Listen to it:
“You Give Them Something to Eat”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“After hearing [of John’s death], Jesus withdrew from there by boat to a desolate place by Himself” (Matthew 14:13). John’s death is a reminder that the servants of Jesus are not above their Master. The reason for Jesus’ pilgrimage is to be rejected and to die; to bring the reign of death on earth to an end. As a man, no doubt Jesus is exhausted and sorrowful, but the crowds will not let Him alone. They need rest for their souls. They find it too hard to live as sane people in a world gone mad. And Jesus will not turn them away. He gets out of the boat and shows His compassion by healing the sick and feeding the hungry. And there are always more people who require the mercy of Jesus; more who suffer, more who mourn, more with guilt, more to whom Jesus desires to show the merciful compassion of God.
It is late in the day and Jesus knows that the disciples are tired from their work, from preaching and healing (Luke 9:6). But Jesus is educating them in putting the needs of others before their own; in serving, rather than being served. Jesus’ mercy is not confined to when He feels like being merciful or when He is fully rested. His is a constant, burning love for people who have no other place to turn. We can and should strive to be like Jesus; but how much easier it is to identify with the disciples! The disciples have discovered that the servants of Jesus never really have a day off. At the end of a long day, they just want a little space for themselves and some time to rest. They’re tired of all the people. Maybe you’re such an extrovert that you have no idea what that would feel like, but for introverts like me it’s all too easy to sympathize with the Twelve. Like the disciples, we want Jesus to dismiss the crowds and let them fend for themselves; besides, we’ve barely got enough for us! God helps those who help themselves, right? And what can we give them that they can’t get elsewhere? Jesus, though, is not content to send people away when they need Him. To the disciples, He says, “They have no need to go away; you yourselves give them [something] to eat” (Matthew 14:16). Jesus rebukes the disciples’ and our selfishness. He rebukes our unwillingness to care for the simple human needs of those who stand in front of us with open hands. So ask yourself: Who stands in front of me with needs that I can satisfy? Whom would Jesus serve with my hands? And there is more for the Body of Christ. Beyond the bodily needs of men and women, there is something even more necessary. Jesus is definitely and obviously concerned about physical hunger and thirst, but that is not all. There is also death, and it is inevitable. Bread and fish cannot keep death from claiming its next victim. In John 6, Jesus warns those who are concerned only about their physical flesh: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” They had full bellies, but empty souls. “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (John 6:26-27, ESV). Some churches believe that they are doing the work of Jesus if they concentrate on feeding and clothing the hungry and the naked. Clearly such physical needs should be met by the members of the Body of Christ, individually and corporately-but that is not why the Church exists. That physical food and that physical clothing will perish. People need more than fish and loaves, and Jesus says, “You give them something to eat. You give them what they need.”
You who are parents know what it feels like to be asked constantly for one more thing. When all you want to do is lie down, your children still need food, care, and love. You who are husbands and wives know what it is to be bound tightly to another person. You husbands cannot escape your responsibility to give up your whole self for your wife as Jesus did for the Church, and you wives cannot escape your responsibility to submit to your husbands as the Church does to Christ. You who are children know what it feels like to struggle in keeping the Fourth Commandment, to honor your father and mother whom God has put over you. You who are farmers know what it feels like to have never-ending work in order to provide food for your family and for the country. When you are finished repairing one combine, a truck breaks down. When spraying is completed on one field, the next one is sprouting weeds. And besides the work you have as parents, spouses, children, and farmers, there is the work of the church. Always one more thing to be done. Even so, tired as we are, Jesus says to us, “You give them something to eat.” And we give Him blank stares and objections. We cannot even fulfill our vocations in our families and our jobs; what can we do about the crowds out there who need compassion, who need healing? What do we have to give to modern, sophisticated, and technologically adept people? How shall we provide for them? Lord, we have only a little money, a little time. What can we offer that is worth anything? Jesus answers, “You are right. You have nothing to offer. Your money is not enough, nor is your time. Your meetings are not enough, your attendance on Sunday mornings is not enough. In fact, it is not within your power to give people what they really need.” And that is the point: that we realize we are in no position to feed anyone-we cannot even feed ourselves unless God wills it (although we act as if we can). We cannot see what we should give people because we are looking for it within and among ourselves. When Jesus told the disciples to give the people something to eat, they looked in all the wrong directions. They looked at the massive crowd; they looked at bread and fish; they looked at the money in their pockets; but never did they look at the One who is all-sufficient, who has no problem feeding more than five thousand with a little bread and a little fish.
Now imagine if the disciples had attempted to feed all those people with that fish and those loaves. Would it have gotten past the first family? No, and our weak attempts at feeding people with bread that does not satisfy fare no better. People come to the Church for various reasons. A small minority come because they know what the purpose of the Church is. Some want money; some want good feelings; some want entertainment; some want a self-help class; some want their egos stroked by preachers who find it easier to scratch itching ears than to bind up broken hearts. Shall we, the Church, be complicit in giving out the food that perishes, while at the same withholding the food that endures to eternal life? Every other thing can be found outside the Church: the coffee’s better at Starbucks, the movies are better at the theater, the rock and roll is better at the bar, the self-help is better in the bookstore. But none of them is the Church, and none of them has the one thing that can be found only in the Church and nowhere else. It is the one thing that the disciples, the crowds, and we so often overlook, though He stands right beside us.
How pathetic the disciples look and sound, standing next to the Lord! “‘We have only five loaves here and two fish.’ And [Jesus] said, ‘Bring them here to me'” (Matthew 14:18, ESV). Before the disciples have even asked, before they even think to ask, Jesus takes their feeble gifts and multiplies them into food for the multitude. He looks up to heaven and gives thanks, reminding us that everything-even what we call “ours”-is a gift from God. “Every day He abundantly provides everything I need to nourish this body and life” (Luther). Jesus takes what He has first given us, whether much or little, and He feeds the hungry. And He uses His people to do it. “[Jesus] broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds” (Matthew 14:19, ESV). So it is that Christ feeds you from my hand and my mouth. He gives Himself in the faltering and stumbling words of men who have been called to proclaim the Word of God. He gives Himself in the products of crushed grapes and broken grain made holy by His divine word. He gives Himself in a splash of water that forgives sins because He said it would. And so it is that you, having received the gifts of God, go out into the world and bear witness to the Christ who lives in you. You, like me, have nothing to give them except what has already been given to you: the life of Jesus lived in the midst of the carnage of sin. For what do you have that you did not receive (1 Corinthians 4:7)? Just as there was one basket for each disciple, so Jesus’ gifts are sufficient for each of us as we carry out the vocations into which He has put us. The gifts of Jesus are sufficient because they are nothing other than Jesus Himself, crucified, dead, and risen again.
So what do we have to give to modern, sophisticated, technologically adept people that they cannot get elsewhere? Only what the Church has always had to give: Jesus, only Jesus. Beloved, look no longer at your meager work, your inconsistent service, your lackluster accomplishment. Look instead to Jesus’ all-sufficient work on a Roman cross; look instead to His never-ending service on your behalf; look instead to the salvation He accomplished to perfection-perfection so perfect that He alone could become the failure to, literally, end all failures. He is the bread of life; taste and see that the Lord is good. Feed your families, friends, and neighbors with Jesus Christ crucified, and they, too, will be filled to satisfaction. Jesus says, “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51, ESV). “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price…. Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (Isaiah 55:1-2, ESV). Listen, eat, drink, live.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 7/29/08