This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

You Feed Them.


Luke 9:12-27.
I.
            Jesus and the disciples are in Bethsaida, where crowds have gathered.  They want to hear Jesus preach about the Kingdom of God and be healed of their diseases.  Apparently they overwhelm the village so they gather in a deserted place outside of town.  And they spend a whole day out there with “5,000 men;” and we can imagine around that many women and children as well. 
            Jesus and the disciples minister to the people until it gets to be around dinnertime.  This is all very informal and thrown together; there is no food court or even hot dog carts around to feed the people.
            They come to one of those crisis points where something has to happen.  And what happens can either be something routine, compromised, normal, and deflating, something that drains the energy out of the group because of necessity everyone has to come back down to earth and attend to necessities.  What happens now will make all the difference between whether this is another movement that is just talk, but really doesn’t change anything, or an exceptional and extraordinary event that ratchets up the energy-level and places the whole movement on a higher plane.
            We come to these shock-points in life, where we have a decision to make.  We can either fall back into what is safe, normal, and familiar, or we can take a leap into a new future, which is risky.
            The disciples have just experienced, if not miracles then certainly an unexpected and eye-opening set of events.  They went on a missionary journey taking no provisions at all, and they were surprisingly provided for anyway by the poor people they visited.  They relied on God, and God came through!
            Now, however, they are faced with a situation of no provisions, and it does not occur to them that God could come through here as well.  This is not one or two visiting apostles being fed by generous local people.  This is like 10,000 people!  Surely there are limits to what God is willing to do.
            They take inventory and discover that they can scrounge up five rolls and two dried fish, barely enough to feed two people if they’re not too hungry.  The options they consider would back away from this opportunity and fall into normal, routine, boring life.  They suggest sending everyone away to fend for themselves, or that they themselves go and buy dinner for 10,000, which they probably do not have the resources to pull off.
            Meanwhile, Jesus is just going, “No, you give them something to eat,” like he’s not quite comprehending the situation.  Eventually he sees that the disciples are clueless about what he means.  They are not making the leap from their own recent experience of reliance upon God and applying that to what is going on now.  So I imagine that he sighs and says, “Okay.  Have everyone gather in groups of about 50 and sit down.”

II.
            What then happens is still shrouded in mystery.  It is the only miracle story that appears in all 4 gospels.  None of them describe what happened in any detail; but for all of them it is the most impressive and powerful thing Jesus does in his ministry.  Whatever happens that day made such a profound impression on everyone that his disciples have sought to imitate Jesus ever since by ceremonially repeating his actions here at their weekly gatherings.
            He takes the bread and the fishes, he blesses them, he breaks them, and he gives them to the disciples.  He takes, blesses, breaks, and gives.  Jesus will repeat this set of actions at his final supper with his disciples, and when he is with two disciples he meets on the road after his resurrection.  This simple series of actions – taking, blessing, breaking, and giving – becomes the most potent sign of Jesus’ living presence.
            I have never been able to even picture this event in my mind.  Bible scholars and film makers have to figure out some way to describe and explain what happens.  But all the gospels tell us is that he took, blessed, broke, and gave the food… and everybody ate, and there were 12 baskets of food left over.  They go from having 5 small loaves and 2 fishes, to having 12 baskets full of leftovers, after feeding 10,000 people.
            We may assume it is a supernatural miracle, that the bread just manifested out of thin air, like some magic out of the Harry Potter books.  But the gospel writers don’t say this.  Some scholars posit the idea that the people were inspired to share what little food they had with them, and it turned out to be more than enough.  (This is called “demythologizing.”)  The gospel writers don’t say that either.  Whatever happens, it is the one event that everyone remembers in more or less the same way.  It becomes the defining act of the Jesus-movement.
            The impact of this event is that the people do not have to depend on the normal and accepted economic institutions for their sustenance.  Neither do they have to fend for themselves in the marketplace in competition with their neighbors for scarce resources.  They learn that the so-called laws of supply and demand don’t apply.  They may have all that they need and more if they rely upon Jesus Christ.  If they assemble in his name, approach creation with reverence and thanksgiving, and take, bless, break, and give what they have, they will have more than enough, together.  That is our faith, that taking, blessing, breaking, and giving is the shape of true human life in the Kingdom of God.

