The story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain top, in front of Peter, James and John, is well known to most Christians – in our church we celebrate this event at least once a year just before Lent starts (Matthew 17:1-9).
But this year I noticed for the first time the narratives about Jesus’ death on either side of the transfiguration story. In Matthew 16:21-23, Jesus tells his disciples that he will shortly be killed. Peter challenges him for this negative comment, and Jesus in turn rebukes Peter with strong words, “Get behind me, Satan!” How devastated Peter must have felt, both hearing about Jesus’ fate and hearing Jesus’ stinging rebuke.
And shortly after the transfiguration, in Matthew 17:22-23, Jesus repeats this statement, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. And they will kill him.” The disciples were filled with grief at these words. What dark encounters to have immediately before and after the transfiguration.
In addition to hearing these words, the disciples hear other difficult-to-swallow messages. In Matthew 16:24-28, Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to follow him, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and lose their life. A hard teaching – they thought they were going to journey with their saviour towards the Eternal Life that Jesus so often spoken about. But instead, they hear these hard words.
And after the transfiguration, they go out to heal people and cast out demons (Matthew 17:14-20). But there is one child they cannot save. Jesus comes and heals the body immediately. They ask Jesus why they couldn’t drive out the demon, and Jesus responds “Because you have so little faith.” Ouch! Tough, harsh words from their Lord.
It is like there are these tall walls on their left and their right, before and after the transfiguration, that block out the sun and that undermine and disrupt the disciples’ faith. Almost like they are at the bottom of a chimney tower, with walls all around that reach up into the sky, so that no light gets down.
And yet is it is in this very space – in this dark place – that the transfiguration takes place. It is here, in this darkness, that the light of Christ, his dazzling divine nature, is revealed to Peter, James and John.
Here is an important lesson: It is often in the darkest spiritual times that we we have the brightest encounters with God.
It is clear from Matthew 17 that Jesus goes immediately into the transfiguration – he wastes no time. It is as if this is exactly why he brought them up the mountain – so that in the midst of their darkness, they could encounter his light. And they hear the voice of God speaking, “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
Here are hope and courage and spiritual resources to sustain the disciples, in the midst of spiritual testing.
Have a look back at Exodus 24:12, where Moses is invited to go up the mountain to meet with the Lord and to receive the Ten Commandments. God says to him, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here.” What a remarkable invitation! To be not only invited up the mountain to meet with God, but also to stay there with God. And Moses stayed there 40 days and 40 nights. All around the mountain, the Israelites saw a storm, thunder and lightning, dark clouds – it was terrifying. But Moses was safe in the light of God within the darkness of the cloud, just staying with God.
During the period of Lent, which kicks off on Wednesday this week, many of us will experience an intensification of spiritual attack. We will be working to deepen our faith, to nurture our spiritual life, to strip down the outer layers of excess, to step away from sin and get down to a more fundamental and authentic relationship with God. But in this very time, when we are trying so hard to grow spiritually, Satan attacks us the most. We experience increased difficulties, challenges, disruptions, criticisms, failures, hardships, losses. These are the dark walls of the chimney tower rising up around us.
It is in these times that we are most in need of the light of Christ. Peter, having recounted his experience on the mountain top, provides us with some helpful advice (2 Peter 1:19):
We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
‘The light shining in the dark place’ and the ‘morning star rising in our hearts’. This is the transfiguration of Christ taking place within us as we seek to follow Christ, even when the world is dark around us, even when our faith seems weakest, even when we feel besieged by evil. This is where we encounter the transfigured Christ.
Today’s Gospel presents us with some of the most baffling words from Jesus:
“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:49-58).
It is hard to reconcile such divisive, anti-peace language with the Jesus who repeatedly says, “Peace be with you” and “Love one another as I have loved you”. It may be helpful to differentiate between prescriptive statements and descriptive statements. A prescriptive statement is an instruction or command, such as, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. In such statements, Jesus is telling us the desire and intention of God for us. A descriptive statement, on the other hand, merely describes what is, without necessarily defining it as good or desirable.
This passage from Luke is phrased as a descriptive statement. Jesus is not prescribing the absence of peace or the presence of division – he is rather describing how things will be. His later critique in Luke 12:56, “How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?”, suggests that the entire passage is a description of how things will be and a challenge to our faith to make sense of such divisions.
