This is an interesting gospel story we have today - one of the miracles of Jesus that finds its way into all four gospels. Jesus feeds a large mass of people with only five loaves - possibly meant to symbolize the five books of Moses, what Jews call the Torah - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy - and two fish - possibly the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, or maybe a reference to the two people of God, Jews and Christians, or the two Testaments, Old and New. And after everyone has been satisfied, the disciples gather up twelve baskets of leftovers - which may represent the twelve tribes of Israel, or the twelve disciples of the Church, or just means fullness and wholeness in general. So what we have here is a miracle that can be interpreted as Jesus spiritually feeding all of God’s people from his roots in Judaism and Torah, extended through the Christian church. Oh, and don’t forget, in John, Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, and gives it to everyone to eat, probably a reference to our Eucharistic practice of Holy Communion and to its roots in the Jewish blessing of the meal. This is a gospel story that is just full of material to talk about, and full of opportunities to testify to God’s presence in the world.
But there’s one verse in particular that struck me this week, and that’s what I want to talk about. The people react very positively to this miracle of feeding, and talk about Jesus as sent by God into the world, the one who has been expected for a long time. And the verse I want to look at is v. 15, “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.” When Jesus realized the people were going to make him king, he withdrew. || It’s such an odd statement, and kind of buried in all the excitement over the miracle, but there it is. Jesus has the opportunity to become the king in a land that has suffered from oppression for centuries, that is currently being occupied by a Roman force that determines their every move and even regulates their worship. By being king, Jesus has the chance to fix everything and to overcome every injustice and to make Israel the kingdom of God - where there are no hungry, no poor, no oppressed, no sick, and no lonely. Jesus, as king, could make the land into a paradise for everyone. And yet Jesus says no.
Why? Why would Jesus say no to this opportunity? Of course, we could say, “well, he had to die, or we wouldn’t have been saved,” but let’s put that answer on hold for a minute, and get into this a bit more deeply. Because there’s something going on here about power and about what we do with power and how we use it, and also about how power corrupts, that we need to look at. Because we may not die like Jesus did, and our death will not save the world, but we all, to one degree or another, have power, and how Jesus deals with power can teach us a lot about how we use our own.
So. Why did Jesus withdraw from being king? What was it about having power and using it did he not want? Well, to start with, kings in the Bible have never been that great. The Hebrew Scriptures - what we’re used to calling the Old Testament - is somewhat conflicted about kings. We all know the stories about King David and King Solomon and how great they were, but the Bible also presents a strong critique of these kings, even if we don’t learn these stories in Sunday School or confirmation. Look at King David. The great king, anointed by God, whose piety inspires him to want a house for God, this David is not as perfect as we like to think he is. David, blessed by God, has trouble with the ultimate power that he has as king. We see it in our reading today, when we see David not only have sex with another man’s wife, without her explicit consent, but arrange to have her husband, one of David’s own soldiers, killed at the front so that David’s actions won’t be found out. And we hear this reading often enough, or maybe not often enough, that we just shrug our shoulders and shake our head and say, “Oh, David. Tsk, tsk, tsk.” Or, we blame Bathsheba for bathing on the roof, or some other maneuver that excuses what is a horrible act. Because really, this is appalling! David’s behaviour is absolutely atrocious! He uses his power as king to exert his will over those who are supposed to be under his protection; he rapes and he murders and he even commands his soldier Joab to take the fall for it, making Joab an accomplice to murder, all because David is the king and has the power to do it, and the power to get away with it. And yes, we will hear next week how repentant David is, but let’s not get there quite yet. The point is that even God’s anointed king can’t handle the power he has been given without destroying those around him.
It’s a real theme in the Bible, actually, that those with power seem to use it to destroy rather than give life. There’s a saying, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and we see it in the stories of the kings. King David didn’t just rape Bathsheba and murder Uriah, he also refused to punish his son Amnon, when Amnon raped David’s daughter Tamar. In this instance, King David used his power to ignore and erase wrongdoing, rather than confront it.
