Preached at All Saints, King City, July 25, 2021. Readings for this Sunday (Proper 17B): 2 Samuel 11.1-15; Ps 14; Eph 3.14-21; Jn 6.1-21.
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. (Jn 6.15)
This week I was listening to two men talking about their boats, as people here on the edge of cottage country often do. Specifically they were speaking about Georgian Bay and how treacherous it can be, with strong winds and high waves blowing up without any warning. They both agreed that it was best to put your trust in a big boat.
In today’s gospel the lesson seems to be, either get a bigger boat, or, better yet, put your trust in Jesus. In today’s gospel, as we move from Mark to John, there’s a lot going on, and Jesus is doing many things – he’s testing the disciples, feeding a crowd, then evading a crowd, then walking on water, and then somehow rescuing the disciples from the storm. In the midst of all this action, we notice several things about Jesus. The first is that, as we saw in Mark 6 last Sunday, he is always caring for and protecting his people, in the tradition of the shepherd kings of Israel. The second is that he does these things entirely on his own terms, as if refusing to be drawn too far into human affairs.
What do I mean by “on his own terms”? Let’s start by looking at his question to the disciples: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” (Jn 6.5). The answer of course is “nowhere”. First, they’re on a mountain, and second, as Philip notes, even if there was a bakery nearby, they don’t have the money to feed five thousand people. Jesus then dismisses human economics, with its built in scarcities and inequalities, and turns to a boy with a little barley bread, the food of the poor, and some dried fish. In the kingdom of heaven there is always more than enough, because the economy of the kingdom of heaven works on grace, not on scarcity.
Now let’s turn to the crowds that want to make him a king, Jesus flees to the mountain. The clue here is “take him by force” (Jn 6.15). Force is the currency of the economy of power and politics. Jesus certainly knew how much force belongs to kings like Herod, who murdered his cousin John the Baptist. He also certainly knew the story of David that we heard in our first reading, of how he used force and power to abduct and rape Bathsheeba and then arrange to have her husband murdered. By escaping the crowd that he ha just fed and then retreating to a lonely mountain, Jesus is again signalling that he’s not going to be drawn into human affairs. The kingdom of heaven cannot be captured, or manipulated, or used to advantage, no matter how many still try.
Instead, Jesus comes to us on his own initiative, on his own terms, as he comes, walking mysteriously on the water, or as he does when he feeds the crowds. It’s often noted that while in the feeding miracles of the synoptic gospels Jesus has the disciples pass out the food, here John tells us that Jesus “distributed [the loaves] to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted” (Jn 6.11). Both these episodes I think tell us the same thing – that Jesus will come to us, feed us, save us, entirely on his own terms, terms that we call “grace”.
Grace is underserved goodness. Jesus, even as he tested Philip, knew exactly who he is dealing with, just as God knew what King David was capable of when he declared him to be “a man after God’s heart” (1 Sam 13.14). This is the God who knows exactly who we are, how broken and fallen we can be, Jesus, “to whom “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden”. Grace is that Jesus, knowing everything about us, “has a heart for us, comes to us, feeds us and saves us.
These last many months, as our churches have been closed and out lives put on hold, we’ve probably all felt that this pandemic was one long storm. It sure felt like a storm, for how many times during Covid has the news reported that we’re in “uncharted waters”? We may have wished that we had a bigger boat to put our trust in. But it was never about the boat. It was always about Jesus, who always watched over us, and who comes to us today, caring, not about what we deserve, but what we need. Jesus comes to us again today, giving himself for us, feeding us, caring for us, saving us.
Gracious God, thank you for feeding us, caring for us, and saving us, out of no agenda other than the love you bear for us. We pray that your agenda, that of the kingdom of the heaven, may become the only one that matters in our hearts and lives.