blip : Blog of Isaac & Jason :

the multitude and the rhizome: a sermon on John 6:1-21, Jesus feeds the 5,000

August 1st, 2006 by isaac · 13 Comments

I preached this past Sunday. I focused on the lectionary passage from John 6:1-21 where Jesus feeds the multitude and withdraws into the hills. The concept of “the multitude” comes from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (see Empire and The Multitude), and the concept of “the rhizome” comes from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (see A Thousand Plateaus). I also had one of the members from the church bring in a few rhizomes from his greenhouse so the congregation could see what I was talking about.
Title: A Rhizome Church: Jesus and the multitude. Text: John 6:1-21. Date: 7/30/06

I don’t know if you do this, but I play this game all the time. I listen to the bible readings and then as the preacher starts her or his sermon, I try to figure out where they are going. It’s a little game of “guess what’s in the preacher’s head.” Well, I’ll give you a little help if you want to play this game.

Take a look at this plant. Rhizome 1.jpgUsually Nick and Jen bring beautiful flowers to bring some color to our services. But not this week. Well, I’d never seen these things before, until Nick let Katie and I check out his greenhouse. And Nick has these crazy plants everywhere. They’re called rhizomes. What’s interesting about this plant is that they spread everywhere; they grow along any surface—whether it’s a tree or a piece of earth. And when they spread, they form new root structures. In a sense they’re always re-planting themselves, sending down roots as they crawl along this way and that. They don’t necessarily grow up, toward the sky. They grow out, in all directions, moving along the surface of things. So, that’s where my sermon is going.

rhizome clear.gifrhizome best1.gif
Let’s pray

We pray, O God, that out of your glorious riches you may strengthen us with power through the Spirit of your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. (From lectionary reading, Eph. 3:16-17).

Jesus is on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, just outside the city of Tiberias. There’s something I should say about Tiberias. The city isn’t really a place where anyone would want to move, if they had a choice. First of all, there’s not much in terms of employment and the crime rate is really high. City-life is unstable. Food riots aren’t unusual. So, why would anyone call that place home?

The city was built around 15 AD by Herod Antipas, the puppet-ruler of Galilee. He named the city Tiberias, in honor of the current Roman Emperor, and made the city the capital of Galilee. And no one, no Jew, wanted to live in that city because Herod built the city on top of a sacred burial ground. So, that meant that the city was unclean for all Jews. Since no one wanted to live in his great city, Herod forced poor people from rural Galilee live there. And he also populated it with freed slaves and even criminals.

Josephus, a Jewish historian writing in the early 1st century, had this to say about the inhabitants of Tiberias: they are “a promiscuous rabble, made up of poverty-stricken people from any and all places of origin.” When Herod could sense the masses were ready for a revolt, he would set up temporary bread-distribution centers to pacify the hungry multitude.

And this is the sort of people Jesus and the disciples see approaching in our passage from John 6. A multitude, a mob, a rabble, a mass of disenchanted and poverty-stricken people make their way out of the city of Tiberias and toward the shore of Galilee where they heard Jesus might be. John 6:2 tells us that this multitude saw some of Jesus’ miracles: “they saw signs he performed on the sick.” What does this mess of peoples want with Jesus?

The multitude needs deliverance. They want to be a people, their own people. Not beggars that survive on Herod’s handouts. They want legitimacy. They want restoration—to be nation with their own king, a sovereign who represents them, not some foreign emperor. Dreams and visions of a Messiah were popular among the masses. Dreams of another deliverer like Moses who will set the people free. Another prophet like Elisha. Another king like David.

And then Jesus miraculously provides bread and fish. And the multitude had as much as they wanted, and there was more left over. An abundance of bread; an overflow of miraculous food. It’s like the story of Moses and the Manna in the wilderness, when Israel wandered the desert, waiting to enter their destiny—the promised land. (pause) Now, in John 6, this is Jesus as a new Moses—One who provides bread in the wilderness for a multitude, an illegitimate rabble, a mass without a sovereign, without a king from their midst.

And this is also Jesus like a new Elisha. That’s what’s so important about our lectionary reading from 2 Kings 4. Elisha feeds many people with barley loaves, and, as it says in 4:43: “they will eat and have some left over.” And this Jesus of John 6 is a new Elisha, a new prophet, who feeds many with a few barley loaves and there’s a lot left over.

