July 29, 2018 – Pentecost 10 B
1Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When 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?” 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10Jesus 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. 11Then 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. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When 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.”
15When 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.
16When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
I love stories. I love all kinds of stories, but my favorite ones are the ones which suck you in, catch you off guard, and surprise you. A good story will stick with you and you can return to it, time and time again, because each and every time you read it or hear it, you’ll notice something different. This, I believe, is why the Bible is full of stories. In a world where most people couldn’t read, they could remember a story. In fact, the early Christian church would typically not have preaching but would, instead, simply read from the stories. They’d listen to someone read Paul’s letters and, once the gospels were written, they would listen to someone read the stories of Jesus. And, like a good story, each and every time we hear it, it has the chance to change us, help us see the world differently, and shape who we are as a person. In a very big way, who we are is defined by the stories we hear about ourselves and the world.
One story that I recently returned to, which in turn changes the way that I read our gospel story, is the J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Specifically, when a woman named Ioreth, a nurse for the injured and sick, proclaims that the hands of a king are the hands of a healer. She, with the rest of the city and kingdom, has been waiting for the return of the king and, indeed, she recognizes him when he arrives because the hands of a king are the hands of a healer.
Ioreth and the Israelites on the hills around the Sea of Galilee have a little in common. Both are waiting for a king, their king, the king who would drive out their enemies, who would restore the fortunes of their nation, and who would rule compassionately. The Israelites were subservient to the vast Roman Empire, under military rule and oppression. They had long awaited the day when a new David, a new king, would restore the glory days they held in their collective consciousness.
And along comes Jesus, a wandering preacher with a penchant for healing and performing signs and miracles. People flocked to him and people recognized him as something special. The hands of a king are the hands of a healer, Ioreth said. For the Israelites, the hands of Jesus did something they never imaged. With what scant supplies a boy provided, he was able to feed thousands. Through this sign, Jesus showed them the economics of the Kingdom of God; that God would multiply and distribute, not add and hoard, what was given. Suddenly, the people see it. They see the sign they’ve been waiting for. This man not only patiently teaches them, but also feeds them. He cares for them, just as they are, and they see in him the abundance of their Creator. This is who they want. This is their King.
But Jesus never came to be a king. He retreats and pulls away from the crowd. He didn’t come to be a political figure or national martyr. He came to be a savior, not of only Israel, but of the whole world. He gathers, like the disciples gathered the leftovers from that miraculous meal. He gathers women and men from every time, place, language, and culture. But the people don’t know that, yet. They don’t know who Jesus is, they just know what they’ve seen him to.
It isn’t until a little later that we see a glimpse of who Jesus is. After his retreat, his disciples get in a boat and go to the other side of the sea and they find him walking on the water. They just witnessed him serving thousands with a few loaves and fish. But now they are seeing something that terrifies them. And the author of John doesn’t say why they were afraid, but regardless of the reason Jesus meets them and tells them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Those are powerful words. But something gets lost in translation for us. In the Greek, we would see “Ἐγώ εἰμι”, (ego aimee) or simply, “I am.” This seems to make little grammatical sense to us, but what it points to is a moment in time when God was first made known to the Israelites through a burning bush and reluctant prophet named Moses. God self-describes not as a Father, Mother, Creator, Savior, or anything else. God self-defines as simply “I am”, or maybe better put, “I will be what I will be.”
Jesus is not content to be a king, worshiped on a throne. Jesus is not even content to do miracles and amaze people. Jesus is here to usher in not a political kingdom for Israel, but rather the Kingdom of God for all people. He is a King, perhaps, but not in the sense that we would like him to be. In place of judgement, he seeks mercy and forgiveness. Instead of amassing power, he gives it away. Instead of seeking the elite and raising funds, he receives the offering of a boy and manages to multiply and give away what he has been given. Jesus is not a King, even though they and we sometimes wish him to be. Jesus is a servant.
And as followers of a servant, we follow his example. We give from what we have. We serve and gather together people who are looking for hope. We pay attention to the needs of others and work to meet them. We realize that the way in which the Kingdom of God works is not majestic buildings or powerful assemblies, but in the small, every day, ordinary things of life. This is the way of Jesus, redeeming even those things and people we deem invaluable or worth-less. On a grassy hill, we see extraordinary generosity. On a small, landbound sea, we find the God of all creation present in chaos. In the waters of baptism, we find promise that you are claimed as daughters and sons of God. In the bread and wine of Holy Communion, we find God’s presence with us, through us, and in us. On a cross and in an empty tomb, we find that death and sin itself has been defeated.
The hands of king are the hands of a healer, J.R.R. Tolkien writes. And the hands of Jesus do that, but they also feed, gather, comfort, serve, and equip us to do likewise. Jesus is not content to sit idly on a throne when the work of the Kingdom is still to be done. He is not a King. He is the Christ and he redeems the world, all humanity, and, yes, you. Amen.