Proper 12(B): God of My Own Making
By: Ryan Young
When I first received this assignment, I didn’t want it. I almost wrote Marshall, Modern Metanoia’s editor, to decline it. The miraculous feeding of the five thousand and walking on water stories are so well known that there is nothing new that my commentary could add to our reading of them. However, there was something about these texts that stayed with me in the weeks that followed—weeks that I was putting off this assignment due to a lack of inspiration. It’s the same nagging sense that I get whenever I read the Fourth Gospel, and it’s the very reason why this text bears repeated readings. It imparts a sense of irony that gives way to mystery.
The Johannine community seems to have developed a theology of a God who is hidden in plain sight. In a number of his works, Luke Timothy Johnson comments on the use of irony throughout the Fourth Gospel—a seemingly plain statement of Jesus’ is misunderstood, and the more Jesus explains, the more he is misunderstood. We, as readers, find this amusing seeing as how we are “in” on it. We know more than the crowds, the disciples, and the Pharisees, and that gives us an enjoyable sense of superiority. But then that nagging feeling returns. Our certain superiority gives way to a mysterious doubt. Do we really know more than these characters?
The first pericope presents the well-trodden story of the feeding of five thousand men. Jesus probes his disciples’ faith by asking how they will feed the gathered crowd and their responses range from Philip’s pragmatism to Andrew’s sarcasm (as someone whose first language is sarcasm, I find any readings that attribute sincere faith to Andrew’s suggestion to be terribly Pollyannaish.) Jesus then divides five barley loaves and two fish among the crowd where all eat their fill and there are twelve baskets left over. Notice how the crowd responds to this experience of Christ. They attempt to force him to be their king—to force him into a role that would fit their purposes rather than his.
The desire to seize Christ is repeated in the following text. As the disciples are battling a storm on the lake, Jesus walks on the water to them and implores them not to be afraid. At that moment, the disciples want to grab Jesus and get him in their boat. Whether this was to save Jesus from drowning or because they thought they’d be safer if Jesus was in the boat with them I’m not sure, but it is clear that this isn’t what Jesus had in mind since at that moment they arrive at their destination.
These dual temptations speak so closely to my heart. At times I am so sure of my beliefs, be they social, political, or religious, that I want to seize Christ and force him to be the king that I think he ought to be—the champion of my beliefs and passions. At others, I am so overmatched by the state of the world and the demands of ministry that all I want is to cling to Christ until the storm passes. I twist and contort Christ into the god that I would rather have.
The god I would rather have is one of ease and comfort. That god is one that requires little of me while it reshapes the world as I would have it be. That god is wholly inadequate.
These texts make me very glad that Christ is not the god of my own making. They are a bulwark against the arrogance that goes hand in hand with certainty. They call me to embrace the mystery of the Scriptures. They serve as a reminder that Christ is free beyond all of my desires and pet projects and hopes. They are a reminder that Christ does not conform to my purposes, but rather that I am to conform the patterns of my life to fit Christ’s purposes.
I am reminded of Walter Brueggemann’s prayer, “Not at Our Beck and Call,”
We call out your name in as many ways as we can.
We fix your role towards us in the ways we need.
We approach you from the particular angle of our life.
We do all that, not because you need to be identified, but because of our deep need,
our deep wound,
our deep hope.
And then, we are astonished that while our names for you
serve for a moment,
you break beyond them in your freedom,
you show yourself yet fresh beyond our utterance,
you retreat into your splendor beyond our grasp.
We are–by your freedom and your hiddenness–
made sure yet again that you are God…
not at our beck and call, but always in your own way.
We stammer about your identity,
only to learn that it is our own unsettling before you that wants naming.
Beyond all our explaining and capturing and fixing you…
we give you praise,
we thank you for your fleshed presence in suffering love,
and for our names that you give us. Amen.
-Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth
Ryan Young currently serves as the Director of Adult Discipleship and Missions at Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. He earned his BA in Psychology from Clemson University and his Master of Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Ryan, his wife Rachael, and their dog Zooey, are thrilled to all be adjusting to the birth of their daughter, Iris.