July 29, 2018
If you thought this series on Living Like Jesus was going to be a checklist of ‘Dos and Don’ts’ you are probably disappointed by now. Living like Jesus isn’t that simple, is it? We have to look for God in the interruptions and depend on God alone to provide for our needs. When evil seems to be taking over, it’s only by claiming our identity in Christ that we can overcome that evil.
As we learned last week, we have to stay in the boat with Jesus, instead of running ahead to where we think he’s going. And living like Jesus means having gut-wrenching compassion for those who don’t know him. That means allowing ourselves to be touched as the “fringe of his cloak” in order to be Christ’s healing touch in the world.
Today’s reading gives us the final installment of this sixth chapter of Mark. We’re about to move out of the mundane and into the miraculous.
When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”
They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
“How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.”
When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.”
Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.
Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.
Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:34-52)
Notice that the way Jesus shows gut-wrenching compassion is to teach. This might seem strange to us. Wouldn’t it make more sense to meet the urgent physical needs that people bring to Jesus? But Jesus addresses a deeper need than sickness or physical hunger. Jesus goes right to the heart of what is broken in each of us, and teaches us how to be children of God.
After all, this is his primary purpose. Back in the first chapter of Mark, right after healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and going off by himself to pray, Jesus tells his disciples, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mark 1:38).
Jesus knows his purpose, and he gives that same purpose to his followers. We call it the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teach them all the things I have commanded you,” Jesus says. (Matthew 28:19-20).
Teach them. This is what gut-wrenching compassion looks like: Taking on apprentices who live and work beside us in the Kingdom of God.
But we’d rather go with the tangible and finite, like providing a single meal and calling it good. That’s why we like this story of Jesus feeding thousands of people with just a few loaves and a couple of fish. So did the gospel writers. In fact, the multiplication of loaves and fishes is the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels. And except for Luke, the story is followed immediately by Jesus walking on water.
John adds details about Andrew asking this and Philip saying that, and a young boy offering his lunch of barley loaves and fish. Sometimes people try to water down the miraculous elements of the story. They talk about how this young boy’s act of generosity must have inspired others in the crowd to bring out their own lunches and start sharing, and it’s the sharing that’s the miracle.
But I don’t buy that version. There’s more going on here. I think we sometimes focus on explaining away the miracle of feeding a multitude, and skip over the circumstances that made it necessary.
Jesus was teaching thousands of people in a remote area, out of his deep compassion for them. What he was teaching was so important, and so extensive, that it took a long time. The day grew late.
His disciples grew anxious. They knew it would take a while for everyone there to get back home, or at least to a place where they could buy dinner and maybe a night’s lodging.
Jesus needed to let them go, so they could take care of basic needs. It never occurred to any of the disciples, and it probably had not occurred to any of the people on that hillside, that dinner would be part of the package. Let them fend for themselves, the disciples told Jesus. They are perfectly capable of doing that.
But Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.”
Now, he isn’t speaking metaphorically here. This isn’t John’s version of the story, where the feeding of 5000 introduces the great “I am the Bread of Life” statements. This is Mark, where things happen immediately, and what you see is what you get.
So when Jesus says to his disciples, “You give them something to eat,” that’s exactly what he means. And we have to remember that, not that long ago, he was sending them out two by two, instructing them to depend on the hospitality of strangers.
They have just returned from that mission trip, the same one where Jesus “ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts” (Mark 6:8). They haven’t had time to buy groceries themselves since they got back, and now he says, “You give them something to eat.”
The disciples are still operating out of a mindset of scarcity. They focus on what they don’t have, and how limited their resources are in the face of so great a need. It would take six months’ wages, for crying out loud! Who has that kind of money? Where would you even find that much bread?
And Jesus says, “Go look. See what you have.”
Sometimes I think that the miracle here isn’t just multiplying a few loaves and fish into an abundant feast. Sometimes I think an overlooked miracle is that the disciples did what they were told. They were obedient. They went and looked, and – guess what! – among the twelve of them, there was something. Not much, but something.
It is easy for us to get stuck in a mindset of scarcity, isn’t it? We look at our meager resources, and all we can see is that it isn’t enough. We don’t have enough money to pay the bills. We don’t have enough time to get everything done that needs to get done. We don’t have enough patience, or energy, to deal with the many pressures that weigh on us. It feels like we will never have … enough.
And Jesus says to us, “Go look. See what you have.” It might not be much, but obedience to Christ can turn our meager scarcity into God’s abundance.
Then Jesus takes what we have, and just like those five loaves and two fish, he gives thanks and breaks it. See, the food doesn’t multiply until it gets divided. The bread can’t feed thousands of hungry people until it is broken.