And then there’s King Solomon, whom we look up to as the model of wisdom and piety. He built the first Temple for God, he solved knotty ethical dilemmas, and is considered to be the author of the book of Proverbs. But what else did Solomon do with all of his kingly power? Well, 1 Kings 5 tells us, “King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men. Solomon also had seventy thousand laborers and eighty thousand stonecutters, besides Solomon’s three thousand three hundred supervisors. At the king’s command they quarried. ... He was seven years in building it.” When you add up all the numbers, King Solomon, whom God appointed to be in charge of the well-being of God’s people of Israel, forced one hundred and eighty thousand Israelites into slavery for seven years. These people did not choose this work, otherwise it wouldn’t have been forced, conscripted labor. Solomon basically instituted work camps, and we know very well what that means. Solomon, with all his power, enslaved Israel rather than caring for it.
So it’s no wonder that Jesus did not want to be King over Israel. Our human reality - and this is a reality that all world religions would agree on - is that we do not do well with power. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is true of kings, and this is also true of us regular folk. We may not be the kings and queens of nations, but we are often the king or queen of our own particular little world, and as such, we have the same kind of power. You may be the queen of your kitchen, or the king of your workshop. And what that means is that we are, each of us, regularly placed in situations where we have power, and more to the point, where we have the power to damage others. Maybe not literally, as David and Solomon did, but in emotional or spiritual ways. Who among us has not had a moment, even a brief moment, where we used our position of authority - whether as a boss, or as a supervisor, or as a parent, or even as a grandparent - to impose our own will, to make the things the way we think they are supposed to be? Who among us has not taken the opportunity to fix a problem and not fixed it to our liking? Who among us has not said or done something to someone weaker than ourselves, simply because we had the power to do it, even if we immediately regretted it afterwards? As Christians who call ourselves both saints and sinners, we acknowledge that there is something within us that engages our own power in often destructive ways. We know both through others and through our own experiences, that when we have power, we do not use it well. There is something intrinsic in the human condition that causes power to get a hold of us, and that causes us to do whatever we can to get more of it, no matter how good our intentions to begin with. Power guides our actions so that we get more power. And more power. And more power.
But, you might ask, if Jesus was king, wouldn’t he change that? Couldn’t Jesus be a king without destroying lives as everyone else does?
It’s a good question - and of course now we can argue that if Jesus were king, he wouldn’t have died the way he did. He certainly wouldn’t have died as a subject of the ruling power, or in humiliation as a criminal. But then we would have come to believe that the best way to heal the world is through the use of power, and in attempting to be like Jesus, in attempting to be faithful Christians and follow our Lord, we would have attempted to make ourselves kings and queens - even more than we already do - and justified it by claiming that Jesus already did it - even more than we already do.
There’s a scene from a movie, which comes from a book, and if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, you’ve definitely heard about it. It’s Lord of the Rings. And yes, you can laugh, I confess to being a bit of a geek that way. But, anyway, for those of you whose recall about the details is a bit fuzzy, The Lord of the Rings is an epic story about power - about who gets it, how it should be used, and the consequences of it. It was written during World War II, and J.R.R. Tolkien really struggled with the implications of power during that war, and we see it clearly in the book. Power, in the book, takes the form of a ring, which gives to its wearer ultimate power - the power over life and death, the power to control people’s will, and the power to shape the world into whatever the wearer of the ring desires. And near the beginning of the book, there is a scene where all the rulers of the world, as you might say, debate what they should do with the ring. They know that if it falls into the wrongs hands, the worst possible destruction would come upon the land, and the evil enemy, Sauron, would have ultimate power forever. And so the argument begins - what to do with the ring? It turns out that it is possible to destroy it, which would be the only way to remove it from the world forever. But one man, Boromir, who is a good man, and wants the world to be a better place, and hates the darkness of the enemy, and has all the best intentions in the world - he wants to keep the ring and use it against the enemy. His argument is that you can only fight power with more power.
And so we ask, what is so wrong with that? If we are good-hearted and well-intentioned and if we care for those around us, and seek justice, and want to do good in the world, what is wrong with having power? What is wrong with using power? Why didn’t Jesus use his power to perform miracles of food and healing to overthrow the Roman Empire (bloodlessly, of course)? It would have made a better world for everyone. Why did Jesus turn away from that power?
Well, as it turns out, there is only one way to handle power. There is only one way to use power so that it gives life to others, and not death. The only constructive, creative, life-affirming and life-giving use of power is to give it away. It is completely counter-intuitive, but that’s how power works. It only works for good when it is not kept for one’s self and when it is given away to others.
