1) John 6: The Impossible Need & The Unforeseen Response

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – July 25, 2021

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145:10-11, 15-18; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15

John 6: A Preview

Beginning today, and for the next several weeks, we will be working through the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. As you may know, the Church has a three year cycle for the Sunday readings; years A, B, and C. In year A we read from Matthew’s Gospel, in year B, Mark, and in year C, Luke. John is read during the Lent and Easter seasons, but every summer of year B the Gospel of Mark takes a little vacation, and the Gospel of John makes an appearance for five weeks. And for five weeks, that appearance is taken solely from the sixth chapter. John six is a pivotally important chapter, because it is the chapter that contains and is centered on what is known as the “Bread of Life Discourse.” It lays the foundation for later reflection and development on the Eucharist, on this “Bread of Life” we celebrate and receive each and every Sunday. So I would encourage you to pull our your bibles, dust them off, and perhaps begin to read and meditate on this chapter over the next five weeks. So that’s where we are; that’s where we’re headed.

A Concrete Need

And if we’re going to focus on this one chapter for five weeks, we need to help focus our attention, or we could miss what’s going on. We need to put ourselves in the right mindset to hear and understand what Jesus is saying and doing.

So think about it this way. In our life we have a lot of things that we perceive as “needs.” And some of these things are very good, very important. But also, we can go after things that we think we need (and maybe we really do need them), but even then we can realize that even these things don’t always live up to the hype. They don’t really respond to the need we were experiencing. But nevertheless, we have these things we perceive as needs. Very concrete, very real, very tangible, very much at the forefront of our experience. We have things that we need. Concrete things.

For example, every year a priest is required to make a retreat—this is a concrete need. A retreat is simply a time of prayer and reflection, a time to rest and refocus. There are monasteries and retreat houses all over the country for just this purpose. It’s like our Gospel last week: the Apostles have been off doing all of this ministry, working hard, and when they return Jesus says, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). A retreat, a withdrawal from the anxieties and stress and craziness of life—that’s something we need. That’s a concrete need we have.

This past year for my retreat I (I go on a retreat with the same group every year, a group of about forty priests, and I don’t choose the location, I just go)—this past year the retreat house we went to was located…in West Palm Beach, Florida. I know, the sacrifices I endure to be a priest! Carry that cross, brother! Truly astounding.

But when you’re flying in to West Palm Beach, Florida, everyone (with the exception of a very few individuals who are going there to visit their in-laws)—everyone going there is stoked out of their mind!“West Palm Beach? Ah, have you been there? Mama mia! Ah! I love Palm Beach.” The buzz is palpable. But I got there and saw people are living out their wildest fantasies: renting a luxury car for the week, fancy restaurants, endless sunshine, spending it with the people they actually love—except for people visiting in-laws—and just having an overall paradisiacal experience. “If this were heaven, I hope I die tomorrow!”

But, as amazing as it is, it doesn’t solve anything. It didn’t solve anything for me. Yeah, it is nice! But pretty soon, the “nice” and the “amazing” wears off. The weather being seventy-five and sunny every day isn’t that great. The food is good, but eventually it’s just food—we have food here. The ocean is incredible, but then the salt gets annoying and the beach just leaves sand everywhere. I don’t know anyone that enjoys living out of a suitcase. And eventually it ends and you go back to your real life.

A Concrete (But Impossible) Need

Kinda depressing, when you think about it. Even if everything were great, everything in life was in order, you didn’t want for anything, you had a nice house and family and everything—if everything were amazing, that doesn’t mean we would be happy. I got famous in my last parish for saying this, told them to put it on my tombstone: “Everything is amazing, but nobody’s happy.” Everything being amazing doesn’t solve the need we feel for happiness, for constant newness, for true and lasting peace. We’re restless. Even if we could give ourselves everything, one thing after another, day after day, year after year—even up until the day we die…we know there is something missing. We know.

