A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 26, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: John 6:1-21
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Bishop John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong is rescuing the Gospel of John for me. And just in the nick of time. For the next few weeks, the lectionary takes a break from Mark’s Gospel and forays back into John. I say “back” because we already spent a hunk of time in John’s gospel, jumping around from one reading to another, during Lent and Easter.  Now, rather than jumping back and forth, we’ll immerse ourselves for five weeks in just one chapter.

This is an important chapter, but (like all of John) a challenge to interpret. And it contains some hard saying, including the time Jesus says, “Eat me,” to his disciples. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In his book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, Spong argues that the gospel of John must be interpreted with a Jewish mystical sensibility. “John is not about literalism,” Spong writes. “His understanding of Jesus is not about what Jesus literally said or what Jesus literally did. John is a Jewish writer, writing a Jewish book that transcends literalism at ever point, and he draws his major images from Jewish mysticism, as he seeks to tell the story of Jesus’ life as one who transcends limits, breaks barriers and invites us all into a new place he represents. This gospel is not about God becoming human, about God putting on flesh and masquerading as a human being; it is about the divine appearing in the human and calling the human to a new understanding of what divinity means. It is about bringing God out of the sky and redefining God as the ultimate dimension of the human. It is about the spirit transcending the limits of the flesh, not in some pious or religious sense, but in opening the flesh to all that it means to be human. It is about seeing Jesus as the doorway into a new consciousness, which is also a doorway into God, who might be perceived as a universal consciousness.”[1]

Now, if that is making your head hurt, please relax. I’ll attempt to interpret – at least enough for today’s sermon. Spong is saying that the people who wrote John’s gospel (he says that John is a compilation of several sources, perhaps with a final editor) were (1) Jewish and (2) mystics. The book was written just after the followers of Jesus were kicked out of the synagogue, but the authors still identified themselves as being Jews. They also came from a mystical tradition, one that understands the oneness of humanity and God (perhaps all of creation and God) and that seeks to more deeply connect to that divine permeating presence that can open one to a new dimension of consciousness.[2]

Because this gospel is mystical in nature, none of it should be taken literally. Rather everything is first and foremost (and perhaps only) symbolic. The sayings of Jesus are not intended to be understood as direct quotes, but as storytelling to shape an idea in the listeners’ ears. The characters are not intended to be understood as actual people, but as symbols and as literary devices to help us understand the mystical, to understand that which can never be directly expressed.

I find it interesting that Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians love this gospel so dearly. These wings of Christianity are almost always literalist and therefore, according to Spong, interpreting the gospel exactly wrong. I don’t know if their interpreting is wrong, but I do know it doesn’t work for me. My theology is much closer to mysticism than literalism, which is one of the reason’s Spong’s book is rescuing the fourth gospel for me.

With this underpinning, let’s begin our journey into the sixth chapter of John’s gospel.

We are well into what Spong (and others) call the book of signs. Rather than “miracles,” John calls the miraculous things Jesus does, “signs.” That is, they point to something else, something deeper, more profound. The first of these signs is when Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana. Other signs include his visit with Nicodemus, his conversation with the woman at the well, and the healing of a lame man on the Sabbath.

Now, Jesus is “on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, a wilderness area. A great crowd, attracted by the … signs, has followed him. Jesus and his disciples climb into the hills. There they sit down and look at the multitude coming toward him. Turning to Philip, Jesus asks, ‘How are we to buy bread so that these people may eat?’ It is a strange request. Jesus apparently assumes that he is responsible for feeding the people. That is hardly a literal expectation, but it does serve to set the stage for John to tell his story. Philip, recognizing the absurdity of his request, responds in a manner similar to the responses we have seen before in this gospel from literal-minded people. If one hears the question literally, one must respond with a literal answer. The question, John states editorially, is a test, designed to measure the level of Philip’s understanding, for Jesus (we are told), believing himself to be the ‘bread of life,’ clearly knows what he is going to do. Philip, however, failing to comprehend, responds literally: ‘Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread’ for everyone to have even a taste.

“Andrew then moves onto center stage with information that seems equally irrelevant. ‘There is a lad here,’ he says, ‘who has five barley loaves and two fish’ (John 6:9). It is a tiny thing, a mere drop in the proverbial bucket of the need facing them. Jesus, however, takes this apparently insignificant gift and invites the people, said to number in the thousands, to sit down on the grass. He gives thanks, and then begins to distribute the bread and the fish. The people eat ‘as much as they wanted’ (John 6:11). Jesus then orders his disciples to ‘gather up the fragments that nothing be lost’ (John 6:12). They do so, filling twelve baskets with fragments. When this feeding act is complete the people say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world’ (John 6:14), a familiar Johannine reference to a promise of Moses.”[3]

This isn’t the only place where Moses is lurking in the background. To start off with, we’re told it’s nearly the Passover, so that brings Moses to mind. And then we hear echoes of the four key events in the Moses saga. We have echoes of Moses on the mountaintop communing with God, echoes of the manna in the wilderness, echoes of the parting of the Red Sea, even echoes of the burning bush. In the Hebrew scripture, the order is the other way around: burning bush, then Red Sea, then manna, then mountaintop, but all the elements are here. Jesus is on the mountainside with his disciples, communing with them. Jesus provides enough bread for everyone (with leftovers, no less, that keep). And, later in the reading, Jesus walks to his disciples on the water – no need to part the seas for Jesus – and offers up that burning bush reference.

And John does more than reference Moses. “Jesus, the prophet anticipated by Moses, is now revealed to possess the power that the God of Moses possessed. He can feed a hungry multitude in the wilderness with bread. He can transcend the barrier that water brings when it must be navigated.”[4] John is revealing something about Jesus in this chapter, something we will get into more deeply in the weeks ahead. For now, it is enough to say that Jesus possesses the power that the God of Moses possessed.

I jumped ahead a bit when I talked about Jesus walking on the water, so let’s go back to the text. After all the people have had their fill of bread and fish, the text says that Jesus, perceiving that “they [are] about to come and take him by force to make him king” (John 6:15), withdraws to the hills by himself. Why don’t the people who want to force him to be king chase after him? Because John isn’t being literal.

I am struck by this attempted act of coercion, the second of three in the story, even if it didn’t literally happen. I’m also surprised I haven’t seen any commentary on this aspect of the story.[5] The first act may not have been coercion, but it might have. The text doesn’t say if Andrew hijacked the kid’s lunch when he brought it to Jesus or if the kid offered it. I don’t want to think of Andrew as a bully – hey, kid, give me your lunch money – but it could have happened that way.

The third is much more subtle and we need to keep reading the text to get to it. Jesus has gone off into the hills by himself. Evening has fallen and the disciples got in their boats and start across the Sea of Capernaum, which is also called the Sea of Galilee. We know it’s evening, still John makes a point of reminding us that it’s dark. “Darkness to this gospel writer is always a metaphor for being apart from Christ. The disciples are alone on the sea. The waves of water were rising. A strong wind was blowing. Rowing was hard. This is when Jesus was said to have come to them ‘walking on the sea.’ They were filled with fear as he approached, but he said to them. ‘I am.’ That is not the way the text is [typically] translated, because even the translators did not understand the meaning of these words. The translators had Jesus say: ‘It is I,’ as if all the disciples needed was some sense of identification, but the Greek words in the original text are ego eimi – ‘I am.’ Jesus was claiming the name of God [, the name revealed at the burning bush].”[6]

John tells us, “Then they [the disciples] wanted to take him into the boat.” But Jesus doesn’t go into the boat. Suddenly, they are on the shore.

This is the third attempted act of coercion – the disciples trying to get Jesus to get in the boat. But Jesus keeps saying, “No” to our limited and literal understandings of life. No, we don’t need to worry about money to feed this crowd; I am the bread that feeds them. No, I won’t let you make me your king; that’s not what I’m about. No, I won’t get into your boat; come out of the boat here with me; the water’s fine – scary, perhaps, but fine.

Jesus was saying: “I am the life of God,… calling you into something new, something frightening and dangerous. I am the love of God calling you to move beyond your defensive barriers, your security walls and into a new understanding of what it means to be human.”[7]

That’s our invitation today: to move beyond our defensive barriers, beyond our security walls, and into a new understanding of what it means to be human.


[1] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 68.

[2] Ibid, 53.

[3] Ibid, 127-128.

[4] Ibid, 130.

[5] Not that there isn’t some commentary on it. I just haven’t seen it. I assume I’m not the first to have this thought.

[6] Spong, op. cit., 132.

[7] Ibid.