Jesus Seeks Rest And Renewal In Between

[]The Feeding of the Five Thousand appears in all four Gospels, and the writers present it in slightly different ways for different emphases. In today's lesson from John, the story is a proof-text for the reader who is trying to understand who this Jesus is and asking the burning question, "Is he the one?" Earlier in the passage, some people thought he was the Prophet Elijah. Others compared him to John the Baptist. In the passage just before this, Jesus speaks about the authority of John the Baptist, but says that John was speaking about himself. Jesus even mentions Moses in the passage just before this saying, "Did not you know that the Prophet Moses spoke about me?"

So the prophets, revered by the people, were speaking about Jesus. And Jesus is putting it together in the presence of those who are questioning him about his authority. And following that, there is this miraculous Feeding of Five Thousand from five barley loaves and two fish. For us, the readers of the Gospel of John, it's quite clear at that moment, and we say, "Can't you see who this is?" when the people don't seem to understand. But there it is, for no human being could make five barley loaves and two fish feed a group of five thousand. So in John's Gospel, this is a proof-text.

In other Gospels, this is followed by something that's not pointed out quite as much in John. It is about Jesus and a model of his ministry, a model of serving the people, of answering questions in teachable moments, and times of retreat where Jesus moves away from the people to seek some solitude and prayer time, and often away from his disciples as well. Toward the end of the Gospel of John, after the people saw this miracle take place, Jesus realized that they were about to take him by force to make him king. And it says, 'He withdrew again to the mountain by himself.' So even in the Gospel of John where he had come down from the mountain (about three stories back), Jesus retreats to the mountain again for some time of renewal and reflection and prayer about the ministry he is carrying out on God's behalf. In some of the other Gospel lessons, we hear that more prominently. And I believe it's in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus, having been informed of the execution of John the Baptist, retreats to the mountain. And then following the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, he retreats and goes back to a place of solitude. Then another proof-text story follows, and that is Jesus walking on the water to meet the disciples in the boat on the sea. They would go offshore to get away from the people for some time of rest, and then Jesus would retreat to the mountain.

You hear me emphasizing retreat and renewal, and that is no accident. Many of you know that I am moving toward my sabbatical, a three-month period of time for study, reflection and prayer. It's also a time for you, as a congregation, to reflect with different pastoral leadership about ministry in the church. But for me, it's going to be a time of prayer, reflection and renewal like I've never experienced before, undergoing some spiritual direction, reading numerous books on prayer and preaching and ministry, spending time just working with my hands (I'm not sure what those projects are going to be yet, but I have a list of things I want to accomplish). But it's a time of retreat for me after five years of serving here in ministry. And I hope to come back fresh and with lots of new vigor and energy and zeal for the Lord so that we may continue on and see where our path of ministry is taking us here at Grace.

'Sabbatical' comes from the word 'Sabbath' and it is a time of real rest. We see Jesus doing this, and it is clear as each of these stories ends, as Jesus gets further along in his ministry, that he does take time to retreat. And so it is biblical. I am looking forward to it, and I know you will be in great hands with Rev. Marilyn Washburn who I know will give you a great and wonderful worship experience that is deeply spiritual.

Also while I'm away on sabbatical I will continue to work with a program of spiritual renewal that I have been a part of with the Carroll County UCC churches. Some church members and I will attend a program in October and we will come back asking the question, "Is this a program for spiritual renewal that will enliven us and light a fire under us and make ministry here much more alive and exciting to us and real in the present?" That is what that program is about. So I'll be studying more about that program with an additional seminar I'll be attending. And during that time I'll be speaking with some of the church members who will be going to that particular meeting in October so when I return in November, new things, I think, will be coming about, new and exciting things in our journey.

Will we be able to feed five thousand people at the drop of a hat? No, I don't think so. But one of the things we learn from these stories, especially the Feeding of the Five Thousand, is that Jesus puts the burden of caring for the needs of the people right on the disciples. Though at first they're thinking, "We're only human; how can we possibly do this?" somehow in faith they do as they are directed. And in the midst of that, God provides. God provides through Jesus making the bread last. But if you think about our perceptions of what we can accomplish, no matter how staggering the odds, it's amazing that with faith those things can actually happen. In the ministry of Grace Church, as in this story, if we are able to turn with faith and believe that even things that seem insurmountable, perhaps with faith we might see we are able to make more of a difference and that God could be guiding us into some of those things, whether it's simply renewal for the church, whether it's for new and exciting ministries or outreach or mission…all of those things become more possible as we turn in faith when we hear Jesus' words say, "You go do it." And so the disciples turn and start. And then, of course, they look back for instruction, which is what we do every Sunday in church when we look to our Scripture lessons. We look to them for instruction to help us, to guide us in where we are to go, and how can we accomplish these things.

Something that won't change in the time that I'm gone is that Jesus consistently speaks out to the people saying, "Follow me." And in this passage, his disciples did follow his instruction and were learning what it means to be servants. As Jesus told them to sit the people down, their ministry began as apostles and they began to serve the people. So likewise, as Jesus continues to speak to us through the Scriptures, we will see and hear things, not only with our ears, but with our hearts and with our spirits that call us to a new place as we hear those familiar words, "Follow me." And as we follow, although it may seem difficult or even impossible at first, as we follow new things will happen. God will be glorified and many people will be helped.

In today's lesson about this Feeding of the Five Thousand, you'll recognize that there are echoes of Jesus taking bread, blessing it, breaking it, and giving it to the people. Many theologians and scholars who studied this say this is a prelude or allusion to the Communion feast. They also speak of it as part of that eschatological banquet at the end of time when Jesus gathers the people and cares for the flock through the breaking of bread. But it's interesting in that breaking of the bread and feeding the five thousand (which breaking the bread was part of) that we see, "This is the one, the Messiah who has come into the world." When we read it, we already know that. But in the breaking of the bread (which is part of our Eucharistic celebration of Communion), we experience that same feeding, and that feeding nourishes us as we move along in faith. And so we may be coming to a time of change or something a little bit different as I begin my time of renewal and reflection. But as we move off into that time period, I encourage you also to take some time in deep reflection, setting aside some time for extra prayer. Think and pray on these particular miracle stories that we read about in the Scripture. Find a parable that really resonates with you; live with it for three months. And when I come back, tell me what you've learned and tell me how it's impacted your life because you're going to hear a lot from me when I return.

Let us feel the blessing of what it means to be fed by God as we hear this story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and know that God also wants to provide for us in many miraculous ways.

July 26, 2009

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