Sunday, August 3, 2008

Giving What We Have Received

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-8; Romans 11:25-36; Matthew 14:13-21

THERE’S AN EXPRESSION THAT goes, "You can’t give what you haven’t got." It’s used a lot in business and education. It stands to reason: If, say, you don’t know beans about differential calculus, you can’t teach it. If you have no authority to give orders, you can’t give someone else the authority to give orders.

But there’s another side to it: It’s not just that you can’t give what you haven’t got, you also won’t and don’t and can’t give what you don’t know you have! I imagine a lot of job seekers sell themselves short telling interviewers they can’t do something they’re perfectly capable of, if they only knew they had it in them.

But once you know what you have, and you know there’s a need for it, will you give it? That’s the question that faces us in our Gospel lesson today.

St. Matthew begins by saying, "Now when Jesus heard this." That is, He’d heard that King Herod had cruelly and unjustly put to death John the Baptist. John was Jesus’ own cousin, and Jesus Himself said John was the greatest prophet God had ever sent to His people Israel. Jesus knew He needed to get away and mourn for John, and to think and pray about what John’s death would mean for the next stage in His own ministry.

But the crowds didn’t care about Jesus’ loss or Jesus’ needs. Poor souls! They were eaten up with needs of their own. So they ran around the margin of the lake, and by the time the boat got Jesus there, there were all the people, waiting for Him.

Matthew tells us that Jesus our Savior had compassion on them. If He were merely human, He might have said, "This is too much! I have nothing left to give." But Jesus continually received power from His Father in heaven. The Holy Spirit was One with Him, empowering Him, strengthening Him, giving Him the divine patience He needed. Jesus knew what He had, and He was able to give the crowds what they needed. And so throughout that long day, Jesus healed their sick, and as Mark and Luke tell us, He taught them about the Kingdom of God.

But then it was evening. The hour was late, past time for supper. "We’re done here!" our Lord’s disciples say. "It’s time for the crowds to go away and buy themselves something to eat!"

That wasn’t a breach of hospitality; it was simply facing reality. The crowds weren’t the disciples’ guests; they weren’t even a properly assembled congregation. Each person was there to get his own needs and wants met, not to be part of a unified group. In the ordinary way of things, the disciples had no obligation to these people whatsoever. In fact, the disciples were actually being kind to them, by asking Jesus to dismiss the crowds and let them go.

But Jesus doesn’t do things in the ordinary way. He responds, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat."

Whaaaattt??? The disciples are supposed to give all these people supper? How can Jesus ask that? It’s a good chance the disciples had planned to buy food for this retreat in the villages, themselves! How can Jesus tell them to give what they hadn’t got?

They reply, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." That’d be something like small pita breads, and the fish would have been dried and salted and pretty small, too. But what is that among so many? You can’t give what you haven’t got, and when it comes to feeding maybe 15,000 people all told, five little loaves and fishes are like nothing!

The disciples had nothing to give! That was the problem! Or was the real problem that they weren’t giving something they didn’t know they actually had?

Jesus said, "Bring them [that is, the loaves and fish] here to me." And He orders the crowds to sit down on the grass.

Let’s not rush by this. First of all, Jesus is giving the people rest. The custom in that time was that the teacher sat to teach, and the learners stood to hear him. Only if you were crippled or absolutely infirm did you sit down when the rabbi spoke. If you want to get an idea of this, attend a Greek Orthodox service. Even the most elderly will stand for hours, out of respect for the divine Word given them in the liturgy.

So Jesus gives them rest, by ordering them to sit down. But He gives them something else. By commanding them to sit down in His presence, He makes of them a single family, sitting down to table with Jesus Himself as the father of the family presiding over the meal. Before they’d had a single bite to eat, Jesus gave these people something they didn’t have before: Community, oneness, family unity in the presence of God. It’s something He could give, for He has known it from eternity in the communion of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

They sat, and Jesus took the bit of food into His hands. Our translation says "He blessed and broke the loaves." But there really should be a comma after "blessed," because by the original Greek and by the ancient custom of the Jewish father at a family meal, Jesus surely blessed God for the food and for God’s power that was about to be demonstrated in and through this food. We must not visualize our Lord saying some sort of special holy words over this bread and fish, that magically caused them to multiply! No, what Jesus did here He did in the power and communion and fellowship of His Father in heaven.

And once Jesus had broken the bread and the fish, He gave it to His disciples. And now, they had something to give and they knew they had something to give! And they gave, and gave, and gave, until every last man, woman, and child had eaten his or her fill and every disciple was in charge of a full basket of leftovers to take home.

But did the disciples understand then and there what it was they really had to give, there in that deserted place on the other side of the Sea of Galilee? Do we know what we have to give, when Jesus sends us into the world as His church?

After our Lord’s death and resurrection, they knew. They knew they had much more to give than mere physical bread. No, beyond any physical food, the disciples learned they possessed and could give away the most nourishing Food of all: Jesus Christ Himself, the Bread of heaven. This is the Food which if anyone eats of it, he will never hunger again. This is the eternal food that we and all Jesus’ disciples have received to give to the world.

Isn’t that what the Holy Spirit says through the prophet Isaiah? He says,

"Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live."

Jesus Christ is the banquet to which we are called. Jesus Christ is the heavenly Bread sufficient to feed the hungry soul. His blood is the heavenly wine that washes away the thirst of desperation and sin. His body was broken and torn on Calvary’s cross to offer us eternal food that truly satisfies; His blood was poured out to gives us salvation and peace without money and without price.

As Jesus commanded the disciples that evening long ago, so now He commands His Church: "You give them something to eat." And God has given us such an abundance to give away! Jesus Himself is the One we have received, and He is the One we give. Jesus Himself nourishes us through His Word and Sacraments, and with Him we nourish the lost and hungry people of this fallen world.

We don’t have to belong to big churches with money and members and ministries tumbling out the windows in order to satisfy the deepest needs of the crowds at our door! People of God! Every church where Jesus Christ is faithfully preached as crucified for our sins and risen for our life has something to give! Every church where the feast of God is spread in the royal banquet of Holy Communion, every church where sins are shown to be washed away in the waters of Baptism can satisfy the needs of the hungry world! Every church that knows that the living Christ dwells among them, every church that faithfully believes and proclaims Christ and Him crucified-- that church has all it needs to offer the crowds in its time and place. For it is giving what it has received: Jesus Christ, the Bread of heaven.

What is more, that church can offer the sin-sick, heart-hungry crowds community in Christ. That church-- no, this church can offer the lost, hurting, and hungry people of Butler County membership in a family, where Jesus Christ sits at the head of the Table and breaks and gives His own body to satisfy and heal us all.

You don’t have to send people away to be fed elsewhere. And you don’t have to work and labor to buy the bread your soul needs. Jesus Christ has paid for it by His blood. Jesus Christ is the Bread that satisfies the hungry soul. He is here among you, given to you by grace, received by you in faith. Delight in Him, feed on Him, and turn and joyfully give what you have received.

No comments: