Weekly Seeds: Grow, Grow Together

Sunday, August 1, 2021
After Pentecost Year B

Focus Theme:
Grow, Grow Together

Focus Prayer:
God of hope, when your hungry people longed for the slave food of Egypt, you opened the doors of heaven and rained down manna. Feed us with the bread of life at your table, that we may taste the freedom of eternal life and lead lives worthy of our calling, through Christ our head. Amen.

Focus Reading:
John 6:24–35
24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32 Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

All readings for this Sunday:
2 Samuel 11:26–12:13a and Psalm 51:1–12
Exodus 16:2–4, 9–15 and Psalm 78:23–29
Ephesians 4:1–16
John 6:24–35

  1. Do you join or avoid crowds?
  2. How do crowds function in encouraging or determining behavior of the members?
  3. Why do you imagine Jesus largely avoided crowds?
  4. How do crowd dynamics hinder or enhance ministry efforts?
  5. Who is attracted to the ministry found within your faith community?

By Cheryl Lindsay

The crowd was persistent. In this week’s passage, we continue the story. The crowd that Jesus taught and fed realized that Jesus has moved on. They seek him until they find him, even securing boats and traveling to a new community. Many of our conversations about church growth center on how we attract people to our gathered communities, but the ministry of Jesus demonstrates what attracts the crowd. Initially, the crowd began to build because word spread of Jesus healing the sick. When that crowd showed up, Jesus shared truth with them and met their needs. And, the crowd couldn’t get enough of that

Jesus doesn’t leave them until the crowd tries to make him king. When they find him, the crowd expresses surprise that he reached Capernaum. Jesus responds with what seems to be a rebuke of their motivation. The crowd that formed because of the signs of healing and restoration Jesus performed morphed into a search committee for the next political leader. Jesus’ avoidance of any attempts at a human coronation reminds us of the reluctant permission God gave to an earlier people who wanted a human king to counter the political rulers of the day.

Jesus insists they have missed the point. The feeding of the five thousand from a meager portion of loaves and fishes pales in comparison to the fullness of his ministry:

“Seek, and you will find,” Jesus said in two other Gospels (Mt 7:7; Lk 11:9), and the crowd “seeking” Jesus now “found” him, just as his first disciples had done (1:41, 45). He had crossed the lake, just as they thought, but how he had done so remained a mystery. “Rabbi, when did you get here?” they asked him. The title “Rabbi,” echoing Jesus’ first disciples (1:38, 49; 4:31), exhibits their persistent desire to “follow” him (see v. 2), but like Nicodemus (3:2) they will turn out to be only potential, not actual disciples. “When [πότε] did you get here?” was their spoken question, but the unspoken one, perhaps one they dared not ask (see 4:27; 16:5; 21:12), was “How?” (Michael J. Ramsey)

Underlying the pursuit and the questioning is an impulse to control Jesus. To Ramsey’s point, this does not seem to be an idle question or a point of curiosity. The personified actions and discourse of the crowd betray a belief that Jesus was accountable to those who desired to place their crown on him rather than recognize his sovereignty. This interaction further suggests an aggressive attempt to make Jesus king rather than an open willingness to follow Jesus on a journey with an undisclosed outcome.

The crowd pursued Jesus, but they wanted him to follow them:

They “followed” (v. 2) or “looked for” him (v. 24) because of his impressive healings and (especially) because he fed them. As “the Prophet who is coming into the world” (v. 14), he would teach them the truth (see Deut 18:15–18; Jn 4:25), but a king would ensure their material well-being. In wanting to make him king, Jesus is saying, they were thinking only of themselves. (Michaels, J. Ramsey)

Jesus has a ministry that is bigger than responding or catering to a crowd. As Adele Reinhartz notes, John’s narratives presents the Jesus who came to a particular time, place, and community within a larger lens:

This historical tale, however, is embedded in a larger cosmological story, about God’s Son who existed with God before creation, came to dwell among humankind, and returned to God. In contrast to the historical tale, this cosmological tale is not bound in space and time but has the cosmos as its location and eternity as its time frame. The two tales intersect at the incarnation (1:14) and the passion. The discourses draw the readers into the meanings of Jesus’ signs within the cosmological tale. Indeed, the purpose of the Gospel is to help readers discern Jesus’ cosmic significance within and through the signs “written in this book” (20:30–31).

