God’s Ever-Generative Endeavors

Friday of the Second Week of Easter: Acts of the Apostles 5:34-42, John 6:1-15.

Today’s readings place two disparate events in context with one another and reveal the ever-generative aspect of God’s reign. In the first reading, a member of the Sanhedrin is inspired to share some wisdom about the divine nature of the spread of Jesus’s disciples. Seen in the light of the gospel’s loaves and the fishes, this provides a glimpse into the here-but-not-yet-fully reign of God.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we read the bold teachings of Peter, John, and the other apostles, which quickly lead to the conversion of thousands and jail time for the apostles. After being captured then released, re-captured and released by an angel from jail, and yet another re-capture, today’s reading shows them standing in front of a Sanhedrin that is steaming mad and ready to put them all to death. But here God intervenes in the form of a Pharisee by the name of Gamaliel. 

Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles (20th century), unknown icon writer | image from greekcitytimes.com.

Something makes Gamaliel speak up in the face of an enraged Sanhedrin. Perhaps it’s the apostles’ persistence in preaching in the temple despite repeated warnings and arrests. Perhaps it’s the boldness with which the apostles tell the Jews and the council that they are to blame for crucifying the Savior. Perhaps it’s their reply to the council, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29). It is likely a combination of these, but, as believers, we know that it is also the action of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that has so inflamed the apostles with the truth and courage to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord is also active in the heart of Gamaliel. He, a Pharisee on the council, speaks with a wisdom and courage that mirrors the apostles.

He begins his appeal to the Sanhedrin with a secular logic: other false Messiahs had been put to death and their followers naturally dissipated. But then he presents a faith-based logic: “if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” Certainly this logic was always in the back of the minds of the council as they took out one “Messiah” after another — what if one of those actually was the Messiah? Wouldn’t they be “fighting against God”? However, something is happening here that doesn’t just “feel” different but is different in substance. Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection have ruptured history and the liturgy is pouring into the world. The Spirit — the advocate, the Paraclete — is doing the work of the advocate, revealing in the hearts of those who have ears to listen the truth of this new reality. The action of the Spirit is more powerful than fear of disagreement, ridicule, or even persecution. 

That’s why the Apostles react with joy after being flogged and told not to speak any more about Jesus. They leave the council “rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And all day long, both at the temple and in their homes, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the Christ, Jesus.” How can we account for this? Are they just masochists? It would be a weird coincidence if the Apostles, as well as so many martyrs and saints, found masochistic pleasure in suffering in the name of Jesus Christ. We can only understand this as something other than personal “pleasure;” it is a sharing in the self-giving love that marks the reign of God. 

Christ and the Twelve Apostles, from the base of an altarpiece (c.1400), Taddeo di Bartolo | Creative Commons, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I bring up the idea of the reign of God because this is what is on display in the Acts of the Apostles. I borrow here from the writings of the contemporary theologian Gerhard Lohfink. Jesus’s miracles and message, his gathering of the Twelve and his sacrifice for all, these all point to the reign of God (also translated as the kingdom of God), which He promised was here, available, immanent yet not fully complete. In his book Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was, Lohfink provides an extended reflection upon what the reign of God means. One description that I think applies here is his interpretation of the story from the gospel of St. Mark when the poor widow gives her two copper coins and Jesus points out the value of her gift. Lohfink writes:

the reader of Mark’s gospel is meant to see the widow’s sacrifice against the background of the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus. The reign of God — that means that God turns to human beings totally and without any reservation in order to bring divine abundance to the world. This self-gift of God is a historical event: it is happening now, in Israel and in the new community life Jesus is creating. Therefore the reign of God attracts those who are able to experience God’s overflowing self-gift, so that they in turn give everything they have: their whole heart, their whole existence. The poor widow who gave her two copper coins becomes a sign, a symbol of this “totality” (220).

Of course the real “totality” of self-gift is Jesus Christ Himself. Many parables and comments throughout His ministry point to the gratuitous and overflowing gift of self that characterize the essence of our Three-in-One God, and characterize the reign of that God that is to be brought to humanity here within history. This is what the Apostles are talking about when they say “for the sake of the name.” The Name of Jesus Christ encompasses His self-gift, His divinity, and His message for the world to reach out and embrace the reign of God.

Yet Jesus didn’t just say “follow me,” but “take up your cross and follow me.” As Lohfink writes, “It was only in Jesus’ death that this message achieved its proper profundity … the reign of God does not come without persecution, without sacrifice … Ultimately, Jesus’ death lays bare all human self-glorification and thereby also every superficial and presumptuous notion of the reign of God” (38). Once people understand this, then they are able to “rejoice that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name,” because they know they are properly participating in the reign of God. Their persecution can become an opportunity to let go of their “selves” and desires as the ultimate truth of Jesus Christ shines forth.

Pentecost (detail). c.1600, El Greco | Creative Commons, courtesy Museo del Prado.

For me, it is very gratifying to read the Acts of the Apostles as the realization of the reign of God in the hearts of people here in the stream of time, acting on this earth. Lohfink, for one, feels that this aspect of the reign of God is too often overlooked as we concentrate on the last times and a reign of God that is purely consigned to Heaven. He argues persuasively that this is a reduction of Jesus’s message that leaves behind an important aspect of immanence. He explains that Jesus spoke of the reign being immanent, available, and yet not fully realized because not everyone was accepting the reign of God in their hearts and their lives. I feel that the Acts of the Apostles is a real gift — we get to glimpse how the reign of God, delivered to us with the very real historical sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ, can live here and now on this earth. Of course, it is still incomplete because not everyone has accepted it and because a final judgment is coming.

