Maybe we’ve got the wrong GUY.
John 6 is known for its discourse on the Eucharist, which we’ll get to. But there’s a bridge verse early in the chapter that is super-relevant right now that we should talk about.
So John 6 starts with Jesus multiplying loaves and fishes. There are a lot of similarities here to the stories told in the other gospels, and while John adds some nice touches – the boy with the goods, naming which disciple said what, etc., I really don’t have a lot to highlight for you about the story itself.
But after people are full and the leftovers have been collected, an interesting thing happens. In 6:14-15, the crowd, probably after loosening its collective belt, reflects on what just happened and says “THIS is THE GUY!” (“This is indeed the prophet who is come into the world!”, for those of you who are sticklers for accuracy.) And Jesus responds by…hightailing it out of there. “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
So Jesus’ culinary miracle got the crowd SO fired up that they thought he was the Messiah (or Moses or Elijah back from the dead), and they were ready to roll to the top with Him In Charge. And John’s Jesus sees where this is headed and flees the scene.
My friend Vance Aloupis once recommended a book about Jesus by Reza Aslan called Zealot, which I found fascinating, though not ultimately convincing. Aslan, a Shia Muslim-turned Evangelical Christian-turned-Shia Muslim-again, makes a compelling argument that, based on how Jesus died, he almost certainly was a Jew who claimed the Messianic role in all its contemporary political dimensions. He was a zealot who tried to overthrow the Roman rule of Israel. And he got crucified for it.
Aslan argues that the Bible is an after-the-fact cover-up, a series of stories that seek to spin Jesus from failed insurrectionist to a spiritualized, apolitical feel-good story who was done in by jealous religious leaders. Because they really don’t crucify people for being nice, which is what the Gospel stories mostly depict Jesus being.
Is Aslan right? I don’t think so. The New Testament is pretty consistent that Jesus was NOT here to create an earthly kingdom, but the messages the Gospel puts in Jesus’ mouth, undergirded by the direction of his first followers as told not only in Acts but in the letters of Paul (which came a lot earlier) point to an ethic and theology that was (and if we’re honest still is) so countercultural, so weird, that it’s hard to believe someone would reverse engineer a story into it and attribute it to a failed revolutionary.
So Is Jesus a coward? Hold that thought.
There are some less definitive, practical answers to why Jesus headed for the hills when people started calling him their king. Commentators point out that this story in John 6 takes place in Herod’s part of the world, and Herod has recently done in John the Baptist. One could argue that Jesus was concerned that Herod would hear about Jesus-as-plotting-king and snuff him out before his time. It could have been a choice of prudence more than principle.
Likewise, Paul’s letters show that Paul was a guy who was convinced that the end of the world was coming, like RIGHT NOW, and in that context, lobbying for institutional form was a distraction. It’s pretty clear – in Romans 13, in 1 Timothy, in Philemon – that Paul has no interest in remaking even problematic political, social and economic systems, but many would argue that that’s not because there wasn’t a Christian critique of those systems but because, for him, the clock was ticking, and the most important job for the day was to spread the Gospel. So you could argue that there WAS a good society, for Paul, but he just didn’t think we’d have time to get into the messiness of building it.
I think, though, more than those prudential explanations, the fundamental one is most compelling. Jesus leaves the scene because he is not here to be THAT kind of king. When the message is love, and the practice is mercy, our understanding of power just doesn’t know what to do with that. When we want a king, we’re looking for force, with a side-order of vengeance. We want justice, sure, but with weapons as the guarantor. John 6:14-15 shows that people around him wanted that, too, and Jesus actively rejected it in the only way He could. If you’re going to make him a king in your image, rather than his? He’s out. We’ve got the wrong GUY.
That was then; this is now. We have, what, 1700 years of a Christianity that claims some sort of temporal power? We have had a pretty steady run of Christian societies that value might over mercy, that honor the greedy and criminalize the marginalized, which is the very opposite of what even a cursory reading of the Gospels depicts. There is a lot of faithful Gospel-following in the world, to be sure, but the loud voices and big forces seem to be championing a different model as “the Christian one”. One Herod would have recognized better than Jesus would.
My non-believing friends have been gloating (at least a little) over research that indicates the Christians will soon be a minority in the US. I can’t blame them, really. The Christianity they experience looks a lot more like the kingship Jesus avoided than it does the example He lived. We may have a Jesus at the head of our movement, but the Gospel is pretty damningly clear: we’ve got the wrong GUY.
What gives me hope, and compels me to stay in the Christian fold, is not a progressive vision that we will get smarter or kinder or better. It’s that the right GUY, the Jesus that shows up in the Gospel and the God who shows up in life, is weird enough, in a radically, counterculturally loving way, to bet your life on following. Even (especially) when He looks around and heads for the hills for a while.
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