Monday, July 27, 2009

Incongruity? (More Thoughts on Yesterday's Gospel Lesson)

Did you notice something that may have seemed incongruous or inconsistent in yesterday's Gospel lesson, something in the last few verses that may not have seemed to fit in with the rest of the passage?

Yesterday, the folks at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I'm the pastor, along with most Christians in North America, had John 6:1-21 as their Gospel lesson. The first fifteen verses of the passage deal with Jesus feeding a group of 5000, using just five loaves of barley and two fish to pull it off. In fact, there was a lot of untouched food left over!

The last six verses, with which I didn't deal in my sermon yesterday, recount a stormy ride on the Sea of Galilee taken by Jesus' disciples. They'd been waiting for Jesus, but He was off on the mountain praying. So, leaving Jesus behind, they launch onto these waters most of them know well. Then the storm hits. They row strenuously, the passage tells us, for three or four miles. They're frightened. Then Jesus shows up, walking on the water. They soon make it to shore. But do you see what doesn't happen in John's account of these events? Jesus doesn't calm the storm.

Jesus miraculously and plentifully feeds 5000 one moment.

The next moment, the disciples' lives hang violently in the balance and Jesus doesn't do anything about it.

One moment Jesus seems capable of making our lives easy and unburdened. The next moment He seems either incapable or unwilling to keep His closest followers safe.

Doesn't that seem incongruous?

On the surface, it may appear so. But I don't think that it is.

One reason for rejecting the notion of inconsistency here is to look at the word used to describe Jesus' miracles: signs. Jesus didn't come into the world in order to heal every invalid or fill every hungry belly in the world. Even after several years of His ministry, there were still many invalids and hungry people in Judea where Jesus lived. And while I believe that we Christians are called by Jesus to bring comfort, healing, companionship, and food to those in need, all of these actions, just like Jesus' miraculous activity, are nothing more than signs.

Signs don't point to themselves. Signs aren't ends in themselves. An "Exit" sign in a building, for example, isn't designed to make us stop and look at it; it's meant to point the way out for us. Other signs have other meanings, but they always point beyond themselves. Jesus' "signs" were meant to point to a deeper truth about Him. They pointed to the fact that the power of God over life and death was at work in Him.

The real crisis of consistency, of seeming incongruity, would come for Jesus' first followers on Good Friday, when they watched their beloved Lord, doer of so many signs, die the death of a lowlife crook on the cross. Was Jesus' power limited?

Of course, all questions about Jesus being limited in His power were blown away by the events of the first Easter. Jesus rose from the dead, a reality witnessed by over 500 once-skeptical and mournful followers. Jesus' death and resurrection assure us that has the power to give new, everlasting life to those who turn from sin and dare to follow Him.

So, why would Jesus feed 5000 one moment and allow terrors and near-death for His closest followers the next? Is Jesus like one of those deities of ancient Greek and Roman myth who viewed tormenting human beings as a kind of sport?

While the God we know in Jesus does occasionally intervene in and upend the laws of nature that normally operate in this world, He does it to point to His power to do far more for us than fill our bellies, heal our diseases, provide us with jobs, or save our marriages. This world, long ago fallen into sin, is ticketed for destruction. Jesus wants to give us citizenship in a new creation.

That's why when, in our Gospel lesson from yesterday, the people whose bellies Jesus filled "threaten" to make Jesus a king, He runs away from them. A king (or a president or a prime minister) in this world might well do good things. They might fill bellies, protect us from terrorists, provide people with health, or give us jobs. Those are all worthy and good things.

But none of them will help us deal with the ultimate issues that daunt us: alienation from God, alienation from others, alienation from ourselves, and death.* Jesus died and rose to deal with those issues for us. He conquers them for all who trust in Him.

But we still have storms in this life. People die young, lose their jobs, know the heartache of divorce, go bankrupt, die of starvation, and so on.

But do you notice two other things in our lesson?

First: The disciples, afraid that they'll die in the storm on the lake look in terror on Jesus. It's while they look at Jesus, after their frenzied rowing, that they anticlimactically land on the shore. Storms happen. But when we look to Jesus, He will get us home...the home that He has prepared for all who believe in Him.

Second: There's a special note of comfort to be found in verse 20. Our NRSV translation here is terrible. It says that Jesus tells the terrified disciples, "It is I; do not be afraid." That rendering utterly misses the point.

In the Greek in which the entire New Testament, including John, was first written, Jesus says, "Ego eimi," meaning literally, "I am."

It's a strange thing to say--"I am; do not be afraid." Strange, until you remember the name that God gave Moses to refer to Himself when Moses encountered Him in the burning bush thousands of years before the birth of Jesus.

Then, Moses, being told by God to go back to Egypt to confront the Pharaoh and gain the freedom of God's people, the Hebrews, wondered how people would react. What would the Pharaoh say? What would the Hebrews say? Who shall I say sent me? "Tell them I AM--Yahweh in the Hebrew of the Old Testament--sent you. Tell them that the One Who is, was, and always will be, the foundational Being of the universe, sent you, Moses."

When storms hit us in life, those who follow Jesus Christ can remember that we belong not just to the One Who calms storms, but the One Who can give us life beyond the storm--the great I AM.

We need never be afraid.

*The condition of alienation is what the Bible calls sin. The term is used in two different ways in the Bible really: (1) First as the condition of separation from God and others; (2) The actions we do that result from that condition.

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