Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
August 7, 2011
There must be a very good reason why three times a year we hear the story from the Gospels regarding Jesus' miraculous feedings. We hear John's account of the feeding of the five thousand twice, on the last Sunday of the church year and then again in the middle of Lent. Today we encounter Mark's telling of the feeding of the four thousand. I can't say that I have a definitive answer as to why this one theme is repeated three times, but it is clear to me that our forefathers wanted us to hear multiple times during the year that we are forever in need of heavenly food and partakers of a meal that has divine origins.
How are we to hear these feeding stories when we hear them three times a year? What thoughts are they meant to invoke when we hear them year-after-year?
I believe that the first point to remember when we contemplate these events is the order in which things happen. The people who were out in the wilderness didn't go out there expecting a miraculous feeding. They went out into the wilderness first to follow this incredible new teacher wherever he led them because they wanted to hear what he had to say. He was saying something to them that they needed to hear, wanted to hear, and had longed to hear. They followed first. That's our calling and mandate as well.
Our call to being an apostle of Jesus comes with the express command to first be a follower. Jesus' first actions upon his return from His temptation in the wilderness was the calling of the first apostles and his first words to them were follow me. We don't hear of them asking first what was in it for them. There were those would be disciples who asked if they could bury their dead first before following or those who needed to say their goodbyes before setting off to be a follower, but if you remember Jesus told those folks to let the dead bury their own dead, and if you need to cover all of your bases first you are perhaps not quite ready for what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Those who were listening to Jesus' words that day were seemingly unconcerned with their physical needs. They were following with an almost reckless abandon to the notion that they were eventually going to need to eat and where was that food going to come from. Are we able to approach discipleship in those same terms? Are we willing to follow regardless of the cost and follow wherever we are led? Are we prepared to give of ourselves in terms of our time, our talents, and our treasure to the point that it beings to be uncomfortable? Those 4,000 some odd followers did just that and we are called upon to do the same.
What is it going to cost us to do so?
Well according to the story, if we are sent away with no nourishment for the journey ahead we will be famished and will become faint along the way. Following Jesus is not an easy thing. It requires a death to our way of doing things and an acceptance of God's way of doing things. The word for repentance means just that, a giving up of going in one direction, doing a complete 180, and going in another. As St. Paul declares in our epistle lesson, the direction that we are going in on our present trajectory is a dead end that ultimately leads to death - for the wages of sin is death. Repentance, metanoia, is a turning and rejection of that path and accepting God's free gift which leads to life - but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The crucial point for us to remember is that it will require all that have and all that we are to continue on this road. There is one piece that still remains and it is of course the crux of this feeding miracle which is the food itself.
Jesus had compassion in the crowds. I know I mentioned this in a previous sermon that the word for compassion here has the connotation of being moved at a depth and level that permeates to the pit of one's very soul. The word here denotes a profound stirring of the emotions, and that is the level to which Jesus is moved in recognizing the crowds need for nourishment for their being sent forth. Thus, Jesus being moved to compassion is preparing to give them sustenance for what lay ahead. That nourishment comes in a most remarkable form.
Order here is everything. What do I mean? In one sense the crowds were already being fed. They were feeding and feasting on the Words of Jesus which is of course the Bread of Life. Their first and foremost source of nourishment was Jesus' words which they had been hearing for the past three days. They followed first, and then before they were to be sent forth were they fed with physical bread for their life lived in the world.
We too are called to reenact that same order. Our first mandate is to follow. Follow with that complete abandonment in which we like St. Augustine find our rest and repose in God. When we do this we will of course be famished and faint along the way if we are not being fed by Jesus. That of course comes in two forms. First, we must daily feed upon His word - Holy Scripture. As we pray on the 2nd Sunday in Advent, we are to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the words of the Bible. You notice that last clause to inwardly digest is the only way that true nourishment can take place.
Second, we must feed upon Jesus himself which we do each time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist. Before Jesus fed the crowds to performed a Eucharist - he gave thanks for that which he was about to bless and give. So too do we give thanks for what Jesus has already done and prepares to do again each time we gather around his holy altar to celebrate the mystery of His Most Precious Body and Blood. We give thanks through the hymns we sing, the confession of our sins, through the alms we give for the mission of the church, and for the bread and wine that will become for us heavenly food and drink.
There are two additional points that we are to glean from this story.
We must recognize that when our Lord feeds us we are fed with an abundance that we simply cannot fathom or comprehend. In both of the feeding miracles recorded in Scripture, we read that the crowds were completely satisfied, and there was an abundance of fragments left over. In the Eucharistic sacrifice, we believe that through the power of the Holy Spirit simple elements of bread and wine become for us the very Body and Blood of Jesus fully and completely. There is nothing left out. The ordinary becomes something extraordinary. We receive Jesus into us through the abundance of his never failing grace and mercy.
Finally, the crumbs that were left over were not carelessly discarded but were commanded to be gathered together. Why? Why is this detail carefully preserved in each of the feeding miracles? The fragments left over are to be used to repeat the process by us as we are sent forth as Jesus' disciples and apostles. We are to take the nourishment that we receive as his followers and then go and nourish others. We are to take Jesus and make him known to a broken, hurting, and famished world. We have the one and only source of food that will truly satisfy the hunger of those who are fainting along the way. We have received the Bread of Heaven and the source of life and it has been given to us in order that we might then share it with others.
We are both disciples of Jesus, ones who follow and we are his apostles, ones who have been sent to feed and nourish others. But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. The renewal of our strength comes through our following of the Lord Jesus, through the feeding of our souls from His Holy Word and His Body, and our mission is taking those precious fragments and feeding the fatigued and fainting world through the power of God's Holy and life-giving Spirit.