what makes it a sign and not just a miracle.}

When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world.” Jesus understood that they were about to come and force him to be their king, so he took refuge again, alone on a mountain.

John 6:1-15

These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

Friends, I grew up in church. I have heard this story, or one of the other three versions of it, I can’t tell you how many times. Hundreds, at least. But one thing I love about the Bible is how it speaks to me. Sometimes when I come to a story, I see what I’ve seen before, because I need to be reminded that God is faithful. And sometimes when I come to a story, I see something I’ve never seen before, because I’m different than I was the last time and God is always on the move, meeting me where I am. This morning I’d like to briefly share with you what stood out to me. I hope that this week you’ll take some time to read this story again on your own, maybe a few times, and see what stands out to you.

First, the disciples see scarcity. Duh. I’ve seen that before. In the other three versions of this story, the disciples come to Jesus first and say, “Send the people away so they can get something to eat somewhere else.” In this version, Jesus initiates the conversation, “Where are we going to buy food for all these people?” Jesus starts with the assumption that the people are going to stay, and that they are going to be fed. But Philip, the hometown boy who knows that even if they had that much money, there’s nowhere to buy that much bread, Philip says, “Impossible. Can’t be done.” The story says that Jesus asked this in order to test him. I invite you to think of this test like an assessment: what is the level of Philip’s trust in Jesus? How far up is his trust dimmer switch? Jesus is checking. Turns out it’s not very high. Andrew fares slightly better. He says they have a little bit, but not enough. The disciples see scarcity. And this week I wondered how the story might have been different if instead of seeing scarcity the disciples had anticipated abundance.

I struggle with a scarcity mindset. Sam is the brave and creative one in our family, the one with big ideas. And I’m the one who says, “Oh but what about that thing?” Or “We don’t have enough of this to do that.” Many organizations, including churches who supposedly exist to follow Jesus, struggle with seeing scarcity. Not enough money in the budget to fix the plaster. Not enough teachers for Sunday School. Not enough time to get the team together. Not enough. Not enough. Not enough. We see scarcity. 

What might happen for us if instead of seeing scarcity, we anticipate abundance? How would our attitudes and our actions shift if we trust that we have more than enough to do anything God calls us to do together? What could God do in us and through us in the world if we assume that with God all things are possible? Not stupidly, not naïvely, but with hearts and minds full of the kind of trust that leads to action. 

All through the gospels, the disciples see scarcity. Do you know when they start anticipating abundance? It’s in the book of Acts after they are filled with the Holy Spirit. All through the book of Acts, Spirit-filled followers of Jesus operate in the world with a mindset of trusting God’s abundance. They take actions assuming that God will show up. Jesus is not around in person to carry them anymore. And so they step forward in humility and hope, empowered by the endlessly creative Holy Spirit, and they change the world. Instead of seeing scarcity, they anticipate abundance.

The second thing I noticed in this story is that Jesus distributes the food and the disciples pick up the leftovers. And at first I wasn’t very struck by this. In the other versions of the story, the disciples distribute the food and the point is that God has empowered us to carry out God’s work. In this version, Jesus distributes the food because the point is that all abundance has its source in God. That Jesus is God made flesh, meeting physical and spiritual needs, that all good things come directly from the hand of God. Both versions have a true message we need to hear. What really struck me in this version is how the disciples pick up the leftovers, because Jesus specifically says that nothing must be wasted or lost. 

Nothing that Jesus gives must be wasted or lost. Now friends, don’t hear that as some big guilt trip. That’s not it. If we anticipate abundance, and God gives it, let’s make sure it doesn’t get wasted or lost. The more we recognize that everything good in the world comes directly from the hand of the All-loving God, the more want to make sure that goodness is spread as widely as possible. Friends, if God has given you a gift, and God has given everyone a gift, don’t waste it. Take it. Use it to make your life meaningful and bless others. Your gift is actually a little bit of God in you; don’t just let it sit around.

So anticipate abundance, don’t waste what God gives, and the last thing that stands out to me in that the people at the end have the right recognition but the wrong reaction. This is what I was talking about at the beginning: how do people react to the miraculous sign? The people in this story saw the sign and correctly interpreted it: They said, “This is the prophet who is to come into the world.” That’s a very Jewish way of interpreting Jesus. The Jewish people were expecting a “new Moses” based on a promise in Deuteronomy chapter 18. Nobody really understands who Jesus is or what he’s doing before the resurrection, but these folks are getting close. They have the right recognition but the wrong reaction. They recognize that Jesus is sent by God to change the world and lead God’s people forward into a new way of being and living. But their response is to try to force him to be their king, their political king, like, overthrow King Herod. 

They see the signs, they even mostly correctly interpret what the signs mean, but then they respond in a completely inappropriate way. Why? Because they don’t trust. For these people, seeing the signs did not lead to deeper trust. So, they don’t trust that God already has a plan and that it’s a good plan. Instead they want to force Jesus into their mold, to do things their way, and accomplish their plan. They want to use Jesus as a means to their own end. Which of course, we never do. Without a relationship of active trust, we will just try to use Jesus as a weapon against the people we don’t like. Only with trust, can we anticipate abundance and make use of all the good things God has already given us. Only with trust, can we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Not beliefs, but actual actions that bring us lasting joy and participate in God’s plan to heal the world. Amen. 

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