Don’t you wonder just what in the world those 5,000 people were thinking as they followed Jesus across the sea, away from their cities, away from their homes, away from their lives? They had no idea where Jesus would end up when he left Bethsaida
(where he had been before this). They just … went with him on his way.
I’ll wager most had never been that far from home before, or that they hadn’t even planned to go on a journey--they’d left without packing food or anything else they’d need. They went out of their way. They went out of their way to follow Jesus. Why?
At the time, Israel was under the ruthless occupying forces of the Romans. Most ordinary people were oppressed and desperate. The crowd followed Jesus because of the way this remarkable rabbi lived, because of the things he did that gave refuge to the afflicted, just like our Psalm for today said God would do.
In just the first five chapters of the Gospel of John (today’s lesson is from Chapter 6), Jesus has already saved a wedding reception by turning water into wine, listened compassionately to an outcast woman at a well in Samaria, healed a young boy at the point of death, as well as a man who had been crippled for 38 long years.
These “signs and wonders” show what Jesus could DO, but other actions show who Jesus IS:
He is a man of profound courage, able to stand up strong against the harsh authoritarianism of the Jewish leaders. He is a man with bold self-confidence, eager to challenge the leaders’ rigid dogmatism, resolutely insisting that his Father is none other than Almighty God, that he knew God and came from God, and all he does is what his Father has personally instructed him to do.
Because of what he does and who he is, the crowd wants to know more about him. They go way, way, way out of their way to follow Jesus, crossing seas and climbing strange hills to get near to this man. On the journey, the signs and wonders keep happening:
Jesus feeds them--all the Filet-O-Fish sandwiches they want!
Unlike the versions of the story in the other three gospels, this one says: JESUS took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, HE DISTRIBUTED THEM TO THOSE WHO WERE SEATED; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. Jesus himself serves the food to the large crowd.
Because of what he does and who he is, these downtrodden, oppressed, desperate people see a man able to give them all they yearned for: healing, compassion, abundance, courage, and the approval of God – a prophet, a leader, a miracle man: in short, the crowd sees in Jesus everything necessary in a leader who could give back to Israel the glory of its once and future king, David.
Because of what he does and who he is, these downtrodden, oppressed, desperate people see a man able to give them all they yearned for: healing, compassion, abundance, courage, and the approval of God.
But the human notions of worldly authority and privilege don’t tempt Jesus; he knows all too well that human ideas of glory not only are finite, they can corrupt the soul of the best of folks, even David himself.
David, we are told, was a man after God’s own heart but even he succumbed to the temptation of being captivated by worldly authority and privilege, embracing the attitude that those with power are ENTITLED to WHATEVER they want WHENEVER they want it--that no one can stop them from using their vast resources to do just as they please, no matter who gets hurt, used, or crushed in the process.
David knew the way of the Lord! But instead went his own worldly way, using Bathsheba to slake his lust and crushing her husband, Uriah, when he became...inconvenient...to the king. David forced others to take part in his evil scheme, he made Bathsheba commit adultery--a Top Ten sin--and made General Joab send a loyal and righteous soldier to his death.
Of course, you don’t need to be a king to get lost in worldly priorities. Just past Friday, in West Palm Beach, a lawn worker named Tony saw a man convulsing behind the wheel of a slow-moving car. Tony forced the car off the street and to a stop on the lawn of a house. When he screamed for help, the people in the house yelled “Get off our lawn!” and “Get that man out of here; have him die somewhere else!” They wouldn’t go out of their way even to call 911.
Their lawn was more important than a man’s life.
Thankfully, Tony continued to go out of his way and got help for the driver. The Palm Beach Sheriff’s office, who posted the story, reported that the driver is fine and that Tony is a hero. When Tony went out of his way, he was, like that large crowd so long ago, following Jesus on a way totally unlike our human notions of glory.
God’s glory is not to bend people to do God’s will, but to shower them with grace: to serve them, to save, feed, heal, comfort, and care for them--to love people to death. Going out of our way to follow God’s way means that we, too, shower grace on others, even on people, like King David and those West Palm folks, who eat up God’s people like bread.
I admit showering grace on “every ethnic group in heaven or on earth” is a big challenge in today’s polarized climate, but the letter to the Ephesians promises us that we will have help, that God is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us. Relying on God’s power means that, to be a refuge to the afflicted, we don’t need huge resources or high status.
All we need is to be willing, like the crowd of 5,000, like Tony the lawn man, to make the choice right in the middle of our everyday lives, to go out of our way to follow Jesus.
Just keep looking for ways to shower people with grace, and you, too, will see God’s glory.
Copyright notices: The Scripture text (except for the Psalm) The Bible texts of the Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel lessons are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, and used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, all other content is original and copyrighted by Becky Robbins-Penniman, 2021. All rights reserved.