What Kind of King Is This?
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
Who wouldn’t want to be king? In today’s Old Testament reading at least, kings have a pretty good gig. They can choose to stay at home while other people fight their battles. As long as the country perceives itself as strong (which Israel did during David’s time), they can get away with quite a bit. They can get a blank check on sexual misconduct, it seems, stage elaborate cover-ups, and when those don’t work – they can sacrifice their supposed allies without doing the dirty work themselves. How could this story about King David possibly be the Word of the Lord? For better or worse, this passage is just a fragment in a much larger story. Don’t worry – David’s reckoning starts with next week’s reading. He doesn’t get away with it; the effects of his actions poison his family and weaken his nation. But let’s be honest - haven’t we had enough already of contemplating the seediness of our leaders? Whatever happened to lighting a candle instead of merely cursing the darkness? Is this really the best our faith can offer us?
Surely there are other reasons folks seek to lead others in the public realm. It’s not just about ego and sucking up air time. Political power also enables us to change lives for the better and have a far greater impact through the laws we enact and enforce. We Monday morning quarterbacks and Facebook pontificators have a lot to say; but unless we’re on the field and in the game, our color commentary doesn’t really do much. Individual efforts often lead to charity, which can help in the short-term; but harnessing a community or an entire country to combat hunger or poverty, for example - that can actually create lasting, generational change.
So, assuming that Jesus in today’s Gospel wanted lasting, generational change for the poor and sick who continually crossed his path, why wouldn’t he want to be king? For almost anyone else, feeding over 5000 hungry people would be the perfect campaign kickoff. But here we’re told, “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.” Why not ride the wave of his popularity and seize the moment? Perhaps because he knew it wouldn’t work. We don’t need to assume that Jesus was purely idealistic in his approach to changing the world; he had a pragmatic side too. A mob of desperate Galileans was no match for the Roman empire, and he knew it. Of course, it wasn’t right that Rome had colonized and overtaxed them – that their own government exported their best natural resources and made it harder for them to feed themselves. But sometimes it’s not enough to be right. You need to be right at the right time with the right people backing you. Maybe Jesus knew it wasn’t yet his time.
Or perhaps he knew that he wasn’t what this crowd really wanted. They wanted someone to lead them into battle and maintain their gains by military force. They wanted prosperity at home and to instill fear in their enemies abroad. They wanted to feel strong and in control - and a leader who’d be as ruthless as he needed to be to keep them safe. In other words, they didn’t want Jesus; they wanted a second David. So rather than being co-opted into a mission that wasn’t his, he stepped back so that he could reset the conversation on his terms. We’ll hear more of that conversation over the next several weeks, but for now – let’s look at what today’s Gospel says about his leadership and the example we’re asked to follow. Yes, this too is just a fragment; it’s not the whole story – but once we have this piece down, it might be easier to see how it fits in the larger frame.
Take this story on its most literal level. Hold for a moment all the metaphors we can (and eventually will) make about Jesus being the bread of life. Here in John’s Gospel (in some ways the most ethereal of them all), Jesus initiates the practical question of how they’ll feed the crowd gathered before him. Also in John’s telling - Jesus doesn’t delegate the task of feeding to the disciples; he does it himself. No matter how you think this happened – whether it was within the laws of nature or not, at least one point is clear. Jesus here cares about the crowd’s physical needs as well as their spiritual ones and addresses both. It’s not that he’s hogging the spotlight by doing all the work himself; the disciples still have important work to do. He tells them to gather up the fragments of what’s been shared, so that nothing may be lost. Food here isn’t merely an object lesson; it’s a precious commodity that has no business being wasted. Even on this level we can learn something about Jesus’ priorities.
And at least at this point, confining thanksgiving and the sharing of bread to religiously approved spaces is not one of them. We’re told that Passover is near, and yet Jesus is nowhere near Jerusalem. All Jewish men were supposed to make their way to the Holy City for the great feasts, and yet Jesus seems in no hurry to leave this region up North. Could it be that the Sea and the countryside reveal the God of the Passover in their own way – that any place can be marked by the presence of God if we let it? How freeing is that? John’s version of this story avoids even the more liturgical words that we find in the other Gospels. Here, we’re not told that he looked up to heaven, blessed the bread and broke it; we’re simply told that he gave thanks and shared what he had. It’s as if giving thanks and sharing what we have are in themselves signs of the kingdom of God, no matter where they happen.
One more thing to note for now. We learn something else about how Jesus leads by what he does in the second part of this story. Most of us have heard this one before, about him walking on water. Again, we can debate the mechanics of how this could have happened, but I think that misses the point. Jesus uses his power here to calm fears, not stoke them. He doesn’t lead by fear or use fear as a wedge to divide people; in fact, he goes out of his way to tell the disciples not to be afraid. He doesn’t make false promises of safety – that it will never get dark again or that the storms won’t return. In fact, in this version of the story, he doesn’t even still the storm. He simply joins them, gets in the boat and helps them get where they’re going.
We’re given two very different models of power and leadership today. In the silence that follows, I invite you to imagine a kingdom where the poor and sick aren’t left to fend for themselves – where their physical and spiritual needs matter and both are addressed. A kingdom where every fragment matters, where the whole story matters, and nothing is truly lost. Where have you seen glimpses of that kingdom – that kind of king? Or think about a moment when you found church outside church – where you gave thanks and people shared what they had and, for some reason, it felt holy. Where were you? Was it on pilgrimage, a mountainside maybe? It could have been a soup kitchen, or around a kitchen table, even Christmas dinner here at St. Alban’s. How can we make our world more like that – individually and politically, where all the fragments matter and no one needs to be afraid? It turns out – we can do more than just curse the darkness. Our whole story as Christians offers us so much more than that. In the Name of the One who has already lit a candle and shown us the way, Amen.