There are lots of things that can’t fulfill their purpose until they are broken.
- A horse has to be broken before you can ride it.
- A fire alarm won’t sound unless you break the glass.
- A catcher’s mitt has to be broken in.
- Those glow sticks we use on Christmas Eve so the kids don’t have to handle a lit candle – they have to be broken before they will light up.
- The safety seal on medicine or food has to be broken.
- Hiking boots. Guitar strings. An egg. The bits that form a mosaic…
All these things, like the bread we will break at Communion next week, must be broken before they can fulfill their purpose.
Christ’s own body was broken for you and for me. If Christ is going to use us to bring about his Kingdom, we have to let ourselves be broken, too. And this takes courage.
After the 12 baskets of leftovers have been collected – did you catch that? Enough leftovers for each of those scarcity-minded disciples to take home his own doggy bag! – Jesus sends the disciples away in the boat so he can go pray by himself. He can see them from the hillside, straining against the wind into the long watches of the night. As morning approaches, he starts walking across the lake in their direction.
Mark adds an interesting detail here. He says that it looks like Jesus was going to walk right past their boat! Was he trying to lead them into land? Was he ignoring them completely? Whatever his intention, when they see them, it frightens them. Part of their fear comes from the fact that they ALL see him – no one can claim it was a dream or a hallucination. There are twelve witnesses to the same event.
They “cry out” in their fear and that gets Jesus’ attention. He tells them three things:
It is I.
Don’t be afraid.” (v 50)
Take courage. You don’t have to manufacture courage on your own. It is available to you for the taking. Take some. Help yourself to this resource that Christ makes abundantly available to all who believe in him. Take courage.
Why? Because this is Jesus. This is not a ghost. This is not an apparition. This is no hallucination. This is Jesus. He says, “Take courage because I am right here with you, I and no other.” And finally, stop being afraid.
Having courage and being unafraid are not the same thing. In fact, one definition of courage is action in the face of fear. Courage is what we display even when we are afraid, but we act anyway. Courage is being able to do the very thing that frightens you. But Jesus says, take courage AND stop being afraid. You can be completely confident that he is who he says he is and he will do what he says he will do. So face your fear, then recognize Jesus, and stop being afraid.
Mark writes, “Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.” (vv51-52) Mark brings us back to the broken bread to explain why the disciples in that boat were afraid in the first place.
They just didn’t get it. Their hearts were so hard that, even after witnessing the miracle of multiplication, they didn’t’ recognize Jesus when he was standing right next to their boat. And when he climbed into that boat and the wind died down – that’s what amazed them! They hadn’t understood about the loaves.
What is there to understand in this story? Notice that Jesus doesn’t feed people too often in the gospels. There is this mass meal, necessitated by the late hour and the remote location, and there is another feeding of 4000 a little later in the story. Jesus doesn’t make a habit of doling out bread to crowds of people, and I can understand why.
Giving food to people doesn’t satisfy their deeper hunger to know God and experience real, unconditional love. Only loving them will do that. Only teaching them all the things Jesus commanded us will do that.
Giving food to people may help them get through a crisis, but it doesn’t necessarily change their lives. What changes lives is knowing Jesus. The disciples hadn’t understood about the loaves because to them, it was just bread.
But to Jesus, and to the people they fed, those loaves were an opportunity to know and to be known, to be identified with the God who provides exactly what we need, exactly when we need it.
Those loaves demonstrated in a tangible way that our scarcity is swallowed up in God’s abundance, when we place our trust in him and obey him.
Those loaves were an expression of the brokenness we each experience as sinful human beings, and the brokenness that saves us and gives our lives purpose and meaning. The disciples didn’t get it, and because of that, they were frightened when Jesus came walking toward them on the water.
But Jesus says to each of us, Take courage! It is I! Don’t be afraid! And Jesus gets into our boat.
So there are just two questions before you and before me this morning: how hard is your heart? and where is your basket? If you sense that Jesus is nudging you to become more like him, to live like him, I invite you to open your heart to the joy of obedience. Allow him to break you, so that he can use you to bring his Kingdom into fullness. Then, grab your basket, because there is abundance to share. Who knows? You might be a part of God’s miraculous provision.
Lord Jesus Christ, you come to us when we are straining against the wind, and you scare the living daylights out of us, because our hearts are too hard to recognize you. Forgive us, Lord.
Let us see through our scarcity into your great abundance.
Let us be broken like loaves of bread, so our lives can have purpose and meaning.
Let us not only trust in you, but obey you – even when you command us to do what seems to us to be impossible, or at least impractical.
Let us take the courage that you offer, and let us stop being afraid.
Let us seek you and know you as the good and patient friend you are, who taught us to pray like this, saying, “Our Father, …”