22 July 2012
He Keeps on Giving Bread to His Disciples
If you ask a new Mom what life with a newborn infant is like, she will likely tell you about feeding him, and how he eats, how much and how often. Everything revolves around that routine, whether on a schedule or on demand. Toddlers and teenagers are not much different. Food and drink are so central to life, eating and drinking so necessary, and so fundamental, not only to living, but to the fellowship of family and friends. Not only basic to survival, but the heart of any celebration.
With food and clothing let us be content, the Scriptures teach. But depending on the climate, you can survive without clothing, or with very little clothing, far longer than you can make it without food. Once you are born, your life depends upon breathing and eating and drinking. Breathing is more constant, but food and drink are just as necessary in due season.
Spiritual life is much the same. As you are born of Christ in Holy Baptism, and clothed in Him, in His Righteousness, so do you breathe His Word and Spirit by faith in His forgiveness of sins, and so do you eat and drink His Body and His Blood, which are your Meat and Drink indeed.
Mothers are uniquely equipped to feed their babies, as the Church is likewise equipped to nurture the children of God. But no Mom can feed her nursing infant if she herself is not being nourished. She cannot give what she does not receive. Thus, both Mother and Child wait upon the Lord, who alone provides all that is needed, who opens His hand to satisfy the hunger of every living thing.
The Apostles, too, must rely upon the Lord and receive His good gifts, if they are to do and give anything in His Name. They cannot speak, except as they have heard. They cannot teach, except what they have been taught. They cannot forgive sins, except by the Spirit of Christ Jesus, which He breathes upon them by His Word. They cannot heal the people or care for the crowds, except they find their Sabbath Rest in Him, and eat and drink from His hand.
As it is, at this point, they have been doing and teaching a great deal for a great many people, and they are spent, exhausted and hungry. St. Mark has made a point of telling us, “they did not even have time to eat.” Most of you know how that goes and what that’s like. You get caught up in your duties, in caring for others and meeting their demands, and before you know it, lunch time has come and gone, and you’ve missed your break, and you can feel yourself slowing down and starting to fade. Same kind of thing when you’ve been too busy to sleep. Whether you’re a cook or a waitress, a retail store manager, a doctor or nurse, or a cop on the night shift. Adrenaline may carry you for a while, and you may have reserves to draw upon, but eventually you’re gonna crash. You need to rest, to eat and drink, to be refreshed and restored.
So Jesus gathers the Apostles to Himself, and with care and concern for these men, whom He loves, He calls them away from the crowds and the chaos to a secluded place — to peace and quiet — to rest their bodies and their minds, and to eat. Notice that they follow Him to all of that “in the boat,” which is to speak of that “holy ark of the Christian Church,” such as Cyprian has boarded with all of us on this day of his Holy Baptism. It is in the Church that you find peace and Sabbath Rest in Christ Jesus, and the Food that He gives you to eat and to drink.
But the crowds are hungry, too. Hungry for help. Hungry for healing and security. Hungry for daily bread of one sort or another. Hungry for life. So they follow after Jesus and the Apostles. Or, rather, they race around the water on foot, and are already there waiting when the boat lands, in what had been a secluded place. Thousands of needy people, longing for peace and rest. They have not come in the boat; they’re not yet in the Church; they are like sheep without a shepherd.
And Jesus has compassion on them. He is moved by His divine and tender mercy, from the depths of His being, to help them. This is the compassion with which He goes to the Cross, like a Lamb to the slaughter, to lay down His life for the sheep. So does He become their Good Shepherd. Which means what? That He guards and protects them, and rescues them from danger. That He defeats and drives away their enemies, who prey on them. And that He leads and guides them in safety, and provides them with food and drink in green pastures, alongside streams of living water.
But what it means to be their Shepherd, first of all, is that He begins to teach them many things. He catechizes them. He makes of them disciples by the speaking of His Word to them. For He comes to preach peace, to those who are near, and to those who are far off. It is by such preaching that He begins to shepherd them; by His preaching that He addresses and meets their every need; by His preaching that He gives them peace and rest.
Still, it is a desolate place, and bodies require food. Presumably, the Apostles have not yet eaten, either, but have been listening to Jesus. You can put yourself in their shoes and imagine how antsy they may have been. Were their bellies beginning to rumble and growl? Were they fighting to keep their eyes open? In any event, it was already quite late when they finally came to Jesus with concern for the crowds of people — and perhaps for their own hunger, as well. “Send them away,” they urged. “Let them go and buy themselves something to eat.” And then, at last, the disciples would also be able to eat: to share their loaves and fishes between them, and rest.
You can imagine their surprise and befuddlement when Jesus responds to their suggestion with an entirely different plan: “You (disciples) give the crowds of people something to eat.”
Jesus is going to feed the 5000. You already know that. But He deliberately does so by the hands of His disciples. That’s how He works. That’s how He feeds His Church on earth and shepherds the sheep of His pasture. He gives to His disciples to give to all the people what they need.
He puts them on the spot, at first, in telling them to do this thing. They know they don’t have it in them to do it. They simply can’t. Where or how would they begin? It doesn’t even occur to them to consider their own uneaten lunch, because, really, what’s the point? Five loaves of bread and a couple fish might be fine for twelve hungry men, but it obviously isn’t going to fill up or satisfy the bellies of 500 times that many people.
If the Apostles have been tempted to think that all of their doing and teaching were somehow by their own power and abilities, by their own resources and skills, they know better in this situation. In truth, they have nothing but what they receive from the Lord. They have nothing to give but what they are given. In this, their preaching and healing are really no different than feeding 5000.
So, now, as He has been with them in their doing and teaching, He takes what little they do have — the five loaves and two fish they have already received — and He opens His hand to provide for everything that is needed. He takes the bread, He blesses, He breaks, and He keeps on giving it to the disciples to set before the people. Everyone eats, and everyone is satisfied.
This, too, is how He shepherds the sheep. The food accompanies the teaching of His Word, and now His Word accompanies and sanctifies the food, and both the teaching and the feeding are caught up in the compassion of His own sacrifice. In this way, He who gives Himself as a ransom for the many, also gives Himself to them as real food and drink for body and soul. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for “soul” is also the word for “throat,” which demonstrates, again, the centrality of eating for life. So does your soul feast upon the Lord, as your throat receives and swallows the food with which He feeds you. Not bread alone, but the Word of God — the Word made Flesh.
He allows you to grow hungry, as He allowed the crowds and His disciples to grow hungry, and then He feeds you, one and all, with a miraculous Bread — which none of you have known before, and none of you could ever have gotten for yourself — that you might learn to be and to live as His disciple, that is, to live by faith in His Word. In such faith, you wait upon Him, knowing that He will provide for you. And in such faith, you receive His Bread from His hand with thanksgiving.
For He is your great Good Shepherd King — the new and greater David — who is the Lord, your Righteousness, in the flesh. He does and accomplishes everything for you in Himself. He justifies you and reconciles you to God, His Father, by His Cross and Resurrection. He bears all your sin, all your frailties and weaknesses, all your griefs and sorrows, in His own Body, even unto death. And He sheds His holy and precious Blood for you, to make Atonement for you, and to redeem you from the bondage of sin and death, unto life everlasting. Having done all of this, He also comes and preaches peace to you, that is, the forgiveness of all your sins, by His Gospel. He calls and gathers you to Himself, and He cares for you by His Word and Spirit. He brings you to His God and Father, not simply as a guest or a visitor, but as a member of the family, as a beloved child and heir. Thus, you have a home, that is, a place where you really belong, where you eat and sleep in the fellowship of the Holy Triune God.
You are no longer lost or missing or scattered. You shall not be destroyed, but dwell securely. For the Lord Himself has sought you out and found you: He has gathered you to Himself, taken you into His arms, and brought you home rejoicing. Do not be afraid. For He is your Good Shepherd.
He cares for you, now, in all these ways, through those shepherds He provides for His flock on earth; that is, through pastors who preach and teach and administer His Gospel. As the whole Church is built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, so does the Church in each place live by the Ministry of such preaching and teaching, by the administration of the Holy Sacraments. Pastors do and teach these things, they give these gifts of God, not by their own reason or strength, but by the Word of Christ, handing over what He Himself provides.
