Letting The Force Use Us
I recall vividly a day three years ago when we drove into New York. Coming in on Freeway 80 we felt fairly confident of survival. As traffic slowed down to a crawl because of the inevitable breakdown ahead, we suddenly made a discovery.
As a massive complex of bridges came closer and closer, we realized that our map was not detailed enough to direct us. There was only one bridge on the map, and we faced several.
For the next two hours we darted across toll-hungry bridges trying to find our way. It was an unforgettable experience. What we needed was a sign which said: This way to the Elmhurst Motel, reservation for Iles. But there was no such sign, until some helpful Mexicans gave us some directions.
John’s gospel is the gospel of signs for the lost people of this world. It contains six pointers of the way ahead, with Jesus as the divine guide. He is both the sign and the one who gives them to people to direct them from unbelief to harmony with him.
The narrative in John 6, familiar as it is seems to catch us by surprise. For here the same Jesus who refused Satan’s invitation to make bread for himself from stones, provides unsought bread to feed the spiritually and bodily hungry at the time he chooses.
This surprising narrative can be broken up into four parts.
- The Setting of the Sign (Verses 1-4)
Jesus is spending time around the sea regions he loves, and is followed by a large crowd. Why? Because people they had known with leprosy were now clean, town beggars who were blind could now seem, and those lives dashed by evil spirits were now at peace.
Jesus was the spiritual equivalent of the Moscow Circus coming to town, except not to perform but to provide a sign that showed the way to go.
Do we, like this crowd follow him because we know what he does to change human lives, our lives? Or has Jesus just become a part of our spiritual furniture?
Do we come as grateful people because we have been blessed amidst our personal pain or our relational struggles or because we have known and seen Jesus heal?
Do we follow because we have seen the signs he works when we are unemployed or unwell or lonely? If so, then these and other miracles are possible for us today as well.
In verse three, Jesus just relaxes on a mountain-side. Mountains in Scripture are the places of revelation. The hill is the setting for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Transfiguration, his resurrected appearance, and here a miracle of generosity.
In verse four, John casually observes that this is all just before the Passover, which explains why so many people are around. It says that what the Jews were looking for in the Passover could only be found in Jesus, the one who does for us what no ritual can do.
- The Preparation for the Sign or The Meal (Verses 5-9)
I am not sure what mealtimes are like at your place, but sometimes at ours it feels like peak hour at McDonalds. Setting the table seems a herculean task to tired kids, and grace resembles more of a battle charge than a moment of thanksgiving.
How much more so with 5000 guests in the open air?
Yet Jesus knows clearly in his mind what he will do. He will minister to these people. He will minister to the hungry and he will minister to and through the disciples.
So he probes about to see where the disciples are at in their understanding of his ministry of signs. To Philip in Verse 5 he asks, ‘Where shall we buy bread to feed them?’
Does he ask you the same questions he asks me? Searching questions about stewardship of money, about preferring to visit those who are easy to get on with, questions about what I am really doing for those today who are lacking both the Bread of Life and bread itself, and the hundred people who died of hunger during the first sentence of this address.
God’s questions are his judgments on what we have done with what he has given us. What questions is he asking you at present?
Philip does a quick calculation, and answers with Keating-like precision in Verse 7: ‘8 months wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite.’
What an impractical, un-Keynesian economic proposition he implies in planning to feed 5000 people.
Andrew in Verse 9 is a little more hopeful. Because he is not above mingling with children, he knows there is a little boy there with a snack. He has barley bread, the cheapest, poorest kind of bread. It was regarded as fit only for animals, but ‘Who knows?’ thinks Andrew.
In Jesus’ hands the simplest of gifts can be multiplied. God takes whatever we can offer and multiplies it. Maybe it’s the spare hour a pressured businessman takes to come own to church and work on the roof. Maybe it is a brief moment taken by a harried mother to teach her children evening prayers. Maybe it is the time a student gives up to go to a worship planning night, or a chilly night out at choir practice from committed members, or maybe it’s the person who sets the hall up for a fellowship group.
These small fragments, these scattered pieces of humanity offered to Jesus can be used to meet needs associated with God’s plans for people. A little can go far among many through the grace of God.
- The Sign Itself (Verses 10-13)
Jesus doesn’t act without using his disciples, or we might say his church. His plans for human wholeness include his disciples, so then as now he works through them as his main means of healing the world of its sin and pain.
In Verse 10, Jesus takes command. He has this restless crowd sit down. In a sense, he psychologically defuses the soccer-stadium enthusiasm which will break out in Verse 15.
A seated person is more disarmed than a standing one. Verse 11 suggests there were some who would not be seated, but those who did, those who obeyed Jesus’ command received their fill of his bread.
Note in the same verse, the Eucharistic overtones as he takes the loaves, gives thanks and distributes the food. The verse also shows that this divine manna comes from Jesus himself. He alone does the actual distribution, he alone is the one with the power and authority to distribute the bread of life. He is the vine and we are the branches. Apart from him we can do nothing.
Verse 12 speaks to us of the adequacy of Jesus’ provisions. What he provides is enough. He satisfies us with good things and calls upon us to do the same for others. This verse also shows that there is no waste as he commands the disciples to collect the leftover bread. Clearly the leftovers, the crumbs that have fallen from the master’s table will serve some secondary purpose we don’t read of here.
- The Response to the Meal (Verses 14-15)
As soon as people realise what has happened, Jesus is facing the Devil again. In the wilderness, he said to Jesus, ‘Bow down to me and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world.’ Now he risks becoming the flavour of the month for this overly grateful crowd. Their full stomachs remind them of another hunger, a hunger to bring about a nation free of Roman pollution, a free nation under God, a nationalistic hunger to be somebody again as a nation. Jesus’ miracles versus Roman strategies. It all seemed so simple. What chance would the Romans have?
It is so easy to jump on the bandwagons of human self-fulfilment in any era: to identify gay-rights, or feminism, or masculinism, with the purposes of the kingdom. But Jesus chose another way, the way of suffering to bring his Kingdom into the world.
The Bread of Life was only given as people obeyed, as they sat, and as the disciples co-operated with Jesus.
So today God’s agenda is not always the worlds. It is not necessarily economic prosperity and comfort, or higher wages or profits. The kingdom agenda is not an agenda we can write into statute books, or simply use for our own purposes. We are here to be used by the Kingdom.
In the movie, The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker lands his aircraft in a desolate, mucky, foggy swamp. There he meets with Yoda to learn how to deal with his enemies.
Luke’s skycraft sinks out of sight into the mud. Yoda instructs Luke that the mighty power called The Force will enable him to lift his craft out of the swamp. Luke tries to follow Yoda’s instructions but fails. The craft remains stuck in the mud.
Then Yoda says, ‘No, no my son, you are trying to use The Force, let The Force use you.’
Jesus resisted every temptation to use the force, and instead he let his father use him.
In Jesus is the power to meet every hunger, not as we use The Force, but as we let the Force use us.
By George Robert Iles