Text: 2 Kings 4:42-44; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21
Telling stories is an art. Especially when it’s not exactly a new story. It’s even more challenging when your audience is all over the map in terms of interest level and capacity to listen.
That was the situation every year when we took our confirmation students to Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp in Colorado. Not everyone was thrilled to go spend a whole week doing confirmation. Even with a high ropes course, river rafting, pretty good dining hall food and, of course, campfires.
Pastors had to attend with their students too, and teach. But thankfully the energetic staff helped plan and lead the study sessions. It went a long way toward keeping things fresh and engaging.
One of the most important goals of confirmation camp was to make sure the students knew some key stories of faith. This was accomplished in a variety of ways. But the best thing we did, in my opinion, happened toward the end of the week. We told the story of Jesus’s passion and resurrection. And we did it a certain way.
The campers were awakened early. They were told to put on sturdy shoes for hiking. And in cabin groups we set off on a steep uphill hike with no showers or breakfast or even the usual morning devotions. There was a lot of moaning.
Along the way up the hill staff were positioned at twelve stations. We stopped at each place to hear a part of the story and do a brief activity. About forty minutes later each group finished the last station, hearing about the death of Jesus on the cross. Then they were instructed to walk quietly the last 5 minutes up the trail to a big meadow where they were told they would have breakfast. The silence was impressive as we entered the meadow.
Staff were busy cooking over wood fires. As soon as everyone arrived and the silence was lifted, the kids asked what was for breakfast; they were starving as only teens can be. The staff announced, “We’re having fish!” And the kids said, “Whaaat? Eww!” They looked in the pans and sure enough, it was fish. Fish sticks actually, deep fried in oil. It was a memorable meal.
Probably no one in the large crowd said, “Ewww!” that day on the mountain on the other side of the Sea Galilee. Jesus had asked Philip where they might buy food. “It’s impossible” Philip said. Fortunately Andrew found a source of bread and fish for all. Yet this was no ordinary meal. It was a very special meal, though not because of how many people were fed.
This story was well known within the Christian community by the time John’s gospel was written around the end of the first century CE. Mark had told it first, followed by Matthew and Luke who hardly altered a word between them. Today we hear John’s version. And it’s a real attention-getter because it’s different. John is not just about the bread miracle. He’s describing something else altogether.
It’s safe to say that this was a very memorable meal. It should be. Here’s why. This is John’s story of the last supper. Yes, it’s way before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. And it lacks the instruction to “…do this to remember me.” But it was near the Passover. Jesus took the bread, (and fish) and gave thanks, and broke and distributed the food. Familiar words, right?
And perhaps the most telling detail of all, is the otherwise strange statement – that, “When Jesus realized they were about to come and take him by force and make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Like Jesus’s withdrawal to the Mount of Olives just before his arrest.
John put loads of sacred content into his account. Jesus was the host and servant of all. There was enough for everyone. The people saw the sign and, recognizing the Elisha story replay, said Jesus was a prophet. The five loaves plus two fish is seven, the number of God’s completeness. And twelve baskets full of bread left over, the number of Israel’s tribes and of the disciples.
The gospels often counted only the men. What about the women and children counted in the other gospels? The women were off foraging for healthy greens of course and had the children with them. Oh wait, that’s my interpretation. Sorry. So John added details and I can’t?
John wraps it all up with the disciples on the rough sea, at night. Fearful and still in the dark about their teacher’s full identity and purpose. But appearing to them as an apparition they didn’t recognize, Jesus identified himself as “I am”, the very name of God. And then in the blink of an eye they found that their boat had, “…reached the land to which they were going.” In the landscape of this story the other side of the Sea of Galilee is the promised land, God’s reign.
So why did John pack all this into the story? Because it connected with his audience on so many levels. It’s not just about the bread, but equally as much about the fish.
Jesus fished for people. Then he called his servants to fish for all people in need of safe harbor.
Remember Mary Magdalene? She was from Magdala, a town also called Taricheae, meaning “fish factory”. Fish was dried there in salt. So many fishy connections in this story. Oh, and the fish carried by the boy with the bread? The word for fish used here, is for those dried fish.
Why the fish? Because Jesus is God’s Son, Savior. Take the first letter of each of these four words in Greek and it spells ichthus. The Greek word for fish. These words held all the meaning of Jesus. It was a purely simple way to help people remember who Jesus was, what he did, and what he continues to do for the whole world. God’s Son, our Savior.
John’s audience was among the first believers to use the fish symbol to identify themselves to other Christians in a time of growing persecution. But hardship only strengthened their faith. The simple fish sign showed the way to safe meeting places of mutual support. It could be idly marked in dirt with a stick to test the reaction of someone who might also be a Christian.
Follow the fish to Jesus, John said, and find in him God’s love, care, salvation and deep soul rest. Telling the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection to children walking hungry and tired to an unknown destination was risky. But breaking their fast with fish in a meadow on a hillside left them with a powerful way to remember and tell others about Jesus. Which is what disciples do.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.