Last week, Rev Marti addressed the topic of faith in some detail. Her sermon was beautiful and encouraging. Remember Jesus’ words in Luke 12:32, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom”. She commented on how lovely it is to be a little lamb in God’s little flock. Today, we continue to reflect on faith, but faith that is tested; faith that is under pressure; faith that must stand in the gap.
So, let’s go back to our First Testament readings to see how these may help us make better sense of our Luke passage.
Isaiah 5 pens with a story of a beautiful and very much-loved vineyard in vv1-2. It could easily have been found in Song of Songs – it is quite sensual. But all too soon, in v7, there is deep disappointment in God, as he looks for justice, but sees only bloodshed; looks for righteousness, but hears only cries of distress. How is it possible to go from something so beautiful to something so dreadful in just a couple of verses? God laments in v4, “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?” God is baffled by the capacity of the people of Israel and Judah to transform something so good into something so bad. Consequently, God destroys and tramples the beloved vineyard, he makes it a wasteland, uncultivated, dry and desolate.
This passage presents us with a sobering example of the failure of faith. What God has desired – what he expects of his faithful people – is social justice and righteousness. This is the prescription or command of God. But when we fail to live up to this expectation – when we become faithless – God is grieved, and the consequence can be destruction. The destruction is described, not prescribed – it is the natural result of our turning from God.
Psalm 80 could have been written by Isaiah – the narratives have so many similarities. vv8-11 describe a beautiful vineyard, tended and cared for, sheltered and protected. This is followed immediately by a lament (vv12-13). Here the lament is not from God, but rather from God’s people: “Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes?” As in Isaiah, God destroys the vineyard, but now it is the people who lament. And in contrast to the Isaiah passage, there is now a turning back to God, asking for reconciliation. In vv14 & 19 they say: “Return to us, God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine. … Restore us, Lord God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.”
And in their prayer for restoration, they prophecy about the coming Messiah. In v15 they say, “Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself.” And in v17, “Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself.” Who is this son, this man at God’s right hand, this raised-up son of man, if not Christ? Here we see a restoration of the faith of the people, as they give voice to the prescription of God – that we entrust ourselves to God and to his anointed son.
In this narrative, God’s destruction of the vineyard, though terrible, gives rise to new faith. It reminds me of the fires over the mountains in Cape Town. They are destructive and devastating. But out of the fire, new fynbos and protea grow. Many of you may have seen, driving over Ou Kaapse Weg for example, the new green-green shoots of life emerging out of the blackened ground. The destructive fire, as hard as it is, is tied up with the new life that emerges from the ashes.
And then we pick up in Hebrews 11 where we left off last week – a reminder of the many ways faith has persevered through difficult times in the First Testament. Despite the many adversities they face, there are people of faith who come through these fires – Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and many others. The writer of Hebrews even points out in v39 that many of them never saw the fruit of their faith – for example, Abraham was promised, but never saw, the great nation that would flow from him; and Moses never crossed into the promised land, despite all his faithful efforts in leading his people out of Egypt and through the wilderness.
And now for us, who come after Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension, how much more are we able to be people of faith. As Hebrews 12:1-2 says, given this legacy of people of such faith and everything that Christ has done for us, we must “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Jesus himself scorns the shame of the cross, because he has deep faith that it is through such testing and trials that God’s Will will be accomplished.
So, let us then return to today’s Gospel reading. What does Jesus mean when he says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” Jesus is not prescribing division, but describing it. Division is, strangely, a consequence of faith! Jesus did not come to make human life comfortable and easy. We are not playing nicey-nicey. No! On the contrary (as a member of our parish said so well yesterday in Morning Prayer), Jesus is a revolutionary! He came to disrupt the corruption, hypocrisy, injustice, violence and exploitation of this world. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus standing against such evils. His vision for humanity and for the whole of creation is magnificent and prescriptive – we must live up to the ideals of God.
But when we live up to God’s ideals of love, social justice, radical inclusivity, forgiveness, reconciliation, tolerance and righteousness, we will inevitably create conflict. Indeed, let me say that we should inevitably create conflict. This is not a prescription, but a description of the inevitable. Revolution is not nice! It causes division.
We can think of many contemporary examples of such division and the absence of peace, as a result of diverse issues in the world. For example, let’s consider the continuing question of the place of LGBTQI+ people in the church – their membership, their ministry, their marriage, their ordination. This is such a divisive topic for Christians. Many years of discussion in the Anglican church have brought little common ground.
