The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s129g06 St Barnabas Orange East 30/7/2006 Sunday 17
"Jesus had not yet come to them". John 6.17
This is a very curious statement. Jesus had gone elsewhere to be alone, the disciples had left in the boat and it had become dark and the going rough. It is only then that the fact that Jesus wasn't with them is reinforced -- but it seems as if there is this expectation that no matter what their circumstances Jesus could have come to them unhindered. It doesn't take much imagination to reckon that some of the disciples had argued with their colleagues that they should have waited until Jesus had returned before they had left.
Clearly the feeding of the five thousand had deeply impressed everyone. The crowd wanted to take Jesus and make him king -- the disciples simply wanted Jesus to be there every time they wanted him. At least the crowd wanted to share Jesus with others, which was not part of the disciples' field of view. Jesus left because of the crowd's intentions so it is not surprising that the disciples' expectations were not immediately fulfilled either.
And I can imagine that the various protagonists in the Middle East are, right at this moment, calling on their particular god to rescue them from the predicament in which they find themselves -- as if they were not to blame -- it was really their adherence to the strictures of their own religion or faith or whatever that was really to blame -- so their god has an obligation to intervene -- on their behalf of course.
Or second best, calling on the United Nations or the United States to intervene -- on their behalf of course.
At some stage we need to realize that our destiny is in our own hands, and that my destiny is in my own hands.
There is little point in me 'pointing the finger' at others on the world stage, when I don't take the same advise I would offer and apply it as equally in my own life. Similarly there is even less to be gained if I 'truly repent' and don't see that the invitation to come and join the party for the other brother has its corporate -- as well as its personal dimension.
Jesus goes away quietly to be with himself to escape the demands of those who want him to fulfil their own personal desires -- for fulfilling the personal desires of each and every inhabitant on this earth is likely to be a never ending and thankless task. Yet how often do we presume that this is what 'prayer' is all about.
It seems to me to be significant that the avoidance of a political agenda is placed right beside the avoidance of a religious agenda. As I've gone through the Church we immediately recognise the avoidance of the political agenda as 'proper', but we fail to see that the disciples' personal religious agenda wasn't immediately fulfilled either. This is a rather less comfortable perception. Each of these ultimately focus on the self and our survival.
I have recently been lent the book: 'Theologies of the Body: Humanist and Christian' by Benedict Ashley O.P. and I was interested to read in there the 'Humanist Manifesto' (1973) which states in part: 'traditional .. religions that place revelation .. above human needs .. do a disservice to the human species'. 'The promises of immortal salvation or fear of eternal damnation are both illusory and harmful'. 'In the area of sexuality .. intolerant attitudes, often cultivated by orthodox religions .. unduly repress sexual conduct.' The author continues: 'Christians can agree .. with most of what is positive in this statement, but the Christian is convinced that human beings .. are made in God's image and are called to share in the life of God's Son, who .. rose to immortal bodily life .. Such a dogma seems to the humanist not only an illusion, but a dangerous one, because it distracts humankind from it's real tasks.' (p54-57)
For me Jesus was crucified precisely by those who placed religious revelation above human needs -- because Jesus associated with others. It was precisely those who were so certain of their own immortal salvation and the eternal damnation of others who had Jesus killed. The story of the woman caught in adultery shows us that it was those who had intolerant attitudes to sexuality who opposed Jesus.
The crowds want Jesus to fulfil their needs by electing him as king. The disciples expect Jesus to fulfil their needs by fixing the predicament in which they found themselves. The belief in 'eternal life' doesn't lead God to grant this to those who believe it and deny it to those who don't.
So for me the belief that the primary message of Jesus was that because he was raised to life and so we as Christians will be raised to eternal life is indeed a distraction from humanities real tasks -- that of associating with, and loving, the other. For me Jesus was the first and greatest secular humanist and it is precisely in his being the secular humanist par excellence that I find the best evidence for his divinity.
In my work I find it curious that mostly people in hospitals only want to leave. Despite the enormous expenditure that has gone into building the hospital and paying the doctors, nurses and staff -- despite the fact that while one is there, one doesn't have to make one's bed, prepare the meals or clean up afterwards -- mostly people only want to go home! Some people pray that they can be discharged. And I guess that there is nothing like one's own home and one's own bed -- and of course for those who have to be in hospital and are very unwell or there for long periods of time and away from their families and loved ones it is very difficult. There is a good deal less privacy in hospital. It is a busy place and often it's hard to get any length of unbroken sleep. And yet it is here that healing comes. It is here that God works through the skills of a huge number of people to bring health to others.
Our initial reaction is that we want Jesus to make us well so that we do not have to be dependent on others -- and perhaps this is precisely when it seems Jesus has not yet come to us. But of course seen in clearer light, this is precisely when Jesus is closest to us, in the persons of the doctors and the nurses and the other staff who are bringing healing to us.
And in the Middle East, the 'failure' of God to intervene, may blind us to the reality of the divine presence so manifestly there that we have failed to perceive it. This presence will be found in those, Palestinian, Israeli and Lebanese, who are seeking peaceful solutions, those quietly working away to alleviate suffering, those seeking to bring the innocent to safety and those quietly insisting that we have to get on with the other despite our differences or else we condemn ourselves to remain forever in the same disputation and conflict.
I also find it significant that in the parallel passage in Matthew (14.16) Jesus tells the disciples to give the crowds something to eat. He actually invites the disciples to feed the multitudes. So if Jesus believed that the disciples could feed the multitudes, he was as likely to believe that the disciples could walk on water -- not just Peter -- and overcome the head wind that was against them as they rowed.
So if and when we find that Jesus has not yet come to us, perhaps it is time to stop for a while and begin to count our blessings, and particularly in the blessings of other people round about us -- and see in them the risen Jesus at work in this world. And when we do this we too will come to the land to which we are going.
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