Old Testament Reading#: 2 Kings 4:42-44
New Testament Reading#: John 6: 1-14
Paul Tillich contends that not only are the great religious stories,
the ones that can transform our lives, not historical in nature, but that
recognizing their symbolic nature is the key to receiving what the stories
have to offer us. As long as we insist that it all happened the way it's
recorded, we may never see through the story to the spiritual reality it
As the Zen story has it, it's as if you asked me where the moon is, and
I pointed to it, but you refused to look beyond my pointing hand. You
might come away thinking that my pointing hand was the moon!
Or, more likely, if you thought my pointing hand was supposed to
be the moon, you would walk away thinking yourself no more enlightened
about the moon, but thinking I was crazy! Whatever the moon
is, it can't be a pointing hand! You know that much at least!
That is the plight of many people who have turned away from religion in
disgust as from a tissue of fairy tales unworthy of their attention. They
dismiss religion as Freud did, a childish illusion we are better rid of.
They are quite right: we must mature, and we must not allow religion to
prevent maturity. But where they are wrong is in thinking that in
itself religion is a bar to maturity. It is not. After all it is
the Bible which tells us to "put away childish things."
I would like to consider with you what may be the best single example
of a story understandable in Tillich's sense: the feeding miracle reported
once in John's gospel, twice each in Mark and Matthew.
The minute one takes a close look at it, its historical difficulties
become insurmountable: For one thing, there is the question of the
similarity to the earlier miracle story in which Elisha feeds the
multitude in the same way. Forgive me, but I am inclined to think we have
here one of many cases of a New Testament story being constructed from an
Old Testament prototype.
Then there is the question of it happening twice. If it did, let me
tell you the real miracle of the situation: it is the supernatural
thick-headedness of the disciples! One can readily see how they could be
skeptical the first time Jesus suggests they feed a vast crowd with a
single sandwich, but the second time in precisely the same situation?
Impossible! Wouldn't there at least be a sense of deja vue?
And then, as Strauss pointed out, what are we supposed to imagine Jesus
did? Did he snap his fingers and cause new barley loaves to appear out of
a hat? Did he stretch a single one like a sponge so that under his hands
it became bigger and bigger, longer than the longest novelty sandwich
envisioned by the mind of a deli owner?
But suppose he did it. Will you please tell me the worth of such a
report? Can you tell me what difference it would make to Christian
existence to know that Jesus was capable of such sorcerous feats? In the
modern age, such a claim has become an embarrassment. Do you know even of
any Pentecostal wonder-worker who would pretend to ape this feat of Jesus?
It may sound to you as if I am criticizing this story. I am not.
By process of elimination I am seeking the true and abiding value of this
story of a miracle of bread. And in fact I am quite sure I have found it.
But don't let me deceive you that it was my own discovery! No, modern
scholars have learned it from the Fourth Evangelist, who long ago made the
real meaning of the story quite clear.
In John chapter 6 we read first of the feeding, then of a subsequent
encounter between Jesus and those he fed. He deflates their enthusiasm:
"You seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of
the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food
which endures to eternal life!" (26-27)
Dare I suggest that those who insist upon the historical accuracy of
the feeding stories are hell-bent on the bread which perishes? Because I
am sure the real point is rather the miracle of the bread which leads to
eternal life. And what is that bread? Again we have only to read further
in the same chapter: "I am the bread that came down from heaven." "This is
the bread which, if one eats of it, he shall not die." "The bread which I
will give for the life of the world is my flesh." In short, the feeding
miracle stories are symbolic stories of the eucharist. For what is it that
is multiplied from but beyond the form of earthly bread? Is
it merely more bread? No, it is the renewing grace of Jesus
Christ. It is his Spirit.#
What is the miracle of bread that these stories mean to tell of? It is
the simple yet incomprehensible fact that as we partake of bread and cup
physically we are partaking of the Risen Christ spiritually.
At least it can be so! Paul speaks of the communion elements as
"spiritual food and spiritual drink," but warns that it does absolutely no
good if one fails to "discern the body."
If you have listened carefully you may have noticed that our communion
liturgy contains certain phrases not only from the Last Supper accounts
but also from John's story of the feeding of the multitude and the Bread
of Life discourse. Because that, too, is about the Lord's Supper.
Every miracle story includes a skeptic. In this story it is Andrew, who
just cannot see how a vast crowd is to be fed with a handful of food. Such
skepticism did not die with him. It remains alive and well in the
Protestant churches, where we just cannot believe that a physical act can
convey spiritual grace.
You look at what you know is the humblest fare: cubes of Wonder Bread
and cups of Welchade, and you think, "What has this possibly to do with
the salvation of God?"
You are happy enough to recognize that stories contain symbols,
especially when it relieves you of the burden of taking the stories
literally, but why is it considered impossible among you that there should
be symbolic actions, too?
Indeed the rituals are the way we enter into the reality the symbols
mean to convey. Myth is always the rationale for ritual.
You can sweep away all theology of the sacraments at this point. In
fact I think you are better off if you do. It is enough if you will
approach this communion table with a single thought in mind: "I seek to
imbibe the grace of Christ. I seek not the bread which perishes, but that
which leads to eternal life."