The multitude read all the signs. They could see the planets align in the night sky. This man, this prophet in the wilderness, is the new Moses who will make it unnecessary to sit and wait and beg for Herod’s bread. A single voice finally emerges from the amorphous rabble; in John 6:14, the multitude speaks: “Surely this is the prophet who is to come into the world.” This Jesus is the one they’ve been waiting for. This Jesus is the one from their midst who will re-form the masses. This Jesus will be their sovereign representative. This Jesus will take up their cause and lead them to victory.

And as the multitude unites in a common dream, as they see their lives tied together in a common future, they try to make Jesus their king. But as they try to lift Jesus up on their shoulders and hail him as their king, their head, Jesus retreats. Jesus eludes their grasp. Jesus evades their power. Jesus withdraws. John 6:15 says this: “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”

Does that line sound familiar to anyone? Does anyone have their Schleitheim Confession memorized? If I had a candy bar or something I would offer it to whoever could recite the line I’m looking for. But then I would make you a show-off. I don’t want to do that.

But I’m sure that just as many of you are thinking in your head, What the heck is a Schleitheim? Well, it’s an early Anabaptist document that outlined some things the Anabaptists thought important for their faith—it’s from 1527. And there’s this passage in it that draws from that line from John 6:15—I’ll read it again, “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”

And here’s the passage from the Schleitheim Confession: “it will be asked concerning the sword, Shall one be a magistrate if one should be chosen as such? The answer is as follows: They wished to make Christ king, but He fled and did not view it as the arrangement of His Father. Thus shall we do as He did, and follow Him, and so shall we not walk in darkness.”

The early Anabaptists argued from this passage in John 6 that they should resist the call to take up the sword of justice. When the people approached those early Mennonites and tried to get them on board with their civil project, they said, “They wished to make Christ king, but He fled and did not view it as the arrangement of the His Father.” And let me read the next line again, that’s the part I want us to focus on: “Thus shall we do as He did, and follow Him, and so shall we not walk in darkness.”

Jesus marks out a path for the church. The church follows Jesus. The Multitude sort of got this right. They followed Jesus out of Tiberias and into the wilderness. They received the bread. But they didn’t have the patience to wait on Jesus’ next move. Instead, they tried to force Jesus to be a king on their terms, a leader like they wanted, a sovereign representative that followed their wishes and would save them from their rabble, from the rubble at the bottom of Rome’s imperial power.

But Jesus resists their invitation. Jesus resists the temptation of this sort of worldly power. Jesus withdraws when the multitude wants to make him their king. The path of Jesus does not lead back to Tiberias with the hungry multitude of 5,000 men ready to replace Herod with a king of the people’s own choosing. Jesus doesn’t go there. That’s not the way of Jesus’ power. Jesus heads toward the hills. Into the mountains. He feeds them, exercises his divine power, and then withdraws.

Now, the disciples on the boat show us a different way to deal with Jesus. They don’t try to make Jesus be anything. In fact, they are a bit wary of this figure walking toward them on the stormy Sea of Galilee. I’ll read John 6:19-21:

When they had rowed three or three and a half miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were terrified. But Jesus said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” Then they were willing to take him into the boat.

Where the multitude tries to force Jesus to be their king, the disciples receive Jesus. They open up their boat to this terrifying figure.

That’s why the paragraph from The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective we read together earlier in the service is called “The church of Jesus Christ.” This church, this way of life we call Christian, is not something we made up. It belongs to Jesus Christ. We are not like the multitude who needed a head to complete the body they wanted, the organization they dreamed of. Instead, we are like the disciples in the boat. Jesus has come to us. And we have received him into our boat, into our lives. And now we walk down his path. As the early Anabaptists put it, “Thus we shall do as He did, and follow him.”

And this way does not lead us back to Tiberias where we capitalize on the miracles of our new king. Jesus isn’t a new sovereign, a new head we can plop on an old body. He isn’t a king that can fit into the mold of the old king. He isn’t a leader like Herod, but better, or more just.

