More Than We Ask Or Imagine
Liturgical readings: John 6:1-21; Ephesians 3:14-21
preached at First Baptist Church, Edmonton, Alberta on 29 July 2012
Today’s passage is taken from the beginning of John 6. It’s a familiar story: the sun-weary crowds follow the healer-teacher Jesus, who multiplies a small boy’s meal to feed them all as they sit on the grassy hillside. It’s familiar because it’s a darling of children’s Sunday School lessons – give what little you have and God will make much of it!
It’s also familiar because the Bible itself tells the story so many times – this is the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels. Why this miracle? What’s extra special about this one?
As I read and reread this passage along with the thoughtful commentary of many scholars, I was surprised at how much more there is to this story than I had ever noticed before. What is the “point” of this story? Generosity? Faithfulness? Jesus’ supernatural power? His deity? The importance of caring for the physical needs of weary souls? God’s power to make much out of little? Hm, yes, I think – and more!
Let’s see what there is to discover within this familiar story…
In John’s Gospel we find Jesus, travelling across the countryside. He’s begun to have quite a following, as he performs signs and healings along the way. There’s been a lot of doing, but Jesus has also been doing a lot of talking - his healing acts are not an end in themselves, but are meant to communicate something about who he is, what he is all about. What does Jesus want his hearers to hold onto?
At the moment, the truth the people are holding on to is: Miracle Worker. Here is a man with power. And the people, in their neediness and powerlessness, follow him. The other gospel accounts fill in the picture a bit here for us, telling us that the people “ran on foot” to catch up to Jesus, who then had compassion on them and healed them and began teaching them.
But John’s account doesn’t tell us any of those details. It simply tells us “The Jewish Passover Festival was near.” Three times in his gospel, John highlights the season of Passover. With each brief mention of it, John calls to his Jewish readers’ minds an entire history of experience with the saving power of Yahweh. This second mention of Passover foreshadows the rest of the story, starting with the latter part of John 6, when Jesus turns his attention from physical bread that satisfies hungry bellies to the heavenly bread that nourishes souls. Jesus, who serves the bread, will soon be serving us himself as soul food in the truest sense.
As he surveys the mass of people before him – no doubt hot, dusty and exhausted from their enthusiastic pursuit of him – Jesus has a very practical thought: These folks must be starving! Then he asks a very impractical question: Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?
Now, John is nice enough to let us in on a little secret so that we don’t look as supernaturally naïve as Philip when he answers Jesus with a very reasonable denial of such a possibility – there’s no way we can afford to do that, Jesus! Instead, we are told in advance that Jesus was simply testing him. Jesus had a plan, but first he wanted to test Philip. Eugene Peterson’s Message translates it this way: Jesus wanted to “stretch his faith.” I’ve begun to see it this way: Jesus asked the question to “stretch his imagination” – Jesus had already imagined a perfect ending to this story; he wanted to see if Philip could catch the vision, too.
But alas, if this was a test, Philip didn’t exactly pass with flying colours. He is thinking rationally, logically, realistically – he has knowledge aplenty, but something’s missing. Consequently, all that information stifles his imagination as he focuses on the financial reality: there’s not enough dough this side of
Galilee for that much bread, Jesus! Taking another tack, Andrew weighs in with a seed of possibility:
“Well, there’s this boy, and he’s got a bit of bread and a couple of fish,
minnows really, but…how far will they go among so many?”
Well, it looks like Philip and Andrew have some growing to do in the imagination department – they are a far cry from the faith-filled, God-confident evangelists of the Book of Acts.
And can we blame them for their lacking here? Do we routinely expect or even imagine that God will perform in such amazing and unpredictable ways? Do we imagine he will drop twelve basketfuls of groceries on our steps as we make our way to the Mustard Seed to prepare dinner? Do we even have it in us to imagine that God would just multiply out of nothing to meet the needs of those around us? There are real-life stories of those throughout history who did and were amazed, but I suspect most of us, myself included, tend to limit our prayers to the safer realm of the “reasonable” and the “possible.”
Jesus doesn’t blame Philip and Andrew either. He just carries on, without rebuke or reprimand for their smallish, uninspired faith. I’d like to think that as he told them to get the people seated, he said it playfully – with a wink and a grin, perhaps. Jesus was Rabbi – teacher – after all, and I think he enjoyed the opportunity to teach in such a way as this: Let me give you a peek into my imagination, he says: Watch this!
The people sat down – five thousand men, in addition to the women and children who were also there – no doubt waiting for something awesome, another impressive “performance” by this powerful man, Jesus. (They, at least, had imagination of a sort.) Jesus took the little boy’s lunch sack – five small loaves of bread and two fish – and gave thanks. And in that act of gratitude, something happened. Jesus handed out the blessed food and fed the entire multitude until they were satisfied – full to bursting with bread and fish – so much so that they had twelve basketfuls leftover! God is not stingy with his gifts.