At the Lambeth conference over the past couple of weeks – the Anglican communion’s global meeting – the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed a kind of live-and-let-live compromise for everyone: each country decides what they believe is right and good. Is this a solution? I’m sorry, but I don’t think so. Does it bring peace and unity? No, I doubt it; it might even achieve the opposite.
My own view on this is that when we place sexual morality or our views of gender ahead of radically inclusive love, then we have strayed far off the path that Jesus walked. I am firmly convinced that the pattern of life that Jesus established leads inevitably to the inclusion of members of the LGBTQI+ community in the life, sacraments and ministry of the church, even if one believes that homosexual acts are wrong. But many of you here today may disagree with me and this may lead to a lack of peace between us, perhaps even disunity. So be it.
And of course, there may be many other issues we could fall out over: the conflict between Palestine and Israel; our stand on abortion; global warming; our affiliation to political parties in South Africa. The opportunities for conflict and discord are numerous.
I suggest, though, that what we are learning from Jesus in Luke 12 is that such tensions are inevitable and tolerable. They may be uncomfortable. And we pray that they do not tear us apart. But they are not fundamentally wrong or bad. After all, Jesus himself says, “I came to bring division”.
But towards the end of this passage, Jesus makes some important points about divisive issues in the Christian community. In Luke 12:54-56, he criticises people for being able to interpret the signs in the sky and the earth, such as predicting the weather, but being unable to interpret the signs of the “present time”. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Look! Wake up! Open your eyes! Wragtig julle!” We cannot control the weather, but we can discern and shape human behaviour and its impact on the world.
For example, the eight women who were recently gang raped by dozens of men in Krugersdorp. How can we allow this continue? What is wrong with us in this country that we have the highest rate of rape in the world? What are we doing about it?
And Jesus goes on immediately in vv57-58 to urge us to think for ourselves about what is right and what is wrong. And to make reconciliation our aim, rather than to be adversarial. His prescription for Christian living, even in complex times, is clearly stated here – think about what is right and do reconciliation.
The tensions between peace and division, and the handling of complex ethical and moral questions are complex. How do we then go about discerning what is right and wrong in the world, and interpreting the signs of this age? How can we be revolutionary, as Christ was, while also working for peace and unity, as Christ did? Let me suggest two central principles that may help us navigate these challenging paths**:
The primacy of love. If there is one thing that stands out so strongly in all of Jesus’ teachings and actions, that we cannot deny it and still call ourselves Christian, it is the priority that Jesus gives to love. I refer to his love as ‘radically inclusive love’, because Jesus never turns people away on the basis of gender, ethnicity or race, religion or morality. He may criticise people’s behaviour, but he always reaches out in love and includes them in his loving presence. Love is the most important!
God’s preferential option for the poor. Quoting Wikipedia, God’s option for the poor “refers to a trend throughout the Bible, of preference being given to the well-being of the poor and powerless of society in the teachings and commands of God as well as the prophets and other righteous people.” We see this particularly in Jesus’ ministry and especially in Luke’s Gospel. In practice, this means that “through our words, prayers and deeds we must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor.” It implies that we do take sides, and that we take sides with the ‘poor’. (‘Poor’ is defined inclusively to refer not only to those who are economically poor, but also those who are marginalised, oppressed, discriminated against, lacking voice, and so on).
In conclusion, we persevere in our faith in God in a complex world by engaging thoughtfully and critically with the world around us. We protect and build the vineyard that God has entrusted into our care. We work for social justice and righteousness. We disagree and might even divide. We trust in God, that even out of these fallouts, new life and new faith will emerge. And we work to engage collectively in reading the signs of the times according to the key principles and values Jesus sets out for us.
From the dawn of time, God has had his arms outstretched to receive and embrace us. God has always been open and receptive to us. He always has been like this, he is like this today, and he will remain like his into the future. This is permanent posture of God. Arms open and looking towards you.
When we feel disconnected from God, can’t perceive or feel him, feel abandoned – it is not God who has turned away. It is we who have turned away. Sin is one of the main causes of us feeling cut off from God – sin is us turning away from God. But God has not moved – he is still there.
Luke 13:1-9 tells of people coming to Jesus saying that some people who had died horribly must have sinned terribly to suffer such a death. But Jesus challenges this, and says they were no worse than anyone else. And then he cautions those who said this: “Repent, else you too will perish!” He then tells the parable of a fruit tree that was unproductive. The owner wanted to cut it down, but the gardener interceded for is, saying he’s car for it for three years and see if it produced fruit: if so, good; if not, then cut it down. The parable is not particularly confident about the tree becoming fruitful and being saved. Sin is serious – it can lead to our deaths.
