The Gospel lesson begins with one of the most amazing claims in the Bible: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” The statement is full of hope and promise, but on a literal level it just isn’t true. For one thing, Jesus is not literally made of bread. And for another, history shows that Jesus’ followers have, in fact, suffered physical hunger and thirst.
Of course, Jesus is not speaking literally, but metaphorically. And it is our task today to interpret that metaphor, to unpack it. What Jesus is claiming is that he is the true source of spiritual nourishment, and that those who are fed by him will be spiritually filled. And folks, we humans, by our very nature, hunger and thirst for just such spiritual nourishment, whether we realize it or not. When we are spiritually empty, we look to fill that emptiness with all kinds of things: money, toys, food, drugs, alcohol, sex…the list goes on and on. But if we would fill the spiritual emptiness, we need only look to Jesus Christ. Through his teaching, we can be filled. Through his mediation with the Father on our behalf, we can be filled. Through the sacrament of his Body and Blood, we can be filled.
The Book of Common Prayer recommends reserving Baptisms for a baptismal feast day, of which there are four. And today is not one of them! But perhaps it should be, for the appointed Gospel reading deals in an indirect way with both of the Great Sacraments of the Christian faith: Baptism and Eucharist.
Last week’s reading from the Gospel of Mark skipped over a large chunk of text, the story of the feeding of the 5000. Today, we get the missing story, although from John’s Gospel.
Word has spread that Jesus is miraculously healing the sick. And in an age when only the very wealthy could afford to consult a physician (much like today!), there were many people who were sick. And they were besieging Jesus. Needing a little respite from the crowd, he climbed to the top of a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee. When he sees that the crowd is following him even there, he doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t even complain. Instead, he expresses concern that the people will suffer hunger.
Now, Philip and Andrew, who are there with Jesus, are realists. They know that there is nothing they can do for a crowd of 5000 people. Andrew points out that all they have on hand is five loaves of barley bread and two dried fishes. Philip and Andrew undoubtedly knew the story of how the prophet Elisha multiplied 20 loaves so as to feed 100 people. But for Jesus to feed 5000 from only 5 loaves would require a miracle 200 times more powerful than Elisha’s. Clearly, they didn’t think it possible—even for Jesus. But they were wrong—quite wrong! Jesus took the bread and the fishes, blessed them, and distributed them. All were filled, and there were even leftovers!
In an oblique way, all three Bible readings today speak to the political and spiritual crisis that the United States finds itself in today.
The first reading is an oracle from the prophet Jeremiah. And it starts off somewhat dramatically with a curse against political leaders who are corrupt and ineffectual, leaders who have failed to protect the people they were given charge over. Malfeasance, incompetence, and just plain bad government have resulted in a national disaster. The people of Judah have been conquered by their enemy and are being sent off into exile. Through the gloomy prophet Jeremiah, God warns the leaders of the nation that they will be punished by God for their failure to do their duty: “You have not attended to my flock; so I will attend to you!”
So far, the reading is all gloom and doom—at least for the corrupt leaders of Judah. But the tone changes abruptly to one of hope and promise. God vows that he will reunite his people by sending them a leader who can be trusted, a true descendent of David, a Messiah. “He shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” This prophecy was made about 2600 years ago, and unfortunately we are still waiting for it to be fulfilled. Yes, the Messiah came as promised, but the promised reign of justice eludes us still. And so, we wait with longing for his Second Coming.
The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 23, a psalm read at almost every Christian funeral, also makes a bold political statement. It starts out with that well-known phrase “The Lord is my shepherd.” Since the shepherd is a metaphor for the leader of the people, what the psalmist is really saying is that the only king, the only leader, the only President who gets his full allegiance is the Lord. After this affirmation of undivided loyalty to the Lord, the rest of the poem expresses the most profound trust that this divine shepherd will provide for every need. He will provide food and water for physical sustenance. He will provide guidance through every sort of danger. No longer will there be anything to fear. Then abandoning the metaphor, the psalmist speaks directly of the generosity, the goodness, and the compassion of the Lord. And he expresses the hope that he may abide in the presence of the Lord forever.
