Mission Possible? The Feeding of the Five Thousand

In the Gospel reading today we have the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6:30-44).  Jesus takes five loaves and two fish and feeds five thousand men with them, and that’s not counting the women and children present; so there were a lot of people fed with this food.  And it says that the leftovers filled twelve baskets.  Miraculously, Jesus took the small amount of food that the apostles had and multiplied it to feed everyone and then had food left over.  Jesus blessed what the apostles brought forward, multiplied it, and used it to bless the people.

There are a few things going on in this text that you may notice.  The first is that the apostles have just returned to Jesus.  A couple weeks ago we saw Jesus sending them out two by two among the towns to preach and heal.  The apostles had gone out with Jesus’ authority that he had given them.

Now they have returned from this mission and tell Jesus all that they had done and taught.  They were probably pretty excited about it.  They had healed people, brought people to faith, and cast out demons.  They were excited, but probably also a little tired.  So, Jesus tells them to come to a desolate place and rest for a while.  So, they got in their boat and went away to a place where they thought they could be by themselves.

However, they had been out in the towns doing wondrous things, so the people of these towns wanted to follow them.  They were eager for their blessings.  So, the apostles and Jesus were not allowed to be alone; the people wouldn’t let them.  Their plan for rest and leisure was not to be.  They could not remain in comfort, but were rather pressed by the demands of the people.

And Jesus had compassion on the crowd, because they were “like sheep without a shepherd.”  They were people looking for something.  Some may have been simply searching for food or other material blessings.  Others may have been searching for something larger than themselves, some meaning to life.  Some may have been looking for the Truth.

And so Jesus had compassion on them, and began to teach them many things.  The incarnate Word of God, the very Truth, gave the people His Word and blessed them through this.  Jesus gave the people of himself, because he knows they need him and he is compassionate and always giving.  The Good Shepherd tended as his own flock the people who had been without a shepherd.

But after Jesus taught them many things, it grew late in the day and the people were out in the middle of nowhere.  So, the apostles told Jesus, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late.  Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”  

So, the apostles suggest to Jesus that it’d be best to send the people home so that they can be fed.  The class is over, it’s time for the people to go home, there’s nothing more to see here.  Send the sheep back to where they came from and we’ll deal with them another day; we’ve done all we can do, send them away.  

But, Jesus doesn’t do this.  Jesus in his compassion had shepherded these people; they were now his flock.  So, he doesn’t send them away.  What does he say instead?  He tells the apostles, “You give them something to eat.”  Now, the apostles had just been out in the towns, bearing Jesus’ authority, preaching and healing.  And now, Jesus tells them to continue this ministry; feed the people, because the apostles are the ones sent out by Jesus to care for his flock.  

But, this seems impossible to the apostles.  They don’t have the resources to do this.  They can’t fulfill this ministry that Jesus has called them into.  In fact, there’s so many people that would need to be fed that the apostles say to Jesus, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?”  You can hear the sense of incredulousness in what the apostles say to Jesus.  He’s given them an impossible mission; he must be out of his mind.  They don’t have enough money to feed all these people; just let them go and fend for themselves.

After all, two hundred denarii was a lot of money; to give you an idea, one denarius would buy you about $20 worth of bread in today’s dollars – this was the normal daily wage for a laborer in Jesus’ day.  So, two hundred denarii was about $4000 worth of bread; that’s a lot of bread!  When I was a kid, my dad had a ’65 Dodge Dart that he only paid $400 for.  So, that’s like 10 Dodge Darts; although most people would rather have the bread.

So, Jesus’ commission to the apostles to feed the flock seems to be too much for them to do.  They don’t have enough money.  They simply don’t have the resources to carry out this ministry that Jesus has called them into.  Let someone else do it instead.

But, Jesus is always dealing compassionately with his people.  He doesn’t get mad at the apostles.  He doesn’t cast them out from his presence.  He knows that our weak human minds and wills often look at the seeming impossibleness of a task, rather than press on to the goal.  We often act like “glass half empty” sort of people, while Jesus intends to fill the glass to overflowing.  

So, Jesus asks the apostles how much bread they have; that will be enough to fulfill the mission that Jesus has given them because he will bless it.  The apostles report that they have five loaves of bread and two fish; that’s a far cry from the $4000 worth of bread that they really need.  But, Jesus is going to make it work.

