Sermon: X Pentecost (13b)
5 August 2012
Fr. Patrick Allen
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If you’ve been watching the Olympics – and of course you have – not only have you seen the athletes compete, but you’ve seen their coaches urging them on. In the interviews and little biographical back stories that the television folks delight in showing us instead of, you know, the actual competition, they often show us the coach acting in the role of kind and sympathetic therapist, not so much training the athlete in proper technique and strategy, but with endless patience and gentle, encouraging words shoring up the athlete’s delicate psyche, helping him or her overcome some grief or tragic life episode – and there’s nothing the television folks love more than a champion athlete with a tragic life episode – so that he or she can overcome crippling self-doubt and perform at fullest potential.
That’s all fine and even I have gotten a little misty hearing the story of some champion trampolinist whose dog was injured in a tragic Frisbee fetching incident just weeks before the Games began, and whose coach helped her cope with and overcome her grief and worry and to bravely bounce on to the bronze … or the silver or the gold.
But of course while the good coach often times does speak gentle words of encouragement, the good coach will also, when appropriate, speak a harsh word, will point out error and lack of effort.
In this morning’s Gospel lesson, we get a little of that from Jesus. On the day following the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, when our Lord and the Twelve have crossed to the other side of the lake for, we may suppose, a little apostles’ retreat, the crowds follow, and they search, and they seek, and finally they find Jesus.
Which sounds commendable, this pursuit of Jesus. In the course of this same conversation we have heard the beginning of this morning and which we will continue reading through over the next few Sundays, Jesus will proclaim, He who comes to me shall never hunger, and “he that cometh to me I shall in no wise cast out.” And even, “No one can come to me unless the Father draw him.”
Searching, seeking, coming to Jesus would seem to be in every way admirable. But instead of commendation and congratulation, which we might expect, they receive from our Lord a rebuke, a harsh word; in fact, a word of judgment:
Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.
It is, really, a classic case of missing the forest for the trees. In the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus has performed a mighty and unmistakable miracle. We usually call this miracle “the feeding of the five thousand” but of course the point of the miraculous work was not simply to fill empty bellies. After a day in the country listening to our Lord’s teaching, these folks were undoubtedly hungry but certainly not starving, and the disciples original suggestion, which we heard in St. Mark’s Gospel two Sundays ago, to “send them away, to go into the country and villages round about and buy themselves something to eat”[i] was perfectly sensible, and doubtless exactly what Jesus did on other occasions.
Jesus didn’t multiply the loaves and fishes merely to feed these folks, but to communicate with them, to reveal himself to them, and to do so by means of a sign. But their blindness is such that they didn’t even see the sign as a sign, much less did they see what it signified: You seek me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.
Jesus gave them a sign pointing them to the Kingdom of Heaven which had come near them, the Kingdom of Heaven which in the person of Jesus was perfectly actualized among them, but what they see is a wonder-worker, a source of earthly power, who could fulfill their bodily needs. They ate their fill, and now they wanted more.
In other words, these disciples who were interested enough to follow Jesus out into the Galilean countryside made a kind of inversion, and it’s an inversion that is still and always a temptation, always a real and present danger, to Christ’s disciples. And the inversion is this: to value what is eternal as a means to a temporal result. It is to reduce Jesus from Lord and Savior and King and God to a means to, a tool for, achieving some temporal, earthly end – be it a political end, or a social end, or an economic end, or what have you.[ii]
We see it all the time. America’s most popular television preacher essentially invites people to come to Jesus so that they can be healthy and wealthy and, as he says, “live your best life now.”[iii]
On the far other end of the church spectrum, the self-described radical eco-feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther wanted to revolutionize the Church so she bring the revolution to the world. Years ago she was asked why she remained in the Catholic Church even though she loudly rejected its teachings, and she said, “Because that is where the mimeograph machines are.” Well, we could make the necessary change for updated technologies and apply it to so much of the contemporary Church – Reuther’s substantive point being that the Church can be used for the revolution. What is eternal is valued for its possible temporal uses.[iv]
I say, “we see it all the time,” as if it’s something out there we might observe, but the truth is, we do it all the time, and it’s something we experience in here. Perhaps not quite so vulgarly, but still we want to use God; we offer up our paltry little sacrifices, are nice to God in an attempt to get God to be nice to us, to give us this thing we want – and it may be, probably is, a very good thing. To be fed is, after all, a good thing. To have enough money not to sweat the mortgage payment each month is a good thing. Disease is a bad thing, and health is a good thing, rightly to be desired, and we do well to pray for those things.
But those things, good as they are, are not the ends for which we have been made; do not labor, Jesus tells the Galilean crown and us, for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give you. Those good things, the food which perishes, are not the goal, and in any case God cannot be bought. Good as those things are, God has better for us. God will give us himself; he offers us a share in the perfect joy of the Holy Trinity. And not for this life only, though it begins now, but it is God’s own life that he offers to us, which is what the Bible means by “eternal life.”
And that should help us keep the good things of this world in their proper place. Having a full belly, even the condition of being “in love,” along with, as C.S. Lewis says in the Screwtape Letters, “most of the other things which humans are excited about, such as health and sickness, age and youth, or war and peace, [are], from the point of view of the spiritual life, mainly raw material.”
“Mainly raw material.” Which brings us back to the Jesus and the loaves and fish – the raw material of his sign. “Okay, then,” the crowds, says, Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” Yes, Jesus says, but it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven. God was the donor of that bread.
And so we see the meaning of the sign. It was Jesus himself who fed them the day before in the wilderness, just as God his Father had fed Moses and the children of Israel when they left Egypt. Jesus and the Father are one. But the bread he now gives, the bread to which the multiplied loaves point, the bread which gives life – not just temporally but eternally – is himself. I am that bread of life! he declares. Bread which on the cross will be taken, and broken, and given – for us, and for the life of the world.
He is that Bread, sent from the Father, and he is the same Bread, taken, broken, and given from this Altar, that Bread which endures to eternal life. And so it for us to do the work of God, which is our hardest and our easiest labor – to give up on ourselves, and to throw ourselves on his mercy, his provision, and believe in him whom he has sent, to “feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving.”
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[i] Mk 6.36
[ii] William Temple, Readings in St. John’s Gospel, ad loc.
[iii] See Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, for a critique of Joel Osteen’s gospel.
[iv] Richard John Neuhaus, First Things, December 2002. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/02/the-embarrassment-of-sin-and-grace--45