When I teach students about the travails of early Christianity, we have to deal early on with what is considered the earliest Christian heresy: Gnosticism. In fact, there was a time during the first and second centuries, it was an open question which would prevail: What we’ve come to call “orthodox Christianity” or Gnosticism. There were often competing congregations in the same towns, preaching a different version of God, and therefore, of Jesus.
It’s entirely conceivable that had Gnosticism won the day, there would be no such thing as Christianity—at least as we know it today.
“What is Gnosticism,” you may be wondering, “and what does it have to do with the feeding of the 5,000 in our Gospel for this morning?”
So glad you asked. Gnosticism is a hybrid of Christianity and Neo-Platonic philosophy, that assumes the material world is evil—that truth can only be found in the spiritual.
The Gnostic myth is that the earth and all material reality was created by the supreme deity, and that humanity is unique in that sparks of the divine were trapped in material flesh. The way to achieve salvation, according to Gnosticism, was to release these sparks of divinity from their evil and corrupted human bodies.
But how, you may wonder, does one release one’s inner divinity from the bonds of its fleshly prison?
This release of the divine spark requires a gnosis, which is Greek for knowledge. According to many Gnostics, Jesus proved a wonderful vehicle for this special knowledge, which could set people free from the nasty material world and return their trapped sparks to the source of the divine.
Yeah, I know, that’s the look my students give me too. It’s pretty arcane stuff. But it was extremely popular in the early days of Christianity.
In fact, a form of it is still pretty popular in the church—the idea that what matters is the spiritual, that the flesh is evil, that whatever happens on this fallen mortal coil is always of much less significance than what happens in the spiritual realm, and that what one needs to do to be saved is not to do anything, but to acquire spiritual knowledge (which we might call faith). Indeed, doing stuff—no matter how well intended—may distract you from your real duty which is to “get right with God.” Anything that has to do with this world—politics, economics, justice, peaceableness—is by definition a distraction from true spiritual pursuit.
Does that sound familiar?
I got into it with somebody on Twitter last week. I wrote: “Taking Jesus seriously means challenging oppressive governments and the religious institutions that make them possible.”
Pastor Bob, who describes himself as “a contemplative missionary living a spiritual existence,” responded by saying: “But let's be clear—Jesus challenged oppressive governments & the religious institutions that make them possible by staying out of politics and unconditionally loving, comforting & healing all peoples hurt and damaged by them. We should be so Christ-like. Love always trumps politics.”
Pastor Bob’s answer struck me at the time (and strikes me still, truth be told) as an apt illustration of Gnosticism—loving people not in any way that reorders the systems that keep people down, but loving them as having a positive feeling toward them in your heart.
Pastor Bob writes: “Jesus challenged oppressive governments and the religious institutions that make them possible by staying out of politics.”
Of course. That sounds to me like saying that the way to change the designated hitter rule is never to go to another baseball game—or the way to get really good at tuba playing is by devoting yourself to jiu jitsu.
What I said to him, though, was: "They publicly executed Jesus as a political subversive because of his ‘staying out of politics and unconditionally loving, comforting & healing all peoples hurt and damaged by oppressive governments and the religious institutions that make them possible?’ No. They killed Jesus because of his politics; not because he was nice."
Gnosticism says that anything not in the spiritual realm is, if not evil, then at least unsavory.
Which brings me to our passage this morning. John’s version of the feeding of the 5,000. It’s the miracle story contained in all four Gospels.
Jesus has crossed over to the other side of the the Sea of Galilee, according to John. He’s just come through the territory of Galilee, where his home town, Nazareth, sits. He goes up a mountain—which today, we would call the Golan Heights—to take a little breather from the stress of being, you know, Jesus.
All of a sudden he looks up to see that there’s a huge crowd following him. It seems there’s always a crowd close by when Jesus is around—which is at least one reason for the stress.
Jesus comes up to Philip and says, “On the way in did you notice like a Taco Bell or a McDonalds or anything? Because by my reckoning there’s a whole bunch of people, and I can’t remember any place to buy these people a chalupa.”
And Philip, being a practical man says, “Well, maybe that’s a good thing, because there are so many people out there that even half a year’s wages wouldn’t be enough to buy all the Big Macs these people would need to feed them.”
Then Andrew chimed in: “There’s a kid out here who’s got some bread and a couple fish.”
Jesus said, “Tell ‘em all to have a seat and start passing around the bread and fish.” There were 5,000 people, John tells us.
Well, you probably know how the story goes, right?
They passed around the food, and when all was said and done, there was enough food left over to fill 12 baskets—enough for the children’s school lunches for the next month.
And usually what happens in a sermon on this passage is the preacher starts focusing on the multiplication of the loaves and fishes—which is to say, on the miracle. How did 5,000 people eat off 5 loaves and 2 fish? Did Jesus do something supernatural? Was there a miraculous outbreak of sharing? People saw that the kid was sharing his lunch and so everyone else broke out their picnic baskets and had a giant potluck that wound up feeding everybody?
