Let's turn to the text for this morning: Matthew 14:13-21, Jesus feeding the 5000 with five loaves and two fish, Jesus and the crowds. "When Jesus heard this" the passage begins, so we have to ask what he had heard. Jesus had heard that his cousin John the Baptist had been executed. Now on the one hand this news was undoubtedly sad to him, painful and caused him grief; on the other hand it meant that the one who had been sent to prepare for him as the Messiah had finished his work, and now it was over to Jesus and his mission in a new way. A new stage in God's work and purpose was about to begin.
So with this news in mind and this kind of impact on him, to find time to pray and to grieve perhaps, time to find fresh focus, Jesus left the crowds where he had been ministering, preaching, healing, and took the twelve by boat to a more isolated place. Alas when he arrived Jesus discovered the crowds had learned of his leaving and had anticipated where he was going and when the boat came to shore there was a great throng waiting for him, asking, seeking, needing healing and instruction. And as so often we read in the Scriptures he did, he did again - he had compassion on them. He cancelled his plans. He began the ministry of healing. He must have done this for a good deal of time, for the next we hear of him we read that his disciples came to him and said, "This is a lonely place. The day is now over. Send the crowds away to the villages to buy food for themselves." Now surely this was a sensible request. Jesus and the disciples had not even brought enough provision for themselves. They were perhaps counting on going to one of the villages themselves to find food. They certainly had not brought provision for a vast crowd of 5000, not even counting the women and children that were present. So after this sensible request, probably made out of concern for Jesus, who was weary and tired, and for the crowd, Jesus said something quite odd, he said to the disciples "They need not go away - you give them something to eat."
Now you might well ask yourself, "Why in the world would he have said such a thing?" He must have known they had no such provisions to hand. Indeed that was precisely what the disciples were thinking. All they could think to say was to state the obvious to Jesus. They said to him, "We have only five loaves here and two fish." Although it's an odd thing, I can't help feeling that there's something familiar happening here as well, because I know of no time when Christ has spoken powerfully to me that he has not both made me aware of the vocation, the call, too great for me to handle, and of the utter inadequacy of my resources for it. So there's something characteristic that's happening. Then Jesus said to them, "Bring the 5 loaves and 2 fishes here to me." Something of monumental importance here is taking place at this point. It has a number of elements:
First Jesus gives them a task well beyond their capacity to carry out. And he did the same thing again at the end of this gospel, "Go into all the world and make disciples." It's a task that has not gone away, by the way. And so he gives them a task far beyond their capacity to carry out.
Secondly they admit this to themselves and to Jesus. They're very open about it. They're not pretending. They're not dashing about saying, "Aha, we will manage this," - which would have been foolish indeed. So they come to Jesus and say, "We have only these resources."
Thirdly he asks them then to bring the resources that they do have to him, to put them into his hands with the task in mind. So they did. Then Jesus has the crowd sit down on the grass. It's clear that Jesus intends to serve them, to serve this crowd food just as he had served them in teaching and healing. Now by using the resources the disciples had provided – five loaves and two fish - he would serve the crowd dinner to meet their physical needs, having been working on their spiritual needs. Taking the loaves and fish in his hands, he looked up and he prayed the prayer of blessing and thanksgiving, "Blessed art thou, O Lord God, King of the universe …" he prayed, the familiar Jewish prayer, and gave thanks to his Father for these provisions. And after that he began to break the bread and the fish and to give basketfuls to the disciples for them to distribute to the crowd. They did just that, the disciples took the food and gave it to the crowd who all ate and all were satisfied. And when they finished there were twelve basketfuls of bread and fish left over.
My brothers and sisters, this was such an astonishing miracle on the one hand and so rich and full of instruction for us today that it is the one miracle of Jesus that is recorded in all four gospels. It's rare to get a three-fold repetition in the Scriptures, but to get a four-fold repetition, it's clear that God wants us to pay attention to this event and learn from it. So then we are to learn from it many things. As I read over it, word after word called out for meditation and explanation and application, far more than one can consider in a single sermon. So may I exhort you this week to make this a text you come back to time and time again, lifting up all the different words in their context and seeing what God would say to you through them. For now let us consider three applications that I believe God would have us hear.
First, JESUS FEEDS THE CROWDS
First we have Jesus who feeds the crowds, Jesus who meets the needs, Jesus who is the Saviour of souls. Here is a display of Jesus' concern for people, and of his great power to provide for them. I believe we are pointed forward to the great climax of the gospel, the cross and resurrection of the Saviour, and to the end of the gospel, to his words,
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me
- the great power, and authority of Christ, hooked up with his compassion and passion for the human heart and soul, to bring them into fellowship with himself.
Go therefore and make disciples.
