Fr. Andrew Armond – The Ninth Sunday After Pentecost, July 25, 2021
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our reading from John today is like a three-act play. In Act 1 we have the story so many of us know so well, the only miracle story of Jesus told in all four Gospels. Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the hungry crowds. This is the best-known part of the story, the one we pay the most attention to, and rightfully so. John’s telling of the story leads directly to a rich and robust theology of the Eucharist.
But there are two more acts in this story. Act 2 tells us that Jesus realized that the crowds were going to force him to become exactly what he was trying to avoid: the King of the Jews, the political Messiah who would drive the Romans out of Palestine by force and restore the earthly kingship of David over all the Holy Land. And so he escapes and seeks a lonely place up the mountainside to pray.
And then, in Act 3, the disciples see Jesus walking on the waves as they travel the Sea of Galilee. In rough waters, they see Jesus in the middle of the night; he says to them, I AM; do not fear; and then they quickly reach their destination.
John’s play gives us great insight into who Jesus is, not only for the crowds gathered on the hillside that day, not only for the disciples who continued to be amazed, astounded, and confused by their friend and teacher, but for us today. Who is Jesus for us today?
The first act reminds me of a story that does not necessarily reflect well on me.
In my previous position as a school chaplain, I was responsible for all aspects of the Eucharist services: I ironed the altar linens, ordered the communion wafers, bought the communion wine, composed and printed and folded the programs, set the table—everything. And for the Senior Eucharist, everything needed to be especially nice, since the Bishop or his Canon visited to celebrate that service once a year.
For this particular service, I had not anticipated a large enough crowd, and I had not put out enough wafers. During communion, I had to run back to the sacristy and empty another sleeve of wafers quickly so that they could be blessed and we could continue.
After the service, that same evening, I received a polite but strongly worded email from the Canon, who asked me to see what had happened as a learning opportunity. In his words, the Eucharist should always represent abundance. We should always have plenty of food prepared for God’s people.
The Canon was trying to show me the significance of our theology of the Eucharist.
It is a meal of abundance. This meal, like the miracle of John 6, demonstrates God’s overabundant love for God’s people. It is a meal of grace in which we always receive more than we ask for. It is a meal in which we come with open hands, showing that as we approach God’s Table, we have nothing, we bring nothing, we can offer nothing to God of any material worth or value. And because we bring nothing, we are prepared, when we come to God’s Table, to receive the gift of God’s own self.
So, though I was embarrassed by my mistake, I saw the wisdom in the Canon’s theology of the Eucharist, because God always has more to give us, as individuals and as a community of faith.
The logic of God’s economy differs from human logic. In our economy, we deal with finite resources, and much of our economic policy is devoted to figuring out how best to allocate limited resources. This is one of the reasons we fight over budgets, in some cases why we even go to war: we recognize the value of resources that are limited.
We want those resources, we need those resources, and we compete for those resources. Such is the human way.
But it is not God’s way. God’s way, symbolized and illustrated in Jesus’s feeding of the 5,000, and given new life every time we come to this Holy Table, is an economy of abundance, not scarcity. For here, there is always enough.
Every one of us receives as much of God’s Grace as we need in this holy meal, enough to satisfy us completely: and yet God is not diminished one bit. Thankfully, the Divine Love given to us in Jesus Christ does not compute; it does not follow human logic.
And that brings us to Act 2, the nearly-forgotten but crucially important act of this story. We learn that the crowds respond to Jesus’s gift of bread by trying to make him the King of the Jews. What could this possibly mean? And why did Jesus avoid them?
For starters, God’s people were never supposed to have a king in the first place. Hundreds of years before Jesus’s birth, the people of Israel wanted a king, and God told them “no.” God told them that a king would draft their young men into senseless wars; God told them that a king would take their fields and vineyards and olive groves, their grain and their cattle. All of their wealth would be subject to the control and whims of another person.
Kings operate on a human logic of scarcity. They get nervous about not having enough and so they exploit and oppress their own people. In the human logic of kingship, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Kings foster a hierarchical society in which wealth and status are perpetuated generationally. Above all, kings foster inequality and injustice.
So in asking for a King, the ancient Israelites could not trust God to provide for them and their society. In asking for a King, they could not trust that God would give them their daily bread.
It is no accident that the temptations of Christ in the wilderness revolve around these same questions of God’s daily provision, and of earthly power, wealth, and kingship. Jesus rebukes the Devil and the temptations of earthly kingship. Jesus instead embraces the Divine Mission that places God and God’s economy above and beyond every human authority.
Jesus will not be tamed. Jesus will not be domesticated. And above all, Jesus refuses to take the mantle of an earthly kingship that denies justice to the poor and that fosters division and inequity.
Jesus instead, as Paul puts it in Ephesians, grants us a love that surpasses human knowledge and understanding. Jesus, instead, fills the entire universe with God’s love, an overabundance of love that knows no boundaries and no scarcity at all.
In filling the entire universe with God’s love, in rejecting the logic of the earthly kingdom, Jesus gives a new name to all of humanity, as Paul writes in Ephesians 3.
Paul was a Roman citizen and was familiar with the importance earthly societies placed on names. Knowing someone’s name automatically gave you a great deal of information about their wealth, their status, their political leanings, and their parentage. Knowing one’s name allowed you to prejudge them, to discriminate against them, to exclude them from your fellowship before you even knew them.
So when Paul says that GOD is the source of EVERY name in heaven and on earth, he is making a bold, revolutionary claim. While our earthly titles and family names do not disappear upon our baptism, we recognize, in Christ, that we are given a new lineage and parentage that supersedes any and all other ties of kinship recognized in this world.
From and in that family, the family of God, we receive the love of Christ that overflows, that bursts the dams of what we imagine God to be. The raging torrent of Christ’s love overpowers every human barrier and flows into every human heart. There is always, always, always enough to go around.
Jesus’s withdrawal to the mountain by himself in Act 2 of John’s story illustrates his refusal to play by human rules, his refusal to be constrained by our ideas of status and privilege. Jesus offers himself as the Redeemer of all humanity, not a king for just some of humanity.
And, finally, in Act 3, Jesus appears to the disciples, who are initially terrified of him. They, too, in their humanity, have limited and constrained imaginations and are not able to process all the ways in which their friend and teacher exceeds their expectations.
Jesus pronounces the Divine Name, the I AM, completing John’s three-act play by rejecting earthly kingship and showing and telling the disciples who he really is: God the Creator, in the Flesh, appearing now not to destroy and rout our earthly enemies but to transcend all earthly kingdoms with his Divine Compassion and Love; to transcend all earthly names in order to give us a new name; to transcend all earthly trials, struggles, temptations, and difficulties in order to give us the sure knowledge of his Peace; to offer himself up for us not so that we could understand him, but so that we can take comfort and solace in the one who strides effortlessly across the Sea of Human Misery.