The Miracle of Engaged Discipleship

It is perhaps true of every minister, that the ways in which my life unfolded have led me to this pulpit; this includes a winding faith journey, a deep sense of investment in the business of the church, and the jobs I have held and the skills that they developed. Though this is true for all the jobs I’ve held, it is perhaps most true for the six years I spent as a preschool teacher before seminary. Learning, for both the student and a teacher, often involves wandering into the uncomfortable space of stepping into unknown territory, where one might feel incapable in this new world. As a preschool teacher, this often looked like watching young kids struggle to engage a new skill that I knew that they could undertake, but they wavered as they doubted that they had the ability to make that new skill possible. Whether that was learning to put on a coat, cut out shapes, or to write their names, I often had to offer an encouragement that said, “No, I’m not going to do this for you, you can do it.” I couldn’t help but be reminded of this as I prayed through the gospel set for today where Jesus encourages the disciples, his students, to not just be passive disciples, but engaged ones in this well-known story from Jesus’ life and work.

After hearing the news of Herod’s gruesome killing of his cousin, John the Baptist, Jesus set out for some time alone in a deserted place, to perhaps take some space to grieve. But the crowds of people were also disturbed by the news and they followed Jesus; even in the midst of his grief, Jesus had compassion for them and cured the sick. As the day began to end, the disciples came to Jesus and reminded him that there was no food readily available where they were, and that he ought to send the crowds away so that they could go buy food in the village. Jesus told them not to send them away, but instead to provide something for the crowds to eat. Naming that they had only a small packed lunch of five loaves and two fishes, Jesus asked them to bring it to him. Jesus ordered the crowds to sit on the grass, took the food, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples so that they might give it to the people. Everyone ate to their fill, and there were twelve baskets full of left overs.

The feeding of the five thousand is one of the most well-known miracles of Jesus, and it is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels; it is clear that there is something quintessential to the divine blessing and sharing of these five loaves and two fishes. There is something that this miracle, above all others that not only signifies Jesus’ divinity, but also relates something true about who God is. It seems that it reveals that in God’s kingdom there is an abundance of what we need; it seems that it reveals that God deeply cares for all manners and sort of folks that find themselves somewhere in the crowd. It models that the work of those who follow the Christ must be focused on others, and the parallels between actual food deserts today and those in the crowd who were food insecure then is plain. This well-recorded miracle not only encourages us, but also challenges us to meet the needs of those who are hungry for the divinely offered gift, whether it is a loaf of actual bread or bread of life.

In this miracle, we also get a parallel set of words that Jesus offers in the Last Supper, and that we hear every time we get the privilege of to partaking in the blessed Sacrament: Jesus blessed, broke, and gave. We see the disciples doing some correlated actions to Jesus; they bring, receive, and give. They bring to Jesus what little they had, they receive their own gifts back once they have been blessed and broken, and then they go to the crowds and give of the gifts. Not only are the needs of the crowd’s hunger filled, but in this miracle, Jesus helps the disciples realize that, with God’s help, they will always have what they need to help share God’s abundance and love.

In a lot of ways, the story of the miracle of feeding the five thousand is a story about what it means to be a disciple in a time of deep need. As disciples, we are always learning how to better follow Christ. We are not called multiply five loaves and two fishes, but to bring to God what God has already instilled within us, trust that it is enough, and to take it out to the crowds. Jesus invites the disciples to be an active part of the miracle, to be active part of caring and having compassion for the crowd. Jesus does not respond to their overwhelm and confusion by saying, “Sit down, I’ve got this” but instead says, in essence, “you figure it out.” And, it’s not a particularly small part of this miracle, that by God’s grace, they do.

Jesus disrupts the disciple’s assumptions about how to exist, about how to be followers of the Christ. The disruption is not only necessary, it is perhaps miraculous. That the Christ was able to not only see and have compassion upon the crowd, but also to see and have compassion upon the disciples and their fragile understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Having our needs met is sometime miraculous. And sometimes the realization that God trust us to take the divinely blessed gifts of the world to the hungry, starving crowd is a miracle in its own right.

The power…the conviction…the miracle of this miracle is that God is calling us—you and me—to be active, engaged participants of God’s work in this world. God is calling us to be engaged and active disciples in a heavy time of deep and pervasive need. The challenge of hearing this well-known miracle in our current times is that it not only shows us the abundance of God’s grace, but that it also pushes us to take account of how we are being active participants of God’s work in the world. Because it is only with God’s grace that bring our gifts to be blessed, broken, and given, so that we can participate in the miracle of engaged discipleship.

A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY via livestream on August 2, 2020 for Proper 13A. 

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