Today’s Gospel reading is a story I’m sure you will have heard many, many times. It’s an old favourite of school assemblies and primary school RE lessons. The Feeding of the Five Thousand is a wonderful story of God’s generosity and of how He uses our offerings to make something much bigger. This is all so true. We have a God of unfailing abundance. He gives us so much. He puts us, as St Paul in his letter to the Hebrews says, a little lower than angels. He values us unconditionally and loves us more than we can imagine. Now, that in itself is a wonderful lesson to take from a Gospel reading. But this one comes with a word of caution too. You might well have mentally switched off after the part where the baskets of food were collected. Maybe you registered the bit about Jesus walking on water. It’s understandable that those would have seemed like the main parts of the story.
Initially I thought they were the most important parts of the story. It took me a couple of readings to realise the significance of what happens next. After Jesus had fed everyone, they wanted to make him a King. The crowd recognised his authority and power came from God, connected him with the old prophesies of the Messiah coming to save them, and wanted to claim that earthly authority for him. This wasn’t what Jesus wanted. His ministry was never to be based on what the earth recognises as power and authority. He wasn’t going to be claiming salvation by fighting wars between nations, by overthrowing occupying armies by force … Jesus wanted to free from oppression and restore society to correct relationships of love and respect. That doesn’t happen from a throne where wealth holds power and the already powerful are the only ones whose voice is ever allowed to be heard. Jesus as an earthly king was never in the plan. So he refused. He withdrew. He went off to the mountain alone.
I can imagine confusion from the crowd. Why would he not want to be made into King? Surely that would show him how much they valued him and would fight with him? They could raise up a great army. Why would he not want that? Did his ministry really just consist of a few pieces of bread and fish? This is not how they were expecting him to behave. This is not the way they wanted it.
Then we see the disciples going off in the boat. I find myself wondering what conversations were going on … How the disciples had felt when Jesus left them to deal with the crowd. I wonder if they understood what had made him disappear and whether they tried to explain that his leadership wasn’t going to fit in with their limited ideas of what power should look like.
If they did get it, I’m not sure they completely got it. Because whilst they are in the boat, they run into a bit of bad weather and see Jesus walking on the water to them. He tells them not to be afraid. Their first reaction is to try to take him into the boat with them. That is how they imagine he will save them. But it doesn’t work out like that. Jesus doesn’t get in and get them to safety. Instead, suddenly the boat gets to land. Jesus has got them to safety, but not in the way they expected.
That holds so much resonance for me. I have spent so long telling God what I expect Him to do. My prayers can often be a list of instructions. I expect God to comply with my wishes and I’m more than a little disappointed if my instructions are not carried out in a timely manner to my complete satisfaction. I expect God to agree with my point of view on everything. You know, if I had any interest in football, I think I’d probably expect God to support the same team as me.
If God did work in the world exactly as I wanted Him to, what would that mean that God is? What would that mean that I am? God is not my puppet. And I am not the puppet master. We are so tempted to create an image of God that works for us. We make Him in our own image and when that falls down and God insists on being God, we can feel frustrated and let down.
What would happen if we trusted God to be God? What if we trusted that God would get us home safely and would provide for us? Would it make us more prepared to offer our small gifts to Him to use, like the boy with the loaves and the fish?
When we come to God recognising His authority and power and not insisting on our own, He does amazing things.
S will be baptised in a few moments. She comes without any expectations of what God will do for her. She doesn’t come with a shopping list of miracles she needs Him to perform, and to perform NOW! She comes in complete innocence ready to accept His grace without conditions. When we come to the table to receive Communion, we do so because we want to receive God into ourselves. That’s it. We don’t have a list of conditions in that moment. We, like S, come in innocence, ready to accept His grace. That sounds so freeing! We don’t have to always be in charge. It reminds me of the phrase “let go and let God”. Just ‘be’ in the knowledge that we are loved.
Sacraments like communion and baptism were described by St Augustine as an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. I want to give you something to think about: Could we truly become a living sacrament, ready to receive God’s will and trust in his love? What would it look like to be an outward sign in the world of Christ’s inward grace in our lives? What difference would it make if we could be a sign of God’s presence in the world, working towards His peace, trusting that He is in charge and allowing ourselves not to be?