What I receive from the Lord, I also deliver to you: The confession of Christ, crucified and risen, and His Body and His Blood, given and poured out for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins.
I could no more do any of this by myself than the disciples could feed 5000 men, plus women and children, with their lunch. But your pastors are cared for by the Lord Jesus, and are provided for by Him. It is in His Name that your pastors, in turn, serve and care for you; so that you receive the many things He teaches you by this preaching, and you also eat from His hand and are satisfied. These are the fruits of His Passion, which He gives you here, in particular, in the Divine Service.
It does not come to an end with the Divine Service, however. Consider those twelve baskets full of broken pieces, and how they were gathered up. So, too, as the loaves and fishes were multiplied — and as the Body and Blood of Christ continue to be given and poured out to feed His whole Church in every time and place — so are His people fruitful and multiplied, to love and serve and care for each other; to feed each other, according to the Lord’s calling.
What shall you say? That you do not have enough? That you are hard pressed already, taking care of yourself? That you cannot afford to feed your neighbor, besides? That he or she does nothing for you, anyway, but only takes without returning the favor?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, you are reconciled to one another in Him, and you belong to one another, as members of one Body, in Him.
Do not suppose that you have nothing to do or to give, nor that you do not have enough to go around. Instead, do what you are given to do, and give what you receive. After all, what do you have that you have not received from the Lord, by His grace? All that is needed, is provided, and more than enough. The Lord is generous, and even the young ravens know that all good things come from Him. Yet, He now desires to serve your neighbor through you, as He also serves you through your neighbor. He does not give this task without also supplying the bread to fulfill it.
Do not be afraid. The Lord will not let you starve. Nor will He work you to death. It is His work and His death that give you life, and it is He who feeds you with Himself. Therefore, do not think that everything depends upon you. But neither conclude that your work is pointless or in vain. Beloved, your calling is not a lark. Your office and station in life are not for nothing. You are a member of God’s household and family; so then, live that way, and do your part within the family.
Do so — do whatever you are given to do — in the confidence that Christ is the Cornerstone; that His own crucified and risen Body is the Building, the Temple of God, in which you live and move and have your being; and that all things are accomplished in Him.
You are not a stranger, nor an outcast, but you belong to Christ Jesus, and so you are a friend and a fellow citizen with all His saints.
That includes the great St. Cyprian of Carthage, for whom little Cyprian Rhein has been named. He was a pastor and a bishop of the Church in northern Africa, in the first half of the third century. He lived and served in a time of great conflict and persecution, when the Church was struggling to find her place and her way. In one fierce persecution, Cyprian went into hiding, in order to continue caring for the flock through correspondence. Not ideal, but he did what he could with what he had to work with under the circumstances.
When Cyprian was able to return, he shepherded the Church of the Good Shepherd with the Word of Christ, and as a pastor and bishop he was instrumental in the reconciliation of many: of those who were at odds with each other within the Church, and of those who had fallen away through fear and faithlessness during the persecution.
When yet another wave of persecution came, Cyprian was among those who were martyred in the faith and peace of Christ. Thus, he sealed his confession and his ministry with his own blood, for the sake of Him who shed His Blood for all of us, who died for us and rose again. So does St. Cyprian live in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus. And so does the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ continue to live, even as her earthly shepherds come and go. And so do you also live, even now, by the grace of God in Christ, by faith in His Gospel, within your own vocation.
Whether you live, or whether you die, you are His own. And so you shall remain.
If you are tired, hungry, discouraged, anxious or afraid; if you are spent, exhausted, and ready to expire — take heart, and do not despair. Your Lord has compassion on you, and He cares for you.
Come here now, and rest a while. Eat and drink in peace. Be refreshed by the Lord who opens wide His hand to feed you. For you also are baptized — which is the new and better circumcision, made without human hands — by which you belong to the fellowship of the new and better Israel, which is the Body and Bride of Christ, His Church. You are God’s own child. You are a sheep of the Good Shepherd. And therefore, with His Word, He satisfies you with Life itself — which is really to say that your body and soul are fed with the Lord Himself:
Here at His Table, you are brought near by His Blood, and through His Body you have access to His God and Father in the Holy Spirit. This is your Meat and Drink indeed, so that, even in death, you also rise and live in Him.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.