Feeding the 5000 - A Lesson in Ministry
The Romance of Ministry
It wasn’t fair. If it were you or me we’d be feeling so frustrated. The disciples were on a high. They’d just got back from a mission trip. They’d been preaching the gospel, casting out demons and healing people, just like Jesus. But now there were people everywhere and they hadn’t had a chance to talk to Jesus about it. What they needed was some time to themselves to process what they’d just experienced. So Jesus suggests they get away by themselves; go on retreat. They’re fishermen so it seems easy. They can just hop in boat and get away from the madding crowd.
But it’s not to be. Their plans are foiled. It’s like a film star trying to avoid the paparazzi. People see them going and hurry after them.
The Reality of Ministry
And so the disciples discover the reality of ministry. If you’re in ministry (and every one of us is, in case you didn’t realise it!) you don’t always have the luxury of being able to do just what you want. Sometimes, perhaps even often, you have to give up your own desires in order to serve God in some way. Sometimes you have to modify those plans you’ve made so carefully, because God throws another possibility into the mix; something you’ve never thought of; something totally unexpected even.
As we’ll see in a moment Jesus is the model of ministry and so he leads the way. We’re told as he saw a great crowd he had compassion for them. So he began to teach them many things.
The disciples no doubt saw this huge crowd as a distraction, an annoyance. But Jesus sees them as an opportunity. Here are a great flock of people, like sheep without a shepherd.
That of course is an Old Testament allusion isn’t it? Ezekiel describes the people of Israel as being like a flock who’ve been abandoned by their shepherds, left to wander over the mountains where they became food for wild animals. But now Jesus has come as the Good Shepherd, promised by God; come to seek out his sheep and look after them (Ezek 34:1-16). And so his heart goes out to them.
The reality of ministry is that God will regularly put opportunity for ministry in your way. It may not always be convenient but God sends people and opportunities our way because he wants us to serve him through them. And that’s what the disciples are learning as these events unfold.
The Discipline of Ministry
Of course, being a disciple isn’t always the easiest of jobs. Being a disciple involves learning new things, being pushed out of your comfort zone, being tested to see what you’ve learnt so far. And that’s what happens here. The disciples are getting a bit tired as the day goes on, so they come to Jesus and suggest that he sends the people away to get something to eat. Of course the subtext is this: “then we can do the same thing - in peace and quiet!”
But Jesus decides this is a great opportunity to test them - and to teach them something important. So he says “You give them something to eat.” Sounds simple doesn’t it? They’ve just come back from preaching the gospel, healing the sick and driving out demons so what’s hard about feeding a few people? But what do they say? “Us?! How are we going to find enough food for this huge crowd?” “We have a bit of money in the kitty but not enough to buy food for all these people. You’re talking about 8 month’s wages here!”
The times of testing in our ministry can sometimes be too much for us and we’re tempted to give up altogether. We say it’s all too hard. Let someone else do it if they can. I’m just not up to it!
Well, that’s the sort of response we find here from the disciples. We can’t possibly do it!
Modelling of Ministry
So Jesus shows them how it can be done. He asks them what food they have, and they manage to find a couple of fish and five loaves of bread. John tells us they got it from a boy in the crowd. Then he gets everyone to sit down in manageable groups, he prays over the food, then proceeds to break it into pieces and keeps doing so until everyone is full.
Now don’t be misled by those who want to deny that this is a miracle - that one boy’s offer of his lunch led to everyone else sharing what they had. The way Mark describes this, with little details like the way they were organised into groups so they could distribute the food, the sharpness of the disciples’ response to Jesus in v37, all indicate that this is an eyewitness report of a miraculous event. Jesus has done something unbelievable. Here’s another demonstration of Jesus deity. Jesus is doing what God did in the exodus, providing food for his people from virtually nothing. If we had any doubt that he’s able to provide for our daily needs this should remove it.
But the question I’m sure you’re all asking is how could the disciples possibly have fed the crowd the way Jesus does? It’s all very well for Jesus to demonstrate his power in this way but does this really give us a model for our ministry?