Those signs do present an invitation to enter into the kindom of God, which is enduring and eternal. Jesus begins to teach the crowd again. Presumably, this is a smaller group than the 5000 plus who experienced the sign. Not everyone had access to a boat or the luxury of time to put aside their responsibilities to continue to pursue Jesus in this way. Jesus, who responded to the need of the larger group has no patience for the agenda of this relentless faction.

What drives our pursuit of Jesus?

Do we follow Jesus to get what we want from Jesus or are we following Jesus in order to participate in and witness to the miraculous work of God?

The crowd recognized Jesus’ power but wanted to harness it for their own benefit. They may have had plans to overcome the Roman Empire, not to break the world from the grip of empire and the inequities that arise from hoarding and coalescing political and economic resources for personal gain, but to capture that power for themselves. They failed to ask Jesus what he wanted or intended because Jesus was instrumental to achieving their goals and desires. There is a vast difference between being attracted to the ministry of Jesus and being enticed by the might of Jesus.

There are those sports fans who only root for winning teams. There are voters who leave pundits perplexed because they don’t vote on the issues, but they get caught up in the furor of the crowd and vote for the person who they think will win. Most of us are familiar with so-called fair-weathered friends, people who will hang with you in good times but cannot be found when times get challenging.

Some people approach faith in the same way. They want to be on the winning team. They love the frenzy of the crowd and being attached to the popular. Many of our faith communities bemoan the loss of Christendom, what they consider the height of Christianity. Sanctuaries were full and the question was in which church did a person or family hold their membership. Financial resources were plentiful and buildings were sources of pride rather than consternation. The world, as they experienced it, revolved around the Christian calendar. Sundays were for worship and the rest of the world stopped.

But I’m wondering…did Jesus cross the water from that church? That church that reserved worship for Sundays and sanctuaries, but acquiesced to the ways, manners, means, and values of the culture it was called to impact. That church that focused so much within that it failed (or refused) to acknowledge the fullness of diversity in God’s humanity. That church that treated membership in the body of Christ like belonging to a social organization with dues rather than a way of being and a call to participate in the kindom of God.

Did Jesus reject efforts to force a name-only allegiance to a rule and reign designed by human hands for selfish and self-serving ends? Jesus, who entered into the human condition with all its messiness, pain, and complexity, surely didn’t need the incarnation to secure a throne. Rather, Christ came to bring the good news to a world shrouded by evil and far removed from the abundance, liberty, and life crafted in the garden at creation. The incarnation and the passion of Jesus are cataclysmic events of breaking into systems of this world and upending them so that it might be on earth as it is in heaven. The feeding of the five thousand was a demonstration of the kindom of God, but too many of the crowd saw it only as a demonstration of power they schemed to harness for themselves. That is not the will nor the work of God.

The church that sees itself in decline because of decreasing numbers fails to recognize the decreasing numbers resulted from a decline in pursuing the work of God. So many of us are trying to get back to a memory of prominence when God is calling us back to a movement. When Jesus healed the sick, the sick knew they had a healer. When Jesus forgave sins, those who lived in shame understood that they were beloved of God and not condemned. When Jesus listened to children, widows, outsiders, and ostracized members of society, he gave them voice.

Jesus did not come to win over crowds, Jesus came to repair, to redeem, and to restore a broken creation.

In gardening, there are plants that help each other grow. When planted in pairs or other groupings, they share nutrients, they enhance the soil for the other, and they help their companion plant to flourish. They grow on their own, but the ideal situation is for them to grow together. Their relationship to one another makes them better individually and collectively. You may enjoy tomato-basil sauce on your pasta, but those two not only pair well on your palette, they function well in the soil. The basil repels insects and encourages the tomato plant to yield fruit more plentiful and more nourishing.

The kindom of God also benefits from companionship that resists threats to flourishing and enables fruitfulness. Jesus invites us to a relationship in which we follow the example he provides and the leading of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t take a crowd, it only requires those who will come together and grow, grow together.

For further reflection:
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” — Anaïs Nin
“The lotus is the most beautiful flower, whose petals open one by one. But it will only grow in the mud. In order to grow and gain wisdom, first you must have the mud — the obstacles of life and its suffering. … The mud speaks of the common ground that humans share, no matter what our stations in life. … Whether we have it all or we have nothing, we are all faced with the same obstacles: sadness, loss, illness, dying and death. If we are to strive as human beings to gain more wisdom, more kindness and more compassion, we must have the intention to grow as a lotus and open each petal one by one.” — Goldie Hawn
“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” — Nelson Mandela

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.