This is basically yesterday morning's sermon (text John 6 1-21), though I had this in the back of my mind when I was composing it.
You may sometimes hear it said that the important thing for any Christian is to love Jesus, or to have a "personal relationship" with Jesus (despite that last description being profoundly unScriptural). It's true that loving Jesus is important, but I think we need to be a little more guarded before assuming that we know what it actually means to love Jesus. For think about the crowd in our gospel reading today – these people clearly loved Jesus, they have been flocking around him around the lakeside – but they didn’t understand him. They wanted to make him king by force so Jesus has to leave. They didn’t get the meaning of his Messiahship right, and there is a lesson for us here – so often we love our own reflection in Christ, rather than allowing Christ’s reflection in us to be born. As Christians we are called to allow ourselves to be shaped by His desires, rather than trying to shape Him according to our desires.
Context of the story: John the Baptist has been beheaded, and Jesus has withdrawn with his disciples. Yet the crowds would not leave him alone. Instead of withdrawing even further, he had compassion on them – they were "sheep without a shepherd" if you remember last week’s gospel. This episode says important things about Jesus’ character.
2 things going on: the first is to do with kosher regulations. This was a major issue at the time, the Pharisees were very concerned to ensure that all the proper regulations were followed, and your soul was in danger if you didn’t keep them. But here is a dramatic overcoming of those taboos. Bread broken and passed around – who knows what people had touched, whether they were unclean. Yet it didn’t matter.
The second and even more important miracle is the overcoming of personal relationships. There was a strong sense at the time that who you ate with defined who you were. Again, this was why the Pharisees were so offended when Jesus broke bread with sinners. Jesus ate with sinners, therefore he was a sinner too. But here, on this hillside, Jesus generated a fellowship amongst thousands of people. What a risk – you are who you eat with.
Generating solidarity amongst so many people – this was the real miracle. No hierarchies, no ranking system, no sense of some people being more important than others. No sign of Jesus going round the crowd saying 'are you worthy to eat with me?' And this is the church, the church which is formed when bread is broken together. Our gospel readings over the next few weeks will be exploring this, for this is something crucial to church identity – when Jesus says unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you. Breaking bread together is not an optional part of being a Christian – it is in fact precisely where we are trained to set aside our own desires and become part of a new community that is not of our own making, not a product of our own desires, but a product of the one who said ‘do this in remembrance of me’. The Eucharist is where we learn what it means to love Jesus, it is the school for our desire. Sharing in it is a matter of obedience to our Lord's clear command and teaching: 'it is our duty and our joy...'
The point of stories such as this is that you are moved by them to recognise the real nature of the person at the centre. Because once you see that nature, and are moved by it, then you are very close to loving it – loving Him, loving who He actually is, not a fulfilment of our fantasies, not someone determined by the desires of our egoes, but the Messiah, the Christ, the son of the living God.
In meeting Jesus we are fed food for our souls. Jesus fed the five thousand, they all ate and were satisfied. And although we were not there on the hillside in Galilee, we are here this morning, and we can meet Jesus, love Him and be fed by Him, when we break bread together.