Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
For many years now, with varied consistency, I’ve begun my day with the Morning Prayer office of the Book of Common Prayer. At the end of that prayer service there are a few options of closing benedictions, but more often than not I skip to the final one:
Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.
It is not always conscious, but praying these verses from Ephesians changes how I go about my day as I dwell with the knowledge that God is doing more than I can “ask or imagine”. Knowing that God is always doing infinitely more, I’m invited to ask and imagine more boldly and live in the humble realization that I don’t really understand the whole of reality.
Jesus invites his disciples into this same kind of work in our Gospel reading from John. Discipleship is about learning to live into a constant conversation with God (asking) and learning to see, even if through a glass darkly, the reality of God’s reign. Since much of this reality is imperceptible through the usual means of our senses, it is only through imagination that we can properly get even a glimpse of what is really happening.
This week my family received a package in the mail that contained a kit of molecules called “Happy Atoms.” My oldest daughter has been wanting to learn about atoms and the periodic table so we ordered a kit to help her (and us) understand how atoms, elements, and molecules work. One doesn’t get a much more fundamental aspect of reality than atoms, and yet as we began to play with the models I realized that even for professional physicists it is only through the work of imagination that this reality can truly be perceived. So much of our physical universe cannot be sensed and can only really be understood through the work of a disciplined engagement with the imagination. This is no different for the even more fundamental reality of God’s reign.
When Jesus initiates the miraculous sign of feeding over 5,000 people as recounted in our reading from John’s Gospel, he is working to engage and expand the limited imagination of both his disciples and the crowd. Like a model atom, or even a glimpse of real atom under an electron microscope, he is offering an image that will spark their imagination for the greater reality that stands beyond it.
He begins this work with a test of his disciples, a pedagogical technique that begins from a false premise in order to catch the attention of the student. A teacher might ask a student how fast the sun goes around the earth, to which the student, if she is paying attention, should say “the sun doesn’t go around the earth.” Our common everyday perceptions (that the sun goes around the earth) are presented so as to remind us of what we know to be true (the earth goes around the sun and rotates relative to it). Jesus asks Phillip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” to which Phillip says “More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit” (6:7, Common English Bible). Phillip fails the test—he has accepted his common sense perception of the world and thus failed to imagine reality aright.
Jesus has more work to do in helping his disciples understand and so he demonstrates God’s kingdom for them. Like a model of an atom, he brings to their direct perception the reality of what goes beyond what we can ask or imagine. Jesus offers a “miraculous sign,” a small piece of reality by which they can begin to see. This reality is the abundant provision of God—the manna economy that goes beyond what money can buy.
The crowd, made up of the impoverished people who lived under the shadow of Tiberius’s wealth, is enthusiastic about this window into an economy beyond money (and those who control it). But they are no better than the disciples at imagining the reality that stands beyond common sense perception. The gender neutral translations obscure a possible clue here, but the Greek is specific in saying that the crowd was numbered as “5,000 men.” Scholars such as D.A. Carson and Wes Howard-Brook believe this could indicate that this was a potential military force, ready to take up arms and fight for Jesus. But Jesus has another way of ushering in God’s reign, one that goes beyond military violence. He will gain victory by taking violence upon himself and then undoing its effects through the resurrection. That is a reality both his disciples and the crowd cannot yet imagine.
We too have a hard time imagining the reign of God. Our perspectives are too often limited by our common sense perceptions of economic limits and our options for action too readily jump to modes of violence, whether physical or social. We need the work of imagination so that we can begin to recognize the reality that lies beneath the limits of our so called “common sense.” To do this we should pay attention to the signs that Jesus provides us, meditating on his acts and teachings so that we can see a model for the reality we can’t perceive with our senses. We should also follow Paul’s advice, constantly involving ourselves in worship by giving glory to God, who we know is working beyond what we can “ask or imagine.” Through the act of worship, though we won’t be able to see the whole, we can begin to get a glimpse of all that lies beyond us by being enabled with “the power to comprehend…what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18).