When Jesus feeds the 5000 people with five loaves and two pieces of fish there is a sequel we are told about which is at the same time amusing, sad and instructive. The people who have been fed try to force him to become their king, because they see in him a source of free food. Understandable, perhaps, in people living with great poverty, but also a big mistake.
What is that mistake? St. Paul explains it clearly in today’s second reading: they are inter-ested only in what is unspiritual, or literally, in what is of the flesh, whereas what we should focus on is the spiritual, that is on what something means, on the goal it points to. Instead of reflecting on the miracle and seeing that it points to Jesus as the bread of life, they remain stuck at the material level of the free dinner they had just enjoyed. As Christians, of course, we can go even further and see it as pointing to the Eucharist in which Jesus feeds us with himself, the living bread from heaven.
St. John’s Gospel, as is clear to anyone who reads the New Testament, is different from the other three Gospels in its tone and its manner of proceeding. There is a special word St. John uses to refer to Jesus’ miracles: he calls them signs. They are real miracles affecting the material world but they also point to a deeper miracle, a change occurring in what is spiritual.
Our problem today is that because of the rise of science, which has brought so many bene-fits to us, as well as some less beneficial things, we tend to see the material world as more real than the spiritual, which we are inclined to think of as rather abstract. And that is pre-cisely why Jesus works miracles in the physical world. It’s as if he is saying to us, if I can heal your body, believe that I can heal your soul. If I can change water into wine at a wed-ding feast – the first of his signs in St. John’s Gospel – believe that I can bring you great joy out of the insipid ordinariness of your daily life.
And in today’s Gospel: if I can raise a man from the dead, believe that one day I will raise you to eternal life, and even now can bring to life what seems to have died in you through your alienation from God who is the source of life.
Unless we see Jesus’ miracles in this way, they do not really make a lot of sense. What would be the point of raising Lazarus from the dead if he is only going to die again some years later? What would be the point of healing a physically paralysed man if his spiritual life remains paralysed by fear or resentment?
To help us grasp this, St. John uses another device in his Gospel. He has Jesus make a number of statements beginning with the phrase, I am. I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, and in today’s Gospel, I am the Resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies, he will live.
In other words, Jesus works this miracle to strengthen our faith. He knows our imagination fails in the face of death. We find it hard to picture how a body which has crumbled to dust in a grave, or been lost at sea or burnt in an car accident or a crematorium can be raised to life, but we trust that the one who created the world out of nothing and raised Lazarus to life after four days in a grave knows perfectly well how to do it.
But we do not have to wait till our physical death to experience this truth. Every day there are deaths, great and small, in our spiritual world. Things we had hoped for fail to material-ise; people we trusted let us down; plans we made come to nothing or go in a direction we didn’t envisage. And there are deaths connected closely to our sins: we kill someone’s joy by our selfishness or anger; we allow our own gifts and good qualities to wilt by neglect or laziness.
Where can we find the strength to turn around in such situations? Where is new life to be found in the midst of such deaths? It is to be found in Jesus whose own death we shall soon be commemorating in Holy Week, and whose Resurrection is a never failing source of hope, comfort and joy to us whatever events befall us and whatever we find in our own hearts. He is himself the Resurrection and the life for those who trust in him here in this life and in the world to come.