In other words, sermons on the this passage often set out to answer the question: “How?”
But today, I’m much less interested in the “how” than in the “why?”
What do I mean?
Well, one of the parts that typically gets lost in the homiletical pursuit of the fantastic in this story is the last two verses: When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’
“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.”
So what? What does that matter?
John doesn’t say anything about the “how” of the sign Jesus does. What John takes note of is the people’s response to being fed: they want to make Jesus king—by force, if necessary.
What usually happens with passages like this one is that preachers tend to drift toward the spiritual. Commentators argue that John is using the meal here as a way of introducing themes about the Lord’s Supper. Or they say that the bread in this story foreshadows the heavenly bread John says Jesus talks about later in the chapter, the bread that comes down from heaven—the kind that makes actual bread unnecessary. You know, spiritual bread—not nasty old material bread.
But I want to suggest that these interpretations, whatever, value they have in understanding John’s intentions in writing, rush blithely past what the people in the story found most significant: Jesus somehow figured out how to feed all the people.
Now, the temptation is to believe that these were otherwise well-fed Palestinian suburbanites who just hadn’t had a chance to stop at the Howard Johnson’s before going to the Jesus Show—and now their sugar is dropping and the kids are getting cranky, and where are we going to find some Gogurts or something because you know how Kevin gets if he doesn’t eat every three hours (two if he’s got a soccer game).
No. The people in the crowd are most likely Galileans, which is to say peasants—many of whom live hand to mouth every day. They either worked the land as subsistence farmers, fished for a living, or were artisans. Whatever the nature of their vocations, however, the people who followed Jesus around his home territory of Galilee were poor—likely, with very few exceptions.
The rich and the powerful, the rulers and their retainers benefitted from a political and economic system in which a few lived well, while the rest of the population had to scratch out a living by the skin of their fingertips. That is to say, the folks in charge had a vested interest in promoting the belief that religion is about holiness and spirituality, and should, at all costs, avoid economics and politics—because once the peasants start wondering whether or not the system is giving them a raw deal, the whole thing starts unraveling.
In other words, the 5,000 gathered to listen to Jesus didn’t just happen to find themselves in a situation out in the wilderness without a 7-11 nearby. These were people who lived with hunger and uncertainty as a constant threat.
As a consequence, anybody who could figure out a way to feed 5,000 of these folks posed a credible political alternative to the creeps and goons who kept them working night and day just to keep their families on the right side of starvation. In other words, making Jesus king after he managed to feed 5,000 people wasn’t a spiritual exercise in which people got a clearer picture of Jesus’ niceness. To 5,000 hungry peasants, this Jesus guy represented a plausible figure around which to start a revolution.
Think I’m exaggerating?
John says, “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.”
William Herzog writes:
>If [Jesus] had been the kind of teacher popularly portrayed in the North American Church, a master of the inner life, teaching the importance of spirituality and a private relationship with God, he would have been supported by the Romans as a part of their rural pacification program. That was exactly the kind of religion the Romans wanted peasants to have. Any belief that encouraged magic, passivity before fate and withdrawal from the world of politics and economics into a spiritual inner realm would have met with official approval.
Jesus in this miraculous meal isn’t just, as Pastor Bob says, “staying out of politics and unconditionally loving, comforting & healing all peoples hurt and damaged.” In feeding the 5,000 Jesus disrupts one of the political and economic tools the powerful use to keep the peasants in their place—hunger and scarcity. And in so doing, Jesus offers up a political challenge to the ruling authorities.
That’s why Jesus was always getting sideways with the Romans. His ministry was by its very nature a threat to the political and economic status quo. In other words, in accounting for his conflict and eventual execution by the Roman state, we have to come up with a picture of Jesus as something other than a nice guy dispensing Deepak Chopra nuggets of wisdom. If that’s all he were, the Romans would have loved him. It’s because they understood the political implications of his teaching that they killed him.
Here’s the thing, before Jesus ever wandered into conversations about bread from heaven, he was preoccupied with actual bread. He knew what we all intuitively understand: People don’t have much use for your spirituality if they’re starving.
And let’s be honest, people are starving for a lack of a lot more than just bread. There are little children who’ve been stolen from their parents and locked in cages who are starving from a lack of humanity.
There are African Americans all over this country who, after seeing their friends and families face persecution and death at the hands of the political systems that are supposed to protect them, are starving for the bread of justice.
There are LGBTQ people just trying to make it through the day without being singled out for harassment and violence who are starving for the bread of hospitality and affirmation.
There are children all over the United States who go to school each day unsure if they’ll come home at night, who are starving for the bread of peace.
And before they have the ability to hear about bread from heaven, they need their most immediate hungers satisfied.
Let me be clear: Spirituality is a good thing. But if it always dominates the conversation as more important than actual bread, it’s Gnosticism.
If Jesus is any indication, our first priority as his followers is finding a way to give people the bread they need to live. If people die of starvation before they can embrace our spirituality, the rest won’t matter anyway.