Last week we concluded reading the first six chapters of Mark’s Gospel. It took us thirteen Sundays. Those six chapters presented, first of all, Jesus beginning his Galilean ministry. We witnessed him curing some people, liberating others from demonic possession, and even raising a girl from the dead. We heard his teaching about faith and the kingdom of God. Lastly, we saw Jesus sending out the Twelve for their first missionary journey. Following his model of ministry, they preached, healed the sick and drove out demons.
The Church, by choosing these passages for our reflection, is asking us to consider ourselves as the natural heirs to Jesus’ ministry. He paved the way, the Twelve followed, and now we continue his mission as we await the kingdom.
the next few Sundays the Church will be reflecting on what is at the center of Christian mission: the Eucharist. Today we begin chapter six of John’s Gospel. This is the chapter in which John unfolds his Eucharistic theology. He begins with an account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish.
Jesus had just had a difficult confrontation with the religious leaders after he cured a crippled man on the Sabbath. He boldly condemned them for their lack of faith, declaring, “I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts.”
He then left them, and that area. He crossed to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. A very large crowd followed him “because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick.”
Here John takes a moment to set the scene. Jesus went up a mountain and sat down, the traditional position for a rabbi as he teaches. His disciples surrounded him. We’re told the “Jewish feast of Passover was near.” With this simple image John is evoking powerful images. All that is to follow will be an important teaching. The reference to the Passover is meant to set our thinking in the context of the greatest event in Jewish history, the exodus. Jesus’ teaching will reinterpret that epic experience.
“When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, ‘Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?’” With this question Jesus began an extraordinary teaching.
Philip could barely believe that Jesus asked the question. How absurd! “Two hundred days wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little!” Andrew, perhaps jokingly, noted an offer made by a boy. “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?” Barley loaves were the bread of the poor. This poor boy heard Jesus’ question and was willing to share everything he had.
Let’s process the moment. Jesus was setting up something. It seems that going to a mountaintop was essential for his greatest teachings. He delivered his set of new commandments on a mountaintop. That teaching has come to be called, the Sermon on the Mount, and the commandments, the Beatitudes. Jesus took Peter, James and John to a mountaintop where he revealed himself to them. This experience came to be known as the Transfiguration.
Why would he choose a mountaintop? Because it harkened back to the Passover event. As soon as the Israelites escaped from Egypt through the Red Sea they entered the Sinai, specifically, the desert of Sin. From that moment on, they were totally dependent on God. There was no food. There was no water. The people immediately panicked. So God reached out to them. He fed them with manna, something like bread that they found on the ground each morning. He sent flocks of quail over the camp in the evening to supply them with meat. Moses struck a rock with his staff and water gushed out for them to drink.
From the desert of Sin they journeyed to Mount Sinai. There, God came down upon the mountain in an extraordinary display of divine glory. There was thunder, lightening and smoke. God’s voice was like a trumpet blast. This dramatic theophany was the context in which God chose to make them his people. On Mount Sinai God entered into a covenant with them, and gave them the Law. They were now the people of Israel.
Jesus, the new Moses, was leading the chosen people to a mountain where they would enter into a new covenant. But how different this new covenant would be. Like the Israelites in the desert, this new people would also be totally dependent on God, but in a shockingly different way. “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink.” (John 7:37) “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” (John 6:35)
Let’s return to the scene. Andrew may have laughed at the boy who offered six barley loaves and two fish to feed five thousand people because he had forgotten Jesus’ teaching, “Amen I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) Jesus then gave a simple instruction, “Have the people recline.” We’re back to the Passover again.
At the Seder, the Passover dinner, the ritual calls for children to ask four questions. The first one is alluded to in this simple instruction Jesus gave them. “On all other nights we eat sitting upright or reclining, on this night we all recline.” The wealthy and those who were not slaves would lounge on sofas during special meals. Jesus is about to celebrate a new Passover meal. In a few moments they would be dining in the kingdom of God. John notes that the place had a great deal of grass so they could all easily recline. Close your eyes. Smell the grass. Listen. “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I lack. In green pastures you let me graze…You set a table before me as my enemies watch. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows. Only goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life. I will dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.” (Psalm 23)
“Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted.” In the kingdom of heaven, when God feeds us there’s always enough food. In fact, the twelve baskets filled with leftovers can feed the whole world.
Jesus gave thanks, efcharisto in the Greek text. This miraculous meal, on this glorious mountaintop, was the Great Thanksgiving, the Eucharist.
God cared for the Israelites and fed then with manna. Now God offers himself as our food. “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that came down from heaven so that one may eat and not die. I am the living bread come down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (John 6:48-51)
The Eucharist is the food for our journey to the kingdom. It nourishes us and sustains us. It also transforms us. Through the Eucharist we “Put on Christ,” as Saint Paul will teach. Having put on Christ we’re ready to carry his mission to the world.