by Cynthia Wilbur
by Cynthia Wilbur
Welcome to February—already! Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, and we’ve got one whole month of 2024 under our collective belts. That means it is time to take stock of our New Year’s resolutions. Have we managed to stick with our new schedules/diets/workouts, etc.? After all, aren’t we still wishing our weights to be a bit lighter, our bank accounts to be a tad heavier, and our schedules to be just-right?
For inspiration to accomplish our goals, we love to indulge in fun clichés—we “pump ourselves up,” so that we can “change the world” (or, at least change those parts we don’t like about ourselves). We plan on “making things different,” and “turning over a fresh leaf”—never mind that for many of us, particularly in the Northern hemisphere, we’re in the middle of winter, with few fresh leaves to be found. We want to either slow down and practice “self-care” or we instead consider stepping it up by finding ourselves a “side hustle” to bring in “more.”
But what if the first month of 2024 brought with it more than just vague feelings of dissatisfaction or the longing for a fresh start? For some of us, what if January brought with it the fear of the unknown—fears of bad health, job loss, bankruptcy, broken relationships, unease, unrest, undoing? We look at the long stretch of the spring, summer, and fall before us, and we see no way to come through in one piece to the other side. How will we make it? What will we do? Will we manage to keep ourselves afloat, or will we sink under the weight of just trying to survive?
In the Gospel of John, chapter 6, Jesus’ disciples are faced with many of these same questions. The chapter starts off with the story of Jesus “feeding the 5,000.” Most biblical historians agree that probably only included the number of men in the crowd, and that when families are taken into account the actual number of people present was probably much closer to 20,000. At any rate, this huge crowd is getting hungry and tired after a full day of teaching, so Jesus confronts the situation by asking Philip, “where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” Imagine how Philip felt in this moment! Many commentators will often note that verse six explicitly tells us that Jesus was testing Philip, implying an apparent lack of faith on Philip’s part. He must have been full of doubt, he must have been a closet skeptic, or perhaps he just hadn’t been paying enough attention to Jesus’ ministry so far. Whatever the case, the commentators state that Christ’s question and Philip’s lackluster response show that Philip just didn’t trust Jesus enough, and thus he obviously failed the faith test. But, in the spirit of generosity and humility, perhaps we can try to put ourselves in Philip’s sandals. Here we encounter an average man, faithfully following Jesus from Galilee down to Jerusalem and back again, simply trying to be a decent disciple—when Jesus puts him on the spot asking him to solve this problem. Yes, Philip is from the area, so in a way it makes sense to ask him his opinion. But poor Philip, faced with a seemingly impossible situation (made worse by the fact that his mentor is apparently asking him to fix things, publicly, in front of all their friends and associates), admits he sees no way out.
Perhaps what Philip is most guilty of in this instance is practicality—in other words, he is guilty of being thoroughly human. He sees the size of the crowd, he knows that Jesus nor his disciples are wealthy, and he realizes that the resources at-hand are not enough to satisfy the need. They simply do not have the funds necessary to buy food for all of these people. Thus, Philip despairs of finding a solution.
Yes, Jesus is testing Philip, but not in a negative way. Jesus’ miraculous feeding reminds Philip, and us, of God’s sustaining grace. And that isn’t even the only miracle Jesus will perform that day…
Amazingly, later on that night, Jesus walks on the water and calms the storm raging over the Sea of Galilee.
Again, Jesus demonstrates his power—this time over the elements themselves, and this time, to fulfill the disciples’ own personal need. Unlike the miraculous feeding earlier in the day, which possibly impacted the gathered crowds more than the disciples directly (since, perhaps, the disciples had just enough money to buy a little food for themselves), this sign personally impacts the disciples on an extreme level. They are in deadly danger, unable to save themselves, until Jesus comes to them and calms the storm.
Of course, this has many spiritual parallels to our own lives. We are lost in our sin, unable to save ourselves. Any attempts to do so will only put us in greater danger. It is God who comes out to us in the midst of our flailing and sinking, reaches out to us, and pulls us out of the depths to bring us safely to shore. But even beyond the echoes of saving grace, here we see the beauties of preserving grace.
The Apostle John ends chapter 6 with Jesus calling himself, “the Bread of Life.” We think of the Lord’s Prayer, and the promise that the Father will give us each day our daily, necessary bread—our daily measure of Christ’s sustaining, preserving grace. It is here that Jesus (and the Apostle John) tie together all the threads of miraculous meals and divine deliverances. Signs and wonders, while certainly appreciated by the recipients and entertaining to readers, are not ends in-and-of themselves. Miracles point to the Miracle Worker, and glory belongs not to the miraculous circumstance, but rather to the God who sustains all creation in his providential hand.
If he fed the crowd, if he calmed the storm, if he promised to save us and sustain us—he will. For the rest of this year and forever!
By Cynthia Wilbur