1 Corinthians 10:1-13 also speaks of sin. The people of Israel wandering through the desert for 40 years saw the most remarkable miracles – the plagues against the Egyptians, the parting of the Red Sea, water gushing from a rock, manna from heaven every morning, the pillars of fire and smoke and so on. Yet, they repeatedly turned from God and engaged in all kinds of sin. And many died as a result. Paul says these are warnings for us, of how NOT to live our lives. And he offers a bit of hope: that God will not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear and that there will always be an escape route.
These two readings focus on the real risks of sin causing us to be estranged from God. But I say again: God has not moved! He is still there! His arms are still open to us!
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.”
Hear these repeated words from God: Come, come, come. Listen, listen, give ear. Eat and drink. Free, without cost. Good, delight, richest, everlasting, faithful, love, promise. These are words of God who is always facing us, with his arms always outstretched. This is the invitation to come to him, to quench our thirst, to eat and rest.
Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you. On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. I cling to you; your right hand upholds me.
Again, hear David’s response to the God of love, the God with open arms, the God who is always present and always available.
I encourage you, if you are feeling burdened and challenged by life, or if you are feeling that God is remote, to come to our Lord, who is the fountain of life, who offers food and drink to refresh your soul, at no cost, with no conditions.
There are times in our life when things are desperate. These two years of Covid, and the losses, restrictions and challenges it has brought us, have given us additional reasons to feel desperate. There are times when life is exceptionally hard and we feel that the world is pitted against us – that even God is pitted against us.
Psalm 22 knows something about this:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? 2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. 6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. 8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. 15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.
Jesus uses this Psalm to express his desperation and despair as he hangs dying on the cross. He feels God-forsaken, utterly desolate. Where is God in all of this? Why am I abandoned?
The Psalmist shows a flicker of faith – just a flicker, though:
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. 10 From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
And he cries out with a desperate, but muted plea:
11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
Job knows something about desperate times, having lost everything, despite being a righteous man of deep faith. He loses everything – everything – and grapples to make sense of what feels like God’s abandonment of him. Instead of imploding in despair like the Psalmist above, Job explodes outwards in anger and wants to confront God (Job 23):
2 “Even today my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning. 3 If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling! 4 I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. 5 I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say to me.
Job pushes towards God, seeking confrontation, to put his case to God, to demand to know why God would let him struggle like this. Job is desperate, and his desperation evokes anger and outrage at God.
Yet God makes himself unfindable:
8 “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. 9 When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
How frustrating it is when the person we want to confront is unavailable, inaccessible. God disappears and Job is left both desperate and angry, with nowhere to vent his anger. And yet, Job is also afraid of God – God is dangerous, and a confrontation with God could be a disaster for Job:
13 “But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases. 14 He carries out his decree against me, and many such plans he still has in store. 15 That is why I am terrified before him; when I think of all this, I fear him. 16 God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.
In the end, Job does not offer up a muted plea like the Psalmist. Instead, he shakes his fist at God:
17 Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.
23 “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 24 … Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples also experience similar desperate times with Jesus. While we think and teach about Jesus as always available, receptive and loving, sometimes he is not. We know the story in Mark 10 of a young man who rushes up to Jesus, falling on his knees and asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus seems, from the get-go, to treat him harshly, eventually telling him to give away everything he has, and the young man is crestfallen and “went away sad”. Jesus then turns to the disciples and says:
The disciples are amazed and shocked – presumably at both Jesus’ response to the earnest young man and Jesus’ words about how impossible it is to saved. Peter cries out in desperation:
26 Who then can be saved? [and] 28 But we have left everything to follow you!
You can hear Peter’s despair. He has left everything – family, work, home, community, his place in society, everything – to follow Jesus, and now Jesus says that it is impossible for man to be saved and how hard it will be for anyone to be saved. It seems to Peter and the disciples that everything they have sacrificed is for nothing.
This is a low point for Peter. He hits rock bottom as it seems to him that he has lost everything. His sense of purpose is fracturing.
Sometimes, we find ourselves in similar places to the Psalmist, to Job and to Peter. Our world seems to be falling apart, the challenges of life pile up and seem unduly heavy, God seems to have abandoned us, where is he to be found?, we feel alone and desperate. It as this lowest point that transformation can come.
