Sunday, April 19, 2015

Panem et Circensis (Bread and Circuses)

Panem et Circensis
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 19, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 6: 1-15
1 Samuel 8: 19-22

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

6 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then 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. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. [1]

We have been reading the Gospel of John since way back in January, and now that we are 4 months and 5 chapters in, it has been hard to ignore some of the patterns that are emerging. The last few chapters have begun with miracles, Jesus performing what is referred to as a "sign," to which the people react - some people are amazed and follow, and some people are angered, wondering who this Jesus is, and what exactly his coming and presence here means for their status quo. They are not sure what it is that they are supposed to feel, think, believe, handle, the coming of this man, who they think is just the carpenter Joseph's son, but is doing amazing things, and breaking rules that have long stood as much, much more than mere tradition. Jesus has turned water into wine, he has told people things about themselves, things that he shouldn't have known; he has healed a man who was paralyzed for 38 years, and each miracle has demanded a response from people because miracles tend to demand responses. And the responses, both good and bad, have each inspired words of correction from Jesus himself. Unlike the other Gospels where Jesus rarely talks about himself, here the words are constant, and chapter 6 follows this same pattern. So over the course of the next few weeks we will look at the miracles of chapter 6, because this time there are two, and then look at the fall out and the words that Jesus uses to explain, which include this time, the famous, and first of the many "I am" statements: "I am the bread of life."
Here in chapter 6 Jesus feeds the 5000 with the five loaves and two fish, and then he walks on water. They are two of the more famous miracles that Jesus performs, and they are both found in the other gospels as well, all except for Luke, who doesn't include the walking on water part. These two are certainly top 10 miracles, maybe even top 5. I've heard many sermons about them in my time, but one thing jumped out at me this time, that never has before, and that is the little verse between the miracles. I had never really thought about it before, but this time it jumped out at me, it says. . . verse 15:
15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. [2]

