Jesus and celebrity

Sermon at St James Colwall – Trinity 9 – 1 August 2021

John 6: 24-35

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

A young lad goes to his barber for a haircut and asks for the style of his favourite footballer; teenage girls get on their smart phones to order the latest singing star’s skimpy black outfit; the older generation avidly watch Strictly Come Dancing or Celebrity Bake-off. Our newspapers are full of details of the lives of famous people. Whether we like it or not we live in a celebrity culture where a big name sells things and where gossipy titbits from the lives of royalty, politicians, actors, musicians, sports stars and many others are thrust in front of us. It feels like a recent phenomenon but in fact it is centuries old. Back in Victorian times Charles Dickens was mobbed in the street and even had to contend with a stalker; Florence Nightingale hated her fame; and go back much further to the Roman poet, Virgil, writing in the century before Christ who warned his readers that fame is like a giant bird-like monster that stalked the land and never slept.

We have an instinctive feeling that the cult of celebrity is dangerous. We are not sure that famous people should determine how we live and dress and think and we worry that the worship of celebrities is superficial, trivial and even a false religion.

I mention all this because in today’s Gospel reading from St John Jesus is trying to escape celebrity status. On the previous day he has miraculously fed the crowds who had come to listen to him. His fame has been increasing rapidly and this event of the feeding of the five thousand makes the crowds even more animated. “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world”, they said. When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king he withdrew to a mountain by himself. In fact he eventually escapes across the lake of Galilee with his disciples in their boats but then the crowds catch up with him again the next day and he accuses them of following him because he is a celebrity miracle worker. You are here, he says, because you ate your fill of the loaves, food that perishes, whereas you should be looking for the food that endures for eternal life. Fasten your minds on what is important and imperishable, the bread of life.

This unassuming man, this son of undistinguished parents is trying to persuade people to think more deeply, to look below the surface of things. He is trying to deflect their fixation on him as a celebrity miracle worker and look towards the works of God. It was a problem for him throughout his ministry because he kept reminding his disciples to keep his Messiah-ship secret. He was only too aware of the dangers of celebrity.

I imagine that all of us here have settled views about fame and celebrity. We know that fame can be damaging or hard to manage for some who find themselves in the limelight. We know that some people who are starstruck by celebrities can make fools of themselves and become vulnerable. Yet we also know that one aspect of the celebrity culture, hero-worship, can be a force for good especially in the young. In some ways Christ is for us indeed our hero showing us humility and love in action.

When the crowd eventually catches up with Jesus he confronts them over their superficial view of him, chasing him because he gave them food to eat. He tells them, “Do not work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life”. When they then ask him what should they do to perform the works of God, he says simply, “This is the work of God that you believe in him whom he has sent”. And that means looking beyond me to the one who sent me. I am a messenger, a finger post pointing towards my Father, God himself. Don’t confuse yourselves with silly ideas of making me king. That’s not what I am about.

It is therefore strangely ironic that that is what eventually did happen. Jesus’ life and teaching followed by his death and resurrection have resulted in him being exalted as Christ the King – king of kings and lord of lords – so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.

We must accept that this irony is at the heart of our faith. It’s the mystery that we worship one who suffered a criminal’s death and who taught that a servant is as great as his master and that the first will be last and the last first.