III.
            Some time later, after prayer, Jesus asks his disciples who everyone is saying he is.  They give the same report that Herod received: people are saying the Jesus is John the Baptizer returned to life, or the prophet Elijah, or one of the other prophets.  Everyone seems to think that Jesus is either a resurrected or reincarnated dead person from the past. 
            Then he asks the disciples who they think he is, and Peter answers for the whole group.  They do not think he is someone from the past, but from the future.  “The Messiah of God,” Peter says very simply.  Jesus is “the One who is to come,” he is the One anointed by God to deliver, save, redeem the people.
            Jesus does not contradict Peter, but he does tell Peter and the disciples to keep quiet about the Messiah thing.  Probably because there was a lot of baggage that went along with that term, and Jesus doesn’t want to be defined in people’s minds by their preconceptions about what a Messiah was and what a Messiah was supposed to do.
            Because he immediately goes on to explain that he is not going to fulfill those expectations.  Rather, he predicts for the first time that he will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
            He clearly sees, at this turning point in his ministry, how this is inevitably going to end.  He is offending and threatening the people in his society with the most power.  He is doing the one forbidden thing in an oppressive system: he is organizing people.  He is empowering people.  He is demonstrating that people do not have to participate in their own bondage anymore. 
            With his burgeoning popularity, Jesus knows what he is in for.  But he has known that all along.  At the beginning of his ministry, right after his baptism, he made an enemy of the devil.  And the devil is the one who has a grip on the Herods and Caesars and Pilates and Caiaphuses of this world.  When Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming release to the captives and forgiveness of debts, he had to know that this was not going to be popular with the authorities benefiting from people’s enslavement and indebtedness.
            Jesus chooses a path that would involve his arrest and execution; it is something he knows and intends from the beginning.

IV.
            But then he says something else.  It is one thing for Jesus to suffer and die, and then be raised.  But it was never Jesus’ intention that this be something he does and his disciples merely watch and remember.  Following him means following him, every step of the way.  It is not only his life that gets laid down.  But discipleship demands the life of everyone who would follow Jesus.
            And this is what he starts saying not just to the disciples in private, but to everyone. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.  What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?”
            So now his tone changes.  His message is different.  It must surely have confused people.  Now his ministry is not just about getting your diseases healed.  It’s not just about being set free from the demons oppressing you.  It’s not just about getting yourself fed.  It’s not just about taking benefits and giving thanks for them.  Now it’s about taking something else, taking up a cross, an image that would have horrified anyone of that time who heard it.
            Taking up a cross meant being executed by the Romans as a political criminal.  It was humiliating torture ending in ignominious public death.  No one signing up for Jesus’ movement would want to be reminded that this was what was in store for anyone perceived to undermine Roman authority.    
            Jesus is saying that it’s time to get serious.  There is a cost to this discipleship.  And the cost is your life.  The model that he demonstrates in his signature miracle with the loaves and fishes, of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving, well, that applies as well to each of our lives as disciples.  What we take and bless from God we also break and give to others.
            What we have we have received from God is not inherently ours, a private possession with which we may do as we please.  It is a gift that has come with detailed instructions from the giver about what to do with it.  What we have is not simply to be kept, saved, stored, hoarded, and enjoyed for ourselves.  It is to be blessed, or given thanks for, recognizing that it comes from God as a gift, not an entitlement or an earned benefit.
            What we have is also to be broken, not in the sense of destroying it, of course, but in order to share it by giving it to others.  This receiving and giving, with blessing and breaking in between, is the structure of what we are to do with what we have from God.

V.
            This is what Jesus does with his own life.  He takes up his life among us, he bathes it in blessing and thanksgiving in his ministry, and finally he allows it to be broken on the cross and gives it to us in his resurrection.  He was broken on the cross so his life could be multiplied and distributed to many.
            Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is completed in the breaking and the giving… that’s the challenge.  It’s about the distribution, the sharing out among many, what we receive from God.
            That’s why Jesus talks here about each disciple having to take up their own cross.  We have to be broken and give up to others in turn what we have received from God.  Indeed, we don’t even truly receive anything, until we participate in this basic pattern of multiplication for the sake of distribution.
            And Jesus would have this apply to everything we receive from God, which is to say everything.  This rule applies to food, money, talents, expertise, knowledge, skills, energy, imagination, love… everything.
            What Jesus says here will begin to cause his popularity to weaken.  People will shrink from following him out of shame.  They are disturbed and embarrassed by his talk of death.  They are put off by this bizarre talk of taking up crosses.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that, “When Christ calls someone he is bidding them to come and die.”  But that is not usually what we want on the message board in front of the church.  “Come and die here.”
            But Jesus knows that what has to die in his disciples is that part of them that only wants to receive and not give, the part that only wants to be fed and not feed, the part that only wants to be healed and not heal, that part that only wants the “forgive us our debts,” without the “as we forgive our debtors,” that part that wants the “take” and even the “bless,” but not the “break” and “give.”
            This taking, blessing, breaking, and giving constantly happening among God’s people is how the Kingdom of God becomes realized among us.  The Kingdom of God is a communal network of sacrificial sharing funded by Jesus’ own giving of his life to us.  For as Paul says, “If we have died with him in a death like his, we will surely be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
            When Jesus says, “Take up your cross daily and follow me,” he immediately follows it with the promise that “those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”  In the end, Jesus Christ sees and guides us beyond the cross, beyond death, beyond all that would hurt or harm us.
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