The Rev. Bailey Pickens
2 Kings 4:42-44 and John 6:1-21
The gospel passage today may seem… somewhat familiar to those of you who were here last week. Actually, if you noticed, can you just raise your hand?
So now that you are here, trapped, I can confess that I have undone the hard work of the creators of the revised common lectionary and have made you listen to two versions of the same two stories in a row: Last week the prescribed text was in fact much shorter, with all the “plot” omitted and just the shepherding framing included, so if I had just preached as assigned I would not be providing this disclaimer. HOWEVER, I generally really object to cutting and pasting Scripture to fit a “theme” and all four gospels are right there, in the Bible, it isn’t as though anyone is going to not notice that they both overlap and contrast in intriguing ways. People have noticed; Christians and non-Christians have been writing treatises about it for, oh, eighteen hundred years, give or take.
A point-by-point compare-and-contrast between Mark’s and John’s accounts of the feeding of the crowd would be boring, and also better done with detailed handouts which I have not prepared for today. I would like, rather, to go into this story on John’s terms and see what there is to see.
Again we see crowds drawn to Jesus, following him and his disciples up a mountain to get more. This happens all the time, in every gospel: there is something magnetic about Jesus, his healing and his teaching both (come for the healing, stay for the lectures on how to live—I am only partly joking). Again, the people are made to sit down on green grass; again, too-little food becomes enough and to spare, twelve full baskets of leftovers demonstrating the abundance. Again, afterward, the disciples are caught in a gale on the lake when Jesus comes walking by; again, contact with him ends their struggle.
Jesus comes to us in these pages as very powerful, almost magic. John says he questions Philip first about food (not vice versa), testing him, because Jesus already knew what he would do (this is a refrain in John: Jesus always knows what he is about to do). He multiplies the bread (barley, in case you were curious) and fish and feeds far too many people with them. He retreats to the mountain while his disciples row across the lake against a high wind and comes to them walking over the water. When he reaches the boat, suddenly it time warps to shore.
John tells us that after the people had eaten, they said to one another, “this is the prophet that is coming into the world.” The Hebrew Scripture reading we heard gives us a clue as to why they might say something like that: Multiplying bread to feed a crowd was something that God had done before, through the prophet Elisha. They may also have remembered, as we might, God’s provision of manna in the wilderness, or of the endless oil and flour with which God fed the widow and her son at Zarephath who sheltered Elijah, Elisha’s predecessor.
The things that Jesus does himself are things that God has done, sometimes through prophets. Writers of introductory academic texts on the New Testament call these stories theophanies, appearances of God. Jesus’ later statement, “I and the Father are one,” one of many that almost gets him killed for heresy, does not come out of nowhere: He has already shown, over and over, that that is true, that in him could be seen the glory of God. Theophanies are events meant to show the people and the readers of the gospels that God was indeed present: the making of abundance out of very little, control over the water and the wind, healing of every malady.
John calls all of these things signs, even when it sounds a little funny. “A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick,” John says. That is, he was healing them, and people noticed—and the healing meant something. Everything Jesus does is meant to show something. No vain displays of power, no ad-hoc interactions with nothing behind them. Each miracle is a sign.
Pointing to what? To the very face of the living God, who works with power in the world for the good of God’s precious children.
We live in a world that is longing for a glimpse of God’s face. I don’t only mean the people who inhabit the world, although I certainly do mean them; I mean the entire world, as much as any of the faceless structures of society, the churning machines and belching chimneys, the dry-baked soil that cannot produce life any longer, the heat we have trapped in the atmosphere and the seas that it warms, as much as any of these things can long, they too are longing for a glimpse of God’s face—Paul says in Romans that the whole of creation is groaning as if in labor pains. Some of us have imagined a God down to the finest detail, each fold of pale skin and fine white hair in his beard, and imagine that he—this god is always a He—has in fact blessed if not outright mandated the way we live in the world and all the suffering it causes. Some of us seen the poison in that power and have fled from before that god to find ourselves at the feet of something that does no evil but has no power to comfort, either; a god who is quiet, who makes no waves in the world. Some of us have looked up and found nothing at all. Some of us have seen the horde of competing gods in this country alone let alone the whole world and thrown up our hands because how are we to choose the right one? Is it financial temperance? Personal responsibility? The flag? The law? Decency? Recycling? Democracy? Civility? Our own dreams? The free market? Which one of these is our god? Which one is enough?
When I was young I frequently encountered the rhetoric of the God-shaped hole, a longing in people that in fact only God could fill, although of course people tried to fill it with all manner of things, generally sinful and always inadequate. It is too simplistic and self-serving to imagine that every person in fact longs for precisely the God that much of white America imagines; many of us want anything but that. But it is human nature to order our values, to place something at the top of our internal hierarchies, some need of ours, some principle, some person. The world will give us a thousand options. Some even call themselves God.
We see God most clearly by looking at Christ, God’s nature and God’s power. We see what Christ did—saw people truly, had compassion, taught, shared meals with rich sinners and poor alike, publicly shouted down the proud and the hypocritical, refused to engage with stubborn bad-faith questioners, healed illnesses, created abundance from almost nothing, drove the greedy and oppressive out of the temple with a whip, raised the literal dead to literal life, gave himself entirely for the benefit of people who neither deserved nor understood the profundity of the gift—and we see what God does. No neat picture, no easily consumable single-serving-sized God will emerge from the gospel witness, but a true one will.
In Christ we see a God who acts with power in the world for the sake of God’s people, as the prophets told us over and over and over. This is, I think, the magnetism of Jesus: It is not only the obvious material benefits (touch his cloak, be healed), but the nearness of the very God who made the earth and everything in it. Jesus avoided the people seeking to make him king in response to being miraculously fed not because he wished to abandon his people or because authority was inappropriate to him but because our understanding of what kings do with their power (extract tax, punish disobedience, exert control, wage war, all for a specific region of the globe) was antithetical to the true Kingship of Christ, who came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. The problem was not power, or even hierarchy; the problem was that any earthly kingship is limited and always in competition, a king among other kings, competing for dominion and resources, and Christ’s reign is nothing like that.
We live in a world that is longing for a glimpse of God’s face, for a flash of something true and real, for something that will not, in the end, disappoint or harm us, something that is not just a little too small for all the ways in which we depend on it, not quite enough for everything we need. God is enough and to spare, strong and to spare, loving and to spare, twelve extra baskets full of power and might and all-encompassing love. Christ speaks and we hear God speaking to us, saying: “It is I; do not be afraid.”