Sermon on John 6:1-21 (and Ephesians 3:14-21) offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
There is an interesting tension among the various accounts of the event we heard about in our gospel reading this morning. As you probably remember, the feeding of the multitude is one of the handful of events that is recorded by all four evangelists. While most of the differences in the accounts are superficial (e.g., which disciples played important roles, where the bread and fish came from, the relative cost of feeding the crowd), there is one disparity that seems worthy of investigation. In the synoptic gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the evangelists tell us that the impromptu wilderness picnic came to an end after “all ate and were filled.” John, on the other hand, tells us that the disciples collected the leftovers after those in the crowd “were satisfied,” or “when they had enough” in another translation. This is a subtle, but significant distinction, one that is illustrated by a former supervisor of mine, who would describe restaurants with buffets not as “all you can eat,” but “all you care to eat.” This subtle shift meant that the objective of eating out was not to consume everything that wasn’t nailed down, but to eat enough. In the synoptic gospels, it appears that the multitude ate until they could not eat anymore; while the crowd in John’s gospel seems to have exhibited a little more moderation. Frankly, this difference wouldn’t be quite as significant if it weren’t for the fact that fullness is such an important theme in John’s gospel. In the very first chapter, John writes of Jesus: “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” In other words, of all the evangelists, we would expect John to be the one who told us that the crowds “ate and were filled.” Yet, when the crowds by the Sea of Tiberias come face to face with Jesus, the one “in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” their response is to take only what they need.
This detail can lead us to think of God as a cosmic vending machine: God is there to provide a little bit of comfort when we are desperate, a little encouragement when we are in need of validation, or a little food when we are hungry. Apart from this, God isn’t terribly relevant to our day to day experience. Of course, this is how many people experienced Jesus: they were looking for him to address their immediate individual needs (e.g., “heal my daughter,” “cure my leprosy,” “mediate this dispute”). In the meantime, Jesus seemed to have another agenda entirely. This dynamic is at play in today’s gospel reading. Jesus was offering something that the gathered multitude couldn’t possibly fathom. They ate until they were satisfied, but there was so much more that was available to them. They couldn’t see beyond their individual desires and parochial concerns: they simply couldn’t apprehend the fullness of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.
There are strains of Christianity that claim to apprehend this fullness. While called by many names, this tradition is broadly known as the “prosperity gospel.” The central assumption of the prosperity gospel is that “God will give you your heart’s desires: money in the bank, a healthy body, a thriving family, and boundless happiness.” Kate Bowler is a professor of church history at Duke University who wrote her doctoral dissertation about the prosperity gospel. When she began the project, she thought she was writing about a movement that was foreign to her experience. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that someone who grew up among Mennonites in Manitoba would have put much stock in the grandiose claims of the prosperity gospel. Yet the more Bowler studied the movement, the more she realized the prosperity gospel is not primarily about Bentleys, private jets, and multimillion dollar homes, despite the habits and preferences of its most famous preachers. Rather, Bowler came to recognize that most of the people who subscribed to the prosperity gospel were looking for “an escape from poverty, failing health, and the feeling that their lives were leaky buckets.” The prosperity gospel offers a seductively clear explanation for these problems. According to the straightforward logic of the prosperity gospel, the only reason one could possibly be excluded from the abundant promises of God is that one lacks faith, that one fails to apprehend what God is offering. When the problem is so simply stated, the solution is just as simple: be more faithful. As Bowler points out, “the moral and logical flaws in this theology are all too evident; it explains away misfortune as something that can and ought to be held at bay through faith and prayer.” Yet she also concedes that, despite her theological sophistication, there were ways that she was also in thrall to the prosperity gospel. As Bowler put it: “I felt the lure of the promise that I could curate my life, minimize my losses, and stand on my successes. No matter how many times I rolled my eyes at the creed’s outrageous certainties, I craved them just the same.”
This became most apparent to her when she was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in her thirties. As she pondered her situation (a happily married new mother who had just gotten her dream job), Bowler realized that she had assumed cancer was something that happened to other people, that her life was, in her words, “something [she] could mold, or at least correct with a surge of determination.” If we’re honest, I think we all feel this way to a certain extent. While I doubt that there are few people in this room who would claim to be adherents of the prosperity gospel, I suspect there is something familiar about its logic. When we hear that someone has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, our first impulse is often to wonder what about their life had led to this calamity: had they failed to take care of themselves in some way? More importantly, are we leading a healthier lifestyle? We seek to explain misfortune, failing to recognize that sometimes, there is no explanation.
Here is where the gospel really speaks. Here is where the fullness that is revealed in Jesus Christ becomes completely and desperately relevant. The message of the gospel is not that things will go our way if we are faithful enough. At its heart, the gospel invites us to recognize that we, who are created and redeemed by God, are part of something much larger than ourselves, that our lives have meaning no matter what calamities befall us, that we are the Lord’s whether we live or die. Moreover, the gospel requires us to adopt a larger perspective on creation and acknowledge the ways we are connected, not only to our fellow human beings, but to the entire cosmic order.
Our faith attempts to express the infinite in finite terms. Conversely, the dominant voices in our culture these days tend to use the most grandiose terms possible for matters that are insignificant, even petty in the grand scheme of things. We must do our level best to counteract these impulses. We must, in the words of our Collect, “pass through things temporal,” and “lose not the things eternal.” If we take our faith seriously, then we must recognize its grandeur, the ways it lifts our hearts above our individual desires and parochial concerns and fills us with all the fullness of God.