Etiquette and the Kingdom of God
First Reading 2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm Psalm 145:10-19
Second Reading Ephesians 3:14-21
Gospel John 6:1-21
“You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature.” In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
There are rules we follow in polite society. Though it might be a stretch to call today’s society “polite”, we all expect certain behaviors to guide our interactions. Please and may I, thank you and you’re welcome. Holding open a door, after you, and how may I help you? All of these are intended to keep our interactions civil, maintain proper order, and prevent causing offense. But manners and etiquette can also mask our true feelings, the reality of the situation, and perpetuate shallow relationship in favor of false pleasantries.
An elderly lady said to a little girl, “How do you do, my dear?” The little girl replied, “Quite well, thank you.” After a long pause, the woman asked, “why don’t you ask me how I am?” The girl calmly answered, “Because I’m not interested.”
Jesus was not always polite in his relationships. Jesus was authentic. Jesus often had to rebuke wrong thinking and wrong action. Jesus also had some hard truths to share with the world. Sometimes there is no way to sugar coat it. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Sometimes we have to taste the medicine. In today’s gospel, the feeding of the five thousand delves into the kingdom etiquette of throwing a party, table manners, and proper response to the host. Kingdom etiquette does not always look like our preferred rules of etiquette.
It is unclear what the responsibility of an itinerant preacher and healer is regarding feeding those that follow him around. We all know planning the time of an event is crucial. If we plan an event for 6pm, we must feed the guests dinner. At 4pm, snacks will do; at 8pm, perhaps dessert. The crowds are following Jesus to hear his teachings and see signs of healing. There were no formal invitations sent, no RSVPs. But the in-breaking of the kingdom is compelling, knows no boundaries, and the crowds will not be held back by polite etiquette. It’s dinner time, and the guests are hungry.
No matter what the guild of prophets prescribes regarding feeding a crowd, Jesus knows what he is about to do. Disclosed as a test, he asks Philip where to buy bread for the crowd. We might counter, who are we to feed all these people? It’s not our responsibility. Philip bypasses such arguments in favor of a more practical objection. “Six months wages would not be enough to feed each person even a morsel.” It would not be polite for a host to throw a dinner party and run out of food. Philip is hung up on money, or the lack of it, and only sees scarcity.
Andrew pipes up. “Here is a boy with five barley loaves and two fish.” But he continues, “it’s just not enough for this crowd.” It’s not enough. Andrew is hung up on the materials required to meet the needs, the paucity of their supplies. It’s not enough.
While we are exploring etiquette, what about this poor, unnamed boy. His mama packed him a lunch to go see the prophet, and Andrew is ready to take his food without even asking, not even a “please.” Jesus said the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are as children. I’d like to think the young boy understands Jesus’ teachings better than the adults, and willingly offers his food to Jesus and to others.
It seems to be a nice afternoon. The people are gathered in a grassy field. Jesus has them sit down and assume the position of a prophet’s picnic. The offered bread and fish, formed and collected by human hands, are brought to him. Jesus takes them, give thanks, divides, and distributes. Take, bless, break, and give. This should sound familiar to our souls. Theologian Gregory Dix describes the shape of the Eucharist as “Take, bless, break, and give.” This is what we do every time we celebrate Eucharist. God takes bread and wine offered, blesses it, and the transformed elements are broken and distributed. God is not merely feeding us. God is inviting us to a kingdom banquet.
Five barley loaves and two fish feed five thousand, and the gathered leftovers amount to even more than the original portions. The crowds see and experience this miracle, literally in their gut. They seem to see who Jesus is. “This is the prophet who has come into the world.” But then they rudely want to seize him and make him their king. Perhaps they cling to Jesus’ power too tightly. They want to tame Jesus and make him their own. They want to make him an earthly king to provide for their needs. They expect a messiah that will liberate them from Roman control. Obsessed with miracles, they fail to see who Jesus really is. What began with etiquette surrounding a dinner party was transformed. The crowds were so focused on the results of the miracle, full plates and full bellies, they did not notice the in-breaking of the kingdom happening right in front of them. Jesus slips away from the crowd.
The disciples get another chance to glimpse the kingdom of God. Jesus went up the mountain to be by himself. When evening came and it was time to leave, Jesus had not returned. The disciples get in a boat and head back across the Sea of Galilee without Jesus. How rude! Perhaps Jesus was only fashionably late. Surely etiquette would allow some leniency for their leader. The gospel does not say why they left Jesus behind. The sea became rough, and while they were focusing on their own troubles, Jesus appears walking across the water. If this happened today, in our skepticism and negativity, headlines would read, “Jesus can’t swim.” But the disciples cannot deny what they are seeing, and are afraid. Jesus reassures them of his identity. What is translated “It is I” are the same words of the divine identity, “I am.” Jesus is acting on behalf of God. Even when confronted by the divine, miraculous presence, the disciples try to tame the power and identity of Jesus. “Get in the boat.” But before they know it, they have reached their destination. Jesus rebuffs attempts by the crowd to make him an earthly king, but discloses to the disciples his divine identity, “I am.”
God is revealing divine presence and activity to us constantly. God is breaking the rules of polite society and bursting into our lives with grace, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and love. We speak of inviting Jesus into our lives, but if we are paying attention, God is breaking the boundaries of etiquette and revealing God’s self, invited or not. As Christians, we are called to exercise our spiritual muscles and recognize and respond to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Rather than acknowledge the miracle of God’s presence and activity, we are often more inclined to impose doubt and explain it away. When have you seen a Discovery Channel special on the biblical flood, or the parting of the Red Sea, or the resurrection of Christ, when the conclusion was “maybe this happened due to the saving activity of a loving God?” It is often easier to deny what seems impossible for humanity, than to be open to what is possible for God. All is possible through God. We cannot let proper etiquette get in the way.
Paul tells the Ephesians, and St. Paul’s Macon, that the church does not exist for itself, but is a sacrament for the world. The church offers to the world both a sign and a realization of the world’s own future possibility ... a world where God is glorified, where the presence of God in the world might be recognized and truly acknowledged. We are called to emulate God’s activity as the hands and feet of Christ. We ground this work in the greatest commandments. Love God. Love one another. We are called to take the actions of take, bless, break, and give that we celebrate at this altar and take them out into the world, and apply them to a world that longs to realize God’s presence, power, and activity. When God’s creative power, God’s unimaginable love, is unleashed on the world, anything is possible. If we see the world with that shatteringly generous love, and participate, we and the world will be forever changed. Amen.