Peter missed something that Mark noticed. In Mark 10:21a, Mark writes, “Jesus looked at him [the rich young man] and love him.” Jesus looked at him and he loved him. Jesus looked at her and he loved her. Jesus looked at me and he loved me. Jesus looks at you and he loves you.
The writer of Hebrews helps us understand that a fundamental change occurs in the life of God, through Christ’s experience here on earth. Before the incarnation, God could see what human life was like, but could not feel what it was like. But with Jesus’ coming into this world in human form, God now knew first hard what human desperation feels like. Hebrews 4
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
And because Jesus understands fully what it is like to be human, and because he truly understands what it is like to be desperate, and because he loves us utterly and to the very end, the writer to the Hebrews invites us to come to God:
16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
We can come to the throne of God, not with a muted plea, not with anger, not in desperation, but in confidence, knowing that at that throne we will find grace and mercy to help us in our time of need. We can be confident to wrestle with God, to plead with God, to challenge God, to lean into God. Because he love us and because he knows first hand how hard this life can be. Jesus (in Mark 10:29-31) does not promise an easy life – he promises both reward and persecution.
But he does promise that we can always have direct access to the throne of grace and mercy. Such is the love the Father has for us. God is always accessible, always nearby, always connected, always empathic, always in the midst of adversity with us.
Our reading this morning is from John 6:1-21. We will be spending five weeks on this chapter. I think that this is the most consecutive Sundays we spend on any chapter in the Bible. (I stand to be corrected.) This is because we receive here some of Jesus’ most profound and important teaching – about the Bread of Life, the Bread of Heaven. It starts with a story about ‘real bread’ and becomes a story about ‘Real Bread’ (Bruner’s commentary on John).
In the first 15 verses of John 6, we are introduced to bread. It sets the scene for the rest of the chapter. We can read this story at two levels: on the ground floor, it is a story about Jesus feeding 5000 men from five small barley loaves and two small fish – a story of compassion and care; on the first floor, it is a story about an invitation to faith – faith in Jesus, who is the Bread of Life.
The ground floor – a story about caring
Jesus is on the mountain side and he sees a large crowd heading his way. John writes “Jesus looked up and saw”. Jesus is always looking up and seeing. We get this again and again in the Gospel narratives. He has his eyes open and sees the needs of those around him. If you listen to my messages over the past month, you’ll hear it over and over. He sees. And he has compassion.
So he asks his disciples how they can arrange bread to feed the people. It is a huge ask, of course, with 5,000 men, plus children (we know there are children there, because soon we meet a ‘boy’ in v9) and women (if there are children, there are surely women). So, there were perhaps 15,000 or 20,000 people! Andrew brings a boy who has a little bit of food – not much more than a snack. Jesus gives thanks for the food and distributes it to the people. (One wonders what the boy thought about having his lunch annexed by the Andrew and Jesus!) Everyone eats their fill, so much so, that there are 12 large baskets (big baskets that could hold a man) of leftovers of the barley bread.
Many of us believe that Jesus performed a miracle, in which he multiplied that little bread into much bread. Others believe that when people saw Jesus’ (and perhaps also the boy’s) generosity and compassion, they were moved to share what they had with those who had less. And so, what we see is a social miracle about people moved to caring and sharing. Either way, this is a story about Jesus caring for others – caring for our everyday needs. As we often pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Bread is life in come communities. In others, it is maize meal porridge. In others, it is rice. Every society has a staple food that provides the foundation of life. Jesus cares about this and wants people to have food in their stomachs. And to have it abundantly.
The first floor – a story about faith
The feeding of the 5000 is an important miracle story in the Bible. It is the ONLY miracle, taking place between Jesus’ baptism and his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, that appears in ALL FOUR Gospels. There is no other miracle that appears across all four Gospels, except this one. And in John’s gospel, it introduces a lengthy chapter about the spiritual meaning of Real Bread. Still, even on the first floor, the real bread is just bread. But the interactions between Jesus and the others are an invitation to faith.
John tells us that the event takes place just before the Passover festival (v4). The Passover symbolised, as it still does, liberation and redemption from slavery in Egypt, God standing up for the people of God, God caring for God’s chosen ones. It is central to Jewish faith, like the cross is central to Christian faith. This cues us that this is a story about faith.
