This summer we’ve been following Jesus ‘on the way’ through the book of Mark. Now, suddenly, we’re plunked into the Gospel of John. Still with Jesus, still ‘on the way’ but in these next weeks there will be a kind of concentrated focus. We’ll follow Jesus , the bread of life, taking our readings from John 6. In coming weeks we’ll hear Jesus talk about what that means for Jesus to be the living bread. But we start here with Jesus offering bread – real bread to feed the body.
Our scripture begins with the stories that were left out of Mark last week, actually. We went from the death of John the Baptist with Weldon to healings with Sue, and (in Mark’s Gospel) we jumped over Jesus feeding the crowd of over 5000 and appearing on the water to his disciples. So whoever makes the decisions about lectionary decided that this is where we’d begin: on a hillside with Jesus and his disciples, a crowd of thousands in pursuit because of signs he has performed, just before the time of Passover.
There are some clues to how to read the rest of the story inside the first few lines. For example: The crowd. “A large crowd kept following him because of the signs he was doing for the sick.” These few words are a signal – ‘hey, pay attention! This is probably going to be a miracle story coming up.’ We’ve been reading about the signs, so in all likelihood, this is going to be another. And this was not just a few people – this was not even just 5000 people (3 times the size of the town where I grew up) this was likely 2 or three times that many, since this was 5000 men, plus women and children. Interestingly, the NRSV says ‘5000 in all’ but most other translations say ‘5000 men’ – because, of course, only the men ‘count’. This was more like the crowd at a rock-concert at an outdoor amphitheater. Jesus had reached super-star status by this time.
And then we hear, “Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.” This could signal a few things – one, maybe Jesus doesn’t want to be with the crowd right now. We already know that Jesus is often compelled to be alone to recharge his batteries and find respite, to pray and connect to his creator. Jesus, in spite of his very public ministry, appears to be an introvert. He retreats often to the wilderness by himself or with his closest friends. I was recently alerted to the the book Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain. She says in a TED talk on her website that “solitude matters. For some people it is the air that they breathe.” Jesus needs that down time and the crowd is an interruption.
And finally we learn that it is nearly the Passover. That will be a signal too. I may not even a totally conscious signal, like the way when you hear the word yawn or see someone yawn your body needs to yawn. This is a signal to remember that deeply taught story about God’s providence. ‘Hey, remember all the times that God has provided, has gone before the people of Israel?’ Right away, there on the hill, we get all these clues.
I am going to a picnic on a hilltop this afternoon. Vera Jean Nofziger has turned 3 and her family and ours and a few others will be celebrating at Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill. The party will be outside, probably we will claim a picnic table or two. It will not be in a home. But the hosts of that event are Vera’s parents, Rachel and Joel. They sent invitations, the prepared this outdoor party. Although it is not their home, they are the hosts.
Similarly, Jesus is the host at this party of thousands. Granted, he did not send an Evite to gather the crowd, he didn’t mail envelopes with cupcakes on them. But his actions of healing and the miracles that he has been performing are an invitation of sorts. The crowd – the thronging, arena-sized crowd – has followed him to this place. He is the host – the very gracious host – at this party and he recognizes it, even if his disciples don’t.
He knows what he has to do when he asked his disciples about feeding his guests. He asks them and in their answers we understand that they don’t see themselves as hosts, responsible to provide. And they don’t see that Jesus, has the ability to be host, although they have been following him closely, seeing the signs that he has done.
We often talk about hospitality in our congregation. We talk about what it means to radically be present to the other. We act this out daily at GLA, where we call the volunteers and workers who staff that place ‘hosts’. We do it at the community meal on Sundays. Last week alone maybe half a dozen people asked me for a key to this kitchen to bring their contributions to the meal. One of the things I haven’t heard us talk about that is a part of the hospitality that we offer is doing it when we don’t want to or don’t feel like it or it isn’t convenient. What does it mean to be present to the other on their schedule, to anticipate the need before it is spoken. What does it mean to be inconvenienced and put out but to show up anyway? That’s the kind of host that Jesus is.
Just as there are some signals from what we hear in those first few lines. There are also some things that we don’t hear, especially when we compare this to the other Gospels. We don’t hear, for example, that the crowd is hungry. The people have come to see more healing; they are not expecting Jesus to feed them. (In the other versions the disciples tell Jesus to send the people away to get food). It is Jesus who totally anticipates the need and initiates the response. He is gracious, realizing he is the host and recognizing the responsibility in that. And he realizes it when his disciples don’t and already knows how he is called to respond.