It was the wording, Jesus had to escape up to the mountain because the people were going to take him by force to make him king. . . how weird is that, and how does that happen, how do you take someone by force and make them king. . . now I've heard of kings taking the throne by force, but I don't think I've ever heard someone being forced to be king. . . it's usually not something that you really have to be forced into. . . It's good to be the king. . . people do what you want, you have all the wealth you need, and all the power. . . you are in control. It's good to be the king. . . why would they need to take and force Jesus? and why does he resist? Why does he sneak away to the mountain, only to return later that evening and walk on the water?
Now let's back off from the questions for a second and take a look at the miracle itself. Now I've heard many of the normal takeaways from this passage. That it is all an act of faith, that there is no limit to what can be accomplished with Jesus pulling the strings, that even with a little that if you start to spread it around it is amazing how far supplies will go. I remember when I was thinking about going to seminary, and they had what they called a discernment weekend, which was like an open house at a normal school, but we went, toured the campus, and sat through a number of sessions aimed at helping us think about all the questions that were surrounding heading t seminary. . . stuff like. . . am I really being called to ministry? How will I know? How will I get through three years away from the work force? Can I leave my job and make it work? Do I have the skills necessary to be a good minister? Do I have the faith necessary to make it through the many questions that seminary has to offer? And also what was central, is how can I financially afford it, tuition, room, board, and not working? How is it all going to work because the math doesn't add up? They used passages like this one, that with only to fishes and five loaves, and a little faith, and the generous contributions of alumni and Christians everywhere, most of our students make it through without debt. Simply five loaves and two fish, and a little faith is all it takes. I am sure that that can be true, is true, and it certainly was for the most part for me. Miracles do happen when following Christ. I testify and know it to be true. I'm sure you all can look back at your lives and think about times where you have had a 5 loaves and 2 fish moment.
Yesterday, well since Thursday, the boys at Blue Ridge have been on character education trips. The Freshman did a bonding wilderness trip, the sophomores went to D.C. and worked in a soup kitchen, the Juniors did some appalachian home building and repair, and went whitewater rafting. I was with the Seniors. They had alternating High Ropes challenges and community service activities on Thursday, then on Friday they hiked 16 miles from Blue Ridge School, up the mountain to where Rt. 33 crosses Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National park, there where Governor Spotswood and the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe landmark is. 16 miles and over 4000 feet of altitude. . . 4000 feet of up! It blows my mind, and I was lucky enough not to have to do it with them, but out of 40 students 38 of them made it, quite impressive! Yesterday I was with them to do some reflection and talking about discernment of who they are, what goes into making them, and coming to terms with the larger questions of life. I asked them had they ever had a time when you felt like you were at the right place, at the right time, where the entire world seemed to make sense, and everything was leading up to that moment, and you felt like all of the energy needed for what you were doing, was all fueled, and the outcome, created more fuel, like you were a perfect machine where you were not expending any energy that wasn't somehow rejuvenated right back into you. . . to me that is what that 5 loaves and 2 Fish moments are like. Because we are there, an Jesus is there, and all things in creation are exactly as they should be, and all the perceived limitations of time, space, and human weakness just seem to disappear. I've had those moments, and they are quite impactful, quite powerful. It leaves a mark on  you and you are forever changed by it. Some of the boys knew what I was talking about, and I hope that some of you do too. And one other thing is also true, that I've come to know, there is no way to artificially recreate or sustain that kind of moment on our own, though we would do everything in our power to do so, but the time goes, and the miracle moves on, we can't trap it. It does not allow us to be stagnant, but forces us to grow, to change, and to learn from it, not to stand still, but to be ever present beyond.
Now look back at our questions. . . why doesn't Jesus want them to force him into being king? Why do they want him to be? Why does he need to go away to be by himself? I think it is because they want him to recreate that moment. They want to make it a system, a self sustaining system, one that replaces the old one, the Roman one, the broken one, the one where to quote Philip, they don't have enough money to afford to feed even a few of these people. They want to replace that system with this new one, because this guy gets it and he can give us our bread. Kings are cheap, huh, loyalty to the throne is cheap. Our loyalty can be bought for just a full belly, and how often do we as people give up our freedom for such a pittance. We'll give our vote, our loyalty, to the person who will give us what we want, will pander to us, will make us happy. Jesus just filled our bellies, did amazing miraculous things, lets make him king then, setting our sights on the very small. Of course Jesus seems to have his sights higher than this, and seems to be quite underwhelmed by what these people want to make him. Just like with Nicodemus, Jesus has more to offer these people than just full bellies, national systems of equitable governance, campaign slogans, and the like. Roman Emperors at the time were famous for offering their people Bread and Circuses, and they loved them for it. Feed us and entertain us and we will be your slaves. We will make you our king!
I'll probably get in trouble for this, but oh well, there was a SNL skit from back when Bush and Kerry were running against each other and it was satirizing the debates. To be fair I'll start with Bush, but they asked him what his plan was for winning the war in Irag, and he started saying how he was going to work hard, eat at his desk, and come in on Saturdays, that it would be a lot of hard work. . . and the moderator says back to him, "So your plan for winning the war in Irag, is to work hard, come in on Sunday and eat at your desk?" and he responds, "If that's what it takes. . . . " Then it shifted to carry and the question was about flip flopping his views. . . the question was, "Last week in a speech you spoke out against guns, and now this week you were speaking for the, can you explain to the American people what your position is?" And he condescendingly states, "When I spoke out against guns I was at an anti gun rally, and when I spoke in favor I was at a pro gun rally, and that is not flip flopping, that is pandering, and I think the American people deserve a president who knows the difference!" 
Jesus knows the difference, and is doing neither. He is not pandering, he is not filling our bellies, he is not just giving miracles to gain followers, or to be king.  . . there is always more to Jesus than that. We can't artificially sustain miracles, we can't make systems, and we can't force Jesus to be what he is not. . . because it is always less. . . Jesus wants to offer us so much more than that. . . and we will see that in the next few weeks with his statements about himself in this chapter. He does not disappoint, but rather gives us real perspective on what he offers, and it is beyond anything we could ever force him to give us.  

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 6:1-15). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 6:1-15). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.