Seeing the large crowds, Jesus invited Philip to faith: “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” For sure, this is a big ask – it is a big crowd. But Philip was there in John 2, when Jesus changed water into wine – a lot of wine, a lot of really good wine! Jesus invites Philip to have faith. A faith response might have been, “Lord, I can’t imagine where we could get or afford so much bread. But I know you can make a plan! If anyone can feed this many people, it is you!” That would be a faith response, particularly after witnessing the water into wine miracle. Instead, all Philip can see is the large crowd. He loses sight of Jesus. His faith fails him.
Andrew shows a little faith, however. He finds a boy with some food. He emphasises the smallness of what the boy has: “five small barley loaves and two small fish” (v8). And then his tiny bubble of faith pops: “But how far will they go among so many people?”
Yet, that is all Jesus needed: a tiny morsel of faith. He takes those small loaves and small fish and gives thanks for (literally ‘eucharists’) them and feeds 5000+ people. Jesus is not constrained by the size of our faith. Andrew’s faith is feeble, small and easily fizzles. But what is important is not so much our faith, as the one in whom we place our faith: Jesus is more than capable of calming our storms, feeding us, healing us, helping us. He is the Lord of lords and King of kings. He is God incarnate. He can do anything.
It is only in the collecting of the leftovers that the disciples and the people recognise a miracle has taken place. I think Jesus instructs the disciples to collect the leftovers so they can see and touch the miracle, much as Jesus does with Thomas in John 20 – “Put your finger here; see my hand”. As Thomas was invited by Jesus to see, touch and respond in faith, so were Philip and the other disciples invited to see, touch and respond in faith. And so are we. Particularly during times of turmoil, illness, loss, distress and hunger.
Immediately after the story of the feeding of the 5000, we have John’s version of the story of Jesus walking on the water (see my sermon on this same story from Mark’s Gospel, a month ago). The disciples are alone in a boat on a lake in a storm and struggling to make headway. Jesus sees their plight and walks across the water to them. They are terrified to see him, but he says, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid“, and he climbs into the storm-rocked boat with them – he chooses to be in the boat in the storm with them – and immediately, they find they have reached the other side of the lake, where they were headed.
Jesus remains more than capable of riding out and calming the storms in our lives.
Our English translation ‘thorn’ could be a thorn/splinter, or a stake/spike/pole, or anything pointed – differing views on which is more likely – a stake implies something shattering and devastating, while a thorn implies a low grade but constant irritation/infection
Could be ‘in the flesh’ or ‘for the flesh’, i.e. ‘for the inconvenience of the flesh’
‘Flesh’ can mean the physical body, in which case the thorn would be some physical malady, e.g., his poor eyesight, possible epilepsy, maybe malaria, migraines. Paul seems generally strong, resilient, tough, so a physical ailment seems unlikely.
Paul’s appearance – some disfigurement that made him ugly.
Flesh also means our human nature, particularly in Paul’s writings, so this could be some aspect of his human nature, mostly probably pride.
‘Sins of the flesh’ are almost always understood to be sexual sins, so this could be a sexual sin or temptation that Paul grappled with. But it would not have to be so narrowly defined – it could refer to any and all sins or temptations to sin.
It could the persecutions Paul suffered – the repeated attacks on his ministry, which could well have felt like a thorn in the flesh. Numbers 33:55 has a parallel: “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live.”
The thorn as a ‘messenger of Satan’ might best support the thorn as persecution. Other passages speak of Satan impeding God’s work: 1 Thes 2:18 – “For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way.”
“To torment [or buffet] me” suggests this was a long-term issue, not just a temporary one. The Greek word means “to strike a blow with the fist” or “to maltreat” in a way that brings shame, humiliation and indignation. Jesus was himself humiliated by the beatings he endured before the crucifixion.
He later refers to his ‘weaknesses’ – it the thorn the weakness, or does the thorn cause weakness?
We really don’t know what the thorn was and whether it was a thorn or a stake. If it was important that we know, Paul would presumably have told us. Let’s consider than any and all of these could have been his thorn or stake, and that for us, it can be any or all or others.
How did Paul handle or make sense of his thorn?
Paul prayed for its removal, three times, but it was not removed. God declined his repeated request. God does not always give us what we want.
But the response he got from God seems to inspire him, not discourage him.
God’s response – ‘he said to me’ – is in the perfect tense, it is a past tense that is definitive – what God said was definitive at the time, and remains definitive in the future, that “God’s grace is sufficient”. It was almost tattooed on his hands.
