Sermon - 29th July 2012
The wrong type of Jesus
Scripture - John 6:1-21
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video]
Jesus in our own image.
Today’s reading is very rich and gives us an insight into who people wanted Jesus to be and how he resisted their expectations. It’s rich because Jesus’ followers have, throughout history, wanted Jesus to be things that he’s not. We see this in Johnny Cash’s song Personal Jesus [play song].
What do we think of the song and its lyrics?
For me the song is problematic. Jesus is, of course, personal as our faith is personal and we confess Jesus to be our Lord. It’s the “my” bit that troubles me coupled with the lines “someone who cares” , “someone who hears your prayers” and the bits about seeing Jesus as forgiver. Of course these things are true but the song, like many expressions of Christianity, seem to assume that this is all Jesus is – a personal saviour, a personal divine forgiver, a personal counsellor, a personal answerer of prayers. My problem with this is it’s not quite the picture we get of Jesus in the Gospels and it’s all very personal – there is no communal aspect to this.
Recently I had a chat via Facebook with someone who was telling me that they struggle with lots of aspects of Christianity. As we chatted it seemed that my friend was struggling with the fact that the Church is about not mixing with sinners and he felt he was a sinner. When we chatted a bit about the Jesus who mixed with prostitutes, collaborators with the occupying force, notorious sinners and the ritually unclean it seemed to open new doors and new understandings for him.
So I wonder what we want Jesus to be for us. Do we want our own personal forgiver, do we want Jesus to be our own personal magician doing what we ask if we do the right things? Do we want Jesus to be made in our own image? It’s what the people in our Gospel reading seemed to want.
People in the reading
In our reading the people were restless for a king, a messiah to free them from Roman over-lordship and oppression. No nation likes to be conquered and for the Jewish people with their sense that God was their true King and a narrative of history which always saw God to be on their side this was a difficult cross to bear. They wanted the Romans, their hated taxes, and their cruel disregard of Jewish faith, law and culture to go. They wanted independence and the right to run their own affairs. They looked to their Bible and saw prophecies of a long-promised messiah who would deliver them. Along comes Jesus who preaches about the coming of God’s kingdom, a kingdom which involved liberation so it is easy to see why the people wanted Jesus to be their messiah. The fact that Jesus performed various signs and wonders confirmed to many of the people that he was God’s anointed leader – the one who would deliver them.
The story of the 5,000 seems to be a key event in Jesus’ life. It’s mentioned in all four Gospels and is perhaps his most striking miracle in terms of the sheer number of people who, clearly, saw it. We often miss bits of the story as we’re so used to it. The key parts for me as I listen to and read this story in St John’s Gospel are the little note that it was Passover and the fact that the people tried to make him king.
As you may know if you’ve attended a Passover Meal, the festival is all about liberation. Through food, song and reading, the story of God’s sovereign action in freeing the Jewish people from slavery are celebrated. It’s very clear that God raised up a leader – Moses- because He had heard the cries of His people who were living in dreadful oppression. This leader challenged Pharaoh and eventually led the people dry-shod through the Red Sea. So as Passover approached people’s thoughts turned to those saving acts of liberation. They would be particularly pertinent in an age of oppression and occupation. The miracle of the loaves and fishes would have raised expectations of Jesus – if he could do this he could do anything. What started as a simple concern for a hungry crowd became a messianic, and rather dangerous, sign. After all Moses fed the people with bread from heaven and walked through water. Here Jesus fed a crowd bread and, a little later, walks on water. Moses met God at Mt Sinai, after this episode Jesus goes to be with God up a mountain. Clearly the crowd were ready to make comparisons between Jesus and Moses, dangerous comparisons really.
Verse 14 indicates that the people have made the connections. Faced with this feeding miracle in the wilderness, they remember the promise that God will raise up a prophet like Moses, and they confess that Jesus is that prophet. But they fail to realize what this sign actually reveals. Instead of seeing in Jesus the very embodiment of God's glory, love, and Word, they see a king, a political or military figure who might serve their desires.
As a result the crowd wanted to proclaim Jesus as king. This would have been dangerous and set Jesus on a collision course with the authorities. We read later on in the Gospel that Jesus accepts he’s a king but that his kingdom isn’t of this world. The immediate political liberation wasn’t what was needed as the people who wanted to proclaim his kingship had their own reasons for doing so and were not in tune with God’s purpose. So Jesus escapes the crowd and their demands. He doesn’t want to be their personal Jesus, their personal liberator.
How often do we fail to see the depths of what God is doing, because we are focused only on what serves our immediate desires and needs? How often do we make Jesus in our own image and fail to realize how graciously God is acting among us, for our sake and for the sake of the whole world.
We only see partially and in distorted ways. We need the continuing word of Jesus, and the gift of himself, if we are to move more deeply into the glory of God. We see this word in Jesus’ message in the Gospels. It is at the cross that we see the full depth of God's glory, and the cross cannot be avoided – indeed we are called to take up our crosses and follow Jesus.
Notice that in our reading the scene moves on to a storm with Jesus walking on the water. The storm is not stilled. Rather, the glory of Jesus is revealed in and through the storm, just as it will be revealed through the cross. The storm is not removed, but the disciples are brought to salvation.
Like the crowds, we have been fed by God's grace, fed with God's mercy and care and steadfast love; and, like them, we often fail to see what God is doing among us. We look for the "wrong" kind of Jesus, one who will simply serve our desires, our wishes and our theology.
Jesus will have no part of this, because God is up to something far greater. Jesus comes to us as God in the flesh, the one who reveals to us the Father and draws us into the Father's love, justice and righteousness.
Jesus comes across the fearful, lonely, empty, threatening times and places, and says "I am." The "I am" has come to be with us and bring us to the goal God has intended – the goal of establishing the Kingdom.
This divine presence means we find ourselves called, as the disciples were, to feed the hungry. Of course this means we are to provide food and clean water to so many in this world who lack those things. And of course, our resources are not sufficient for such a task. But this cannot be an excuse to refuse what Jesus' gives, and to bring it to others within the world. There is no excuse not to receive from Jesus' hand what he gives, and to go into the world with this gift.
All life and all good gifts come from God. Jesus comes to open our hearts and our hands to those around us. We can do that only because he also comes to open our eyes to his own presence as the grace-and-peace-filled "I" in the middle of the storm.