Following Jesus: The Chaos of Discipleship

I love physics – especially the frontier pushing stuff like dark energy, and quantum mechanics as it relates to the formation of black holes.  Please don’t corner me at coffee hour to ask me to explain these things in detail.  I don’t claim to be a physicist, and have never played one on TV.  You should probably know that I am more likely to find myself on The Big Bang Theory as some kind of dopey sidekick for Leonard or Sheldon than I am to find myself in a classroom where I might be forced to interpret a diagram that illustrates the reflection of ultracold rubidium atoms from a double potential barrier in one dimension, not to mention the calculations that go into creating such a diagram.  OK. For the sake of full disclosure, I love the IDEA of Physics.  But I don’t like the mathematics that the study of Physics requires – in fact – I ABHOR math with the kind of intuitive and loudly expressed hatred that a toddler has for bedtime or that some teenagers I know have for getting out of bed before noon.

So rather breaking down the miracle of loaves and fishes by launching into a speculative conversation about theories that move us beyond the law that states that matter cannot be created nor destroyed (a.k.a. the Law of Conservation of Mass), rather than providing a detailed argument regarding the predictability of weather patterns on the Sea of Galilee which would necessitate a discussion of the variables of time and intensity, I thought we’d talk about chaos instead.  Not that I’d be any better at describing the math behind Sharkovskii’s theorem, the Lyapunov exponent or the Lorenz Attractor for that matter.  Though you have to admit, I sound pretty cool just saying this stuff!  (or is that horrifyingly boring? Sometimes I get those two things mixed up.)

Since the dawn of creation, humanity has expressed a deep-seated fear of chaos.  The beginning of the book of Genesis talks about the TOVU VAVOHU – the wild wasteland, the sense of bewilderment and chaotic emptiness that existed before the Spirit of God made sense of it in the creative moment.  The hopes and fears of God’s people seem always to revolve around the potential for a collapse into chaos.  There’s not enough time this morning to give you the big overview, so you’ll have to trust me.  Just about every crisis moment in Scripture comes when God’s people feel themselves to be on the brink of chaos.  From the hoarding of manna, to the clamoring for kings in the Hebrew scriptures, from the confusion and fear that was at the center of the demand for Jesus’ crucifixion to the very real anxiety in the early church which caused John to have a nightmare vision like the book of Revelation – God’s people don’t much like it when they can’t predict outcomes with reasonable certainty.

With that rather lengthy preamble in mind, let’s turn to the text for this morning – John 6 and listen for God’s word that always seems to come in the midst of chaos and confusion:Read John 6:1-22If you’re looking for chaos in the bible, you may not immediately think of John’s gospel.  On the surface, it seems like a fairly spiritual, even ethereal kind of book.  To be sure, scattered among Jesus’ rather lengthy spiritualized speeches there are a few splashy miracle moments and interesting encounters with particular individuals, but these seem to function more like sermon illustrations to support whatever teaching Jesus wants to lay on his followers.  John seems more intent on providing a way for the intellectual elite to connect with Jesus than offering a passionate story which uses the blunt force of emotion to evoke a response.  In that respect, he might be just the author for traditional Presbyterians!

Yet at every crucial turning in this gospel, it’s the fear of chaos that seems to drive the story forward.  This passage is no exception:  There’s a large crowd and a group of men who were raised with a deeply held value for providing hospitality but who also clearly take seriously their need to be able to fund their life on the road with Jesus.  And it’s not surprising that the anxiety of the disciples is nearly palpable as they see the potential for the opportunity for hospitality to devolve toward chaos in a hungry crowd.  There’s a powerful storm – powerful enough to shake the foundations of their deep wisdom about the sea and sailing.  The threat of the chaos they regularly experience in weather and the movement of high seas was always a serious cause for alarm.

And in the midst of it all stood the calming, focused presence of Jesus.  Don’t get me wrong: this is not some gentle shepherd-shadow of a passive, docile, almost unreal being who weakly surrenders to whatever is before him without protest.  This is an unwavering, Spirit-filled human being who throughout John’s gospel, simply wades into the chaotic mess and begins doing what needs to be done.  Jesus didn’t just order someone to go get food and distribute it, he made good use of what was available to him and then went among the people himself – giving them not only food, but the touch of a compassionate human being.  Jesus didn’t just walk on water and bring an end to the storm, he offered the certainty found in friendship, comfort in the sound of his familiar voice.  And he expected those who follow him to do exactly what he did.  He expected them to follow him into the untidy, seemingly unresolvable muddle and offer whatever they had so that in some large or small way, lives could be changed.

If we are at all observant, it won’t take long to see that as much as we want to control our lives, to have an orderly, predictable existence, this control has never been and will never be fully realized.  Our lives are full of surprises.  The unexpected happens all the time.  As much as we might want to we cannot mathematically calculate a way to make sure our children will grow up safely.  We cannot ensure that those we love won’t get cancer.  We have no way to accurately with 100% certainty predict what our retirement savings accounts will look like in 20 years.  We have no sure way of determining the whether the actions we take at work or for that matter, in our congregation, will cause it to grow, change, thrive, survive.

And while chaos theory may be the science of surprises, of the nonlinear and the unpredictable, while it may teach us to expect the unexpected, while it may always remind us how impossible it is to predict or control our faith in Jesus Christ can help us find a different kind of certainty.  Even though it is impossible to predict the ultimate fate of a system as complex as a human life, even though turbulence and feedback that comes into our lives can cause dramatic and unpredictable change to happen, the calm, focused presence of the living Christ is already among us, ahead of us – wading into our pervasive fear of chaos that so many times seems overwhelm us.  He moves among us offering hope in the form of a comforting presence, offering mercy with a gracious touch, offering peace that answers the deepest anxious yearnings we don’t even know how to express.

And as he goes, he turns back to look at us and says:  It’s all right.  It’s me.  Don’t be afraid.   And immediately, we are on the shore, following him into the chaos of a hurting world that needs to know what it is to be loved.

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