Into the Land of Faith
Sunday, July 29, 2018
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12)
Into the Land of Faith
In your compassionate love, O God, you nourish us with the words of life and bread of blessing. Grant that Jesus may calm our fears and move our hearts to praise your goodness by sharing our bread with others. Amen.
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
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. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
All readings for this Sunday:
2 Samuel 11:1-15 with Psalm 14 or
2 Kings 4:42-44 with Psalm 145: 10-18
1. How would you define a “miracle”?
2. What are your expectations of God?
3. What is the difference between abundance and excess?
4. What is the “success” we hope for in our life of faith, as individuals and as congregations?
5. What makes a person, or a church, “great”?
by Kate Matthews
It’s tempting to read this story from the Gospel of John as one more example of Jesus’ compassion, with the feeling of communion added in, when Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, and distributes it to the hungry crowd. We would be missing so much, however, because we read from the weekly lectionary in short passages, missing the setting of the story and the progression to what comes afterward (or from what came earlier). We miss “the rest of the story” when we read the Bible in these short excerpts.
This week, we leave our Year B progress through the Gospel of Mark and read from the Gospel of John for a five-week reflection on the Bread of Life. Charles Cousar cautions us about the challenge of moving from one Gospel to another, because each one is set in its own “literary world,” each with its own “assumptions, purposes, and strategies.”
The grand themes of John’s Gospel
Reading this passage all on its own, we miss the grand themes of the Gospel of John, and we might wonder why he places this story, which is told in all four Gospels (but not always exactly in the same way), where it is. We might also be left wondering why these two stories, the feeding of the multitude and Jesus walking on water, are connected in today’s reading. What do they have to do with each other? Yes, there is compassion and communion in these stories, but there is so much more.
While Jesus’ heart is touched by the hunger of the crowd, John is teaching us about what seems to be his favorite subject: the power of God in Jesus, and who this Jesus is. Of course, we learn who Jesus is by what he does (isn’t that true of everyone–don’t actions speak even louder than words?), but John’s powerful discourses by Jesus are not free-floating. The words Jesus said (the discourses) connect to these stories about what Jesus did (his signs, or amazing works of wonder).
Calculating the costs involved
And so we have the disciples, down-to-earth (even up on a mountain) and overwhelmed by the crowd, computing the cost of feeding so many people. “Impossible!” they say, but we know that all things are possible with God, of course, especially, as Charles Cousar observes, with Jesus, “who redefines what is possible.” So this story is just as much, if not more, about the power of God in Jesus as it is about Jesus’ compassion for the hungry crowd. God’s power, after all, is “far more than all we can ask or imagine,” as we read in Ephesians 3:20b.
Ironically, the longing of the people for freedom from the empire that oppresses them, leads them, alas, to set their sights too short. It’s certainly understandable, and only human, that they would see Jesus as a miracle-worker and even as a potential king. Like their ancestors before them, they hold onto the promise of Deuteronomy 18:15, the promise of a prophet like Moses who will be raised up by God to lead them. Is it any wonder then that they see a good candidate for king in this man of power?
Too small a dream
Even the desire for a king, however, is too small a dream and falls far short of God’s dream for the people. Cousar describes the mind of the crowd as “utilitarian,” focusing on what this miracle worker can do for them, which “skews the reality of grace and seeks to make of Jesus a genie or an errand boyÖ.” Instead, Cousar writes, Jesus is even greater than that prophet they had been waiting for all these centuries, even greater than “a wonder-worker” who will fulfill their every need and desire.
We’re reminded of the Ephesians text that sings of God’s power to “accomplish far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Jesus wants to give us what we don’t even realize we need, at least not consciously; he knows what we need, deep down in our innermost, authentic human selves. Have we actually asked for too little, when God can give us so much more? Can we see beyond our immediate wants and expectations? How else will we begin to see where God is leading us?
Connecting to the larger story of God
In telling these stories, John recalls more than the text from Deuteronomy, more than the actual events of that day on the hillside or of that night out on the stormy sea. John is teaching us about God; in a sense, he’s “doing theology,” and he draws on the traditions of his people in order to connect all of these things to the larger story of God. Feeding the hungry masses and calming the troubled waters sound familiar, don’t they? As John P. Burgess observes, Moses faced a similar problem in the wilderness, asking “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?” (Num. 11:13).
These are Exodus memories, memories of liberation and freedom, memories of promise and new life, but Burgess connects this story with other Old Testament memories as well. For example, someone bringing barley loaves that are inexplicably multiplied and shared would have also reminded the people of the story of Elisha in 2 Kings 2:42-44, and this mountaintop feeding recalls the beautiful promise in Isaiah or a feast on the mountain of hosts, “a feast of rich food” (25:6). In Jesus God is providing the Bread of Life, manna from heaven, and delivering us even from the waters that would engulf us.
How do you explain a miracle?
Both stories in this week’s passage obviously recount great wonders, or signs, that Jesus worked. Many have tried to explain both miracles in rational terms, and the scholars have some interesting things to say about those post-Enlightenment efforts of the modern mind.
First, Douglas John Hall thinks we’re focusing on the wrong thing when we concentrate on explaining the miracles of multiplying loaves or walking on the sea, when the more remarkable miracle is the hope that Jesus inspired in the masses that followed him, by his undoubtedly compelling presence and his awesome deeds. Hall suggests that Jesus’ powerful presence and deep compassion for their suffering and need might explain the ability of “ordinary, insecure and timid personsÖto walk where they feared to walk before.”
In his beautiful commentary on this text, Hall urges us to not to focus so much on these miraculous incidents that we miss “the wonder of divine grace that permeates the whole of life.” He laments the skepticism of our age that seeks to provide rational explanations for everything and loses “the capacity to wonder” at “the extraordinary within the ordinary” of our everyday lives.
And Marcus Borg has written about three stages of faith in his book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time; it would be helpful to use his work in approaching this story, if we think of ourselves as moving from pre-critical naivete through critical thinking to post-critical naivete. More importantly, we move, as Borg puts it, “beyond belief to relationship.”
Scrambling for explanations
Perhaps the most familiar “rational” explanation of the feeding of the five thousand is that an act of generosity inspired many in the crowd to pull out the provisions they had tucked away and to share them with others (I was taught this interpretation when I was in school). Karen Marie Yust takes rather strong objection to such a modern reading that misses the point that John is making about God at work in our midst, God’s amazing power to completely “transform human expectations”; instead, we modern, self-sufficient types think it’s up to us humans to handle things, to help ourselves. (God helps those who help themselves, right?)
Yust observes the power not of God but of shame in this interpretation, that is, getting people to share out of a sense of guilt: “God is no longer a miracle-worker unbounded by human laws, but a social manipulator who reminds people to share. Behavioral modification replaces amazing grace as the core of the storyÖ.” Just when we thought we had a nice, neat explanation for something beyond our understanding!
Worried people, worried congregations, God’s abundance
The scholars then apply John’s teaching about the power of God to the life of the congregation, our expectations for our shared life, and the need for those expectations to be transformed. What hope do we have in spite of perceived shortage and scarcity? Do we worry about whether we are being true to the gospel, speaking courageously, and acting boldly on behalf of all those who suffer, or are we worried about whether our church will be able to pay its bills?
This is an especially pressing question during difficult economic times (that seem to go on and on, at least for some folks if not for all, in a time of tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the poor), when the temptation to concentrate on survival and maintenance might distract us from our true mission.
An understandable anxiety
After many years in stewardship ministry, I understand that these questions are not necessarily and completely opposed to each other. We want our church to survive so that it can minister to the suffering and speak a prophetic word in a world that has often wandered from compassion and justice to hoarding and aggressively defensive self-interest. It’s understandable that we worry about shrinking endowments and offerings in the face of rising costs.
However, Yust challenges us to focus not just on the “reasonable,” not just on “basic needs,” but on “multiplying resources,” so that we might experience “a revelation of amazing grace.” There are those words again: grace, and amazing, both of which belong in a discussion of miracles and wonders. Have you ever witnessed such sharing, such wonders, such grace? Generosity itself is a miracle to me, and it expresses a power–God’s power–to completely transform lives. And I don’t mean the lives of those who receive, so much as the lives of those who give.
Overwhelmed by the need
Speaking of those who give: the disciples of Jesus were overwhelmed by the need before them. If they didn’t feel a responsibility to meet that need, Jesus certainly raised their consciousness. They tried to assess the situation, measure their resources, and figure out a solution, but they seemed to feel powerless in the face of so many hungry people.
Cheryl Bridges Johns draws a contrast between the power of God that was about to burst forth and the power that we think we have today: the power of knowledge. However, the better word she uses for today’s knowledge is “information,” and perhaps information dis-empowers us by discouraging us with the “objective reality” of what lies before us, the statistics and hard, cold facts (is it any wonder they’re called hard and cold?). It’s almost as if all the bad news around us about scarcity and overwhelming need make us feel the power draining from us.
The power of knowledge not information
On the other hand, Johns observes that John’s Gospel approaches “knowledge as power,” not the knowledge-as-information that inundates us but “love’s knowledge” which can take what appears to be little and indeed multiply it, just as Jesus could bless and multiply those few loaves and fishes. Imagine, Johns suggests, God responding to our prayers for the world’s needs with the question, “What do you have?”
Think of the abundance many of us enjoy, even in the midst of economically challenging times: can we trust in God’s generosity, and find ways to share with one another? This question is not coming from shame/guilt, but from faith in God’s goodness and from delight in giving, and even more, delight in sharing as well. After all, we do this, as church, together.
Trust in the midst of need
I found Cheryl Johns’ commentary quite thought-provoking, because I often feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of problems and the needs of the world. And yet, what would happen if we trusted in the power of God to multiply in amazing ways the resources we have, and what would happen if we saw this as a communal question, not simply a personal one? What if we looked around and saw the extravagant generosity with which God has provided an abundance for us all, and marveled at this great wonder? Would we be moved not by guilt but by sheer joy to be part of a dazzling work of God to re-create our shared life in justice and compassion?
My mother often spoke of God’s providence, which I’ve come to understand as more than just “enough for me,” or even better, “lots for me, just when it need it.” Perhaps our sense of community has been lost in an over-emphasis on the individual, and balancing the two would provide enough for all, with plenty, as the story says, left over, “twelve baskets.”
The larger story of John’s Gospel
Not only does this story recall themes and images from the ancient texts of Israel, but it also relates to the larger Gospel of John, and to the other Gospels as well. For example, when we hear familiar echoes in the way Jesus takes, gives thanks, and distributes the bread, we’re reminded of the Last Supper, when he would do the same thing at a meal in an upper room, just before his death. However, John’s Gospel is the one that doesn’t recount a Eucharistic meal in the upper room, so Fred Craddock calls this story “John’s theological equivalent of ‘the last supper.'”
What follows the sharing of loaves is important, too, because John, unlike the other Gospel writers, draws political meaning when the people start talking about Jesus as their new king. John also follows a pattern that’s found elsewhere in his Gospel: Karoline M. Lewis writes that Jesus first performs a “sign,” then discusses it with those who witness it (a “dialogue”), and then uses it as a teaching moment (a “discourse”) with his followers as he interprets its meaning. That’s John’s approach to teaching us about the power of God, and about who this Jesus really is.
Reflecting on the Bread of Life
Next week, we’ll read this dialogue and discourse, and continue our reflection on the Bread of Life. For now, we can consider questions that may arise from this text about our theology of the Eucharist, with its emphasis on the Last Supper rather than on the feeding of the masses. Jesus’ work of wonder in this reading springs from compassion toward the crowds who come to him both physically and spiritually hungry, and it is an all-inclusive kind of response, not one that sorts folks out into two groups, “acceptable–you may come forward” or “you need to find someplace else to get fed.”
I love to connect this story with the celebration of Communion, and recall that Jesus does not command his disciples to exclude the pickpockets, the spies from the Temple or the Empire, the merely curious, or the hangers-on, none of whom could presumably declare their faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Jesus simply responds to human need, as he so often does, above all other considerations. How well does this mirror our celebration today?
And then there is the storm on the water…
The second story within the lectionary passage is much more closely related to the first than we might assume. Jesus resists, or more accurately, escapes the crowd that would have him as their king even if they have to force him to accept the position. He so often does this: drawing away by himself, presumably to pray, to listen and to rest.
Perhaps that’s why he’s able to say so often, “Do not be afraid,” which is exactly what he says to the frightened disciples here. Jesus comes out to meet the disciples when they are, in a sense, in over their heads, right in the midst of the storm that rocks their boat, and he leads them to the safety of the shore.
Congregations may need a little rest
There seems to be a growing sense of our individual need for rest and reflection (for “self-care”), whether we do well at it or not. But do congregations understand that they need the same thing? Having come from the Catholic tradition where a retreat meant drawing away to pray, be silent, reflect, and perhaps share on a deep level with others, I found that “retreat” in Protestant practice often means “to go somewhere else and work more productively.”
This is my own experience, of course, but most Protestants nod knowingly (and sometimes laugh) when I share that impression with them. (Writers like Diana Butler Bass, Anthony B. Robinson and N. Graham Standish, among others, have provided reflections and resources for congregations interested in spiritual practice and revitalization.) Perhaps this text from John provides an opportunity for a pastor to invite church members to consider participation in a church retreat, time away to rest and reflect even, or especially, when we feel our boat rocking, and when our souls feel hungry for the More that is so much better than the “more, more, more” of our consumerist culture.
