After seeing the miracle Jesus performed, the crowd wanted to make him their king. They probably thought that with Jesus ruling over them all their problems would be solved. Only a man like Jesus who could feed five thousand people with just five loaves of bread and two fishes would be able to put an end to hunger and poverty in Israel. Only a man like Jesus who could cure any illness would be able to banish sickness and suffering from the land. Only a man like Jesus who could get such great numbers of people to follow him could find enough popular support to lead an uprising against the Roman Empire so that Palestine could be free again. This was what they felt they needed from a king. This was the kind of "salvation" they wanted Jesus to bring - an end to everything that made their lives miserable and hard.
But Jesus always rejected the crowd's desire to make him their king. Being an earthly ruler was not the reason the Father sent him to live among us. As Jesus will say in next week's gospel, "You should not be working for perishable food, but for food that remains unto eternal life." Jesus knew that the five thousand people he fed would get hungry again and soon need to find more food. Likewise, all the people he cured of leprosy and other illnesses would eventually get sick again and die. None of those miracles would have lasting effects except as signs of Jesus' power and of faith in those who witnessed them. What Jesus wanted to do for Israel - and for us - was something that no king could give his people; something that would not only have a temporary effect for one nation, but would last forever and be offered to all people of every age. By dying on the cross and rising from the dead, Jesus showed what type of a king he was - a king who could free us from our sins and give us everlasting life with him in heaven where there is no more hunger, no more sickness, no more wars and no more death.
Earthly kings rule over lands and territories by coercion, threatening force against all who would disobey them. Jesus, however, rules over the human heart through love. Jesus is the type of king who gets to the root of what is wrong with each of us and the whole world, namely, sin. He treats the rebellion in our hearts that steers us in the wrong direction - away from his love and mercy and into selfishness. Like the crowd in today's gospel, we prefer the bread to the one who gives the bread. We prefer our possessions to the one who gives us everything we have. We prefer to have total control over our lives rather than submit ourselves with loving trust to the God who created us to fit a certain plan.
But Jesus teaches us what it means to turn away from the sin that is the cause of so much misery in our world; to turn away from the violence which is the cause of so much war and murder; to turn away from the greed which leaves people poor and hungry. Because he is God and lives in each of us, Jesus is the type of king who can make an appeal directly to the human heart to stop hating and to start loving. No king could know all his subjects by name, know all their needs or love them enough to die for each of them. Jesus is just such a king.
Jesus' kingdom will come in its full glory only at the end of the world when all will stand before his throne for judgement. But we do not have to wait until the end of the world or until we get into heaven to know the salvation which Jesus brings. All of us who have turned to Jesus as our Savior and allowed him to be the King of our hearts by making a decision to live as he did already have a taste of what that salvation means. Everyone here has a personal story about what believing in Jesus has done for them. Some people thought they were worthless and good for nothing until they learned how much Jesus loves them. Some people had no meaning in their lives, stuck in jobs they hated, until they believed in Jesus and learned that God has a plan for them. Some people constantly worried about money, about their health or about their future until they learned to place their trust in Jesus who provides for all our needs and who makes all things work for the good. The salvation Jesus won for us by dying on the cross is not something we can only "cash in on" when we get to heaven, but it is something already at work in our lives, changing us from the inside out.
At this altar we will gather to celebrate the everlasting gift of Jesus' love - the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation. No other healing can cure the root of the sickness that ails us. No military victory could have won for us the freedom from sin that Jesus won for us on the cross. No other miracle than the Body and Blood of Jesus could feed and satisfy the deepest hunger within us for God. What we celebrate every Sunday when we take time off from our work to hear the word of God and to gather around the altar is precisely this - the freedom from sin and the everlasting life which God offers us in our King and Savior, Jesus Christ.