One of the struggles I have as the pastor of a congregation as I attempt to lead, or shepherd the flock, through times of great turmoil and confusion deals with the public face of the ministry itself. On just the surface level of things, the stuff most people see, should I be the calm strong voice of unmoved determination, assuring everyone that it will be alright? Should I just mimic the words of the rest of society and say, “This too shall pass,” or, “We’re all in this together,” or some other concoction of affirming statements? Or should I be a little franker, a little more direct about the problems I see on the horizon and the struggles the Church is going to face? Should I be honest about the wolves circling around, ready and eager to launch into their deadly attack?
For the reality is, there is something terrifying happening. Perhaps it is not new to us. In fact, I am sure it is not, but there seems to be something more profound, more drastic coming for the children of God these days and its mark is hunger. There is a real and powerful hunger that has arisen among Christians these days. At least here, where we live amid government mandates about worship practice and real fears about the spread of a virus during a global pandemic, there is a hunger, not for physical sustenance but for the Word of God. It is a Word located in the fellowship of the people of God, a Word which comes from the mouth of one person into the ears of another. When people are separated from the fellowship, when they are quarantined in their homes or simply feel unsafe in the House of God, and so safely keep their distance, their hunger grows exponentially.
This hunger does not dissipate on its own. No, in fact, people can and will find something to eat, something to fill their spiritual desires with. So, I have heard stories of couples for whom church attendance and gathering around the gifts of Christ has never come easy. One wanted to go, wanted to be there but the other one did not see the big deal and was not really all that interested. There was always tension there and so for them the call to stay home, to stop gathering at church provided a solution. Without a firm discipline to begin with they would not bother seeking alternative means to be spiritually fed. Perhaps they watched a service or two online. Perhaps one of them at least read and shared a Bible story with their child but, that soon faded away. Instead, they just ate whatever came their way; whatever was offered through social media or a bingeworthy TV series. Their spiritual diet consisted of whatever sweet and intoxicating offerings the world was ready to give.
So, we see our church, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we hear the grumbling that comes with hunger. We know they are hungry, and we ought to be terrified that we cannot feed them the good stuff. I mean, perhaps we tried for a while, but they were not interested, so we figure it is easier for us just to say that feeding each other is not our responsibility. If they want the good spiritual food, they know where to get it. If they want to consume whatever junk food floods to them through their various media feeds, what concern is that of ours? But deep down we know this is wrong. We know there is something we are called to do. We know how any time of separation is dangerous because the hunger is not satisfied apart from the Word of God. But what can we do? What can I do? What can you do?
Our Lord had been teaching all who would listen. He poured out Himself, healing their sick and opening them to the gifts of God. But when He had learned John the Baptist died, He longed for a moment to be alone, to retreat and find rest in conversation with His Father in Heaven. He goes so far as to get into a boat and travel to the other side of the sea. But when Jesus gets there, He finds the crowds were still hungry. They could not stop following Him. They chased Him down to feed on what He provided. How does Jesus react? He has compassion on them. He does not push them aside. He does not abandon them or ignore their grumbling bellies. No, He has compassion.
His disciples see a storm in the making though. Here they are, out in a desolate place. They are not in a big city. There is nothing there for such a great crowd to eat and it is getting late. They anticipate the hunger of the crowd with no easy remedy at hand. There is wisdom, then, in their decision to have Jesus disperse the crowd. It is the simple solution to the problem. But who could have imagined our Lord’s response? They say, “It’s getting late. Send them away to go into the villages and buy some dinner.” And Jesus responds, “They have no need to go away. You feed them. You give them something to eat.” They propose a sensible solution to a problem and Jesus responds with insanity. You feed them? How? With what? They only have five leaves of bread and a couple of fish. They do not possess what is needed to satisfy the hunger of the people. They cannot do it.
The disciples standing around our Lord on the shore of the Sea of Galilee are no different than us looking at the plight of the children of God today. There is hunger. We can hear it. We can feel it. We want to have compassion. We want to care for His flock, but how? How can we possible feed them? We do not have enough. We do not have what it takes. We want Jesus to say, “Don’t worry. I got this. You just relax. You sit down on the grass and rest.” But He does not. He says, “You feed them.” Like the disciples, Jesus has you bring to Him what you have; bring your broken and weak voices, bring your uncertain confession and your slow response, bring you sin filled hearts and everything that ought to disqualify you as one to feed the sheep.
Jesus takes the bread they bring. He blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. And they begin to pass out their dinner to the crowd sitting on the grass. They continue to pass it out in great abundance. Their five loaves and two fish now feed the entire crowd. And it is not just that they all get a small nibble. No, we are told they all eat and are satisfied. They eat until they are full, and not only that, but there are leftovers. 12 baskets full of broken pieces of bread are gathered up. When it is all said and done, we find they fed well over 5000 people.
The disciples do exactly what Jesus had commanded them to do. They feed the crowd. They bring their meager offering to the Lord and He uses it to satisfy the hunger of all those people. 12 baskets are leftover. 12, like the 12 tribes of Israel or the 12 apostles or the 12 gates made of 12 pearls that mark the entrance into eternal life. This superabundant feeding provided by our Lord is the gift marking the Church today. The 12 symbolizes the ongoing feeding we are called to do as the people of God. There is hunger, real profound spiritual hunger, and our world is eager to feed them. It is ready to feed them all with its disease ridden and intoxicating filth. But you are given something greater to give, something which truly satisfies.
You come before your Lord with nothing to feed the hungry with and He fills you with His Word of life. He gives you a heart of compassion and a promise to speak. He now sends you into the lives of your brothers and sisters, to hold them, to care for them, to forgive them and love them. They are hungry, so go and feed them.