It’s an impossible situation. This “something” that we need…this something seems to evade us. There is this need for wholeness, for completeness, happiness, something!—and we can’t seem to get it. The need for this “something,” the concrete need we feel and experience for this “something”—it doesn’t go away. It seems like nothing can respond to this need. And yet—and this is the kicker—and yet, we do not stop expecting it or wanting it. And so we’re stuck in an impossible situation.

And this impossible situation we find ourselves in—this constant longing we have for wholeness and completeness, for newness, for happiness—this is what the great Tradition calls the “condition of sin.” We’re stuck in this position of never being able to give ourselves everything we want or need. And of course, being the great humans we are, we spend a lot of our life in denial about this, pretending that this isn’t really the case. We are in denial and think that we can provide for ourselves, that all of this that we long for, we can get it ourselves! But that’s the thing: we can have everything—vacations, houses, relationships, money, whatever—but still feel like we’re missing something. And if we take a second, we can recognize that we are in an impossible situation.

The Setting for John 6: The Impossible Situation Resolved in the Passover and Exodus

Ok, with this in mind, now take a look at our Gospel reading for today. We are told that the setting for this scene, and for the entire chapter—for the the next five weeks—is Passover. And that isn’t some accident. That’s not a throwaway line. That’s the key. All of this is happening at Passover. So what in the world is Passover, the Jewish Feast of Passover? Passover is, yeah, that one day where the Israelites were in Egypt and they ate the lamb and put the blood on the doorpost and the angel of the Lord “passed-over” the house and the people inside were saved. Yeah. But Passover, the “Jewish Feast of Passover” encapsulates a whole lot more.

Passover is the Jewish feast that celebrates (and in fact re-lives!) all of the events of the Exodus from Egypt. There they were, stuck in Egypt as slaves for over four hundred years. And if you’ve been stuck in slavery for four hundred years, what do you think you’re going to want? What do you think the need you have is going to be? Yeah, freedom, getting out of there. Yeah!

But if you are the biggest and greatest—and free, don’t forget free—labor force for the Empire of Egypt…Egypt, the greatest military superpower of the world at this point…if you’re all that, what do you think the odds are of you going in to Pharaoh and saying, “Hey, you think we could just leave?” Slim to none. Impossible, I’d say. I’d say you’re stuck in a bit of the ol’ impossible situation, if you ask me! That’s why the story of the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt is literally the story we use to understand the condition of sin we’re stuck in, and why their Exodus is the story we use to understand what it is Jesus Christ is doing about it for us.

Alright, so here’s the situation in the Gospel today, the story that is going to spur on the discussion for the rest of the sixth chapter of John. Here are five thousand men, not counting the women and children—five thousand men, and they are hungry, famished really. And all they have are five loaves and two stupid fish. Bit of an ol’ impossible situation if you ask me.

And in this impossible situation, in this situation where they are not about to pull one out of the hat and fix by themselves—in this situation, Jesus simply says, “Have the people sit down” (John 6:10). Here in this situation, Jesus says, “Just sit down.” Don’t do anything. Just sit there. And in an unforeseen, unpredictable turn of events, in the midst of an impossible situation, there is food enough to go around.

And the people all miss the point! They see this, they think, “This guy is amazing!” They want to carry him off, force him to be king. And so hr departs, almost in a gesture of, “You still don’t understand” (c.f., Mark 8:1-21). They all miss the point.

But from our vantage point, we can see it. We are told, “The Jewish feast of Passover was near.” And so we know, we know! There is something else going on. Something much more than the simple satisfaction of hunger. Yes! Jesus is responding to that basic human need they have, but he responds to that so as to point deeper and say, “I am trying to respond to that hunger deep inside of you!” In this need, in this impossible situation, he responds—food is given, in abundance. But there is a deeper need, an even more impossible situation, and he seeks to respond to that—and as we will see, “food” is the response given to that as well.

As we continue through this chapter of John, we will see more and more: Jesus is giving the most unlikely, unforeseen of responses to this impossible situation we find ourselves in. He tells us to just sit down and let him do it. And in this, he responds precisely to the need we have. To this hunger we feel inside of ourselves—this hunger, this need we feel for happiness, for constant newness, for true and lasting peace—it is precisely to this need that Jesus responds.

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