He is unworthy, unnecessary, dispensable = our human condition
Yet, God chooses to work with, in and through him because God chooses to do so = grace
The more dependent he is on God (i.e. the weaker he is) the more God is free to shape and use him (i.e. grace) and so he ‘boasts’ and ‘delights’ in his weakness, so that Christ’s power will rest on him. ‘Rest on him’ is shekinah in Hebrew: literally, “may pitch his tent upon me” or “may tabernacle on him”
This is not a masochistic spirituality! It is a recognition that Christ can and does work in and through his frailties and keeps at bay any pride/boasting: Any delight Paul gains is ‘for the sake of Christ’, not for the challenges themselves.
‘Then I am strong’ implies ‘strong in the Lord’, not ‘strong in myself’. He is ‘weak in himself, but strong in the Lord’.
Jesus is in the boat with us in the midst of the storm. He is not sitting far off watching, dispassionate. No! He is right in the storm with us, in the boat with us.
Jesus controls the storm that buffets and scares us. He is more than capable to put the storm in its place.
Jesus reminds us of the many times before that he has been faithful and capable, so that we can have faith in him, confidence in him, even during the storm.
Today, I want to add two additional stories to this one, so that we can build up our faith muscles when we are weathering a storm. This is particularly important, given that we are in the midst of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and given that our churches have, once again, closed their doors and moved online for services.
The first story is an echo of the one above and comes from Mark 6:45-51. The disciples are again in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, but this time Jesus is up on the hillside praying. He can see that the disciples have encountered a storm and are struggling. So he walks down the hill and across the top of the water towards the disciples’ boat. They are terrified, thinking he’s a ghost, but he calms them, saying, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbs into the boat with them, and the storm calms down. Mark does not say Jesus calmed the storm, but it seems an unlikely coincidence that the storm just happened to subside when Jesus arrived. We learn three important lessons about Jesus when we are in a storm:
Jesus sees the disciples plight and comes to them and speaks words of comfort to them: ‘I am here, it is I, don’t be afraid.’
Jesus climbs into the boat. In the previous story Jesus was already in the boat when the storm arrived. In this story, Jesus climbs into the boat with the disciples in the midst of the strong winds. He chooses to enter the difficult place where they are.
Jesus calms the waves, demonstrating (again) that he is more than capable.
The second story is a healing story, that is located within a larger healing story. The larger story is about Jairus’ daughter who is mortally ill and (it seems) dies before Jesus gets there, because Jesus is delayed by the inner story, which is recounted in Mark 5:24-34. The story is set in a large crowd – many people, all jostling around and up against Jesus, as he walks the streets.
The crowd feels like a storm – buffeting, noisy, knocking up against, pushing, threatening. (Hence the picture for today’s message.)
This is the story of the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years and all her efforts to find a cure were futile. He hears about Jesus and believes that even if she can just touch just the hem of his outer clothing, she will be healed. Even though she is unclean due to her persistent bleeding, she enters the crowd and manages to just touch Jesus’ clothes. And she is fully healed! Jesus can feel that power has gone out of him and wants to see who was healed. We learn three important lessons about Jesus when we are struggling in life’s storms:
Jesus cures her. She merely needed faith, and without him even knowing or intending it, without even actually touching her, she is healed. It is as if Jesus’ natural instinct is to heal and make whole, so it just pours out of him when someone has faith in him.
Jesus knows her. He initially doesn’t know who touched him, but he knows someone did, and when she owns up, he fully engages with her as if the crowd is not even there – like the still centre of a tornado.
Jesus restores her. Her healing is primarily physical. But the result of that physical healing is that she becomes clean again, and thus able to touch other people, able to engage in the life of her family and community, able to participate in her faith.
There are many storms raging around us. Covid is the most public and universal. But there are others: financial concerns, loss of work, mental health issues, substance abuse, marital problems, divorce, illness, death, loneliness, addictions, and so on and so on. The list is almost endless.
But there are three important take-home messages for you today:
Jesus sees you. He sees and knows you right where you are. He knows everything about you and your circumstances, no matter how private you are and no matter how alone you might feel. He sees you.
Jesus joins you. He does not remain remote. He does not watch from a distance. He climbs into your boat, into your life, into your shoes. He is right there with you – so close, there is no gap between you and him.