This is the reality that Jesus shows us. That power, as we know it, the power of rulers and kings and queens, the power of taking charge and taking over, the power of running the show and making the best decisions - this power is not for humans to use. It fails us. It traps us in its evil. But Jesus shows us how to overcome this kind of power. Jesus turned away from those who wanted to make him a king, and instead, Jesus turned toward Jerusalem. The writer of the Gospel of John describes this story as taking place near the festival of Passover, and for the Gospel writer, Passover is synonymous with Jesus’ death. Passover is when Jesus died, as the lamb of God. Jesus turns his face away from kingly power, and towards the power of weakness. Jesus uses his power, that of multiplying the loaves and fishes for the crowds to eat, to give that food away. Jesus blesses the food to make it holy in Holy Communion and then gives it away to each of us. And in Jerusalem, Jesus uses his power and strength to see him through toward dying on the cross, and then gives the new life that was a result to each of us. Jesus turns away from power that would make him stronger and give him power over everyone, and instead turns his face to the cross, and in doing so, gives up all his power so that everyone else can share in it.
And Jesus calls us to do the same. To live as a Christian is to live a life that constantly turns away from power, and gives it away when we have it. The Christian life is about letting go of our desire to be in charge of everything, no matter how good of a job we might do, and to let go of that power.
There is another scene in the Lord of the Rings, where Frodo, the humble and weak hobbit whose job it is to carry the ring to where it will be destroyed, meets Galadriel, a powerful and pure Lady of the Elves. And there is no question that Galadriel is good. She is beyond good - she is the most pure-hearted and well-intentioned and wise person you can imagine. And so Frodo thinks, well, I will give her the ring, and she will make the world a better place, and so he offers it to her. But Galadriel turns it down. She shows him that if she were to take the ring of power, she would attempt to use it for good but ultimately would end up using it to control everything and everyone and, in the end, become as evil as the very enemy they are trying to fight. Power corrupts, and absolute power, no matter how well-intentioned, corrupts absolutely. And so Galadriel, like Jesus, turns away from it. She lets Frodo have it, and the story ends with the ring destroyed and the land finally from the power of the enemy. The only way to overcome power is to give it away.
At this point, you might be wondering exactly what power you have, and how you might give it away. It’s easy to look at our own lives and to overlook where it is that we actually have power. But you do. As elders in our culture, you have been given power, whether you see it or not. The concerns of seniors drive politics, economic planning for the future, the agenda of the church, and all kinds of things. The senior vote is cultivated in politics. Senior Days, with however many percent of your purchase off, is a serious economic driver. You have power. So how will you give it away? How will you follow Jesus and give your power away?
Jesus gave away his power by asking other people for their opinions - he asked Philip where they should buy bread, even though he - Jesus- knew what was going to happen next. So, try that. In the next conversation with your children, or your grandchildren, ask them for their opinion. Give them the power to change the future. Let others have the last word. Let others speak for themselves. Let them make decisions for themselves without offering advice. Give away your power by giving others autonomy. Go further, by complimenting others instead of criticizing them. Criticism is a form of power, one that often steals power from the one being criticized. When I tell you that I don’t like your actions, I make you feel bad, and powerless, and I take power from you. But when I compliment you, or when I tell you that I trust your choices, I make you feel better, I trust you, and I give you power. That’s what Jesus calls us to do.
It’s not easy. Giving away power like this sometimes feels too often like sitting back and doing nothing. It can feel irresponsible, or apathetic, or lazy. It can make us nervous for what will happen next. If we are particularly well-intentioned, giving away our power can make us worry that something awful will happen, and that we will be responsible. But the truth is that power corrupts. And when we use our power to take over, and to control, and to take charge over others - when we use power like a king or a queen, it ends up corrupting and controlling us. We have all had our moments when we have “laid down the law,” and I’m pretty sure that none of walked away feeling really great about ourselves afterwards. Wielding power by taking it from others does not, no matter how well-intentioned, end up well for anyone.
And so Jesus calls us, we might even say Jesus empowers us, to give our power away. Only power that is given away has the power to bring life, and Jesus gives us his power, through baptism and through the blessing of food in Holy Communion. Jesus gives us his power to go out and to serve others - to give them our power - so that, one day, as everyone who receives power gives more of it away, and they in turn give it away, and so on and so on, we might all participate in the healing that Christ offers, and we will all be satisfied, with more than enough for everyone. Just as everyone who ate Jesus’ food was satisfied with more than enough left over, the same is true with the power that Jesus shares with us. Jesus’ power is yours. Thanks be to God. Amen.