+In the name of the Father and of Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A political consultant once told his potential “client” that one of the best ways to get elected was to speak in vague generalities which over-promise what his constituents would gain should he hold office because “broken promises are often lost in a cloud of changing circumstances so that anger against you will be minimal.” In other words, promise to make all the wildest dreams of the electorate come true, even if it’s highly unlikely, because they’ll forget and at least you’ll still be in power. Lest you think this bit of cynical wisdom can be attributed to a modern, American political wag, these are in fact the words of Cicero, written in 64 B.C. Things haven’t changed much. Conversely, if someone is doing a great deal of good and meeting people’s needs and garnering favour with a broad audience, we sometimes tend to assume that he is planning on running for some kind of powerful, political position. It’s a cynical assumption, but we nonetheless often think in those terms, and are pretty regularly correct. I was struck last week when, after his little jaunt into space, Jeff Bezos donated a hundred-million dollars to a political commentator’s non-profit foundation, and said commentator (one whose politics do not align particular well with the Amazon billionaire’s) seemed to be falling all over himself to say how great the man was. We want our leaders to promise us the world, and on our own terms.
This is precisely the pattern into which the crowd in today’s Gospel fell. Jesus seemed like he was going to make all their social and political dreams come true. He fed a huge group of hungry people, and that’s precisely what the Israelites of the first century wanted in a political ruler. They had grown used to Roman rule with a Jewish figurehead, Herod, receiving plenty from the largesse of the empire in exchange for keeping the peace. Rarely did this largesse devolve much lower than the top tier of the Temple elite. The vast majority of Jews were expecting a Messiah who would be a new king, who would overthrow the Roman Empire, dispel political and religious corruption, and reëstablish Israel as an independent, wealthy nation where everyone could be safe and well-fed and brought out of the depths of poverty.
So, when Jesus fed the five thousand, this is immediately where the collective mind of the assembled crowd went. “Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king.” Israel, you might recall, had had a rough go with it as far as kings were concerned. At the establishment of the monarchy they pressurized the prophet Samuel into permitting them to have a king despite God’s wish that they not have such a government. This commenced centuries of mostly bad kings who fell into moral laxity and religious heresy, up to the puppet kings of the Roman period. Slow to learn from this inglorious history, the Israelites were going to try again to make all things well by putting another politician in charge. Here was another person whom they thought would make all their wildest dreams come true.
Now Jesus could have permitted the crowd to have their way. He could have given into the kind of pride which had led others in his own day to mount attempts at gaining political control, and if he had done so he would have been more successful than those others, all of whom were savagely executed by the Romans. That Christ did not sin does not mean that he did not face temptation. Quite to the contrary, because he was fully human as well as fully God, he had the capacity to choose his course and, theoretically, to choose to go against the Will of the Father.
Thank God that he did not. Thank God that instead Christ chose the path of suffering and of death which won for us the victory over sin. What Jesus realized, and what his crowd did not, was that his Kingdom was not of this world.
Something that’s really neat about the Gospel of John, is that every time Jesus does something it is a sign of his identity and mission. There are a number of words in the New Testament that get translated as miracle, the most common of which id dynamis which simply means “a deed of power”. But in John’s Gospel, every time Jesus performs what we would call a “miracle” the word John uses is seimon which means “sign”. So, every time Jesus performs an act like he did in today’s Gospel, it’s meant to be a “sign” of who Jesus is and what he’s about.
Unfortunately, sometimes people misread the sign, or rather they can see the sign but not get the message. It is as if someone who couldn’t read saw a stop sign and thought that it simply meant “red octagons ahead”. This is what happened that day on the Sea of Galilee. The people recognized that Jesus was divulging something about himself in feeding them, they knew it was a sign, but they got the wrong message. Jesus wasn’t showing them that he could continue to give them regular old bread and fish if he were made king. He wasn’t trying to communicate that he would make all their political and physical dreams come true. Rather, he was communicating something about the tremendous power he had and has to give spiritual sustenance.
There is a danger here of getting ahead of ourselves, because next week’s Gospel reading deals with the real meaning of the sign; the enduring sustenance of which it foretells, the eating of which keeps us in eternal life, is nothing less than the Eucharist. But that is for next week’s sermon.
For now, let me leave you with a little food for thought. The crowd believed that physical food, the bread which Jesus gave them, was a sign of generous governance in an earthly kingdom. They did not have the ability to see beyond their very tangible problems, penury and hunger being chief among them, and we can hardly blame them for that. How often, though, do we fail to see beyond the exigencies of our earthly strife to that which endure. How often do we not pray the prayer of today’s collect, that “we may so pass through things temporal, that we not lose the things eternal”? How often do we place our ultimate hope on that raise, or the stimulus check, or whatever instead of placing our hope on the Risen Lord? I don’t mean to suggest that the “cares and occupations of this life” are not often real problems we need to deal with and pray about and seek to address as the body of Christ, but all too often we see our salvation as being in the resolution of these issues and not in the abiding love and grace of God. The question is, what does any of us really want? Do we principally want an earthly king to fix all our immediate problems or the King of Heaven to lead the whole of creation to its consummation in Himself? Does any of us really want for nothing but earthly bread, or do we crave also the bread of heaven? If the answer is the latter, how do we fix our minds on things heavenly? How do we see beyond our immediate problems to ultimate concerns? How can we so pass through things temporal so as not to lose sight if things eternal?
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.