I don't blame Arius, the arch-heretic who refused to accept that Jesus was fully divine (of the same substance as the Father) despite also being fully human, for struggling to understand how to reconcile what would become orthodox Trinitarian theology with the logic of the Judeo-Christian monotheistic tradition. I don't blame him, but, still, he was dead wrong. If you have your own doubts, go read the Athanasian Creed--that theological statement that attempted once and for all to settle the Arian controversy. In so many ways, the Christian faith is built upon the foundation of Jesus' dual-nature, one-person identity. As the Athanasian Creed declares of this doctrine, "This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved."
That might be foundational, but we still do a really bad job of talking about Jesus Christ in ways that embrace that two-nature, one-person belief. That was true in the fourth century when the Arian controversy was unfolding, and it is true today. And this Sunday's gospel lesson gives us a great example of that struggle.
Out in the wilderness, surrounded by a crowd of hungry followers, Jesus looked at Philip and said, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" That's a reasonable question. What do you do when more people turn up for your revival than you expected? What do you do when you don't have enough to feed the crowd? "Quick!" Jesus said to one of his lieutenants, "We need to get some food for these people. Where are we going to get it?"
But for John a question like that doesn't belong on the lips of Jesus. In John's understanding, Jesus is God among us. (Yes, that's still an unfinished antecedent of the Trinitarian orthodoxy that will be declared three hundred years later, but it's a start.) And, as far as John is concerned, the God-among-us shouldn't be asking questions like that. He should already know the answer...which is why John--not Jesus, not Philip, not Peter, but John--goes out of his way to add an editorial explanation that not only excuses Jesus from this moment of uncertainty but also completely changes the nature of this exchange between master and disciple. John writes, "[Jesus] said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do."
Do you remember The Princess Bride--that great cult classic from the 1987 in which the narrator (Peter Falk) reads a wonderful story to his grandson (Fred Savage)? Early in the movie, when the princess (Robin Wright) jumps in the water to escape her kidnappers, she is nearly attacked by the shrieking eels, which, as Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) explains, always get louder right before they feed on human flesh. Well, right as the drama reaches its height, the narrator interrupts the story and tells his grandson, "The eel doesn't get her." It's a total shock to the audience, including the grandson, and the narrator explains that the grandson was looking nervous. Instead of letting the story play out--instead of letting the child and us discover for ourselves that the eel doesn't get her--the narrator steals that moment from us and explains it in an editorial fashion. That's the charm of The Princess Bride, but, from my vantage point, it isn't so charming in John.
worth watching the whole clip for that moment of interruption
So what if Jesus asks Philip where they will buy enough bread to feed all those people? Is that really such a bad thing? Sure, maybe Jesus was saying that to test him. The reader can figure that out on her own. Or maybe Jesus wasn't so sure. Maybe Jesus had a moment of unease. Maybe he even had a moment of panic. Can't the Son of God get nervous every once in a while?
I know that John was fighting a remarkable uphill theological battle. It's hard to convince the 1st century world that a man, Jesus of Nazareth, was God among us despite having been executed on the cross. I know that John is making a case for Jesus divinity. I know that little tidbits like this are important to him. But I miss the opportunity to embrace the humanity of Jesus while also embracing his divinity. He multiplies the loaves and fishes in a way no human being could do. This is God's work among us, clearly. So is it really all that bad to let us see his human side, too?
Not surprisingly, Mark's version of this story is more sparse. The disciples plead with Jesus to send the crowd away so that they can buy food, and Jesus' response is, "You give them something to eat." What does he mean? Did he mean to test them? Did he intend all along to feed them? Or was the discovery of the loaves and fish an unplanned opportunity? We don't know for sure, and that's ok. We don't have to know.
It isn't easy believing in the God-man. It isn't easy writing, teaching, preaching, or talking about one who is fully human and fully divine. As a Chalcedonian Christian (and unless you're from Ethiopia, you're one, too), I believe that those natures come together in one person without confusion or mixture. One does not dominate the other. They coexist. They are united. Let's look for ways to hang on to that mysterious union and not let our language deny one of Christ's two natures.