As we turn our attention to today’s gospel reading, we can start to contemplate another aspect of the reign of God that we glimpse in the life of the Apostolic Church: the fact that it is everlasting. 

The gospel is a familiar one. A crowd of 5,000 is gathered to listen to Jesus, and his disciples are incredulous that they could be fed. The meager gathering of a few loaves and fish is given to Jesus and after He blesses them, this small amount of food is passed to the crowd. It miraculously feeds everyone. In fact, in the end, 12 wicker baskets are filled with the leftovers. Much has been said about this episode (and woe to those who deny the miracle and claim that these people simply pitched in what they were hoarding in a type of mass generosity event). This scene is a precursor to the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist, the food that will never run out, the very sacramental Body and Blood of Christ. But here, Jesus is not as close to his Passion, after which the meaning of the Last Supper will become clear. Here, we can understand the miracle within the context of his proclamations about the reign of God, which happen in the prior chapter in Matthew’s account of the feeding of the 5,000.

St. Matthew reports a series of seven parables from Jesus that describe the reign (kingdom) of God.¹ Two of these describe the ever-generative nature of the reign of God: the mustard seed and the leaven. Like leaven, the reign is always actively growing and multiplying; like a mustard seed, it contains the growth potential to become “greater than the herbs and become a tree.” Two of the parables speak of the unsurpassable value of the reign of God: the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price. In both parables, the human who discovers these items (i.e., the reign of God) completely devotes himself to it, selling everything else to possess it. And the remaining three parables refer to the winnowing of the people who have accepted the reign into their hearts from those who have not: the sower, the wheat and the weeds, and the net. In each of these, there is a clear eschatological bent that speaks to the end times, but notably the reign does not wait until the end times to start: the seed on the good ground grows and multiplies, the wheat grows tall amid the weeds, and the net pulls in the good fish with the bad. The point is that the reign/kingdom is here and active for those who choose to claim it, and yet there will be a time of reckoning for people and their choices, so the reign is not yet fully “complete.”

Parable of the Sower icon (20th century), unknown icon writer | image from blessedmart.com.

So, how do these parables shed light on the feeding of the 5,000? We see the promise of the reign of God in action. We see the food multiply like leaven or a mustard seed becoming a great tree. What’s more, this is a gift that has been given (the aspect of the self-gift that is so integral to the reign of God), and a gift that was initiated by God (as we ask and give Him thanks). And the people recognize the amazing value of the gift, but their understanding is incomplete. As St. John tells us in today’s gospel, the people say “‘This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.’ Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.” With the feeding of the 5,000, we have the parable of the sower happening in front of our eyes. Let’s revisit Jesus’s own explanation of the parable:

When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty (Matt 13:18-23).

Jesus, as the Word of God, sows the seed of the reign of God through his miracle, and John shows us that it fell among some rocky and thorny ground. The people receive the Word, but will their immediate joy endure? Are they only concerned with wealth and power in the form of a king?

The Feeding of the Five Thousand (c.1560), Hendrick de Clerck | image from resourceforkidsministry.com.

The last aspect of today’s gospel I’d like to explore are the only words John ascribes to Jesus after the 5,000 are fed: “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” I’d wager that Lohfink would tell us how this displays Jesus’s “gathering of Israel” (which is the title of a chapter in his book). And indeed, His ministry was very deliberately the act of gathering the tribes of Israel to be that mustard seed where the reign of God starts, specifically so that it can then spread throughout the world. What’s more, I think Jesus demonstrates a few other important things: the overflowing generosity of God and his reign and His desire that no one is spared an invitation, that everyone is given a chance to “enter into” the kingdom. The reign of God starts in Israel, but it is meant for all — it is already inevitably spreading beyond the Jewish people (think of the Canaanite woman who says to Jesus, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” whereupon He heals her daughter). Jesus will not waste any of the fragments, for the Word is here, the reign is available to us, and it will not erupt into history in vain.

All of this brings me back to the Acts of the Apostles in a sort of breathless way. Here we have people who get it, who are the seed growing on good ground, who are living in the kingdom of God, under the reign of God. The power, boldness, courage, and joy of these people, even right after being flogged, is contagious! This is the Spirit who has been unleashed in the world in a new way now that the reign of God is at hand. Let us all participate in this wondrous new world!

 

¹ I am persuaded by Gerhard Lohfink’s argument about preferring “reign of God” to “kingdom of God.” He argues,

In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke every day, the Greek basileaia reflects the word malkuta. And malkuta is first of all the “king’s rule or reign,” and only secondarily the extent of the king’s rule or a particular territory. With Jesus the concept of “reign of God” has something utterly dynamic about it. The reign of God has an event-character. It is something that happens. It “comes” or “is coming.” For that reason also we should prefer the concept of the “reign of God.” But obviously the notion “kingdom of God” also reflects a certain aspect of the event, namely a realm within which God is establishing his rule. One can “go into” the basileia or “enter into” it (cf., e.g., Mark 9:47; 10:15).  (Jesus of Nazareth, 24-25).

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