Power for Ministry
Well, let’s think about our ministry. What is it that’ll make our ministry effective?
I was reading an article last week by John Maxwell on how to get people to listen to what you say. He’s one of the leadership gurus of the American Church. His advice was along this line: Make the most of whatever skills and experience you have; make sure you know the right people and that your listeners know it; let people know that you know stuff that can help them; show that you’re successful; show that you’re good at what you do; let people know how you’ve sacrificed or suffered in your service of God. Well what do you think? Does that sound like a recipe for success in Christian Ministry?
I think it sounds like a typical bit of leadership pop psychology. It’s totally divorced from the reality of normal life for the vast majority of us. And I’m sure the disciples would have agreed. They must have felt totally powerless.
But then Jesus steps in. The disciples were incapable of doing anything about the peoples’ hunger, yet what they were incapable of, Jesus did with ease. And that’s for two reasons.
First Jesus was demonstrating that he was the prophet spoken of by Moses in Deut 18:18. The one who’d come proclaiming God’s word in the place of Moses. So we see echoes here, as I said, of the way God fed them in the desert. There’s possibly also an echo of the way God supplied food for Elijah and the widow and her son for 7 years while there was a famine in Israel.
But more than that what we find here is that Jesus supplies the sort of power that the disciples were lacking. In fact had they trusted him they could have done this as well, just as they’d cast out demons in his name. And notice that the power he supplies is far more than they need. At the end of the meal as they collect the leftovers there’s 12 baskets of food left. They could have fed another 40 or 50 people!
What does that say to us about ministry? Well, I think it says that if we need power for ministry, there’s only one place to look. That’s to Jesus. And we can look to him with confidence and expectancy, knowing that he’s able to give us far more than we ask or even imagine.
This puts a whole new perspective on our regular prayer “Give us today our daily bread” doesn’t it? As we pray that, we’re thinking not just of our physical needs but of everything we need for ministry day by day.
It also puts a new perspective on the way we feel about mentioning our faith to people. Rather than being afraid that they’ll laugh at us or reject us, this gives us confidence that God will open an opportunity for us if only we’ll give it a go.
At the clergy conference this week we had a man talking about Back To Church Sunday. He told us some of the reasons people never invite their friends to these special services. I thought there were some pointers we could pick up in what he said for the way we invite or don’t invite people to our special events. The major reason he said people gave was fear - fear of rejection, of embarrassment, of intruding on their private religious feelings, fear that new people might change the church. Now we don’t have time right now to go into that whole area but I want to ask you, do you trust Jesus to do what seems impossible for you? Do you trust that he can change your friends so they’ll be willing to come and see what goes on here on a Sunday morning? Do you trust him to overcome the culture shock when they first come here?
What we see in this miracle is that Jesus is able to do amazing things if we trust him. So let me encourage you to try it. Pray that God would show you who to ask. Then try inviting those friends to church and see what happens.
Finally just a couple of things to mention.
First notice that even Jesus’ plans are disrupted by events. Even the ruler of the universe finds his plans change when ministry opportunities arise. Sometimes we just need to go where God takes us, even if it’s annoying or even uncomfortable.
Secondly, note that the motivation for Jesus’ action here is his compassion for the crowd - and notice that his compassion leads him to feed them spiritually and mentally, but also physically. So too, we mustn’t ignore the issues of need in the world just because we’re preaching the gospel.
If you’re going to lunch today you should receive a 5th birthday card to sign. These will be collected by Ruth & Yvonne and sent to the Minister for Foreign Affairs to remind him about Australia’s promise to achieve the Millenium Development Goals by 2015. It’s a small thing to do but it might have a big effect if we also pray that God would take our small card and multiply its effect the way Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.
Jesus shows in this miracle that he has the power we need to deal with the opportunities that arise for ministry, even the difficult ones. We can trust him to help us when we need it if only we’ll ask for his help. So let’s keep our eyes open to see what interruptions to our plans might come along, interruptions sent by God for us to use in his service.