The following was given at Holy Trinity Brussels, on 26 July 2015. It was my first time preaching in the morning service, hence the special introduction. The Gospel reading for this sermon is John 6:1-21.
Good morning; in case, you don’t know me, I am Jeremy Heuslein, the Outreach Worker here at Holy Trinity. If you haven’t seen me up here before, it is because I have never preached in the morning service. Having been accepted in April to train for ordination in the Church of England, John decided to try me by fire by scheduling me for this service — but to minimize damage, he thought it best to do so while many were on holiday. So, voila. Here we are. I hope you’re not as nervous as I am, but if you are, take comfort in the fact that this will be short. And in the fact that we are not struggling with many other problems more basic on Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs.
If you are unfamiliar with Maslow and his Pyramid, he was a 20th century psychologist who created a systematic interpretation and theory of human need. At the most basic level, he argued, are the physiological needs, such as eating, drinking, sleeping, and other bodily processes. On top of this are needs of security, in terms of physical safety, but also social and economic security. Then, once these needs have been met, humans seek to fulfill more relational needs, such as being loved, loving, and belonging. Finally, after all this, comes the needs of self-actualization, that is, having a purpose in life or some sort of spiritual or cultural project. This is his system of what it means to be human; it has been challenged by other theorists, but remains largely popular.
Turning to our Gospel reading for today, we encounter another conception of what it means to be human, of what our deepest needs really are. It is this theme that allows us to look at both events of our reading, the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water in a single light. In fact, it is a theme that stretches across the whole of John 6, which includes the “Bread of Life” discourse — some of the earliest eucharistic thoughts and images we have. Underpinning the physiological needs, food in particular in the first part of the passage, and the needs of security, what the disciples were longing for in the midst of the storm, there is a fundamental need to be with Jesus, to live as being identified and formed by the life and love of God, to live in communion with God. In order to understand this, let’s take the passages in order and then conclude by reflecting on the very notion of what it means to be human, to have a soul.
Our passage opens today with the very familiar story of the feeding of the 5000. John’s account differs slightly from Mark’s, and it may be a bringing together of the two different accounts in Mark. John tells the story slightly differently because he has a different intention. While Mark’s whole gospel aims to provoke the question, “So what are you going to do about this Jesus?” John’s is a more theologically driven argument, envisioning Jesus as a divine king, as the “I am,” as the Son of God. In this version of events, the miracle is initiated by Jesus, who asks the question that gets everything started but already has in mind what he will do. The event unfolds similarly to how it does in Mark, with all the people eating and being satisfied. In fact, there are baskets left over. It is this satisfaction that we will develop and dwell on later. Because of this miraculous feeding, the fed people began to interpret who Jesus was. They immediately draw parallels with the Mosaic prophet, who would rescue the people from oppression and restore the land just like Moses had done, for Moses had also fed the people in the wilderness, as God gave manna to them. If Jesus could do this, if he could really be the Mosaic prophet, then he could rid the Promised Land of foreign occupation, cast out the oppressive Romans and their soldiers and taxes and restore Israel to its former glory. In being fed, the people saw in Jesus an earthly, political king who would wield the power of God against the pagans. However, Jesus would have nothing to do with this. So, he leaves. It is an abrupt sort of ending. He doesn’t tell anyone off, yet. He doesn’t vanish into the midst of the crowd (like he has before). He just goes. And we are left wondering: what do we really need? What kind of king is Jesus?
Before turning to those questions, we must look at the last few verses of our passage today. Again, this is another telling of another story in another Gospel. Mark links these stories, and John is linking them as well. But once again, it is for a different purpose. This account is much shorter and much briefer than Mark’s, but the reason it could be is its meaning is quite similar to the previous passage: it asks, “What do we really need? And what kind of king, what kind of person is Jesus?” The disciples are travelling by boat across the lake, and there was, as seems to often be the case whenever the disciples get into a boat, a storm. They are fighting against the winds and the waves, out in the middle of the lake, when all of sudden, a person is walking on the water. Now, if you live in a worldview where there are spirits, angels and demons, and you saw a figure walking towards you in a threatening situation, you aren’t going to be happy. But Jesus calls out to them, identifying himself. In John, it is simply, “It is I. Don’t be afraid.” In Greek, even shorter, “Ego eimi,” which you could translate simply as “I am.” Or in Hebrew, YHWH, the name of God. Is Jesus identifying himself, or is he claiming for himself the divine name with which God named himself out of the burning bush? Is he claiming to be very God of very God? Is that why in other passages of this story, the disciples worship Jesus? After the identification, he gets into the boat, and they are immediately safe. And the passage ends. Abruptly. Why? What are it is saying? And what is this whole passage saying to us today? To answer these, let’s return to Maslow’s pyramid and turn to the Hebraic word for the soul, for the very essence of what it means to be human.
Conclusion: The Being
In Hebrew, the word for the human soul is nephesh. This is not the idea of the soul that we have, with all its Greek implications. It is more of the essence of what it means to be human, to have personality, identity, a core self. It is not some non-dying part of ourselves or something separable from the body. It is the something deep within us, our animating force. And also nephesh is the word for the throat or the gullet. This is the conception of the human being as infinite need — our souls, our natures, are like our throats, we are continually and forever open and in need of something to fill up our stomach. Maslow seems to agree with this conception of the human being; he bases all self-actualisation on a mobility up the pyramid, that is, in the satisfaction of certain needs, in filling up our gullets. The first part of our passage, though, challenges what the first level of the pyramid is and evidences something even more foundational. It is not by eating bread that we are ultimately satisfied; no, as Jesus says just a few verses after this passage in John 6:26-27: “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Jesus is not going to be a king that will satisfy all our earthly needs; his concern for us goes deeper, is more foundational. Jesus is a king who wants to give us himself, to bring us into the very life and love of God. This is the something more fundamental than food, something we need more. This truth is also told with the story of the disciples on the lake. Maslow’s second level is safety, and the disciples were in an unsafe situation, but Jesus does not calm the storm, in fact, in other accounts he calls Peter out of the boat into more risk. Once Jesus is recognised and brought aboard, they arrive — but their safety was not the most fundamental need being fulfilled. To be with Jesus, to be in communion with God is our most fundamental need according to these passages. Food and safety, while these are goods and needs that we do have, do not fully address the essence of our need as human beings: they do not touch our souls and satisfy the nature of our nephesh. Only God, in Jesus Christ, can do that.
May we learn to seek and strive for the food and the safety that we most fundamentally need. May we be brought to a deeper knowledge of Jesus Christ, and of the life and the identity we have in God. May we discover that it is in this communion that our truest selves emerge and all deepest our needs are fully met. Being fed and secured by God, may we become people who share our bread and safety with those who need it most. May we taste and see that the Lord is good, and may we hear his voice calling through all our times of distress, “I am. Do not be afraid.” Amen.