He has every one in the crowd sit down in groups on the grass.  And he takes what the apostles have, blesses it, and distributes it to the people.  “And they all ate and were satisfied,” with a lot left over, enough to fill a basket for each of the apostles.  Jesus took the meager resources of the apostles and, with his blessing, multiplied it to enable the apostles to fulfill the commission he had given them to “feed the people.”  And, he also provides for them with the leftovers.  

So, Jesus tells the apostles and their spiritual descendants to feed his sheep.   The Church is called to tend Christ’s flock and to call all the lost people in the world who are like sheep without a shepherd into the flock of Christ.  The Church is given the mission of gathering all people up into the flock of the Good Shepherd, and Christ has given the Church under-shepherds to assist in this task.  And, all believers are given a part in this mission, because all believers are priests before God, called to speak His Word and intercede on behalf of the world.   So, the Church as a whole is called to “feed them.”

It’s like when you go to a wedding.  You don’t just go to the marriage ceremony and then leave.  You go to the reception afterwards.  The host doesn’t just tell you to go home, he feeds you.  Likewise, we – as part of the Church – are the bride of Christ.  And he doesn’t send us away empty – he feeds us as he dwells in our midst.  Likewise, we too are called to feed others by bringing Christ to them so that they too may be united with us in Christ and celebrate in the marriage feast of the Lamb. 

And this isn’t like an unfunded mandate from the government.  The Lord doesn’t just tell his Church to tend his flock and call others into it and then leave his Church to go it alone.  No, the the Lord provides for his Church.  He is with us, in our midst through Word and Sacrament, still feeding us.  So, just as Jesus provided in this event from the Gospel of Mark, so too does he continue to provide for his Church today.

Christ has sent his Church out into the world to teach and baptize and thereby make disciples.  Just as God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, so too is the Church to multiply through the blessing of her husband, Christ.  

After his death and resurrection, Christ commissioned his Church to be his witnesses on earth and to fill the earth.  And the people of the early Church had little resources, but did exactly that, spreading out throughout the Roman empire and beyond and, eventually, to the new world.

And at times, all of us have sometimes wondered how we will survive.  Like the apostles in the text for today, we sometimes wonder how we’re going to fulfill the commission that the Lord has given us.  We look at our resources and have the feeling that they’re not enough for what the Lord has called us to do.  We don’t have the money, we don’t have the people, we don’t have the time.  It seems like we’re engaged in “mission impossible.”

And yet, the Lord provides.  Our resources may not be enough, but the Lord provides for us to enable us to fulfill his commission.  He shows us the people in our midst who are hurting and who are like sheep without a shepherd and tells us, “You give them something to eat.”  And he enables us to do this.  He gives us His Word and His Sacraments to feed these sheep in order to bring them into his flock and keep them in his flock.  He also sends people into our midst who have talents and resources that they put into the service of the Church, so that the Church continues to go on.  The Lord will provide for his Church, always.

The Lord gives us the tools to carry out the mission he has charged us with.  For over 2,000 years the New Testament Church has often faced periods where it looked like it was impossible to go on, but the Lord has provided, because he is the Good Shepherd who does not abandon His flock.  

Think about the Old Testament Church, Israel, and all the the dire times that they encountered.  Israel was taken from their land, away from their temple, and held in captivity – and yet, the Lord was still with them, still providing for them.  Think about the early New Testament Church and all the opposition they encountered, and yet the Lord was still with them, still providing for them.  The Good Shepherd never leaves his sheep to fend for themselves, and he will never leave you either.  

And so we can be confident in the mission the Lord has given us of baptizing and teaching and making disciples.  And we go forth joyfully in this mission, because we know that we have been redeemed from sin and death and reconciled to both God and each other through Christ.  Paul points this out in his letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 2:11-22).  He says that at one you were separated from Christ and from each other.  You were far off, you were strangers to God and each other.  But, now – through his blood – Christ has brought you near and made you his family.  

And this family – his Church – is being built up by the Holy Spirit into a holy temple in the Lord.  The Lord dwells in our midst through Word and Sacrament.  He provides for us and enables us to fulfill his mission he has given us.  It is no longer “mission impossible,” nor even “mission improbable,” nor perhaps “mission possible” – it is now “mission accomplished.”  It is that certain, because it rests on the certainty of God’s promises in Christ.  Christ died and he rose and he will come again on the Last Day.  He has already won the victory and his mission – the Church’s mission – will be accomplished.  Amen.


(Image: The Feeding of the Five Thousand, By Johann von Sandrart – http://www.unionskirche-retten.de/seiten/bildpatenschaft/bild-15.php, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37307617 )