Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Forgotten Walk

In preparing for a sermon this week, several colleagues have noted that the end of Sunday's gospel lesson (John 6:1-21) doesn't really belong with the beginning. Primarily, this Sunday's lesson seems to be about the feeding of the five thousand, which takes up verses 1-15. Then, for whatever reason, the lectionary authors decided to continue the lesson to include Jesus walking on the water to his distressed disciples in verses 16-21. A friend asked a colleague group, "Anyone else thinking about cutting the gospel lesson off at verse 15?" Of course, as another friend noted, we don't have that authority. We can expand lessons but not contract them. So, whether it makes sense or not, we're going to hear the feeding of the five thousand and the walking on the water and then find out on which part the preacher will focus. I bet that in nine out of ten churches the walking on the water isn't mentioned or is barely mentioned in the sermon.

Jesus walking on the water is recalled in John 6, Mark 6, and Matthew 14. Luke decided to leave it out. Our lectionary gives us Matthew's version in Proper 14A and John's version in the latter part of the gospel reading from Proper 12B. There is no telling of the story in Year C. In Year A, we hear only the miracle of the walking on the water. It is not tied to anything else, which means that once every three years we get to focus on that miracle alone. As I prepare to preach this Sunday, however, I'm looking for a way to use this gospel lesson as the once-every-three-years opportunity to see the link between the feeding of the five thousand and the walking on the water.

In Matthew, Mark, and John, these stories go together. Never is the story of the walking on the water told without telling the story of the feeding of the five thousand immediately before it. They go together. In ways that don't easily work in a Sunday sermon, these passages go together. I don't know that I want to focus on that particular connection, but I want to understand it before I try to preach on anything.

Why are the feeding of the five thousand and the walking on the water linked together? Maybe it helps to step back even further. In all three gospel accounts, these two stories occur at a moment when Jesus has withdrawn from the crowd after the beheading of John the Baptist is recalled. So, that means that in all three cases, we have 1) beheading of JBap. 2) Jesus retreating, 3) crowd following, 4) feeding 5,000, 5) disciples sent away, and 6) Jesus walking on the water to them. Maybe the pattern of retreat and pursuit is important.

In all three accounts, this episode also precedes the demand for a sign by the religious authorities, and in the synoptic accounts, it precedes Peter's confession of Jesus as God's anointed one. In Matthew and Mark, that happens after some additional teachings and miracles, including the feeding of the four thousand. In John, it happens during the Bread of Life discourse that we will read over the next four Sundays. In all cases, however, the feeding of the five thousand heightens the reader's sense of the religious authorities' hard-heartedness. The walking on the water to the disciples is, in effect, Jesus' way of coming to them, reaching them physically and intellectually, as his closest followers try to make sense of the sign.

Maybe these two stories are linked together because this is a moment when Jesus' ministry begins to spread geographically beyond the region of Galilee as he makes his way toward Jerusalem. In some ways, the feeding of the five thousand is a climactic moment of his localized ministry before setting out--literally walking on the water--for new territory.

Or maybe they are linked because the reader is supposed to notice how foolish it is that the disciples would be afraid of Jesus after participating in the feeding miracle. Of course Jesus would come to them. If he fed them in the wilderness, a sign of God's abiding presence, naturally he would stroll out across the waves and come to them in their distress.

I don't know. Like Philip, who was asked by Jesus, "Where are we to get bread for all of these people to eat?" I don't know how it works. But I want to embrace the Spirit's intention of holding these stories together enough so that when I preach--even on just one of them--the connection shines through. I want to hear the gospel lesson read on Sunday and hear the Spirit holding them together in my mind and heart and in the mind and heart of the congregation. So I'm sticking with it--even if I don't fully understand and even if it might be easier to cut off these seemingly extra verses.

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