Starting from a position where you are being asked to interpret these kinds of miraculous events as literal history remembered (where the event being literally true is critical) is problematic. Either you don’t believe that these kinds of things ever happen so you then you are forced to dismiss the stories out of hand as nonsense, or you kind of just about able to convince yourself that these things may have happened. But that usually doesn’t get us much further on because we end up just gawping at a miracle – exactly what Jesus didn’t want to happen.
The third option is to see the question of whether they were historical events or not as pretty much irrelevant . Once that question is safely parked, because in truth it is unanswerable, we can concentrate on the spiritual message they are meant to convey. These signs are vehicles for spiritual truth. And John’s gospel pointedly never uses the word miracle to describe these things anyway. He uses the word “signs”.
Now signs by their very nature point away from themselves to somewhere else. That is what a sign is and what it does. Where do these signs lead us. To where are they pointing?
Well in John’s sign of the feeding of the 5000 he is pointing us towards the spiritual meaning of the communion service that we are here sharing this very morning. In John’s gospel there is no account of the last supper and Jesus breaking and sharing bread, and yet the gospel is nevertheless all about what the Eucharist actually means.
In the simplest spiritual terms I can come up with, the significance of the 5 loaves and two fish is that this was everything the boy had. Absolutely everything was given. In a spiritual sense our whole minds bodies and spirit are put at the disposal of God. How I interpret that in practical terms is that we learn that actually we are not the centre of the universe, the true centre of the universe which is also our true centre is the divine mystery that we name God. We sacrifice self interest to gain something much greater – which is in fact turns out to be a greater sense of self located in God.
In dying to self interest we find a greater sense of life. The only way to test this theory is to actually try it and put it into practice. To use the picture language of the story, our lives are to be given, and then blessed by God and our life and talent and potential is unlocked and multiplied and is shared out amongst many people. In God’s hands , what little we think we have can be used to great and lasting effect – if we have the guts to actually let go and do it.
And this problem is the subject of the second sign – the walking on the water. There is significance to the fact that in the story It was dark. For the disciples were in fact in a spiritually dark place – just as we can be so often. The storms on the lake are a metaphor for all the storms of life that batter us and frighten us. Psychologically the root of all fear is the fear of death and oblivion.
The spiritual message of Jesus is “Do not be afraid. I AM”. In the midst of all of life’s dramas and tragedies, joys and sorrows, in the midst of all that frightens us, including death itself, God IS.
In the story, after being frightened not only of the storms of life but also frightened of the message that was coming towards them, they were mired in confusion. It was only when they perceived and understood – in the image from the story “when they wanted to take him into the boat” that they immediately reached safety. Immediately, the boat reached the land.
In understanding that God stands in and through all of life’s challenges, in that moment of clarity, “he who hears my word and believes on the one that sent me (I AM, God) has eternal life. He has eternal life NOW. He has already crossed over from life to death.”(5:24)
It is that conviction, that God stands at the centre of life, so we can only trust in his loving care, that we then can offer our lives to be blessed and shared out for the benefit of many and find a truer deeper, richer sense of who we are.
Like so much spirituality. It is just so simple and yet also not easy. Simple but not easy.
Training our minds to see life in a different way so that new way becomes our automatic default position is a lifetime’s work. What tends to happen in my experience is that we get flashes of wholeness and peace but we can’t hold on to it for very long. At the first sign of trouble we can revert to our lost and fearful ways all too easily. But through spiritual practice, continually reinforcing a different way to see God and the world, of which this Communion service is an example, we make progress one little bit at a time, with the hope that the next time trauma breaks into our lives we will have better tools to cope much more easily.