The crowd is rightly impressed: “Surely this is the Prophet who is come into the world!” These desperate, needy people latch onto a new understanding of Jesus – Political Hero! – and desire to crown him king by force. But it’s a misunderstanding. They’re still not getting Jesus – who he is, what he is trying to teach them about himself. Jesus withdraws to a mountain by himself, and we are left to wonder: What is the response he was looking for? How was he wanting to stretch the imaginations of those around him?
The disciples were limited by their own sense of how-it’s-done, and the crowds-people were limited by their own agendas of what-needs-doing. Jesus was stretching them, challenging them to take a look at how God gets things done: His way is better because he satisfies with abundance, his agenda is bigger because his salvation is for the whole world, and his ability is limitless because he is all-powerful!
Thankfully, that isn’t the end of the story for the disciples’ understanding of what Jesus was all about: they didn’t miss their One Big Chance to prove their big faith and elastic imaginations. Their faith – like ours – is a continual journey of being stretched. That very same day, the disciples get to have another crack at it.
After Jesus withdrew, the disciples went ahead and left without him onto a boat and headed off across the lake for
Once they were quite a ways from shore, a storm began to brew and the winds
whipped their faces and the water turned the colour of mud. As if that weren’t
concerning enough, they wiped the sea-spray from their eyes to see…Jesus? And
he’s…walking on water??? Jesus is not holding back with the faith-stretching
now and the disciples are terrified.
Matthew and Mark’s accounts of the scene tell us what they’re really thinking:
It’s a ghost!!! Capernaum
Jesus, in his mercy, doesn’t allow them to stay terrified for long. “It is I,” he says, “Don’t be afraid.” His response is two-fold: It is I, Jesus, the one who you’ve seen heal bodies, feed multitudes – yes, I can walk on water too! I can speak to the seas, I can command the winds. I am powerful beyond your wildest dreams! …But that bit of truth on its own might not help with the terror, so he adds these words: “Don’t be afraid.” Even with all that mighty power, there is no need to fear. I love you. So much – beyond your wildest dreams!
And with that, John’s gospel tells us, they were “willing to let him into the boat.” It’s a funny response, I think, to Jesus’ amazing demonstration and declarations. But, it’s a start, a beginning, and it’s all God needs.
So, as we look back over the characters in today’s story, I wonder if one – or more – resonates with you?
§ Are you like Philip and Andrew – thinking carefully, rationally, responsibly, and missing the point?
§ Are you like the crowd –limiting your understanding of who God is with the narrowness of your own expectations?
§ Are you like the disciples in the boat – afraid of God and unsure of his intentions toward you?
§ Or maybe you’re like the other, silent character, the one I think came closest to the response that Jesus desired – Are you like the little boy, perhaps not amounting to much in the eyes of others, but the possessor of a great childlike imagination that makes room for the unexpected to happen?
I suspect most of us have identified with each of these characters at different points in our journeys. But no matter: Faith-full, faith-little, dreamers, worriers, analyzers, and zealots – Jesus’ response was the same: all were fed and ate their fill. All were satisfied with the abundance of God’s meal. All were stretched – some more, some less, perhaps – but all left that place with a bigger, truer picture of who Jesus was than the one they brought with them.
How is Jesus wanting to stretch our imaginations this morning?
How does he want to satisfy us with abundance out of who he is?
Ryan has recently been referring to our church as FPC –
– and challenging us to consider how we can share in the vision of Joel 2:
speaking prophetically, seeing visions, dreaming dreams. How is God inviting us
to participate with him in his imaginings? First
I’d like to read a quote by Madeleine L’Engle from her book Walking on Water. It’s from a chapter titled “Probable Impossibilities:”
“It might be a good idea,” she writes, “if…we practiced believing six impossible things every morning before breakfast, for we are called on to believe what to many people is impossible. Instead of rejoicing in this glorious ‘impossible’ which gives meaning and dignity to our lives, we try to domesticate God, to make his mighty actions comprehensible to our finite minds.”
How is God inviting us to “rejoice [with him] in the impossible?”
Is there some thing – some relationship, perspective, or mode of being – that we’ve resigned ourselves to when God has a plan for something new and wonderful? Are we willing to dream dreams with him? Are we willing to have faith that what he calls us to is good?
I’m going to give us a minute or so to rest in that – to make room for God in our imaginations, to meditate on what it means to be abundantly satisfied by Jesus, and then I’ll close with a prayer from Ephesians 3.
I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge —that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God…Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory …for ever and ever! Amen.