SERMON: It is I, do not be afraid

‘Its is I, do not be afraid’

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s Iffley

by Anthony Phillips on 29 July 2018

Today and for the next four weeks the Gospel will come from John Chapter 6.  This was of course meant to be read in one go as indeed was the Gospel itself, but 71 verses have been judged by those who composed our lectionary  too much for you, so the Chapter has been chopped into five pieces which may make life much more difficult for subsequent preachers.  

The narrative begins with the feeding of the five thousand, the only miracle to appear in all four gospels.  Then follows the brief note that Jesus feared the crowd were about to make him king which is followed by the dramatic incident of Jesus coming to the disciples in their storm tossed boat with the words, ‘It is I: do not be afraid’.  This leads to the lengthy discussion in the synagogue at Capernaum on the significance of the miracle and Jesus’ identity and concludes with Jesus asking the disciples whom did they think he was.

John’s Gospel is very carefully constructed.  First, John punctuates his narrative with a series of what he calls signs, actions which point beyond themselves to something other.  The first is the turning of water into wine at Cana and the last the resurrection.  Second, the Gospel falls into two unequal parts.  The first describes Jesus’ Galilean ministry: the second his Jerusalem ministry.  Both conclude with common features, the end of the Galilean ministry, the chapter we are considering to-day, pointing forward to the end of the Jerusalem one.  

So right at the beginning of the narrative John alone of the evangelists’ notes that the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand took place near the time of Passover.  This is clearly a significant addition to the tradition whose significance we shall note later.  As the crowd gathers, Jesus asks Philip how they can be fed – described by John as a test.  Philip not unnaturally thinks in human terms. You would need a fortune to feed this lot.  Andrew cynically points out that there is a boy with five loaves and two fish – ludicrous when confronted by this mob.  John then describes Jesus using Eucharistic language giving thanks and distributing the bread and fish. Not only were all sated but the disciples are instructed to gather up the left-overs.

All through his narrative John is looking ahead.  The feeding described as a sign – as we have seen, a key word in John’s gospel – certainly points to the Eucharist which plays a central role in the subsequent discussion with the uncomprehending Jews.  This would have long been the central act of worship for the Christian community for whom John wrote.  And this discussion explains why John felt it unnecessary to record the last supper in his gospel.  But his eye is not ultimately focused on this, but as the two incidents which follow the miracle will show, on Jesusdeath and resurrection and the disciples subsequent role in gathering new followers for Christ for whom there will be ample provision of food in the regular Eucharist.

There now follows an incident found only in John – the fear that the people might try and proclaim Jesus as their king.  Gossip had already identified him with ‘the Prophet who was to come into the world’ – a reference to Deut. 18 where Moses announces that one day God would raise up a prophet like him. They had undoubtedlyseen a connection between Moses who fed the Israelites in the desert with manna and Jesus who had fed the multitude on the hillside.

But for John the significance of Moses was that while he had led his people to the edge of the promised land, he was not allowed to enter it but died in Transjordan for the sins of his people – a sacrificial victim that others might enjoy God’s promise. Jesus would follow suit dying to deliver his people. But he would die in his own way.  His crown would be one of thorns.  He was no political revolutionary.  His rule would be inaugurated by the powerlessness of the cross. His is not an earthly throne but a heavenly one.  Jesus sensing that the excited crowd might get his ministry all wrong, slips away into the hills. And of course the crowds did get it all wrong.

So in the conclusion to the Jerusalem ministry, John records that it was the day before the Passover when Pilate presented Jesus to the Jews, ‘Here is your king’   But they cried ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!.  Now we know why alone of all the evangelists John recorded that the feeding of the five thousand took place at the time of the Passover.

Back to John 6.  Darkness having fallen, and Jesus having failed to join them, the disciples set out to cross the sea to Capernaum. They are caught in a ferocious storm and after three or four hours make no headway.  Suddenly they see Jesus and are terrified. He calls to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid’.  Immediately they take Jesus into their boat and find themselves at their destination.

Commentators often fail to see the significance of this passage content to see it as another miracle. But that is not its significance. John is prefiguring the conclusion to his Gospel.  The idea that Jesus was walking on the water is probably a mistranslation.  The same words are used in John 21, the last chapter of his Gospel,where the disciples in their boat see the resurrected Jesus standing on the sea shore.  Having caught nothing all night, Jesus tells his disciples where to cast their net and they catch so many fish that they cannot haul the net in but drag it to shore. There they find a fire already lit and once more Jesus feeds them with bread and fish. And this time Jesus did not need to ask them about his identity: they all knew it was ‘the Lord’.

John 6 is therefore a high point in John’s narrative.  But the Passover, thefeeding, the gathering, the question of kingship, and the disciples alone in the boat areagain all taken up in the climax to the second half of John’s gospel, the end of Jesus’ Jerusalem ministry.

It was the day of preparation for the Passover when Pilate handed Jesus to the Jews for crucifixion.  Ironically above the cross Pilate’s inscription written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek so all could understand it, read ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the

Jews’.  What Jesus had feared in Galilee had been proclaimed for all the world to read..   And although the resurrected Jesus had made himself known to the frightened disciples behind locked doors, even breathed on them the Holy Spirit, and again appeared a week later for Thomas’ sake, they don’t seem to have been energised to carry on Jesus ministry.  So back in Galilee, presumably bored, Peter says ‘I am going out fishing’.  He is joined by Thomas, Nathaniel, the sons of Zebedee and two others.  And for the last time they see the risen Christ, haul in a huge gathering of fish and are fed by him.  After which Peter is commissioned to ‘feed my sheep’ – to gather up. And the rest is history as they say, a history in which as the gathered Eucharistic community in this place, we are now playing our part.

But finally let me return to the words that Jesus used to the disciples in their storm battered boat: ‘It is I; do not be afraid’.  Any Jew hearing that I would immediately think of the revelation of God’s name to Moses recorded in Exodus 3: ‘I am who I am’.   And it is this phrase ‘I am’ which Jesus will go on to use throughout the rest of John’s Gospel starting in the discussion which immediately follows when he describes himself as ‘I am the bread of life’.  Using the I in this way, John leaves his readers in no doubt as to Jesus’ true identity.  Once one is in the presence of that I, there is no need for fear: the Son of God is with you.

But be careful: it is not safety that Jesus offers: it is the absence of fear.  As Paul knew being ‘in Christ’ was all that matters.  With him the boat will reach its proper destination whatever that may be and at whatever cost.  So John’s Gospel ends with a prophecy of Peter’s death to which Jesus added ‘Follow me’.  You now are about to be fed by he who said ‘It is I; do no be afraid’ and ‘Follow me’.  In his final words to Peter, John spells out for you the cost of discipleship: grace is never cheap, but as a Christian fear is simply inappropriate.