My brothers and sisters, if he could feed 5000 with five loaves and two fish, we need never fear that anyone is too difficult for him to save. So often when we look about us and feel called to somehow be concerned for the well-being of someone spiritually, we think only of our inability and our resources but here is the one great and eternal Son of God incarnate, the one through whom the very creation itself has been made, the one who died on the cross and who rose triumphant over sin and Satan and death. Nothing, no hardness of heart, is too great for the Saviour, and no person too small for his compassion. Did he not tell us that the Son of Man came chiefly to seek and save the lost? Perhaps you have a friend whose heart is at present set against the gospel, her or his mind closed to the truth of God, indifferent to the things of the Spirit; perhaps it's a parent, a son, a daughter, a grandchild, a nephew, a niece. I exhort you in the name of Christ, never cease to bring them to Jesus in prayer. And humbly and in love whenever an opportunity arises, speak to them of Christ.
We have four children. It was not until she was 24 years of age that our second child gave her life to Christ. It was not that she did not know the gospel - we had shared this time and time again in the family. I remember one evening we were having family prayers (our practice was to read a portion of the Scripture and ask the children questions), when our daughter was about six. I remember her standing up and putting her hands on her hips and saying to the other children, "Don't you know the answer's always that Jesus died for our sins?" So it wasn't that she was ignorant of the truth. There is a mystery to the timing of God in Christ.
We persisted in prayer, we love our daughter deeply. She was off in New York being an artist. And without our knowing it, she had been led spiritually to the end of her rope, to the cathedral of St John the Divine on a New Year's Eve. Because it was open, there she began to pray, to pour out her heart, her need to the Lord. You have to understand that the Cathedral of St John the Divine is not noted for its evangelical fervour or its orthodoxy. But here is my daughter on her knees on a New Year's Eve, praying. By his grace and mercy the Lord Jesus Christ spoke to her and she became born anew. How we wept for joy and gladness when she called us at home and told us about it. It was to us out of the blue that she phoned to share the wonderful story of her conversion.
Brothers and sisters, never stop praying to Jesus, who is the mighty Saviour of souls. Or perhaps you're worried about yourself, far from God at present. You feel you're too calloused to recapture your 1st love. At church you're going through the motions instead of being excited and vividly relating to the Lord. You feel you're beyond all help. Let me say, you're not beyond Christ's help. So turn to Christ in prayer, ask him to reveal himself to you. Look at him in the gospels, read of his grace and his saving work in the epistles, and do not cease until your heart has been touched, your conscience touched, your joy rekindled.
Just as he said to the twelve, "Bring the loaves and fishes to me." He also says to you concerning those for whom you are concerned, and concerning yourself, "Bring yourself to me and bring them to me." It is clearly true that he will use the 'loaves and fishes' expressed in our words to work the greatest miracle of all, to give the spiritually lost new life. indeed eternal life in itself. For he is more than just the food for 5000 by the Sea of Galilee. He is more than that. He says,
Do not labour for the food which spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.
He is more than the manna provided in the desert, given graciously from high. He is the Bread of Heaven, that does not perish, that never runs out. He is for ever, he abides for ever, he is the Bread that satisfies completely and saves to the uttermost. Not even death can challenge his ability to feed his people with himself. For you see the greatest miracle of all that he wishes to do is to bring the spiritually lost to eternal life. That's the 1st that I think we need to hear from this text.
Secondly, TWELVE BASKETS LEFT OVER
Second and closely connected to that, there were twelve baskets that were left over. We're not explicitly told why there were twelve baskets left over. I understand that after the feeding of the 4000 there were seven baskets left over and so I feel this is a significant number, and see in this that they were a sign of the fullness of Jesus the Messiah's saving work for the twelve tribes of Israel. He is renewing his ministry through the twelve apostles. He is the Christ of Israel, sent first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
St Paul tells us that we are to take the gospel first to the Jew and then to the gentile. So let us have a special love for the Jews wherever we may find them. As Christians down throughout he centuries we have failed in this; let us pray for them and love them. St Paul tells us in Romans 9-11 we Gentile Christians have a very special vocation to comfort them with the comfort with which we are comforted. and make them jealous so that they want the same grace. Whenever possible, share by word and deed the gospel with them. God is not done with his ancient people - there are still twelve full baskets left over for them.
Thirdly, INSTRUCTION FOR OUR CHRISTIAN LIVES
Thirdly here we find in this wondrous event, instruction for our Christian lives, for the various tasks and ministries that we are be called to undertake for Christ. We are each ministers of Christ to serve him in many and various ways, and called to serve him together as congregations and as his church. What do we learn about the way we handle the ministries Christ puts before us? Note how this all begins - it begins in Christ's compassion. The miracle of the feeding of the 5000 would never have happened if Jesus had not had compassion on the crowd, had he not been willing to interrupt his own plans to serve them. So he looked out and saw the crowds as sheep without a shepherd, ripe for the harvest, and stops his plans.
