Psalm 145:10-18 | John 6:14-21
At the heart of the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus lies a deceptively simple, profound, provocative, and frequently misunderstood statement: Jesus was fully God, God incarnate.
When I say it’s frequently misunderstood what I mean is this: we often use it the wrong way round. That is, we take what we think we know of God – whether it be the philosophical categories of divinity that we inherit from Greek thought – omnipotence, omniscience and the rest – or the revelations of divinity in Hebrew thought – holiness, unity and so on – and try to apply them to Jesus.
And, frankly, we get into a mess. We have to start by saying that not every characteristic of God fits into Jesus – omnipresence, to start with – and we start wondering whether Jesus had, for instance, unlimited divine power as a baby, or as a toddler (which is a pretty scary thought). In some of the apocryphal stories of Jesus childhood there are cameos like Jesus as a child making clay pigeons and then breathing life into them; and those stories just seem, feel, wrong. But wouldn’t a child who was also God do stuff like that?
But the Christian belief of Jesus as God doesn’t work that way around. Instead of saying “Jesus is, in every way, like God”, what we need to hear is “God is, in every way, like Jesus”. Anything we think we know about God – whether we think it from instinct, reason, tradition, or the Bible, we need to hold up against the revelation of God that is Jesus; his life, his teaching, and most of all, his character.
As someone wrote recently “if your reading of the scriptures does not lead you to the conclusion that you should love all people, you are simply reading it wrongly”.
Our gospel reading today follows on from the feeding of the 5000. Now from my very unscientific survey of sermons on the feeding of the 5000, I’d estimate that about half of all preachers take it as a miracle of provision; like the manna in the desert (about which more next week), God multiplies the food to make sure that everyone has enough; and about half of all preachers speak of the miracle of generousity; that Jesus, through the generousity of a child, enables all those present to share what they have, so that all are fed. I tend towards that reading myself; and I’ll never be able to hear the reading again without the words “sharing our campfires” coming to mind.
I might just add one small observation to that story – in the synoptic gospels telling of the feeding of the 5000, Jesus has the people sit down “in 50s and 100s”. If the story here is really about the miracle of sharing we might just notice the brilliance of that simple act. That in the huge crowd, overwhelmed by need, everyone holds tightly to what they have. No one shares in a crowd of 5000. But in the smaller groups, where we can look at everyone, and see them as people, our instinct to share overcomes our fear of scarcity, and we can give.
Our politicians know it very well – we can be persuaded fear or reject the ill defined crowd – Muslims, Asylum Seekers, dole bludgers – in a way that breaks down when we realise that they are our friends, our neighbours, people like us.
When gathered as 50 or 100, as we are here today, we can feel a connection with one another that we do not have in the crowd. We are ultimately, designed to live as a village, not a city.
(In my first draft of that sentence I wrote “we are village people”. But fortunately I spotted it)
But whatever the process that took place at the feeding of the 5000, there can surely be no question that it was a picture of God at work; Jesus responding to the need of those around him, those who reached out to him to seek his help.
As the Psalmist wrote: “God is near to all who call on God”.
And the gospel story today is another example of the same; the disciples head across the lake towards Capernaum. Jesus is not with them (I’ll come back to that), and they find themselves getting nowhere. The wind is against them, the sea is rough.
And when they see Jesus, walking on the water, they are understandably terrified. But he comes to them, calms their fears, and brings them to to safety of the other side.
John’s telling of this story, you’ll notice, leaves out the whole Peter walking out to Jesus bit: perhaps because John isn’t trying to tell us something about the nature of faith. It seems as if John has a couple of messages embedded in this story. The first, and most obvious, is this: when the disciples got into trouble, when they weren’t getting anywhere, Jesus came to them, and helped them.
The second, perhaps a little more pointed, was this: the disciples went on ahead, without waiting for Jesus, and when they did that, they found themselves getting nowhere. Only when he was with them again did they start to make progress.
And those are both great messages. But I’d like for a moment to reflect on what is almost treated as a throwaway line, the reason Jesus was not with them:
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
Jesus was near to the people who needed food in the feeding of the 5000. He came near to the disciples in the boat when they were afraid. The psalmist tells us the God is near to all who call on God.
But when they came to Jesus to make him king, he was nowhere to be found. The reason the disciples found themselves, as evening fell, needing to travel on alone was just this: Jesus had withdrawn, because they (and I wonder who they means – the crowds? The disciples? All of them?) wanted to take Jesus and make him King by force (and again, the wording is ambiguous – was their intent to make Jesus king by force, or was it by force that they came to take him?)
God was near to those in need. But when those same people wanted to reshape Jesus into their own desires, to use him to advance their own ends, he was nowhere to be found.
And it made me wonder – how often are we guilty of that? How often do we fundamentally miss the point?
If it is true that what we need to know of God we can see in Jesus: then God is there for those who are in need, there for those who cry out to God, there for those who are afraid and getting nowhere – but absent to those who would take hold of God and use God to advance their own causes.
The people tried to take Jesus, as if they owned him, as if he was theirs to use, to gain the political freedom they desired; and he would have none of it.
I wonder if we in, or as, the Church are just as guilty of treating Jesus as if we owned him, as if he was ours to roll out. To seek to use Jesus, to seek to use God as if God were our property, as if we had the right to decide what God would do.
To seek – by force – to put God where we think God should be.
And to forget that Jesus point blank refused to be made king.
This is not to say that we should not allow our faith to shape what we believe in, the causes we will fight for, the values we will hold. Of course we do, of course we must.
We have every right – indded, a duty – to say (for instance) “because I am a follower of Jesus, and because I believe that Jesus stood up for those who were oppressed by his society, I will speak for those who have no voice, fight for those who cannot fight for themselves”.
But when we hear ourselves, or our fellow believers, saying “this is what God would do, this is what God thinks” I fear we have perhaps crossed a line. Especially when such pronouncements take us further from the gospel of God’s unconditional love.
We do not own God. We seek to follow him. But God is not ours.