After the feeding…
Today’s gospel story is very dense, very complex – there is a lot happening. But the central story of the feeding of the 5,000 stands out. What a spectacular event, what a miracle! And I could preach something you might have heard before: Jesus Christ has the power to satisfy our every need and gives abundantly; and as disciples of Jesus, it is up to us to feed the world today and to share what God has given us in overabundance. This is what Jesus would have us do today. Amen? Amen.
But the gospel story as a whole has some darker aspects to it. It is a story of caution that reverberates through time and space.
So just bear with me as I take you to another gospel story, this one from Luke, chapter 4. Here, we read, after Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, Jesus ‘was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by Satan. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. Satan said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then Satan led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And Satan said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will be all yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.’
‘Until an opportune time’ – that story is not over, Satan, which, by the way, means ‘tempter’, is not done with Jesus. Satan has more temptations for Jesus in store.
And today’s gospel story from John about the feeding of the 5,000 is such an opportune time. Now I think that it is quite interesting that John, unlike the other evangelists, doesn’t have a narrative about the temptation of Jesus. But John turns the feeding of the 5,000 into a temptation story.
There are some parallels: first, it happens out in the wilderness. Then, there is bread that seemingly appears out of nowhere and feeds those who are famished. Jesus may not be turning stones into bread, but there is this amazing miracle, the sudden overabundance out of the little Jesus is given.
But Jesus quickly realized that feeding the multitudes may have been a mistake. For the people out there in the wilderness realize that Jesus is someone who can still their hunger, who can satisfy their needs, who can work miraculous things; and they want to hold on to that, they want to make him their own. So those who witnessed Jesus work the miracle want to take him by force, we read, they want to grab him, kidnap him, control him, commodify him and his power – and make him king.
Now we might ask, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what Jesus wants, to rule over all people in the kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice and peace that is not only confined to some heaven far away, but breaks already into the here and now?
Why is Jesus rejecting this oh so tempting offer and rather gets away as quickly as he can?
Let me ask you this: why is Jesus rejecting the offer of Satan in the wilderness to be able to turn stones into bread and end all hunger in this world, and to rule all the kingdoms of the earth? Well, there is a ‘Teufelsfuss’ attached to it, as we would say in German, this deal has the devil’s footprint all over it: ‘If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Satan would be the kingmaker, Satan would ultimately be in charge of Jesus, and Jesus would have to please Satan – for what is given can just as easily be taken away.
And there is a big fat ‘Teufelsfuss’ attached to this desire of the people to make Jesus king. They’d be the kingmakers, Jesus would be king on their terms, not his own – the people want to harness the power Jesus has and offers and use it for their own purposes only. Let’s make a deal, Jesus: Give us, what we are hungry for, and you shall be our king. As long as you give us what we want, as long as you say what we want to hear, we will follow you. If you think about it: this is the definition of populism.
But then Jesus would have power only as long as his followers are willing to grant it to him. And that’s a dangerous thing; on the surface, Jesus would not sell his soul to the devil, but it is very likely that he’d be giving up his soul, his principles, his grand vision, his divine mission to speak the truths the people want to hear and placate and please those who empower him.
There are many examples in history and current politics that show only too well how people in power rather bend to the influence and demands of lobbies, big money donors and their hardcore political base than work for justice and the welfare of all. The rulers become those who are ruled by special interests. There are plenty of politicians who, at some point, sold their soul, feeding the seemingly insatiable appetite for more and more by a few, so that their power may be preserved at the huge expense of integrity and honor.
That seems to be part of human nature: the hunger for more and more power at any cost.
And it is part of Jesus’ human nature as well – otherwise the devil would not tempt him in that particular manner.
So Jesus does the only thing that he knows will save him from this temptation: he get away. He retreats. He takes a deep breath, maybe he meditates, maybe he prays. He catches up with his disciples by walking on water, then the crowds catch up with him.
And then, according to the gospel of John, Jesus preaches a very long and passionate sermon about the bread of life – to the same people who witnessed the miraculous multiplication, the same people who wanted to make him king – he preaches about the things people should truly be longing for: forgives, grace, justice, self-sacrificial love, and eternal life to the fullest. In fact, spoiler alert, Jesus’ words about the true bread of life will be with us for the next 4 Sundays, so you will hear a lot about it.
And what happens when Jesus talks about the bread of life and his rule – God’s rule? A kingdom that is not of this world and doesn’t abide by the rules of this world, but is a kingdom of peace for all, in which everyone gets as much as they need and all shall be satisfied, deserving or not? A kingdom, in which gender, skin color, social status and abilities don’t count, but instead the will to follow Christ and his vision? A kingdom, in which a loving and forgiving God is the only one in power and all power struggles end?
Many turn away, we read. That’s not what they want. This is a deal breaker for them.
But this is the kind of kingdom we are invited into. This is the kind of kingship Jesus Christ offers. The kingdom is not an exclusive club. It’s a house with many mansions.
I think today’s gospel story warns us of the temptations and pitfalls of power. But beyond that, the think that challenge of this story is to let Christ be Christ and to the let God, be God, in all majesty and power and generosity. The challenge is not to try to put Christ in a box, to package him according to our needs and our expectations, and, in that sense, to make an image out of God. The challenge is not to kidnap God for our purposes, which, since we are human after all, tend to be rather selfish and self-righteous, let alone use God as an excuse to hurt others.
The challenge is to surrender all that we are and all that we have to this God, who promises to still our every hunger and to fill us to the brim – and beyond. With God, there is enough for everybody: enough grace, enough love, enough life. We don’t need to fear that there isn’t enough for us.
Even in the wilderness places of our lives – God opens God’s hand wide and provides.