Our Lord not employing force, but offering choice.
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 26 August 2018
The story of Jesus feeding a great crowd in the wilderness is one of the most often repeated stories in the gospels. It’s told by all of the gospel writers, and in two of them, Matthew and Mark, it’s told twice! It was clearly one of those stories that lodged itself in people’s memories and was kept alive and retold because of its huge significance. Why else would it be told six times in the gospels!
And certainly Saint John in his gospel gives it his full attention! He starts his long sixth chapter with the feeding of the 5,000 and then spends the rest of the chapter doing what he always does – inviting us to go deeper, to plumb the theological and spiritual depths, to dig for the treasure implicit in this story.
So in his hands the feeding of the 5,000 leads to some monumental sayings of Christ that we’ve been listening to over the last five weeks:
People have reacted!
At the end of the actual feeding, the crowd are full of enthusiasm. Of Jesus they say:
‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the
And because he’s so worried that they’re about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdraws again to the mountain by himself.
However the crowd follow him round to the other side of the lake where he starts to teach them about the true significance of the bread that he’s given them to eat. Hearing about this they say:
‘Sir, give us this bread always.’
But when he says that he is the bread that has come down from heaven, they begin to complain; and worse still when he talks about the bread that he will give for the life of the world being his flesh, they dispute amongst themselves about how that can be!
So alongside Christ’s profound reflection on bread that we’ve been following week by week, there’s been a growing disquiet, culminating today when we heard not just the crowd, but Jesus’ disciples too say:
‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’
And many of Christ’s disciples turn back and no longer associate with him.
The Galilean part of his ministry is now over according to Saint John. Jesus is to leave Galilee and go to Jerusalem. At this defining moment Jesus asks the twelve:
‘Do you also wish to go away?’
Peter’s response is perhaps his most moving:
‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of
Remember how at the beginning of the chapter Jesus was worried about the crowd wanting to take him by force to make him king. Contrast the action of the crown then with Jesus here, where at the end of this long chapter, he uses no force to keep his disciples with him!
Instead, as Saint Athanasius pointed out writing in the 3rdcentury:
‘It is the part of true godliness not to compel but to
persuade. Our Lord himself does not employ force but
And that’s exactly what’s been going on throughout this chapter of John’s gospel – our Lord not employing force, but offering choice.
Peter had made his choice. In spite of the difficulties he answered his Lord:
‘We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy
One of God.’