Not just “an intellectual matter for the philosophically curious”
Additional notes on the way John tells the story: yes, this is a comforting Jesus who feed the hungry and calms the frightened, but the greater significance is in the words, “It is I.” Haven’t we, and the disciples, been trying to understand more deeply who this Jesus is? Do the disciples, and do we, recognize him as the One who says, “I am”?
Charles Cousar notes the different ways John uses the word “darkness,” not only for nighttime but for the lack of understanding on the part of the disciples. In this dramatic little story, Cousar sees a revelation of Jesus’ identity that is more than an “intellectual” question–for the disciples in that boat, it “makes the difference between darkness and light, terror and peace, death and life.”
Grace v. our concepts of power and authority
Isn’t it an amazing experience to read this passage from John as we keep in mind the waters of baptism and the bread shared in a sacred meal? Is it any wonder that we speak of “mountaintop experiences,” when Jesus goes up to a mountain and teaches and feeds the people? And yet how often, like the disciples, we suffer from short-sightedness and fear.
How often we take Jesus’ grace, Gail R. O’Day writes, “and twist it to conform to pre-existent systems of power and authority,” reducing Jesus to human standards of glory instead of “God’s glory.” Ironically, this glory is a tender response to basic human need–to hunger and fear, or, as O’Day describes it, “grace-filled pastoral care.”
A story, not an intellectual discourse
I think this story is about the basic human experiences of hunger, fear, and fatigue: not a dry intellectual discourse to teach us about concepts, but a story to address our deepest needs, our deepest fears, and our weariness and need for rest. This week I finally read Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and The Glory, about a “whisky priest” in one state in Mexico in the 1930’s, where being a priest was a death sentence.
As that main character struggles with his sense of himself as a “bad priest,” he is on the run from authorities, from death, which he fears pitifully. And all the while that he focuses on his flaws, he responds to the tragedy and need of the characters he encounters, and one begins to understand the meaning of the book’s title. Perhaps we might hesitate to claim God’s approval for our own glory-seeking and success, and turn our attention and gratitude toward God’s own glory and grace in Jesus by responding more fully to the suffering and need around us.
Many fragments left over but none are lost
What is the “success” we hope for in our life of faith, as individuals and as congregations? What makes a church “great”? One approach to today’s text might recognize the abundance that is powerfully evident throughout, which appropriately leads to Jesus’ later words, “I am the bread of life.”
Abundance everywhere: so many signs Jesus is doing, so many people following him, so many fragments left over, and not a one of them is to be lost. Where the disciples see scarcity, Jesus sees possibility and abundance. Twelve baskets left over, much more than enough for all, and yet nothing (no one?) should be lost.
What are we hungry for?
The crowds came out from their homes, their towns, seeking something from Jesus. What are crowds looking for today? When we see traffic streaming into places like malls and athletic centers, what hunger are they seeking to fill? (When I used to go to work at the national offices of the UCC in downtown Cleveland, I would often see the cars lined up in traffic jams in the evenings, moving slowly toward sports and entertainment events. Those long lines seemed to illustrate a deep and almost patient longing.)
What is the difference between abundance and excess? Perhaps these readings have something to teach us about fear, too, and fear is certainly the driving force underneath scarcity thinking. Fear measures the scarcity carefully (it doesn’t take long, after all) and says that there is never enough, and certainly not enough for everyone. Fear makes us feel like we’re sinking, sinking in debt, sinking in despair, sinking in depression and addiction and loss.
Fear makes us grab onto the wrong things to protect and even save us, to pull us out of the stormy seas. Fear makes us arm ourselves to the teeth and then miss the hand that is held out to us, telling us not to fear, not to struggle, but to recognize that God is God, and we are not, and that we can float, in trust, on top of the water, resting, as Sˆren Kierkegaard once said, on the buoyancy of God.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
C.S. Lewis, 20th century
“Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”
“The miracle is not to fly in the air, or to walk on the water; but to walk on the earth.”
Augustine, 5th century
“Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.”
Sue Monk Kidd, 21st century
“I realized it for the first time in my life: there is nothing but mystery in the world, how it hides behind the fabric of our poor, browbeat days, shining brightly, and we don’t even know it.”
Frederick Buechner, 21st century
“A miracle is when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A miracle is when one plus one equals a thousand.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”
Walt Whitman, 19th century
“Every moment of light and dark is a miracle.”
G.K. Chesterton, 20th century
“We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”
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