July 26, 2015
There are a lot of hymns and worship songs that proclaim Jesus as King. That is still such a curios things to me. That’s because, just like in the story we read this morning, every time we read about people wanting Jesus to be a king he refuses. Where did we come up with such low expectations of Jesus? Jesus, a king, really?
What is it that kings want? Power, wealth, obedience, women, armies, palaces, servants. They want to be exalted, obeyed, and honored. They want to be kow-towed to. They want to be either regarded as divine themselves, or the representative of the divine. Jesus wanted so much more than all of that. And what he really wanted was so much more than any king could have. And it was not for himself, but for all of us, for all of God’s creation. He wanted us to discover what it means to share God’s Community of Creation with each other, to live in light of God’s Realm with all of creation.
Here is a reference, evidently, to an early hymn in the church that the Apostle Paul mentions in Philippians. “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!” And then Paul goes on to say that it was because Jesus didn’t want to have a kingly or divine status that he gained the honor and adoration of the entire universe.
There is a lot in this story from John’s gospel that gets me thinking about the limits we place on God and Jesus, in addition to limiting Jesus to a king.
We get two miracles in this story for the price of one. But we are so afraid of mystery that we have to try to explain or dismiss miracles.
What has become the classic interpretation of the crowd feeding miracles of Jesus is that he didn’t do anything other than convince people to share their food with one another. Getting them to share was, indeed, the real miracle.
There are a couple of assumptions to that interpretation to what is going on here, though, that we need to, at least, consider. One is that the people weren’t willing to share what they had until Jesus got them to. That’s one of those areas of low expectations we might be carrying with us. Really? The people who were gathered there were simply going to eat what they had and not share anything with each other until they saw some kind of aura or halo around Jesus that softened their hearts toward one another.
Kate Huey points out that “Karen Marie Yust takes rather strong objection to such a modern reading that misses the point that John is making about God at work in our midst, God’s amazing power to completely ‘transform human expectations’; instead, we modern, self-sufficient types think it’s up to us humans to handle things, to help ourselves. (God helps those who help themselves, right?) Yust observes the power not of God but of shame in this interpretation, that is, getting people to share out of a sense of guilt: ‘God is no longer a miracle-worker unbounded by human laws, but a social manipulator who reminds people to share. Behavioral modification replaces amazing grace as the core of the story…’ (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 3).”
You could argue, I think, that you also get a two for one in this interpretation because it not only lowers our expectations of God, but our expectations of ourselves.
There is nothing wrong with mystery being mystery. Maybe we just can’t explain what Jesus did, or explain it away by saying it never really happened anyway. And, I don’t think the point of the story are those two miracles of Jesus feeding the multitude and him walking on water.
I think, for example, that Jesus rejecting the crowd’s desire, which could have quickly become a mob if he wanted, to make him king is more important to John’s story than these two miracles. Remember, for John that what we call miracles, he called signs. What are these signs pointing out about Jesus here? That’s what is really important to the story teller.
What if one of the signs is the power of what happens in community when Jesus is in its midst. Whatever actually happened on that hillside wasn’t about people getting fed, but a community getting fed. And what happens if that community raises its expectations about Jesus and itself? What if they had been able to realize Jesus didn’t want to be limited by their expectations of a king? And what if they had been able to realize what could happen to their community if they stopped looking for a king, but something more? But, they defaulted to what they knew and they missed the real miracle that was right there.
“What would happen if we trusted in the power of God to multiply in amazing ways the resources we have, and what would happen if we saw this as a communal question, not simply a personal one? What if we looked around and saw the extravagant generosity with which God has provided an abundance for us all, and marveled at this great wonder? Would we be moved not by guilt but by sheer joy to be part of a dazzling work of God to re-create our shared life in justice and compassion?” (Kathryn Matthews (Huey) http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_july_26_2015.)
How often do we live, in the church and in our lives, by our limited expectations and imaginations? Jesus wanted us to expect more and imagine more.
That second miracle. What if the sign of Jesus walking on the water was about, as Douglas John Hall writes, Jesus’ presence and compassion enabling “ordinary, insecure and timid persons…to walk where they feared to walk before?”
This is a communal question as much as that feeding of the crowd. How do we build this community of Jesus followers in such a way that we encourage, help, and accompany each other to those places we have never walked before? Places where we become more open to and more open about our faith. Places of reconciliation and forgiveness. Places of bringing and receiving healing. Places like Black Lives Matter and borders that need to be crossed. How do we raise our expectations of who we are? What miracles and mysteries are afoot? Our skepticism about mystery and miracles fuels the limitations we set, as does our need to focus on miracles rather than signs.
At the end of this part of the story, after the crowds have found Jesus on the other side of the lake and not exactly sure how he got there, Jesus challenges them about their low expectations. They are looking for perpetual bread like the children of Israel gathering manna in the desert. ¬Jesus is talking about something so much more, the Bread of Life.
It’s not enough, for me, to suggest that we can make Jesus a better kind of king, the perfect king. That still, to my mind, is thinking too small. Those miracles in the Gospels are about us letting go of what is familiar and logical, what is expected. Can we walk out into the deep and maybe even scary waters, and go different places with Jesus than where we have been? Look for things we have not seen? Can we do that with each other?
Instead of looking for a king, what if we looked for what’s making people hungry and fed them? What miracles can we perform by not settling for the scarcity of kings and rulers, but the abundance of creation, the abundance of community, the abundance we all possess as image bearers of God? What happens when we realize that the signs are the miracles? And that the church we are building is the sign?