As we as Christians follow him, his compassion will begin to awaken in us a compassion. We will begin to see a ministry, a need, a service, a calling to others we are being called to undertake. It will become clear, and it will be a ministry far beyond our resources. We will hear Jesus say to us, "Impossible, but do it anyway! You go and feed them." Our only responsible response will have to be to go to Jesus in prayer, give him what resources we have, and ask him to direct our steps and provide the ways and the means to multiply our loaves and fishes, and as we do, in the most astonishing way he will do that. Let me give you one example which has really changed my life. It was perhaps the biggest jump in my Christian life next to my conversion itself. In 1975 I was part of a group in the US that discerned a need for the country and for the Episcopal church. We felt that there was a great need to start an evangelical seminary in the Episcopal church. There were already some ten seminaries, not one of which was deeply evangelical, orthodox or biblical. So we saw the need.
We had very little money and it became even more personally threatening when some of us were actually called to give up our salaries and begin this seminary with very little money. You have to remember that some of us are the children of those who went through the great depression in America and financial security was very close to the first commandment in our lives, and so this was very threatening to us. But God blessed us in this endeavour.
We called as the first dean an Australian bishop, Alfred Stanway, who'd taken early retirement from being a missionary bishop in Tanzania. So he was relatively young, I think he was 63 or so, and was back in Australia because he'd taken early retirement to make room for a native bishop to become Bishop of Central Tanganyika at that time. He had done his ministry there for thirty-some years in the midst of the great East African revival, a powerful experience. So he came to us, fearful as we might be and brought with him the four great principles (of which I had never heard) of the Church Missionary Society. These principles seem almost to arise out of our text this morning, this great miracle of the feeding of the 5000. Let me share them with you briefly:
First principle: Be willing to start small - no matter how great the call and how great the task - be willing to start small. From the tiniest of seeds have we not heard on the highest authority, from the tiniest of seeds, the mustard seed, the great kingdom of God will grow. So the first principle is to be humble enough and confident enough and daring enough to make a beginning. Do not despise the day of small beginnings.
Second principle: Pray often and follow the Lord's leading. Daily go to Jesus and let him bless and lead. We are all, are we not, tempted to neglect prayer. dashing out in our own strength, at least I know I am. So pray often, and follow the Lord's leading He has promised to lead us, but we're not giving him a chance
Third principle: Put money in a subordinate place. This was a surprise to us. This is where the multiplication of loaves and fishes comes in. You do not ask first, "Can we afford this? Do we have the resources to do this?" Do not say, "Lord, we have only two small fish and five loaves." Wrong statement, wrong question. Ask first, "What is the Lord calling us to do?" And upon hearing that, and being confident that that is truly his call, then trust him for the means. Place your loaves and fishes in his hands and ask him to multiply them. Hudson Taylor, the great Christian missionary, put it this way,
"God's work, done in God's way, will never lack God's supply".
Bishop Stanley said,
"God is not short of money".
I am reminded of the preacher who on adding a large extension to the parish hall, said to his parishioners,
"I have good news and bad news. The good news is we have more than enough money already in hand to cover the extension. The bad news is that it's still in your pockets".
God owns the cattle on 1000 hills.
Fourth principle: everything depends on getting the right people in the right positions The first three principles having been settled and acted upon, everything depends on getting the right people in the right positions. We're actually to pray for the right people, not just fill positions. Better to wait than to just plug folks in. Proper giftedness, and proper leadership matters in the kingdom of God. It also means that we're to offer our gifts in service and response to Jesus' call. It's important to get the right people in the right positions.
So in 1975, with much fear and trembling we began the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, with very little money and a weak but growing faith in the God who called us and in trust that he would multiply and provide. I served there as the Dean and President and one of the professors for twelve years, and then for several years just as one of the teachers - I wanted to get back to teaching full-time, trusting that he would multiply and divide. Trinity has become the third largest of the eleven seminaries, second largest in training those for ordained ministry. We have ministries for both lay and ordained leadership. It is solidly evangelical, has never missed a pay day in 25 years. It has blessed many a congregation by providing educated and prepared lay and ordained leaders - putting the right people in the right positions.
This has been life-changing to those of us who stepped out giving what little loaves and fishes we had. We thought we were on thin ice - actually we were walking on the rock. It was nice to have our eyes opened. We were weak in our initial expecting but God has revealed himself now to us as full of power and grace and Lord of history, not just locked up in some distant past or some distant heaven, but also Lord of heaven and earth, and at work in this world and our mission.
He has provided. He has done a great work, he is doing a great work. even through such as we. None of us will ever be the same again. I have to tell you we can still get timid from time to time and frightened from time to time when he calls us to things like becoming an irregular bishop and need to be reminded that he is the Lord in the fullest sense of that word. This has been our experience, it will be your experience too. It will always be our experience too when we answer his call. In the feeding of the 5000 he teaches us how to respond to him and to watch him take us in his hands and use us. What a miracle! What a Lord we have! He fed them. Now as our Saviour feeds us, we feed those we bring to him. He is indeed the true bread of heaven. He feeds us at his table, through his word and through one another. And he calls us to follow him. He says, "If you will serve others in following me as I lead and guide you, I will surely use you and your gifts and do more than you can ever think or imagine. I will multiply your loaves and fishes."