Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. (Ephesians 3:20-21 NRSV)
A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. (John 6:2 NRSV)
The question is, why did the crowds follow Jesus in such great numbers?
Well, because he was the Son of God, we might answer; or, because he taught with authority; or even, because they saw him as the Messiah who would free Israel from foreign oppression.
Maybe, but I think the answer is simpler, but no less important for being so. I think the answer to why so many people flocked to hear Jesus in such great numbers is “Self Interest” – or at least that’s where it began.
You see, I don’t believe that, at its root, human nature changes a great deal from one generation to another.
We may live in a society which is more sophisticated in some ways than that of First Century Palestine but when push comes to shove, we’re not that different really. We may smirk at the superstitions and pretentions of previous generations, but we have our own, which future generations will laugh at in their turn. We may abhor the brutality and violence of older societies but, in truth, it is never far below the surface of our own.
Certainly, we have learned and are continuing to learn of different ways to approach the problems of our world, but hindsight can be the weapon of the smug and to project our values onto the people of ancient times is to act with considerable arrogance. You see, we’re not so different; which is why the Gospel is just as relevant to us as it was to the people of Jesus’ time.
The clue to why so many people followed Jesus on his earthly travels is given to us in that short passage from John’s gospel, above. In verse 2 of chapter 6 the evangelist tells us: “A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.”
They came to him for healing of the body and stayed for the healing of the soul.
The people of Jesus’ day, just like the people of today, needed hope. And Jesus gave them hope. He didn’t need, on the whole, to teach them to believe in God. The vast majority of them already believed. The same is true today.
Many people came to him because they heard that he could heal them of their infirmities. They came to him in their brokenness, and he gave them their lives back. For that is what healing is – to be given a new lease of life. All those people Jesus healed would go on to face death like the rest of us; but their encounter with him changed their lives.
And having come to him, either for themselves or bringing their loved ones with them, they saw that this man was different; and they stayed to hear what he had to say. Their encounter with Jesus reconnected them with the God who loved them. He not only gave them back their lives: he gave them hope – for this life and for eternity.
He didn’t judge who was worthy, who was the right kind of person, or who could best benefit from his services. He just met the needs of everyone who came – and proclaimed the Kingdom of God.
He then called his followers to go out and do the same, first in half a dozen pairs and then later in larger numbers. And finally he commissioned his friends do carry on his work – not to build an institution, a sect or a denomination – but to care, to proclaim, to baptize and to teach.
That task falls upon our generation too; and we still have the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower and enthuse us for our work. We may feel that we are frail and faltering Christians, and that is probably true – its certainly true for me; but by God’s grace and in God’s name we are called to share his love with those around us – to help them to have that life-changing encounter with Christ.
The people of our time need hope too. Can you think of anything more hope-less than just getting by from birth to death with no sense of purpose or aim?
But Christ offers us hope, and God has a purpose for each life. In Christ we can discover that purpose. We may not have Christ’s miraculous powers to ourselves but the purpose of the church church is to be a community of hope and encounter with the love of God.
That is a tough vocation, but it is also an attractive one, for when people catch a glimpse of hope they are much more likely to stay to hear the words of eternal life, and grow into the people God created them to be.
But, we say to ourselves, “Oh, I could never do that. I could never bring someone to encounter Christ. That’s not for me. I could never do it.”
Well, you’re in good company: including people like Moses who, in his old age, when called by God to go and free the Israelites from slavery, responded with words to the effect of: “Here I am lord. Please send somebody else!”
But we have the gift of the Holy Spirit to inspire and guide us in our vocation.
And we should also remind ourselves of those words from St Paul in that passage from Ephesians, above: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”