Jesus acts for you. Jesus calms storms, he banishes fear, he heals disease. He is more than capable and he is more than willing. We just have to reach out to him, to touch the hem of his robe.
The disciples find themselves in a boat in the midst of a ferocious storm (Mark 4:35-41). They cry out to Jesus: “Don’t you care?” We sometimes find ourselves in a similar situation. The world seems to swirl around us, exploding, destabilising. We wish for a granite foundation, but instead we are in a boat in the storm; at sea. But the disciples learn three things in this experience:
Jesus is in the boat with them. He is not standing at a distance, watching. He is right with them in the boat, in the midst of the storm.
Jesus demonstrates that he has the power to subdue nature. He is more than able to overcome any adversity we may experience, to calm any storm we may experience.
Jesus reminds his disciples that they have experienced his capability in the past; and so should remember it in the present. “Do you still have so little faith?” he asks them.
When we are in the midst of the storm – as we are now with the third wave of Covid threatening to overwhelm us – we need to keep turning back to Jesus. He is the source of strength, healing and wholeness.
Watch the video of today’s Good Fridayservice here. The Gospel reading and sermon start at about 25 minutes and continue for a total of about 25 minutes. If you want to hear me sing, you can also skip to about 1 hour and 18 minutes, as I lead the singing of “Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle”.
Today is Good Friday on which we commemorate the suffering and death of Christ, the Son of God. Part of what is so remarkable, even shocking, is that it is not just Jesus the man who suffers and dies, but God the Son who suffers and dies.
From the moment of his incarnation, separating out the second person of the Trinity into human form, God began to experience life as a human. This reaches a climax on the cross, when the evil and darkness of this world crashes into the Son of God. It is the whole person of Jesus – with both his human and his divine natures – who suffers and dies on the cross – not just the human Jesus.
Christ experiences the sins of all the world – past, present and future – falling upon him, leaving him feeling dirty, tainted, defiled. No wonder he says, “I thirst”.
Christ experiences sin’s separation from God – an ocean of sin distancing him from the Father with whom he had already existed for eternity. No wonder he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”.
Christ experiences the surprise of human love, and the ways in which compassion between people brings God into our midst. Thus he says to his mother, “Woman, here is your son” and to his beloved disciple, “Here is your mother”.
Christ experiences the grace of God, able to transform the darkest and most painful into a moment of salvation and glory. Thus he is able to say, “It is finished!”
Christ experiences death – the loss of life, the loss of this world, the loss of self. John writes poetically, “He bowed his head and gave up his spirit”.
As much as we might want to end today’s story with a ‘Happy Easter’, scripture does not permit this. We have to end with the darkness that covers that earth as the Son of God’s light and life is snuffed out. And we wait in silence and hope for his resurrection.
John 12:23-28 narrates Jesus’ thoughts about his journey towards the cross.
Regarding his own death he shares:
Jesus describes his crucifixion as his “glorification”. He recognises that his journey to and through the cross will culminate in his glorification. So he ironically uses these terms interchangeably.
Jesus makes sense of his journey through the metaphor of ‘one for many’: if a single seed refuses to die, it remains one seed; but if it dies, it produces many seeds. In other words, through the the death of one man (himself) there is life for many (salvation of humankind).
Jesus is genuinely troubled, disturbed, in dread of this path that he has been called to follow. The journey to the cross is not easy for him. He wishes there could be an easier route. Let us not be glib in our perception of Jesus’ mission.
Yet he resolves himself to his mission, his reason for coming and to the glory of God.
In the midst of this narrative, Jesus calls us to follow this same path:
If we want to serve him, he says, we must follow him and be where he is. And where he is at that moment is on the journey towards the cross. That is where we must follow him.
For sure, when we follow him, there will be glory – just as for him. Our Father will honour us if we serve Christ. But that is in the future. For now, we are called to a present path of suffering.
He cautions us to not hang tightly to this life, to be in love with this life. If we do, we will lose it. Rather, we must almost hate this life, by comparison, and rather invest in the life that is yet to come.
Many churches are teaching that Jesus’ desire for us is for our wealth, happiness, success, possessions and power. But there is no hint of such teaching from Jesus in John 12. Rather, we are to spurn such trappings of this life, and journey with him on his path.
During these last days of Lent, Jesus is calling us to journey alongside him towards the cross. Let us immerse ourselves in his journey. Let us walk close beside him. Let us accept the path of humility, service, laying ourselves down, suffering and dying to self and to this life.