Now when evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into the boat, and went over the sea toward Capernaum. And it was already dark, and Jesus had not come to them. Then the sea arose because a great wind was blowing. So when they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near the boat; and they were afraid. But he said to them, "It is I; do not be afraid." Then they willingly received him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land where they were going.
On the following day, when the people who were standing on the other side of the sea saw that there was no other boat there, except that one which his disciples had entered, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but his disciples had gone away alone -- however, other boats came from Tiberias, near the place where they ate bread after the Lord had given thanks -- when the people therefore saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they also got into boats and came to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.
And when they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?" Jesus answered them and said, "Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set his seal on him."
- John 6:16-27
Today's passage gives us the fifth of the seven miracles or signs reported by John's gospel. We recall the important passage of yesterday, the fourth miracle reported, the feeding of the 5,000 with the loaves and the fishes.
At the end of yesterday's passage, Jesus had withdrawn to be alone, because the crowds of people that were fed by him had wanted to forcibly take him and make him a king. Frequently in the gospels, Jesus will withdraw "to a lonely place" for prayer and communion with the Father. It is the strict sign of his ministry that his judgment is just because he and the Father are one, they share the same will; he does, as Son, what the Father has given him to do. So, the disciples have waited for him and are on their own. It is dark and they are on the sea (the great lake which is called the Sea of Galilee) - and a storm brews up the sea with a great tempest of gusty wind. After three or four miles of rowing (about halfway across the lake), the apostles are terrified to see someone walking on the water toward their boat. "It is I, do not be afraid" is Jesus' word to them; immediately, once they receive him into the boat, they are at their destination. In yesterday's commentary, we spoke of "types" -- that is, images or events from the Old Testament which are renewed and transfigured in the life of Jesus, given shape and meaning and greater dimension through the expression of Jesus' life, works and teachings. My study bible points out that this image of crossing the Sea of Galilee is a kind of reenactment of the passage of ancient Israel through the Red Sea. Moses, my study bible notes, led the old Israel through the sea to liberty. Christ walks on top of the water and leads his disciples over the sea to the "land where they were going." Walking on the sea, it further points out, is a sign of his lordship over creation, a key to a further understanding of what it is to be Son. We recall the miracle of the loaves and fishes, also an expression of identity as Creator, Logos. But I find a powerful poetic understanding in the goal of the "land" immediately reached as Jesus is received with them into the boat. This union is our goal, what we need on all of our journey.
Finally, the people who were fed with the loaves and the fishes have pursued Jesus and his disciples. So eager are they for his kingship, to make him their leader, they have pursued him no matter where he goes or what he does. They saw the boat of the disciples, but knew that Jesus had not started in the boat with them. Other boats had come from Tiberias, on the southwest side of the lake, and yet they cannot find Jesus. All set off in boats to Capernaum to pursue him, despite Jesus' desire to elude the crowds, even walking on the water! Finally, they catch up to him in Capernaum. "Rabbi, when did you come here?" But even this tenacious pursuit is not enough for Jesus in this case. They must understand what they pursue, and discern proper desires, what they are seeking and what he offers.
Jesus tells them: "Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set his seal on him." Regardless of how vigorously they pursue him, Jesus wants disciples who can go further, and deeper, into an understanding of his relationship to them and his identity. Jesus does more than offer us food and sustenance for our bodies, but he wishes us to relate at a deeper level, within the sustenance of soul and spirit that he is offering, in his true identity. He wants "all" of us, all of what we are. This is what he calls upon when he asks us to have ears to hear and eyes to truly see. This crowd, Jesus says, fails to understand his signs and that to which they signal. It is a spiritual reality that is in their midst, incarnate as human, relating on all levels and calling us to these deeper levels within ourselves, raising us to awareness in relationship to Him. The Father's seal is an extension of the Father himself, akin to saying that he is "in the Father's name."
This bread of life, which Jesus will elaborate on in Monday's passage, is more than we can imagine. But it draws us forth into relationship, taking us along toward the Father, to the height and depth of what we are capable of becoming as spiritual persons ourselves. As with the disciples on the boat, this relationship itself is the goal - together with the Son we are on a journey, and the goal is the relationship. This bread of life works as did the "leaven" (or yeast) and the "mustard seed" in Jesus' parables about the nature of the kingdom. We need simply to add it to ourselves, to our lives, and its effects will play out on our journey, and in us as we go along the way with this ingredient, this bread of life added to us. How do you see that as a goal? How does the journey unfold for you taking in this bread and sharing in its gifts? The goal is not an end, in itself perfect and finished. The goal, Jesus in the boat with us on that stormy sea, is a kind of destination which we continue to mine in our lives and go forward within that relationship. The bread of life never ceases to give, it is "eaten but never consumed." But we must desire what it has to offer, and never demean its reality by thinking our goal is simply a "perfect" material life alone.