Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 31, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The feeding of the 5,000 is a story that all four evangelists include. John’s Gospel, however, is a little different. He includes a few more details—some even a bit strange. He tells us that the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. He says that the place where Jesus had everyone sit down had much grass. And he says that these weren’t just any loaves and fishes, but particularly barley loaves and cured fish, or pickled fish. John tells the story as if he were standing there watching over Jesus’ shoulder—which He was.
Today instead of looking at the big picture, let’s consider one of those details that John throws in that the other evangelists leave out and find out what the Holy Spirit would have us learn from John’s account of this miraculous feeding. As Jesus climbs the mountain, John writes: And the Passover was near, the feast of the Jews (v 4). This is a phrase that John uses three times in His Gospel—the first is in 2:13 when Jesus chases out the money-changers; the other is in 11:55, just after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and just before His entry into Jerusalem and His passion.
The Passover is near. John’s simple statement gives us more than just a frame of reference for when the feeding of the 5,000 took place. It also points us to the true Passover, of which the feast is only a sign, and that this true Passover is for you.
The Passover Is Near
John’s Gospel is one of the last books of the New Testament to be written, which puts it further removed from the events of Jesus’ life than the other Gospels. The detail with which the Gospel is presented is a testimony to the Spirit’s working through the hands of this beloved disciple in bringing to John’s remembrance all that Jesus had said (John 14:26). However, getting a precise date for the events that happen in John’s Gospel proves to be a little bit difficult. The arrangement of the Passovers in John’s Gospel helps us get a better grasp on the time frame of different events, and so we can get a bit of the context of the feeding of the 5,000.
The Passover was instituted by the Lord when He delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt, and was the basis for the way Israel kept time ever since. Passover occurred on the 14th day of Nisan (also called Abib), which was the first month of the Jewish calendar. The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron in Egypt. “This month,” He said, “will be for you the beginning of the months, your first month of the year (Ex 12:1-2 AAT).
The Israelite month was a lunar month, which meant that it shifted every year. Abib, or Nisan, was the first month of spring, occurring after the vernal equinox. That means that the feeding of the 5,000 took place at about this time of year. The year, however, is a little bit trickier to pin down. In John, chapter 2, we get a little hint; on Jesus’ first recorded visit to Jerusalem for the Passover, some Jews remark that Herod’s temple had been under construction for 46 years. When compared to the dates given by ancient historians of when construction began, this would put John, chapter 2, in the year 27 A.D., and today’s Gospel in either 28 or 29 A.D. But ancient calendars don’t always agree, and some would actually date Jesus’ public ministry a couple years later. Regardless, the feeding of the 5,000 takes place in the spring somewhere around 30 A.D.
Passover is the feast of the Jews, St. John writes, but before the Passover of the Jews, Jesus presents a feast before a group of 5,000 Jews (plus women and children). A conservative estimate of the number of people fed that day would be enough to fill the Chaifetz Arena, and upwards of the capacity of the Scottrade Center during a sold-out Blues game. This is quite a catering gig that Jesus sets before the disciples. The menu is quite simple—barley loaves and cured fish—but it’s a feast that could rival the feast of the Passover. Everyone ate their fill, and for no other reason than that Jesus loves to give daily bread. Certainly as these 5,000 plus reclined at their own Passover feast in a few short days, they would remember the barley loaves and pickled fish that seemed to come out of nowhere
St. John includes this little detail to give a little historical and cultural context, but he doesn’t simply include this detail for the sake of trivia. There is a double entendre in John’s aside: not only is the Passover, the feast of the Jews, near, but the true Passover is also near to those who ate on that mountainside. Christ the Passover was near to the 5,000.
The conversation that follows the feeding of the 5,000 on the next day shows that there is a clear parallel between Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 and the first Passover. The first Passover began the Israelites’ exodus and propelled them into their wilderness wandering. Since food was scarce, God Himself provided bread for His people. Our fathers at manna in the wilderness, the Jews pointed out, just as it has been written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat” (Jn 6:31).
The feast of the Passover began a weeklong Feast of Unleavened Bread. It commemorated the unleavened bread that went with the Passover feast, as well as the bread with which God fed His people in the wilderness while He purged them of their Egyptian idolatries. The Feast of Unleavened Bread that went along with the Passover pointed not just to the speed in which the Israelites made their departure (no time to let bread rise), but also pointed symbolically to the purging of sin from their lives, just as the yeast was purged from the Israelite house for those days.
The connection of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 to the Passover was quite overt, and many of the Jews clearly understood the connection (even if they were hostile toward it). But there was a more subtle connection that John made when he dropped the line, “The Passover was near.” John more subtly draws a parallel to the true Passover, who is Jesus.
St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, For Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed. So then, let us celebrate the festival not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened breads of sincerity and truth (1 Cor 5:7b-8).
In this sense, the Passover was nearer than anyone on that mountain realized. For the One who stood before them, the One who was teaching and healing them, the One who multiplied unto them bread and fish, this is also the One who would be set apart and separated from His flock, led before the council and judges and sentenced to die. This One without spot or blemish, the Only-begotten of the Father and Firstborn of Mary would be sentenced to die. In Jerusalem, on the night when the scores of Passover lambs were being slaughtered, this Passover Lamb be herded to the cross where His innocent blood would be shed.
And because Jesus died, God passed over former sins. Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed.
You are nearly 2,000 years removed from not only Christ’s feeding of the 5,000, but also the last true Passover feast of the Jews. You are half a world away from the Holy City where the feast was celebrated and the Lamb was slain, separated by mountains and forests and oceans. Do John’s words mean anything for you? Is the Passover still near? Christ, you Passover, has been sacrificed, but the sacrifice of the Lamb is only the beginning of this Festival. The Passover is also near for you.
As I said earlier, the Passover Feast began a week-long Feast of Unleavened bread, when the old leavening would be purged from Israelite house—kind of a culinary spring cleaning. During this festival, there would be a ritual offering at the temple on the day after the Sabbath during that Feast—an offering of the first sheaves of grain harvested. Then after the first sheaves were offered to God, the Israelites could partake of the newly harvested grains.
On the particular year that Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed, the very next day was the Sabbath, which meant that Sunday would be the day when the priest would raise the offering of firstfruits. As that offering was being raised on the first day of the week, so also the true Passover was being raised from the dead. St. Paul also writes to the Corinthians, But now Christ is risen from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Cor 15:20).
For this reason the ancient Church called the celebration of Easter, Pascha, which is the Greek word for Passover. Christ, our Pascha, has been sacrificed. But the celebration of Easter isn’t just Easter, it’s the entire Feast. It starts on the evening of Holy Thursday, the Last Passover and the New Testament in Jesus’ blood. It continues on Good Friday, the day of Sacrifice. On Saturday we rest. And Sunday is the firstfruits of Resurrection. The Passover, the Pascha, the Resurrection is near to you.
Today the Passover is also near to Kamille, nearer than it was on to the 5,000 on the mountain. She is now baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. She is in Christ, and the Father has passed over her former sins. And so it for you, who are baptized. You are in Christ, and Christ is in you. You are washed clean; you are marked with the blood of the Lamb. Christ, the Passover, is near you.
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard