26 Jul 2015
“Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.” (John 6:15) In the name …
3,474 days ago NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft. It first aimed at the planet Jupiter to get a gravity boost and then it continued on its merry way to Pluto, in the process traveling some three billion miles. Pluto is so small that it’s not even called a planet any more. And yet nearly a decade ago when New Horizons blasted away from us, the scientists in charge of the flight could calculate exactly when and how to have a tiny little space craft and a tiny dwarf planet intersect perfectly. For as daunting as the math must be to be able to do this, it is basically simple – simple in the sense of straight forward. Nothing changed in those almost ten years and those three billion miles. New Horizon’s course was set and stayed unchanged because the machine and the math had no other choice.
The variable of choice, however, makes it almost impossible to determine what we will do in just a few hours on this Sunday afternoon. Without choice being involved, we can throw a machine across the solar system and hit Pluto, but when we throw choice into the equations, it’s nearly impossible to tell if I’ll be on my porch at 3PM reading the newspaper or somewhere else doing something different. The freedom of choice complicates our lives, but it also makes them worth living. Our faith goes so far as to say that our freedom of choice is what makes us like God. According to the teaching story of creation, nothing else in Eden was given the choice of following the divine plan. Cows were cows; trees were trees; end of story. But we had the choice to do what we would do. We messed up, but that ability to employ the freedom of choice made us more like God than any other part of creation.
Jesus offers up a pretty good example of this freedom of choice in today’s Gospel. If you remember from last Sunday, we were right on the verge of reading the miracle of the loaves from Mark’s Gospel, but today the church takes us over to John’s account of the same story. Mark is a full generation older than John’s Gospel. In Mark there are hints of what’s to come. He makes clear that the group consists of 5,000 men. When Matthew retells the story, he writes of the 5,000 men, but then adds: “not counting women and children.” (14:21; contra Luke 9:14) For Mark, it is only men. They are organized in rows by hundreds and fifties. The allusion to military formations is not far distant. John then takes these implications and makes them explicit. He finishes his story of the miracle of the loaves with the note that Jesus withdrew by Himself from the crowd because He knew “that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king.” These were men who had sought and had now witnessed a sign from heaven, a sign even more powerful than that offered by Elisha the prophet, that Jesus was sent from God. They were ready to force Him to be the Messiah they expected, a Messiah who carried the sword, a Messiah who would lead God’s army to fight God’s enemies.
Everything was pointing in this direction. This looked like Jesus’ fate. It almost looked like it couldn’t be escaped. But there’s always choice. This idea of kingship was something even Jesus had to struggle with in His ministry. I hope you remember the story of His temptation in the desert. One of the temptations was depicted as Jesus being placed on a high mountain looking out over all the lands of the Middle East and hearing the promise that all of this could be His. The old idea of the Messiah king had to at least be somewhat tempting to Jesus. It’s what everyone was expecting, and it looks like even Jesus toyed with the idea. But in the end He freely makes the choice to walk away.
Jesus’ example leaves us with the message that we don’t have to be what others think we must be. We have the freedom to choose to become who we want to be, who we should be. King wasn’t up Jesus’ alley. He was just about the opposite of king. Jesus embraced the idea of servant. Kings are aloof and separated from the people. Jesus could in no way be described in this way. Jesus is almost like an anti-king. Along these lines, in John’s telling of the miracle of the loaves, there is one small change from the other Gospels that I find very interesting. In the other accounts, Jesus blesses the food and then He has the disciples distribute it (cf. Lk. 9:16; Mk 6:41; Mt. 14:19). John purposefully alters this translation and tells us that Jesus Himself distributed the bread and fish to the 5,000 men. This matches John’s theology of having Jesus directly available to any and all believers. So Jesus is the servant feeding the 5,000 men. That they could not see this new revelation of God’s nature and instead insisted on the old idea of the Messiah-King carrying the sword, would not force Jesus’ hand. He stayed true to the choice He had made to be a different kind of Messiah.
Faith in this Saviour of ours can give us the strength to stand up to what some would call fate, to stand up to what others or our circumstances in life would say we must be, and to instead become who we should be, who we want to be. The future isn’t up to stars, our past or even the present. It’s up to us. The freedom of choice comes with a great deal of responsibility, remember what happens in the story of Eden, and it is the privilege of church to help us build a moral conscience prepared and ready to deal with the power of choice. This is why coming together is so important. We not only help each other; we watch each other. We can grow stronger by a stronger example. And above it all we have the assurance that comes from knowing that Jesus will walk beside us if we ask Him. We’re building our consciences here in church, and with so many choices to be made, we need to be prepared. That Jesus may help us to build this personal moral compass in all of us, for this we pray in His most holy of names. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo