We Can Do It

Old Mystic, July 26, 2009
John 6:1-14


As we are rooted in Jesus Christ, nurtured through our relationship with God in him, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are challenged to meet the needs of those around us. It can happen within the scope of our gifts, our resources, and our strength, and it takes our commitment to engage in missional work.


The story of the feeding of the five thousand is perhaps one of the most challenging signs offered in the New Testament. It displays the miraculous power of Jesus to the point of eclipsing both the apparent meaning in the context of the Gospel of John—and the other gospels—and what we can make out of it in this 21st century. To look upon this passage a sign of the power of Christ could lead us to missing completely the point for our times and being left with empty hands. Not that in any way I would attempt to diminish or doubt the power of God to act supernaturally—after all I continue to affirm God as the creator and sustainer of the universe independently of the means God could have used to develop it. Yet, there’s always the pressing question, why doesn’t a merciful God employ such power, especially the power to multiply fish and loaves of bread, to feed a hungry world? I have been involved in Christian circles where the “name-it-and-claim-it” approach—vested of unwarranted triumphalism—has misguided people to believe that our faith can manipulate God to overcome nature and respond to or demands. And if that is possible, what about feeding the hungry?

I believe this sign points to a different situation and in a different direction. In the context of this Gospel, the miraculous production of bread seems to emphasize the powerful metaphor that Jesus is the bread of life. Without over spiritualizing this passage, we can affirm once again the centrality of Jesus Christ to our faith, to our life, to our congregation, and to our future. And the situation now is that we do not rely on a daily basis on supernatural power to meet the needs of those who we are called to serve in the world. We depend on our relationship with Jesus and his call to respond just with what we have.

But let’s beware; the need is still there. We live in a world where hunger is rampant and cannot be ignored. 1 in 10 US families cannot afford nutritious food on a regular basis—that means that approximately 11 million children and 19 million adults in this country are moving to being undernourished. And the rest of the world? Over 800 hundred million are chronically malnourished—not to mention the fact that indeed, even in the 21st century, people die of hunger. As I have heard it from many struck by tragedy cry, “where are you Jesus?” “Can’t you act?” Can’t Jesus multiply bread for the poor in the Third World? He may have an answer for us today: you do it! And it is not our power of making miracles multiplying loaves of bread, but our desire, commitment, and engagement to meet needs.

In the Gospel story, a large crowd was following Jesus because he had made signs for the sick. Jesus had met their needs powerfully so many were following him. When Jesus saw them, according the Gospel of John, he tested his disciples asking them how they were going to feed that many people—five thousand not counting women and children. Interestingly, in Mark’s version of the event (6:37), when the disciples suggested that the crowd should be sent away so they could help themselves, Jesus told them, “You give them something to eat.” A test in both cases, for it seems that it has pleased God to do things through people and we are constantly challenged to do so.

Philip was only able to assess what was needed and his response reflected his acknowledgement of his own limitations. His measurement was perhaps accurate—six month of wages would only buy food for the crowd to have just a taste of a real meal—but his inquisitive demeanor betrayed his lack of empowerment. It is perhaps Jesus’ statement according to Mark that is warranted here: “You give them something to eat.” From a 21st century perspective, it seems like Jesus is saying, “you do it.” “You are empowered and called to meet the needs of those around you with your gifts.”

Can we meet the needs of large crowds beyond our human resources? Perhaps not, yet that is not the challenge. The challenge is that no matter how limited our gifts are, how much we lack imagination, how old or inexperienced we are, or even how poor we are, we have gifts provided by God to meet the needs of some folks. It is true; we can’t go beyond our human resources to do mission and ministry but there is much we can do and we will be able to do it. A missional church—a congregation that goes out to meet the spiritual, emotional, relational, and material needs of others—will make a difference in the community. It is not a matter of feeding everyone; just some—those who are send our way!

Andrew had a better solution; he surveyed the crowd to assess what their resources were. And he came up with the meager count of five loaves of bread and two fish. Not too much to offer to a hungry crowd of five thousand. And his question also had the doubtful tone of someone who asks what can be accomplished with very few material resources. And that is a valid question. In fact it is a question that most congregations raise these days as their resources are considerably diminishing. Jesus’ tacit response is the same: “You do it!” It doesn’t matter how little we have to meet needs; there must be something that we can do when it comes to doing mission and ministry. Isn’t this passage showing how Jesus can do things on a shoe string? Isn’t perhaps he telling the small church that no matter how limited their financial resources are they can still meet needs that will make a difference?

Jesus would not allow them to remain insensitive to the needs of the crowd. They were not sure what to do or how to do it and they were aware of how little they had; yet they were challenged to care for that crowd with the same compassion that Jesus had as it is described in the Gospel of Mark: “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” That same compassion can and will trigger us to do what we can do; some a little, others more. Yet, we have a mission and we are the ones called to go.

And Jesus performed the miraculous sign. He made the people sit in the grass, took the loaves of bread, blessed them, and provided an abundant meal for all the five thousand with leftovers saved so there nothing would be wasted. He did not do it to shame the disciples, nor was it merely a display of power. It was an invitation to trust him. He can meet our spiritual needs and empower us to meet the needs of others. He is the bread of life and receiving him, as we enact when we celebrate communion partaking of the bread and the cup, we share in his sufferings but also in his victory. It is our relationship with him, with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that makes the difference. He said, “Apart of me you can do nothing.” Living with him, walking with him, trusting in him we will be able to meet needs. In Christ, yes, we can do it!

“When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” Their idea of Jesus was a little off. They wanted to make him an earthly king right on the spot which prompted Jesus to retreat with his disciples. The crowds wanted their nation to be freed and restored. That was not exactly Jesus’ mission then. Yet, he is God made flesh, he is with us, and he has empowered us to join God in what in God is doing in the world; a mission to set humans free, to proclaim good news of wholeness for all, and to meet human needs. And the task is not easy. But, yes, we can do it!

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