One of the resources that I used for studying this week’s Gospel text suggested teaching children the story of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus’ walking on water by teaching them the difference between magic and miracles. They even came up with this rap rhyme – which is probably too lame for many children, but since I’m middle-aged, I’m quite happy to recite it!
Strings of coloured scarves
people sawn in halves
mirrors, wands and cards…
bendy forks and spoons,
rides on witches brooms…
Rabbits out of hats,
Anything like that’s…
Candles, corn and flowers,
stories by the hour,
miracles of power…
Hands that heal and care,
God’s love and truth to share
with people everywhere…
Hungry people fed,
fish and loaves of bread,
risen from the dead…Jesus!
Especially in their younger years, it makes sense to teach children about the difference between ‘magic’ and ‘miracles’.
But today, I want to offer an adult version of this ‘magic versus miracles’ lesson. I hope it won’t frighten you too much, but I want to use a theological word: theophany. Theophany means an appearance of God to humanity, it means a divine disclosure.
John’s account of these two well-known bible stories – the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water – are accounts of divine disclosures. Both of these stories are theophanies. Yes, both of these events are miracles, but if with think that the main point is simply to say ‘Jesus performed two extraordinary miracles, therefore he must be the Son of God’, we miss out on many layers of richness in the stories. What’s important isn’t so much that Jesus performs miracles as what these miracles say about who he is.
You could make the argument that all of John’s Gospel is devoted to theophany – to divine disclosure. John is the evangelist who makes the direct connection for us that the person who has seen Jesus has seen the Father. John is the evangelist who reports Jesus as saying that he and the Father are one. John’s Gospel is devoted primarily to the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. So, I think it’s fair to say that this Gospel is devoted to divine disclosure – to theophany.
So what do these stories say about who Jesus is? How do they disclose to us the nature of Jesus beyond his ability to perform miracles?
There are actually a number of images in these two stories. First of all there are two typical Johannine images: Jesus as the bread of life and Jesus as the light of the world.
In John’s version of the feeding of the 5000, it is Jesus himself who distributes the bread and the fishes. Unlike the other Gospels, John’s story is not so much about Jesus asking his disciples to feed the world as it is about demonstrating that Jesus is the one who is the source of nourishment for humanity. Jesus is the bread of life.
And then there is the story of Jesus’ walking on water. Did you notice that, in John’s story, Jesus does not invite Peter to walk on the water with him? Perhaps the most significant details of this particular story are the darkness and the disciples’ fear.
Jesus – the light of the world – comes into the darkness and sheds the light of his presence. It’s almost a fairy-tale ending, with everything turning out alright in the end, but not before the disciples experience a lot of fear and doubt. Where has Jesus gone? When will he come back to us? Can we be sure that he will return to us? Is this really him? Important questions for the disciples in the boat, important questions for the early church and important questions for us today. And Jesus answer to them and to us is: ‘Do not be afraid’.
Jesus as the Mosaic Prophet
And there is yet another divine revelation in this story. Jesus is the latter-day prophet who stands in the tradition of Moses. With his reference to the feeding of the 5000 as happening at the time of the Passover, John makes explicit what is implicit in the other accounts of this story: That this feeding is connected with Yahweh’s provision of manna to the people of Israel in the desert. And the crowd acknowledges this when they say: ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’
And then just in case we fail to be hit in the head with all the obvious symbolism of Jesus’ Messiahship, John – like Matthew and Mark – gives the story of Jesus’ walking on water. A kind of upside-down version of the crossing of the Red Sea. Including Jesus identification of himself as ‘I am’ – translated here as ‘It is I’.
The problem, of course, is with the people’s conception of what it meant to be the Messiah and Jesus’ understanding of Messiahship. The people wanted to turn Jesus into an earthly King and a conquering hero, so Jesus was forced to withdraw to an isolated spot. Jesus knew that his kingdom would have no followers and that it would wield no earthly power. Jesus’ triumph was going to be achieved by dying rather than by killing. A kingship, as Paul said, that would foolishness to both Jew and Gentile alike. Jesus’ upside-down Messiahship is another divine disclosure: about who God is and what his values are.
I think these two stories provide for us a number of pictures of God’s disclosure of himself.
God is a God who holds a banquet and who wants to provide generously for all people, whether that provision seems easy and God-given or whether it needs to be made through the obedience of his disciples.
God is a God who comes to us in the ordinary things of life – bread and fish and bread and wine. And not just these things, of course, but as the Jewish prayers of blessing remind us, God is present in all things.
The God who originally declared his covenant with the people of Israel has declared in Jesus his covenant with all people and for all time.
And finally, God is a God who knows that human beings are sometimes afraid. He knows that we sometimes feel bereft of him as if we were alone in a storm in a small boat in the dark. And he says to us ‘Do not be afraid’. Sometimes his voice can seem feint, but it is a firm promise as well as an invitation.
This is the same God who we meet in the bread and the wine at the Lord’s table. May he be with us now in the ordinary things of his creation. Amen
 From Roots Children and Young People, Sunday 27 July 2003, p. 18