Forty-three years ago, as Neil Armstrong stepped off his lunar module onto the surface of the Moon; he uttered the immortal words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” How many of you remember that moment? How many of you remember what you were doing when word of the landing came back to us? I was 18 at the time, spending my summer home from college working for a brick mason. My job was to mix the mortar and carry the bricks. I was paid $2.00 an hour to make sure that the skilled labor always had their supplies in front of them. It was back breaking work which helped remind me that a college education offered possibilities beyond carrying bricks for the rest of my life. During lunch break, on July 22, 1969, the day after the historic event, the brick masons argued if the event actually happened or it was some giant government hoax. Believe it or not, only two of us actually believed the landing had been made. If Water Cronkite said it happened that was good enough for me.
What of the man that spoke those historic words. What do we know about him? Neil Armstrong flew 78 missions for the Navy during the Korean War. He was shot down on his very first mission but managed to bail out in friendly territory. After the War he became a test pilot for the Air Force and in 1957 was chosen to be an astronaut. He participated in both the Gemini and Apollo programs, culminating with his successful mission to the moon. Of course you knew all of that. But do you know what he did after Apollo 13? He resigned from the space program, accepted a teaching position at the University of Cincinnati, and taught there until he retired. There were no speaking tours, no book deals, nothing. He quietly walked away from being the most famous man in the universe, and did so without regrets. Why did he step away? A few years ago, in a rare interview, he said, “It was never about me, it was about the space program.”
Why do I bring this up? This morning’s scripture shares one the most beloved stories of the ministry of Jesus, the feeding of the 5,000. The story is covered in all four gospels. We like John’s version the best because it is the only one to include the young boy who had the loaves and fishes. We have heard the story so many times I see no reason to spend any time discussing it. But what I would like to bring to your attention is verse 15. “When Jesus realized they wanted to make him king, he withdrew to the mountains by himself.” Jesus pulled a Neil Armstrong. Right at the most famous moment of his life, he disappeared into the mountains.
Think of the popularity Jesus could have had if he would have seized the opportunity at hand. People from all over Judea would have flocked to him. With a few more feedings and a couple more miracles he would have had the world eating out of his hand. He could have done and said anything he wanted to. And there in lay the problem. It was not about Jesus, it was about the Kingdom of God.
I think of all the celebrities that have particular causes. My favorite happens to be Bono, the lead singer for the rock group U2. Some might argue that U2 is the best known group in the world. They have been playing for over 20 years and still sell out every place they go. Bono has used his celebrity as a bully pulpit to speak about hunger and debt in Africa. He has had audiences with two Popes, three presidents and multiple leaders in Europe. No one can dispute that he has been a major voice responsible for changing attitudes toward Fair Trade. But what would happen if Bono was asked to give his life to promote his cause? Would he do it? I doubt it. Often celebrities believe their presence is so important they come to believe their particular cause would fade without their leadership.
Jesus was surrounded by well meaning folks overwhelmed by his message and miracles. They wanted to make him King. They wanted to sweep him up and carry him all the way to Jerusalem. They saw him as the one who could eliminate poverty, sickness, and possibly even the oppression of Rome. And the truth is, there is no doubt that Jesus could have done all of that with the sweep of one hand. But that wasn’t why Jesus came. Daniel Harrell writes, “Jesus makes it clear through the gospels that the kingdom of God exists for more than the temporal bounds of this earth. It transcends time and death to encompass eternity. For eternal life to happen, somebody had to deal with the darkness of human evil and sin, which meant Jesus had to sacrifice his very life for it.”
There is something about human nature that dictates that the famous are above suffering. Once fame arrives, they become the standard bearer, the spokesperson, the celebrity. Others are called on the sacrifice for the cause but the famous must remain above the fray to insure the cause lives on. Not so with Jesus. If Jesus had allowed his followers to make him King he certainly would have entertained the thought, “Why should I die when my people need me?” And once that thought surfaced, God’s plan for salvation would have suffered a dramatic turn for the worse.
But Jesus turned his back on fame. Instead of listening to the crowds, he ran into the hills, leaving the disciples to fend for themselves. I imagine this must have been a bit confusing to Peter and the others. Jesus was always dropping hints about heading for Jerusalem. Now the way appeared clear for Jesus to march right into the Temple and bring about his holy crusade. With thousands of loyal followers, who could stop them?
Confused and perhaps a bit disillusioned the disciples retreated to the safe confines of their boat on the lake. With Jesus still in the hills, I imagine they began to speculate over the entire proposition. Why had Jesus fled? Was he shy? Was he afraid? Or worse yet, was he really the Messiah? Was the feeding of the 5,000 just some neat parlor trick to appease the crowd? Jesus talked about being the Son of God, but perhaps it was no more than just idle chatter.
Then the most amazing thing happened. The wind started to blow indicating a storm might be on the horizon. Being good sailors, the disciples realized they needed to get off the water. They began to row for shore but the direction of the wind kept them from safety. They were absolutely terrified.
Suddenly, just off the bow of the boat, they saw Jesus coming toward them. They rubbed their eyes to see if it was their imagination. But there he was, walking on the water. Jesus took one giant step in their direction and he was beside the boat. With absolutely no panic in his voice he said to the disciples, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” As soon as he had spoken the boat touched land and the disciples were rescued from certain death. All doubts evaporated. The man who feeds 5,000 also walks on water. The man who fled to the mountain had no fear in the middle of the storm. The man headed to Jerusalem would do so on his own terms, one giant step at a time.
One giant step for humankind. That was the mission of Jesus. One giant step toward Calvary; One giant step toward death; one giant step toward redemption; One giant step toward grace. God’s plan to save the world had to be done without the glitz and celebrity that we crave. It had to be done alone, by the one who was willing to suffer on our behalf, by the one who had no self-illusions or ambitions.
I suspect that is one of the reasons we are faithfully here each Sunday. All of us have had the seas of life try to swamp our boat. It seems as if nothing will allow us to return to solid ground. And then, just off the bow of our vessel, we see Jesus. We watch as he takes one giant step in our direction, and delivers those life saving words, “It is I. Do not be afraid.”
For Christ, it has never been about himself; it has always been about the kingdom of God. For Christ, it has never been about the glory, but rather the glory of God. Feast on his words; feast of his promises. Feast of his everlasting grace.