No Crowd-Funded King

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 17
July 25, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Our tradition refers to Jesus as "king" ad infinitum, and that is fine and good and certainly not ad nauseam - but this passage offers us some surprising insights about the kind of king he might be. What kind of king is he - and what kind of subjects are we to be?

In this crucial passage from the gospel of John, we get some significant insights as to Jesus' mission and purpose. Jesus came to feed the hungry, both spiritually and physically - but at various places, we sense frustration on his part when people come to him solely for "physical" reasons.

We find here that Jesus is a leader, in every sense of the word. He is exactly what we look for in a leader, even today, with our so precisely defined understandings of leadership. His actions could have been prescribed at any given seminar on leadership. We see that he already has an idea of what he is going to do, but he asks for suggestions, anyway, and he sets his team to work looking for possible solutions.

And when his team runs into a wall, he decisively takes charge. We don't see any doubt or hesitation on his part, no worried questioning of his own motives. He is in charge. He is a leader.

Who is following this leader? Well ... there is a crowd; but that crowd is not "following" him, exactly, but more like following him around, to see just what he might pull off next. And then we have the disciples, those who are following him in the truest sense, who appear to be the kind of followers he is looking for.

What kind of leader is he? Who does he want following him? Where is he going? What does he want? In this particular vignette, he apparently simply wants some alone time with his disciples - the followers he has specifically called - so he can teach them some aspects of what he is on earth to do, things not as dramatic as signs and wonders, but more crucial to the carrying out and carrying on of his mission.

And then there is that large crowd. There seems to be an intentional separation here - between Jesus and his disciples, and that crowd that is following him because "... they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick." What does the crowd want? What does Jesus want? What do the disciples want? What do we want? Where are "we," in this scene? Are we among the disciples, or are we among the crowd?

The crowd and the signs 'n' wonders

We can't help but wonder what Jesus' mood is, what his demeanor is, when he asks Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" Throughout the opening chapters of this gospel, he has shown an aversion to people coming to him simply because they want to see signs and wonders. In chapter 4, for example, a father whose little boy is deathly ill comes to him asking for healing, for life. And Jesus' first response is to chide this grieving father. "Unless you see signs and wonders, you won't believe." And the desperate father's heart-rending response: "Sir, come down before my little boy dies."1

"Come down ..." the worried father says. Perhaps there's a bit of double entendre here. Come down in the straightforward sense of "come down to my house," yes, and lay your hands upon my stricken child. But perhaps a larger sense, too, a comment that might even be snarky, were the stakes any less than life-or-death: "Oh, come down off your high horse, come down off your nit-picking about motives, before my little boy dies!"

And Jesus complies - and does not comply. No, he does not, literally, "come down" to the man's house. He stays right where he is, in both senses. But he does "come down," at least temporarily, from his concern about a shallow seeking after signs and wonders instead of the hard and unglamorous work of discipleship. He just says the word. "Go; your son will live."

And it bears emphasizing that "The man believed." The man believed, right in that moment. He didn't put off belief until he got home and found a healthy child where before there had been a child at death's door - he didn't believe, in other words, because of a sign, a wonder, a miracle. And in that moment of belief, he became the kind of disciple Jesus is looking for - he graduated from simply being one of the large crowd to being an authentic disciple.

But the lust for signs and wonders continues, and here it is in the large crowd following Jesus doggedly, nagging after him, literally. Given his aversion to signs and wonders, and people being drawn to him solely by signs and wonders, might Jesus have been a bit weary here? What is the look on his face when he says to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" He knows the people need to be fed. He knows it's going to take a miracle to do it. And perhaps he just doesn't like it. But his compassion and his faithfulness to his calling says it must be done. So he does it.

Philip and Andrew show their separation from the crowd, even in their dismay. They offer some half-hearted suggestions: Philip says, "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." And Andrew adds, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?"

What indeed? But from Jesus, there is no "Send them in to the villages roundabout to buy food." Neither Philip nor Andrew has any hope of carrying off a feeding for such a crowd, and in that aspect, they are completely unlike the crowd. They are neither looking for nor expecting any miracles, signs or wonders. Hence their motives for following Jesus are quite different.

Jesus the leader

But they get their signs and wonders, anyway. Jesus rather unceremoniously takes over. And he feeds 5,000 - more than 5,000: the literal Greek says that five-thousand men were invited to take a seat on the grass, more, of course, when we count women and children. Jesus feeds them - just by saying the word. He feeds them - and then some!

There are leftovers; 12 baskets full of leftovers! That's just a lot of leftovers, never mind the significance or the symbolism of the number 12 - a basket for each tribe of Israel? What difference does it make? A crowd of 5,000 plus! Less than a half-dozen loaves of bread! Two fish! And everyone is not only fed, there is enough leftover bread to feed God knows how many more! Talk about signs 'n' wonders! Here's a sign and a wonder for you!

We're not told how the disciples reacted to that.

We are told how the crowd reacted: A prophet! No, not a prophet; the prophet!

So they come to take him by force and make him king.

And Jesus withdraws and hides. Yes, he does - the text doesn't put it quite that way, but that's what it amounts to; it's not stretching a point too far to say that. Okay, so it's not that he's afraid - Jesus, especially in John's gospel, isn't afraid of anything, anywhere - not even crucifixion, as perhaps in the garden scenes in the other gospels. His most oft-repeated counsel is "Don't be afraid!" But if not fear, if not a simple lack of desire for that kind of responsibility, what? Why hide? If he's not afraid, what is it that he's trying to avoid?

He's trying to avoid being made king - but why? Jesus, the leader? What kind of leader is it - spiritual, corporate, political or whatever - who runs and hides when the crowd - the people - come to make him king? King , for heaven's sake - the leader of leaders, the King! When they come to make him king - he intentionally makes himself scarce! Who does that?

And this is what we and any other kind of "crowd" that hasn't yet made the leap to discipleship needs to remember when we go about talking about Jesus as King. King he may be - but in what sense of the word? When "the people" literally come to take him and make him king, as the term was understood in that day, and as it is usually understood - he becomes suddenly unavailable. Jesus wants no part of being a king. Jesus wants no part of being a charismatic leader on a pedestal. Jesus wants no part of being a TV evangelist. Jesus wants disciples , not subjects!

What will it take to move you from membership in that large crowd, just following Jesus around for reasons of your own, following Jesus around only to see if he'll give you what you want, or even what you need, to a true discipleship - a discipleship as focused on serving as it is on being served, a discipleship devoted to Jesus, to carrying out his mission in the world?

Perhaps you are there already. If not ... keep following! Jesus will meet your need, if you keep on following, even out to a wilderness place, a place where he just wants to be alone with his friends. Follow him, ask him, receive from him - and when he gives you what you need, see where faith leads you from there.