So, in this week’s gospel the pursuit of Jesus continues. The feeding of the 5000 done, we can surmise that it is the next day, and the people have stayed the night, and awakening in the morning discover Jesus is gone. Remember, Jesus and the apostles were going on a retreat of sorts, a little vacation as it were, to rest and recover from their recent tour of the towns and villages of the Galilee. So effective had that tour been, that people followed the apostles as they returned to our Lord so that they could themselves encounter Jesus personally.
Well, Jesus and the twelve have left, likely looking for the peace and quiet that so far has eluded them. Now the folks by the seashore made a good educated guess that they have headed back to Capernaum, what we might term the headquarters of Jesus’ ministry at that time. So, the pursuit is taken up again.
They are so dogged in this because they know there is something very special about this man from Nazareth—he has something they need, if only they could recognize what that need is.
But like so many today, like so many throughout history, they struggle to grasp just who and what Jesus is, and what can be expected of him. We do the same thing with the Church in our expectations of it as the body of Christ in the world; why it is here, what it is, and what it offers.
Just as the Galileans were mistaken about Jesus even as they could see something wonderful was going on; so too today we see people being mistaken about what the Church is, and what’s its work is; the reason for its being.
Jesus’ ultimate concern is for our spiritual well-being; it is the state of our soul and our preparedness for eternity. The necessary preparation, indeed it is more of a restoration and repair, is through a relationship with Jesus Christ who is the Word of God. And you’ll remember from my past homilies how that “Word” in Greek, the original language of the gospels is the Greek word, Logos, and that is the organizing principle of the universe, the mind of God so to speak, the inner logic of all that is, divine reason, the rational basis of reality; and the key to understanding this Word, to having some insight into the divine mind, is love. Jesus offers us this through him, and through his sacrifice, feeds us: the bread of heaven is Jesus himself, and Jesus is the Word of God, the Logos. As we feed on him through the sacrament, receive his word through our listening and reflection upon scripture, the logic of love becomes more and more apparent, and we grow more and more in faith in that word of love, and by that we are saved.
Last week the crowds by the Sea of Galilee got off on the wrong foot: seeing in Jesus a man who can feed them, they try to seize him and make him king – a political leader and rival to Roman authority and Rome’s client rulers from the house of Herod. Why? Because in this world, human beings too often fall into the mistaken belief that the what orders the world and all that is in it is, does not proceed from love, but rather power, force, compulsion.
Jesus will have nothing to do with that, but we can understand where this comes from: power is something we associate with politics. A person who speaks with authority, exercises power, well we see in this world the proper channel for them is the realm of politics because that, we so often assume, is where things get done. The people have their bread, and their circuses, because of the political power of government whether that be an autocratic king or a democratically elected parliament.
To be fair the crowds “get” why Jesus rejects this – he is clearly a spiritual man, a religious figure who does not want to get down into the muck of politics. Jesus is a man of God, a prophet in their eyes, and so they get a little closer to the truth of who Jesus is when they start to compare him to Moses; and they return to feeding miracle as the evidence that Jesus is something very much out of the ordinary even with respect to prophets.
“Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’
Here they repeat their mistake, but this time they’ve reframed it from being explicitly about politics, to trying to understand Jesus as a latter-day Moses. And they would remember that Moses famously defeated the political power of Egypt’s Pharoah. So, Jesus is not a politician, he is something greater than that, and by their reasoning he can be like Moses, defeat the corrupt politics of the day, and get things done.
Jesus points out their mistake: Moses no more defeated Pharoah than he fed the Israelites in the wilderness. When Moses acted on his own, he met with disaster. He murdered a man; and the Hebrews were no freer for that sin.
“Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
What defeats evil, what upends tyranny, is not brute force, political power, but the bread of heaven, humanity feeding on the Word of God, taking in the Logos, incorporating ourselves into the love of God.
Moses brings God’s commandments to the Hebrews: this is the Word of God – when we read the Old Testament in mass, we all acknowledge this by responding the lector saying, “the word of the Lord” with “thanks be to God.” The Ten Commandments was by far more important an act than the miracle of the manna in the wilderness.
The Church has been understood at times as a countervailing power to civic authority; sometimes as a complimentary institution to government; and so, it is seen, and the bishops who serve it, as a political actor. The Church is often looked upon as a kind of social services organization (we feed street people; we operate shelters for the homeless, and so on). We often operate outside of government channels and so provide a means of remedy for the modern welfare system—a work-around to that system, but also a centre of advocacy to improve it. So, we can affect the political system without being a part of it.
But that’s not why we’re here; this is not why the Church exists.
The Church exists to do the work of God; and this, as Jesus tell us is the work: to believe in him whom he has sent. And so, we give the bread of heaven here, the word in scripture and in sacrament – not that this is in any way our doing, but like Moses, like the apostles, we provide what God furnishes, we distribute what God first gives.
And when we talk about a personal relationship with Jesus: the point of it is that through knowing him we come to understand the logic of love; by being like him, the reason for our being becomes plain.
Sure, you can be intellectual about this, but then we become philosophers or theologians who risk, to borrow the words of St. Paul, living “in the futility of [our] minds.” It is by living that word that we are renewed in mind, by speaking it, clothed in Christ, by both we are then created anew according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. To paraphrase our patron, St. Augustine, who preached on this very text almost 1600 years ago, we can do no good works until we do God’s work first, that is, truly believe in mind, body and spirit.