I say all of this as someone who has been on every side of this very human struggle: offending, offended against, passive bystander, participant in a mob mentality. That’s human life. We are always being asked to hear, to judge, to act. And the way we do these things implicates us very deeply. It cuts to the heart of who we think we are. It is painful to cut off that part of us that cannot bear to be wrong.
When the great theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote about the sacraments, he wrote about them as the way God gives us grace. “Now the gift of grace,” he wrote, “surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking in the divine nature.” This is a professional way of saying that grace is the gift we can’t get for ourselves because it is beyond our capability. It is the way we embrace the very nature of God. It is the way that the invisible, eternal Father comes to live inside of us, like a radioactive tracer that outlives our own flesh.
And it’s funny—it seems that no one can think about these words for more than a few minutes without turning them into a problem that has to be solved. What did Jesus mean? Was he referring to the meal his disciples shared, the sacrament of bread and wine? Or was he talking about eating and drinking as a metaphor for believing in him?
So Jesus lets you say no—to him and to each other. He invites his disciples to leave. He does this without blame or resentment. He doesn’t call out after the people who are leaving, “You’ll be sorry!” And if the twelve had walked away discouraged, he would have found new disciples. He would have raised up a body for himself in the world somehow. He will find a way to share his eternal life with this hungry, bleeding, sinful world. Someone, somehow, will answer.
Now when a crowd shows up in ancient literature, it usually stands for human nature at its most basic and unimproved. The crowd is not very smart. The crowd is not very patient. The crowd is not very reasonable. The crowd is prone to fear. The crowd is fickle and impulsive. The crowd is like a child: when it hasn’t had a good night’s sleep and something to eat, it can become difficult.
This principle–God’s words are actions, God’s actions are words–is something I try to keep in mind whenever I read a miracle story in the Bible. Because the fact is that miracle stories can seem very disappointing after you get used to them. The people who are healed and fed in the Bible just remind me, at least, of those people ever since and even today who are not healed and not fed. Where’s the miracle for them?
Think about what that means for a moment. Paul is saying that Christ has broken down the defenses, the protections, that divided Jew from Gentile, nation from nation. This is no cheap metaphor. A city without a wall, or a Temple without a wall, was vulnerable. It was naked. Yet Paul here is saying that what has happened in Christ Jesus and in the preaching of his Gospel has broken down the wall that kept Jew and Gentile in hostility to each other. The people who share in the gifts of his body and blood and who receive his triumph over sin and death by faith, those people are no longer divided into insiders and outsiders, into the safe and the abandoned, into the privileged and the excluded.
In other words, there’s a reversal: the character who looks like he’s on top of the world is really not, not in the ways that matter, anyway. And the character who looks like she’s on the bottom, on the outside, is really at the top in the ways that matter.
Now it may or may not surprise you to know that this reversal is a very Christian thing. It’s something that happens over and over again in the Bible and the history of the church. It happens a lot especially in the Gospel of Luke and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles.
This fear is a dreadful burden to carry. It really is. We don’t notice it, because we’re so accustomed to it, but it’s like a load of bricks on our back. It’s a way of letting death win in advance. And here’s my pet theory about it: It’s not that we, as modern Americans, are so in love with our own lives—that we are so overflowing with joy and satisfaction that we lash out at the slightest hint of possible danger. It’s that we do not believe in or value our eternal souls. As if so many of us believe we are not prepared to bring our sins before God. Or maybe worse, as if we think there is no such thing, and there will be no accounting of our actions.
Now for Luther, the big problem was that people didn’t pray boldly enough. They didn’t expect good things from God, because they were afraid of God. He compares the person who asks for too little from God to a beggar. A rich and mighty emperor invites the beggar to ask for whatever he might desire, prepared to give him “great and princely gifts.” And if the beggar asks only for a dish of beggar’s broth, he would be “considered a rogue and a scoundrel who had made a mockery of his imperial majesty’s command and was unworthy to come into his presence.”