How do we know when someone really means something? Usually they will repeat a statement more than once. Obviously it would be good if we took things seriously the first time. Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen. If I say something to my children once, they may or may not listen. But if I repeat a request over and over, they get the point that I really expect something to be done.
I would suggest that we should listen to the Bible, even if something is only mentioned once. The truth is the truth. But we should also notice when the same statement or the same story is mentioned a number of times.
There is only one miracle story (other than the resurrection) that is found in all four of our Gospels. That miracle is the feeding of the 5000. We could explain this as being just a coincidence. We could also say that each of the Gospel writers just thought it was a neat story that was fun to share. Or we could consider that there is a message in this story that is not just helpful but is essential for the church to hear clearly.
The feeding of the 5000 may be so familiar to those raised in church and Sunday school that we miss the practical lessons found in this story. There is so much more to this miracle than demonstrating that Jesus did something amazing. Let us take a look.
It is always important for us to read the passage in the context in which it is found. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus had sent out the twelve disciples to experience ministry, not just as observers, but as active participants. We are told that Jesus gave them power and authority. The disciples were sent out to both perform miracles and to proclaim the kingdom of God. The story of the feeding of the 5000 begins with the return of the disciples from their mission. The mission had been a success and the disciples had been able to do what they had bent sent to do.
Before looking at the feeding of the 5000, I want to note the next thing that happens in this chapter. What happens is that Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is and Peter gives the correct answer. I want you to be thinking about how this story bridges those two events.
In this story, we find Jesus ministering to a large crowd, a crowd that included 5000 men, plus however many women and children. We are told that Jesus was doing the same thing he sent the disciples to do, healing and proclaiming the kingdom of God.
As the day was coming to a close, it was time to wrap things up. The disciples, being practical, suggested that Jesus send the crowd away so they could find their own food. Jesus responded by telling the disciples to feed the crowd themselves. Imagine what they must have been thinking? “Jesus, heal your own eyes because there are way too many people here to feed. It is impossible.” What they had forgotten was that on their recent mission, they had been doing the impossible.
Instead of rebuking them, he had the disciples organize the crowd into groups and to prepare them for supper. Jesus gave thanks for the five loaves and two fish and gave them to the disciples to distribute. Not only was the entire crowd fed, there were leftovers. There were twelve baskets left, perhaps for each of the twelve disciples who doubted.
This is all very nice but what does this mean for us? I see three lessons that we can apply to our own experience.
- If we just read this story by itself, it would seem reasonable that the disciples would believe that feeding the crowd would have been impossible. However, they had just come back from a mission of miracles. They had performed some amazing signs and wonders, many of the same things that Jesus had been doing. No where in this passage does it say that Jesus took back the power and authority that he gave them at the start of the mission. But feeding the crowd still seemed to the disciples to be beyond their abilities. What I see in this is that the successes of yesterday are not enough for today. It is wonderful how God answered our prayers five years ago. It is great that there was a thriving church ministry a decade ago. But what about today? We can not live on the successes of the past. Today is a new day, a day in which we must rely upon God’s power as much now as we did in the past. We can look back on the good old days as much as we want, but that won’t help us today. There are miracles that are needed right now.
- One of the things that really stands out in this story is that Jesus told his disciples that they should feed the crowd. He didn’t say, “Don’t worry, I will take this,” but rather, “You feed them.” For Jesus, it was all rather simple. There was a large group of very hungry people. There was a need. What do you do with a need? You meet the need. That is what is expected in the kingdom of God. The church was never meant to be a country club, where all we do is entertain ourselves. We are to have our eyes open to the needs of the people in our community and we are to have a willingness to meet those needs. Our starting point is not to be what our resources are, but rather what the need is. What is the need in our community?
- Although we need to start with the needs, at some point we have to deal with limited resources. Even if the disciples had taken the initiative, they would have had to acknowledge that there were only five loaves and two fish. However, limited resources are not the end of the story. One of the lessons of this story is that limited resources plus Jesus equals more than enough. The disciples were never expected to feed the crowd in their own power. We as a church are not expected to minister to our community in our own power. We need to look at our limited people, money, time or whatever resource and invite Jesus to multiply it. If that sounds too spiritual, we need to remember that Jesus has done that many times in the past in this church and is continuing to do that here and in other congregations. All we can do is bring what we have and present it to Jesus. Once our limited resources are put in Jesus’ hands, anything can happen.
It is pretty easy for us to look at the disciples and be critical. “They should have known better!” But do we know any better? Would we have had more faith? We need to read the story of the disciples, not as critics but as students. What can we learn from the disciples?
- The successes of yesterday are not enough.
- When we see a need, we must attempt to meet it.
- Limited resources plus Jesus equals more than enough.
Those are the lessons. Now it is time to put them into practice.