We also don’t hear that the boy offered his meager meal. That kid was pressed into service. I can clearly remember illustrated Bible stories from my childhood about that unnamed boy meekly approaching Jesus with a ‘please sir’ demeanor and humbly offering his poor meal. When in reality, it’s more like, “Hey kid, what’s in your lunch? That’ll do. Hand it over.” (Well, maybe not quite like that). Much, I’m sure, to that child’s surprise his lunch sets the table for crowd around him, which was probably a pretty good return.
This work is sure sign of God’s work in their midst. For not only is Jesus gracious human host. He is Divine host serving with Divine grace. Our creator God is the most gracious host there is – the ‘host with the most’ and Jesus models that hospitality in his anticipation of the needs of the crowd. And not only that. There are a few things about this that connect Jesus to the way God’s grace provides for us and for our forebears in Scripture. First, the Passover reference which I mentioned. Then the miracle itself – taking those barley loaves and fish, that peasant’s food – and making it a feast for thousands.
But before he multiplies the meal, he gives thanks for it. In other Gospels there are even more overtly Eucharistic overtones, adding that he ‘breaks the bread’ before the people eat. Here, he distributes the meal himself (another difference from the other Gospels). He offers this meal from his own hands, a gift from him to the people. The grace is not mediated by disciples but a direct action by Jesus to his followers.
The disciples don’t really seem to get any of that – that this is God at work, Jesus mediating God’s grace. The crowd certainly doesn’t. Jesus is identifying himself with the God who offers radical, uninvited, grace-filled hospitality and they do not understand. And because they don’t understand they want to reframe him as something familiar – a benevolent king. They see Jesus as the Messiah that they have been waiting for, surely enough. But what that means to them is that he could be the one to overthrow the Romans, and fill their aching bellies with food. Although they see him as prophet, Jesus sees that they also want to take him and make him their king. And we know that the kind of king they want is surely not one who serves his fellows, loves indiscriminately and says no, absolutely not, to violent rebellion. Later Jesus has a conversation with Pilate about whether he truly is the king.
“Are you king of the Judeans?” [Pilate asked]
Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have you been talking to others about me?”
Pilate responded, “I’m not a Judean, am I? Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus replied, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.”
So you are a king?
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”
“What is truth?”
Jesus does not answer even one of Pilate’s questions with a straight answer, but the truth is, people clearly have not been listening to his voice anyway. The people who have seen him multiply the loaves and fish and want to make him their king can’t comprehend a Messiah who is like Jesus, and so they want to fit him into their mold. A king who conquers and will drive out the empire, only to establish another in its place. Jesus escapes that noise and slipping off again and he retreats up the mountain. Duty done, he can finally get his introverted moment alone.
But alas no! Immediately following this story (and I had forgotten that they were paired – no only here but in the other Gospels as well) is another miraculous event. Once again Jesus is pressed into gracious service. Oh those foolish disciples. They set out on the capricious sea, and find themselves in need and floundering. But this too becomes an opportunity for grace. I couldn’t quite stretch this story to make Jesus the host in this situation, but he does, as he had in the afternoon with the crowd, connect himself directly to the gracious Creator.
So, you’ll remember, the disciples set out over the water on the Sea of Gallilee, which I understand can become very stormy, very quickly. There’s a time lapse on Youtube that demonstrates, if you’re interested. And they get several miles into their journey and the waves begin to crash and they are afraid for their lives. Jesus realizes their danger and comes to them over the water. And they are afraid of him (other versions say, as if they’d seen a ghost) and Jesus speaks to them saying “Don’t be afraid, it is I.” But the literal translation of that Greek is ‘Do not be afraid. I am’
Now, when I heard that translation I immediately thought of Exodus 3, when Moses encounters Yahweh in the burning bush. Exodus 3:14,
“God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” 15 God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.
I am the one who led the people out of Egypt. I am the one who brought them through the Red Sea. I am the One who provided manna in the wilderness and water out of a rock and bread and fish on a hillside. I am the One who provides and protect. And as surely as the Israelites arrived on dry land at the opposite shore of the Red Sea, the moment Jesus comes into their boat, the disciples arrive on shore and right at their destination.
Jesus’ offers this grace to his disciples out of his calling to serve and to demonstrate the Divine grace of God in heaven. He comes out of his place of retreat to offer himself, to offer more than he needs to, more than anyone deserves. He is able to act at host because of his retreat, in spite of desperately wanting his retreat, because he is assured of his connection to the Divine host. We too are children of the gracious host. There is enough of God’s abundant gifts that we too can offer that to the world. May we spread the blanket for our guests, called by the one who first came to us on the mountain and over the water and met our need.