Proper 16 / Year B
Over the past four Sundays our assigned readings from the Gospel of John have focused on the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ subsequent teaching on its deeper meaning. Today, all of what we have read and heard and pondered over the last month comes to a conclusion with one big, dramatic, glorious, resounding thud. It bombs. Jesus bombs. The text puts it pretty succinctly: “Because of this [Jesus saying “I am the Bread of Life”] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”
In one fell swoop, Jesus transforms his megachurch-sized following into a hardly little band typical of an early service at pretty much every Episcopal Church. We tend not to think of Jesus as being a failure, but the proof is right there in the bible. By almost any contemporary measure, we can say Jesus’ sermon causes a thriving ministry to crash and burn.
The masses have been chasing Jesus all over the countryside and racing to beat him to the beaches on the other side of the lake. Every time he tries to sneak away they find a way to find him. If you want talk about devotion, this crowd is devoted. So what happened? Why this reaction? Why the fallout? Why did so many quit the cause all at once?
The best clue comes from the first thing Jesus says to them when he begins his teaching. John 6:26: “Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs [a sign being a wondrous event pointing to a larger, more significant truth], but because you ate your fill of the loaves.’” Then he adds, “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food which endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
Here, I think, is the rub: Jesus wants to provide spiritual insight and direction – let’s call it ‘soul food’ – whereas the masses are looking for plenteous, free food. Let’s not be entirely unsympathetic to their position for, most likely, most of these folks are poor and hungry. They are, like a lot of people, interested in what God can do for them to make their lives better. They pursue God for God’s utility, or usefulness, in their lives. A God who is useful to us… it may sound like a strange way to put it, but the desire behind it is something we all recognize.
I think about Rick, a high school student I knew long ago. Rick’s sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was a very serious matter. Rick, who had been lackadaisical at best in his church attendance, immediately became a weekly fixture at worship. You could almost hear his silent prayers as he knelt at the rail and in the pews Sunday after Sunday. What bargain was he willing to strike with God in return for his sister’s health, I wondered? How much earnestness did he think God required from him in order to answer his prayers?
When Rick had nowhere else to turn, he turned to God. And God came through, along with some help from a neurologist or two. His sister had surgery, all went well, and she was given a clean bill of health. And guess what happened next. Rick’s dedication to Sunday worship began to wane. God had done what Rick wanted God to do and I have no doubt he was grateful. While not being privy to the content of his private prayers, I imagine the last one went something like this: “Thanks God. You sure did take good care of my sister. I really appreciate it and will never forget your kindness. In fact, I’ll be right back here the next time I need you.”
“The next time I need you…” it is an expression that speaks of God’s utility. Please don’t think I am singling out Rick for ridicule because there is a little bit of him in each one of us, including me. The temptation to domesticate God is very strong. There is a pull within each of us to make the Almighty into a kind of house god whose job it is to watch over us and keep us safe. Prayer then boils down to two purposes. One is to remind God of the problems in our lives God needs to tend and the other is to thank God for tending to them. This is how Rick thought of God. This is how the crowds following Jesus thought of God. And, if the truth be told, there is a part of you and a part of me that thinks about God in this way too.
It is something akin to what happens to most big lottery winners. Whatever their previous relationship with family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and causal associates, it all changes once they have new-found money. Suddenly everyone wants a loan or handout. The relationship centers around what the lottery winner can do for you; a relationship about utility and usefulness. And almost to a person, the winners resent it.
From time to time I look up at the stars in the night sky and try to get my head around the enormous mass of the universe and the unfathomable distance it covers or I read an article about an emerging discovery in the subatomic world and I begin to ponder the Intellect behind all of creation. In what sense does God reign over it all? What kind of power and creative imagination must God have to have called all of this into being? How is it possible for God to be in relationship with any of it, especially me and you? And as I am pondering these lofty notions, I realize anew how absurd it is to reduce God to being nothing more than a concierge who awaits my beck and call. But if you are interested in, and only in, God’s usefulness to you, this, in fact, is what you are doing.
And it is what draws the masses to Jesus. Can’t you just imagine his frustration as he tries to point this out to them; as he tries to teach them God is more than a porter? When the free food runs out and Jesus refuses to be useful in the way they want, the masses pack up their empty picnic baskets and go home.
But not everyone. A few people remain. Jesus looks at the twelve disciples and asks, “Well, aren’t you going to leave too?” And Peter, who so often in the gospels gets it wrong, this time gets it right by saying, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” His statement of loyalty reveals two significant ways in which his religion differs from that of the now departed crowd. Notice first he says “to whom can we go.” This indicates Peter is looking not for something, but for someone. He is not there for the free bread but rather to be in relationship with Jesus. If he were to leave to follow someone else, who would that person be? For Peter, there is no where else to go because there is no one else he wants to follow. And second, notice what Peter professes, “You, Jesus, have the words of eternal life.” He has made the leap from bread which is useful to bread which is life-giving. He has gone from looking for a god to meet his needs to searching for God’s wisdom for living.
When I do my star gazing and micro-probing, I ponder how God infuses intentionality into all creation and I wonder what God’s intention is for me. If I can discover God’s intention for me and if I can live into it then I figure I will be who I am created to be. This is how I understand Jesus to have the words of eternal life.
So two thousand years ago the crowds disperse from the remote countryside when Jesus lets them know in no uncertain terms he is not there primarily to be useful to them in the way they want, when they want, as they want. And here we are in this place today coming into God’s presence and looking for what? Are you here this morning to remind God of the things in your life in need of tending? There is no doubt God seems to come through for us time and time and time again; although there are some times when God does not. Or, are you here to seek after God, to know God, to discern what this life is all about and where you fit into it, to know God’s will for you, and to know God’s love for all God has made – including you and your neighbor? Let me suggest today’s reading encourages us to lay aside our desire for a God who is useful in order to focus on discerning God’s intention for us and for all of life.