The path of Jesus leads into the hills. Yes, with his power he feeds the hungry. But then he and his power withdraw into the hidden places. His path doesn’t lead to the glory of Herod’s throne in Tiberias, the capital of Galilee. That’s not the site of his power. Jesus’ power resists capture by city walls; it dissipates; it overflows and then recedes. It spreads close to the ground; he stays lowly, humble, meek. Jesus doesn’t take the multitude back as a swarming mass that takes over the city from the ground up, so he can sit atop the city walls at the place of power, a place of visibility, a place of kingship that looks like all the other kings. Jesus doesn’t need to plant his kingdom in the same place as Herod. Jesus doesn’t need a capital city from which to exercise his authority.

Jesus takes a different path, and invites us along. Jesus moves like a rhizome. Like this plant here. rhizome natural.jpgNick’s plant. It moves in all directions. The rhizome “grows between and among things.” (ATP, 19). It doesn’t need fixed roots. It can send roots down anywhere, and create life, new life. It makes life; it taps into the power of life present everywhere, and converts it into a plant. An orchid can grow out of the bark of a tree. A lily from a rhizome hidden underground.

And we, this humble church, send down roots wherever our Lord leads us. We aren’t in DC, or in New York, or LA—none of those cities with authority, those cities that make the front page of the newspaper. We’re not even in Raleigh, the capital of this lowly state. I mean, those of us here this evening don’t even share the same city. We have roots in Durham, in Chapel Hill, in Apex. We grow everywhere and anywhere—between and among the cities, between and among other plants, between and among other organisms.

But we come together every week, and sometimes more, and meet in this rented space, a space that doesn’t even belong to us—the Quakers are kind enough to let us create a new organism, a new plant, a new body, in their place. Like an orchid, our church can grow from the bark of a tree.

Another thing about the rhizome. As long as the plant is connected, all the roots, the roots that dig down everywhere, can share nutrients. sporadic rhizome.gifThey share their life, their energy, their fuel. And that’s why we come to fellowship, to share our lives with each other, and worship our Lord who leads us back into the hills, the hidden places where we can turn darkness into light. We are the salt of the earth. Sprinkled everywhere. Making life taste good for others.

This is exactly what we said together at the beginning of the service. Here’s a line from the Confession of Faith that we proclaimed earlier: “The church is the new community of disciples sent into the world to proclaim the reign of God and to provide a foretaste of the church’s glorious hope.”

We are a foretaste of a glorious hope. And we spread this foretaste with us as we leave from this place and shoot out in every direction. But, if we hope to share in the church, to follow in the path of Jesus, then we must remember to meet together, to wait with one another, to allow the fibers of our being to interlock, to form the networks where Christ’s life flows.rhizome.jpg

This is Christ’s body; it doesn’t belong to us. But we can share in the wonder of that life poured out for us if we turn away from Tiberias, the dreams of glory and victory, and offer our lives, the nutrients from our own roots, like the rhizome, to each other and to the world around us.

There are so many ways that I think we do this and have done this. I can think of the way many of you got together and built a Habitat house. Or the way you have joined with one another to feed people. Or the way many of you poured out your lives, shared your life, with Katie and I as we prepared for marriage. And the way you make time for each other just to sit and talk, to fellowship, to minister to one another. Or the ways each of you contribute something to make this worship service happen every week—reading scripture, praying, planning, singing.

And, just as important, all the hidden ways, all the hidden things some of you do in secret, like those rhizomes that stay underground, in order to shoot our new life, a beautiful lily. Blessed are the meek, the humble, for they shall inherit the earth.

All these things and more spread the hope of Christ’s glorious kingdom. Our task, our reason for being a church, for meeting together week after week, is to worship our God who unites us in the Son, the body of Christ, so we can be given new eyes to discover the kingdom of abundant life flowing among and between the seemingly lifeless darkness. And dig down in that soil, in every soil, wherever Christ leads us, and sprout forth the new life of the kingdom.

beruit rhizome.jpg

Tags: sermons

13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 isaac // Aug 2, 2006 at 11:04 am

    For a very creative website that gives you a some great pithy statements and creative pictures that help display Deleuze and Guattari on rhizomes, check out this website: Nomadology

  • 2 Bill Peltz // Aug 3, 2006 at 7:05 am

    I saw the word “rhizome” while skimming through the day’s Cross Left Streaming Christianity listings and had to come check it out. Oddly enough, I’ve been thinking a lot about rhizomes in the past couple of weeks as a good model of how social-movement building works. Despite having very short “networks” of linked nodes, you wind up with dense coverage—if the conditions are right.