For us Christians, this shepherd, this leader, this divine king is the one to whom we give our allegiance, above every other allegiance. And today, as we recited that pastoral psalm, we joined our voices with that of the ancient psalmist and declared that the Lord alone is our shepherd, the Lord alone is our leader, the Lord alone is our President.
The Letter to the Ephesians goes on to speak of the unity that this shepherd has brought. In the Church, he has united Jew and Gentile, citizen and foreigner. This shepherd, this Messiah, this divine President does not build walls to separate peoples; no, he breaks down the walls that divide one people from another. With the election of President Jesus, there are no longer illegal immigrants and legal citizens. There are no longer Democrats and Republicans. All are united into one new humanity. All are reconciled and welcomed as citizens of the new commonwealth. This, brothers and sisters, is the Christian dream and the Christian hope. It hasn’t happened yet—that’s for sure! But we are promised that it will happen—but only if we follow the right shepherd, the right leader, the right President, the one whose name is above all other names—Jesus Christ.
Lastly, we come to the Gospel reading from Mark. It too speaks about our divine President Jesus. And what does it tell us about his approach to leadership? That he truly cares and that he knows how to express it! He sees people who are oppressed, who are tired, who are hungry. He sees people who have lost their way and don’t know which way to turn. So what does he do? Out of the purest compassion, he cancels the weekend at the golf resort, and he abides with his people. He teaches them about God’s love for them. And as we will hear next week, he feeds them. Lastly, he reaches out and touches them, and by his touch, he makes them whole again.
I took a course on leadership a few years ago. Do you know what the most valuable leadership skill is? It’s the ability to let the people you lead know just how much you care about them. I was astonished! But I shouldn’t have been so surprised. For what we were promised by Jeremiah, what we were promised by St. Paul, what we were promised by St. Mark is a leader who cares for us. And folks, President Jesus has always cared for us, every one of us. He cared so much that he was willing to give up his very life for us. And he wants us to care for one another in that same way.
Now, frankly, no American President, no political leader anywhere, could ever hope to compete with President Jesus. But it behooves the leaders of the world to try a little harder to emulate the compassion of the Good Shepherd. It behooves them to guide and to protect and to feed and to unite. And it behooves us to speak out when they fall short. But no matter how badly our leaders may fail us, we know that someday things will be better—much better! Someday, we will all live together as one new humanity in the commonwealth of President Jesus, and he will fulfill his campaign promise to make Creation great again. Let us pray with all our hearts for the swift coming of that day!
As you may know, the word “Gospel” literally means “Good News,” but in my humble opinion, today’s Gospel reading is utterly devoid of Good News. Fortunately, the Epistle is chock full of it. So let me say a few words about the Gospel, and then finish with the Epistle, so that we can end on a high note.
We all know the outline of the story of John the Baptist’s judicial murder, either from the Bible or from the movies or from the opera by Richard Strauss. But I bet that there are some pertinent details that you don’t know. I’ll start with some history that sets the scene for today’s Gospel reading. The prophet John the Baptist, while in his early 30s, reprimands Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, because he had married his half-brother’s ex-wife. (Oh, and did I mention she was also his niece?) Under Jewish law, the marriage was both adulterous and incestuous. As I mentioned last week, the main purpose of a prophet is to call the people back to a right relationship with God and with one another. And that is just what John does, publicly denouncing Herod’s marriage as an offence against God and demanding that it be annulled. Herod has no desire to repent, and he arrests John to shut him up. But he is reluctant to go so far as to execute the pestilent prophet. Perhaps he is afraid to kill a holy man, or perhaps he is just afraid that John’s disciples will riot
On May 26, while I was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I had the opportunity to take a ride on something called the “Jesus Boat.” And I have a certificate to attest to the fact! The boat takes pilgrims and tourists on a short trip out on the Sea of Galilee. The point is to give one a feel for what it must have been like to sail on the sea in Jesus’ day. As much as I enjoyed the little jaunt out on the water, it lacked a certain authenticity. For one thing, the afternoon was sunny and clear, with only the gentlest of breezes. For another, the boat didn’t look a thing like a first-century fishing boat. When we toured the nearby museum, we got to see a genuine “Jesus Boat.” It was about 25 feet long, 8 feet wide, and might possibly have held a dozen people. And unlike the “Jesus Boat” I sailed on, it didn’t have a large deck with deck chairs and a gasoline-powered engine. Looking at the genuine “Jesus Boat” taught me one thing: every trip out on the water in Jesus’ day entailed a risk to one’s life. Maybe that’s why the Old Testament portrays the sea as some sort of creature of chaos, opposed to the orderly rule of God.
