Pentecost 9B; Proper 12
Unique among the Gospels, John replaces the scene of the last supper with a foot washing.
This doesn’t mean the Eucharist isn’t important to John. He just wants its symbolic richness to show up earlier in the story – in chapter 6 – so it can be tied to all of Jesus’ life and ministry, not just his death. The image I imagine of John 6:10 (where Jesus instructs the disciples to have the crowd of 5,000 sit down in the grass alongside the Sea of Tiberius) makes me think of Georges Seurat’s famous 1884 oil painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” that inspired the Sondheim musical, “Sunday in the Park with George.”
For Parisians in the late 1800s, Sunday summer afternoons were spent escaping the heat of the city and heading for the shade of the trees and the cool breezes that came off the Seine River. Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon” Parisians, with their parasols and fancy hats, would have been too bourgeoisie to represent the large crowd of desperate people who flocked to Jesus. Seurat’s earlier painting, “Bathers at Asnières,” which pictured the working class gathered on the Seine’s opposite Western bank, is a more apt metaphor for Jesus’ crowd of followers. The men have stripped to their undergarments or rolled up their pants to wade and swim. They’re too tired to consider decorum, too practical to worry about fashion. But all these people – no matter their race or class, religious or political views – were seeking an escape, an afternoon of respite, a healing beside the river.
John doesn’t follow the same rules as the other Gospel writers — rules of story order, rules of time, rules of geography and place. His Gospel can be disorienting to the linear, either/or thinker. John has his own way, his own perspective, and at times I’ve found his Gospel the most challenging to preach. Can’t you just tell the story straight, John?
But John allows space for spiritual and theological play. Jesus is the Bread of Life, the Word become flesh, the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World. In John’s Gospel, it’s not just the disciples that gather to be fed, but all the hungry people — whether bourgeoisie or working class, whether Gentile or Jew, to sit on the green grass, to be served, with Jesus as host. The loaves Jesus breaks is the food available, barley bread eaten by the poor. The miracle is not just that all are fed from the scant resources, but also that all are satisfied.
Could we be so creative, so playful, so radically welcoming with our own ministries? John Cleghorn, in his new book “Resurrecting Church: Where Justice and Diversity Meet Radical Welcome and Healing Hope” seeks to lead predominantly white churches away from either/or, right/wrong certainty toward the more generative and inclusive thinking of both/and. Cleghorn writes, “So much of what seems to be broken in America stems from the temptation to cling to ‘either/or’ certainty in a time of ‘both/and’ truths.” He highlights the “Intersectional Theology” of Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan M. Shaw who invite us to imagine God’s people and God’s stories “in all of their complexity.” Cleghorn invites churches to welcome perspectives “that don’t replace but do sometimes challenge and disturb the ways so many have read God’s stories for so long.” The community Cleghorn has helped build at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, is diverse, inclusive and doesn’t shy away from taking “holy risks” of elevating voices long marginalized and challenging church polity where it has fallen behind. (You can read a review of “Resurrecting Church” in the Outlook here.)
John’s Gospel requires more of us as a reader. We can’t rely on old assumptions, or patterned ways of certainty that this is the way the story is told and this is the message we are to glean. John upends a familiar story so that in and through Christ, we can be transformed, we can become a new creation. The effort, in the end, is satisfying.
The scene on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius ends with Jesus telling his disciples to gather up the leftovers. Nothing will be lost. Nothing and no one will be left behind. All will be filled.
Questions for reflection:
- How did this passage intrigue, disturb, challenge, comfort, encourage or inspire you?
- What idea, image or understanding of God does this passage lead you to reconsider or reimagine?
- Compare John’s story of the feeding of the 5,000 with the other Gospel narratives (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:32-44, Luke 9:10-17). What does John do differently? What is the same? What details of the story does John emphasize more than the other Gospel writers? Why do you think John makes these creative choices?
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