    I started to think about this because my small back yard is full of “Creeping Charlie”, otherwise known as “Ground Ivy”. After starting to pull up great swatches of it, I noticed the structure and was intrigued by it. I thought I should learn something about it so I googled it and was surprised to find that this rhizome is a type of mint and is a widely used alternative medicine which is being studied for use in treating many serious conditions. (See

    Now I see “salad green” instead of a weed. Good for feeding the 5,000.

    Anyway, I find it a happy model or metaphor for “peace and justice” work.

  • 3 samebear0482 // Aug 3, 2006 at 1:54 pm

    the multitude and the rhizome: a sermon on John 6:1-21, Jesus feeds the 5,000…


  • 4 andrew // Aug 5, 2006 at 3:57 am

    Isaac, great sermon. It’s about time for folks at church to see what might be useful from Deleuze and Guattari (rather than the cheap shots from Dan Bell and others). I thought you did a great job with the rhizome. But I’m still curious what you think about the multitude. As I read between the lines I could see an ongoing engagement with Hobbes and Spinoza (i.e., multitude as pre-political mass waiting for the union through a soveriegn). But I couldn’t tell what you think about what Tony Negri (and Hardt) do with ‘the multitude.’ Do you think they offer a helpful way for christians to think about ‘the political’?

    If you and your readers want to read a helpful essay by Tony Negri on ‘the multitude’, check this out: the multitude


  • 5 Daniel // Oct 2, 2006 at 6:42 pm

    Wow. I have studied philosophy and religion now for years, and if anyone could truly understand this jibberish I would be truly impressed.

    Try a little formal logic—that might make the sermon a bit better. At least if I were sitting in the pew I could then follow it.

  • 6 isaac // Oct 3, 2006 at 3:00 am

    Daniel, thanks for visiting the site. Please come again. I’m sorry if the sermon came across as a bit like “jibbberish.” Maybe it’s a sermon when you need to be there to get it. Of all my sermons, this one has received the most engagement. After someone preaches at our church, the congregation has a chance to respond and engage the proclaimed Word. Lots of people had lots to say. They got and thought through it. Having living rhizomes on display probably helped out. People had something to look at that preached my message for me. Maybe that means you need to come visit us in Chapel Hill…

  • 7 Scott // Apr 21, 2007 at 7:43 pm


    Wonderful sermon. Very helpful in the study I am doing and the way you through Bible Study have tied it all together. You have been a great help and a blessing.
    God bless you brother

  • 8 morgan // Apr 30, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    I am an avid orchid grower and ran across this while doing some research. I must say that I am filled with a terrible sadness to see something so beautiful and scientifical turned into “jibberish” as someone else described it (well put, by the way). Do you know want to know something else about rhizomes? They can, and should be seperated when the plant becomes too large. Hm…why don’t you think on that in terms of a social metaphor?

  • 9 morgan // Apr 30, 2007 at 9:35 pm

    Oh yeah, one more thing: Rhizomes are not plants. They are not even a type of plant. They are a characteristic in sympodial plant species. (Sympodials are not an actual species, by the way)

  • 10 isaac // May 1, 2007 at 4:50 am

    Morgan, I’m sorry for your “sadness.”

    Also, thank for the correction: rhizomes aren’t plants. We have an Orchid enthusiast in our congregation and he was quick to make clear that rhizomes weren’t plants; they have more to do with the root system. I should have corrected that part in my sermon. But I think the analogy still works in the sermon.

    Lastly, thanks for checking out the blog.

  • 11 isaac // Jul 28, 2008 at 1:19 pm

  • 12 Mickey // Jul 22, 2009 at 8:00 am

    Simply the best work on this text that I have ever seen. Quite in the manner of your rhizome, this reading populates all of John with resoance

  • 13 isaac // Jul 28, 2009 at 3:22 am

    Mickey, thanks for the kind comment.