Let me begin by setting the scene for the Gospel reading. Jesus is sitting in a boat near the shore of the Sea of Galilee—a place I visited just three weeks ago. And he is teaching the crowd on the beach in parables, little stories with hidden meanings. Why parables? Well, because not all are being called to be Jesus’ disciples. He is seeking people with imagination and curiosity and determination. Those are the kind of folks who will take the time to come to Jesus later on to get their questions answered. And those are the kind of folks that Jesus wants as his disciples.
Today we hear two agricultural parables about seeds. Now, to be honest, I grew up in an agricultural area, but at heart I’m a city boy. So these parables don’t speak to me the way they would to people with a closer relationship to the land, like Jesus’ original audience. But some of you, I know, are gardeners, so maybe they will resonate with you.
Last Sunday, we began that long season commonly called “Ordinary Time.” This season is marked by green vestments, and during Year B of the lectionary, we hear Gospel readings from the Gospel according to Mark. Despite the name “Ordinary Time,” some of the readings during this season are anything but ordinary. Today’s reading from chapter 3 of Mark’s Gospel is a case in point.
Jesus has started his ministry of teaching and healing and proclaiming God’s love. The crowds are so large that he can’t tend to them all. So he appoints twelve apostles to assist him. That same evening, exhausted and hungry, Jesus returns home to Capernaum longing for a meal and some rest. But the desperate crowds follow him home and won’t give him the time or the space to eat that meal.
That is where today’s Gospel reading begins. Then, we are told, back in Nazareth, some 25 miles away, Jesus’ family hears a rumor that Jesus is out of his mind, and they decide to intervene, to put a stop to his ministry. Perhaps they are afraid for Jesus’ safety. Perhaps they are concerned that Jesus might really be mentally ill. Or perhaps they are just embarrassed by the all the gossip. We don’t know their motivations.
Customarily, when I preach, I focus on the appointed Gospel reading. But for some reason, I just didn’t feel like preaching on grapevines this Sunday, so I’m not going to do it! Likewise, it would make good sense to preach on the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch; after all, Eastertide is traditionally a time to explore the Christian sacraments. But I’m not going to do that either! Instead, I am going to focus on the Epistle and talk about love.
If there is a single key to understanding our God, it is that simple sentence: God is love. That statement explains why God created the earth and all its creatures, including our good selves. It explains why God repeatedly sent prophets to guide his children when they had strayed like sheep. And as St. John points out today, it explains why God became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, lived among us as one of us, and died on a cross for our sake. It was all because God is love.
Now, we need to be a little careful about that statement. For the converse statement, love is God, is just not true. We do not worship love per se. We worship the God who is characterized by love. And out of love for him, we try our best to imitate that love. We respect all our brothers and sisters, without exception. We wish them well. We pray for their wellbeing. We help them when they are in need. And we are patient with them. Now, that doesn’t mean that we will always agree with our brothers and sisters. It doesn’t even mean that we will necessarily like our brothers and sisters. But love demands that we respect them as fellow children of God and treat them accordingly. I will admit that this is not always easy to do. To be honest, some folks make it pretty hard to love them!
But if we would be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, if we would be dutiful children of our God, we really don’t have any other choice than to love. St. John warns that “those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” In a real sense, our ability to love is a test of our faith. You can believe every statement in the Nicene Creed and every word written in the Holy Bible, but if you do not love, you are not a faithful Christian.
Now, if we were on our own, without any help, we all might fail the test of love. But we are not, in fact, on our own. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, given to us at Baptism and renewed at every Eucharist, God lives in us, and among us. And with God’s help, his divine love can be perfected in us. In the Eastern Church, this growth in divine love is called theosis, often translated as “divinization.” The idea is that as we grow more perfect in love and conform ourselves ever more closely to the God who is love, we will share more and more in his divine energies and come to experience eternal life in the here and now. That, my friends, is the proverbial carrot!
Now for the proverbial stick! If we stubbornly refuse to participate in God’s love, if we put our own well-being above the well-being of all others, there will be a price to pay. St. John mentions the fateful Day of Judgment. Likewise, Jesus makes a rather scary reference to unfruitful branches being lopped off and burned in a fire.
Beloved brothers and sisters, each and every one of us has a choice to make this very day. We can choose to live for ourselves alone, always fearing the fateful day when our selfishness will be judged. Or we can choose to love our brothers and sisters as God has loved us, casting aside all fear of judgment and living in complete freedom. For “perfect love casts out fear.”
And as a first effort toward loving your brothers and sisters, I would ask you today to carefully consider what you are doing when you share the Peace. That moment of the liturgy is as sacred as any other, though we rarely treat it that way. We tend to think of it as an informal break in the worship that allows us to have a quick conversation about the upcoming book sale, or to catch up with someone we haven’t seen in a while. But the Peace is not, in fact, a break in the worship; rather, it is an integral part of it. It is the time in the liturgy when we are asked to demonstrate our love for one another by word and gesture, and more importantly, to reconcile with anyone in the room with whom we have had a disagreement. So when you share the Peace today, please remember to share some love! For “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Finally, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we move on from the Day of Resurrection—only to transition to the topic of shepherds and sheep! In fact, today is commonly referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” For me, this day brings to mind the many paintings and stained-glass windows that we have all seen of Jesus’ cradling a snow-white lamb in his arms or of his carrying a poor little stray on his shoulders. When I was a child, this Gospel story reminded me of the nursery rhyme “Mary had a little lamb. It’s fleece was white as snow.” Not living in the country, these images were all I knew about sheep until I was well into my 20s. Imagine my shock when I first saw real sheep up close and in person. They weren’t as white as snow at all! In fact, they were filthy and smelly beasts. And I am told that they aren’t terribly bright! So, why on earth does Jesus compare his followers to sheep and himself to a shepherd?
Well, Jesus doesn’t tell us in so many words, but I have some educated guesses. I suspect that Jesus compares his followers to sheep, not because of our stupidity or our lack of hygiene, but because, like sheep, we have a tendency to stray. Recall Isaiah 53, “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way.” Jesus, as our shepherd, is there to gather us back into the fold when we stray. And he will go before us to lead us to the green pastures and still waters mentioned in Psalm 23. Note that I said “he will go before us.” In the Middle East, the shepherd goes ahead of the flock, and the sheep are trained to recognize the shepherd’s voice and to follow his lead. Likewise, Jesus, as our shepherd, is one who has gone ahead of us, and we are expected to follow in his footsteps.
Today is the third Sunday of Easter. And yes, even though you will no longer find chocolate bunnies for sale at Safeway, it’s still Easter! And it will continue to be Easter till we reach the feast of Pentecost on May 20. As you may have noticed, there are various ways that we mark this joyous season in our worship. We use vestments of white, which in Western culture are considered festive. We burn a very large white candle. We read the Acts of the Apostles in place of the Hebrew scriptures for the first reading. We include extra Alleluias at various places in the service. And finally, the Confession of Sin is optionally omitted. During this joyous season, we pause for 50 days to ponder a single day, the Day of Resurrection, and to consider its consequences for us as disciples of Jesus.
That explains why, for the third Sunday in a row, we hear a story from that first Easter Day. It’s kind of like the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character experiences the same day over and over again till he learns his lesson. Likewise, we will move on from Easter Day only when we have learned all that we need to learn from that eventful day.