Before we get to this morning’s readings, I feel it’s important that we go over where we’ve been, since it’s been a couple weeks since last we met. We have been walking through the Gospel of Mark together. Mark’s gospel is the shortest and clearest gospel we have, and I would encourage you, if you have an hour or two this week, to read it through in one sitting. It is believed to be the disciple Peter’s memory of Jesus’ life and ministry. After Jesus was crucified, rose again, and ascended into heaven, Peter remembers all that Jesus said and did during his life, his teachings and miracles, and Peter realizes what Jesus was up to in the years leading up to the cross. Mark records these stories, to show us what Peter and the other disciples quickly realized about Jesus in light of the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. The disciples of Jesus did not understand who Jesus said he was and what he had come to do until after he had completed his work; only then did they fully grasp what he was up to during his whole ministry.
But that’s often what we mean when we say “gospel.” We say, “gospel” and mean Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection to new life. And yet that’s also what we call these four books of the Bible: “gospels.” The Gospels are eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ whole ministry, including his death; so why do the disciples go all the way back to the beginning to tell us about the Good News, if the Gospel happens at the cross? I asked at the beginning of this series: Which is it? Is the good news Jesus’ death, or his life? Is it his sacrifice on the cross, or is it his healing and casting out demons? The answer, as it often is, is both.
That’s what we’re up to in this sermon series. We are getting to know our Lord Jesus Christ as his disciples did, by following him closely, looking to him and watching him and listening to him and obeying him, all in order to understand what this new thing is that Jesus is doing, what he calls “the Kingdom of God.” Of course, we know better than the disciples did that all of this is leading to the cross; Lent is on its way, and then Good Friday, and then the glory of Easter’s Son-rise. But we’re not there yet. The cross of Jesus is the climax of a long journey that Jesus calls us on as his disciples.
We have been on that journey these last several weeks. Mark sets up some patterns to help us on the journey: the first week we heard Jesus teaching about the kingdom, and then witnessed his authority over demons and experienced his miraculous power to heal and restore. The next three weeks repeated the pattern in greater detail: first we focused on Jesus’ teaching, listening to the parable of the farmer sowing seeds. Next we witnessed the dramatic contest between Jesus and the Legion of demons; and last week we would have finished the pattern by reading of two impossible healings: restoring the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years, and raising the 12-year old girl who had died. Jesus proclaims the kingdom is coming, and then displays the kingdom is near in power. That’s the pattern so far.
This morning we discover another facet of the character of our King while on the journey with him. Mark writes down Peter’s stories with Jesus, and this morning we look at two stories that sound like they’re really the same story. But Peter remembers both of these miracles for a reason, and Mark tells them both to emphasize for us the great heart of Jesus Christ, the King, for his beloved people. Listen to these gospel stories with ears that hear, and hearts that receive.
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
32 So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. 33 But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
35 By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. 36 Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
37 But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”
They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
38 “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.”
When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.”
39 Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties.41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. 42 They all ate and were satisfied, 43 and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. 44 The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
45 Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.
47 Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. 48 He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, 50 because they all saw him and were terrified.
Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 51 Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, 52 for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.
53 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there.
1 During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, 2 “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. 3 If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.”
4 His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”
5 “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.
“Seven,” they replied.
6 He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people, and they did so. 7 They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them. 8 The people ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.9 About four thousand were present. After he had sent them away, 10 he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the region of Dalmanutha.
11 The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. 12 He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” 13 Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side.
14 The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. 15 “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”
16 They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”
17 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
“Twelve,” they replied.
20 “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
They answered, “Seven.”
21 He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
The Compassion of the King
In both of the miraculous multiplications of the loaves and fishes, we see on display Jesus’ great heart for the people; not in general, not out of obligation, but because of his deep concern for the needs of each, individual person. Both of this morning’s stories begin with Jesus’ compassion. Jesus has a purpose, a great work that he is doing to reveal God’s kingdom on earth, and here in these desert places, Jesus reveals God’s fatherly care for his children, just as he did for the Israelites in the wilderness by giving them Manna to eat. Rather than send the crowds away to fend for themselves, or let them leave hungry, Jesus chooses to feed them out of the riches of God’s mercy. This is our King. This is our Lord, revealing God’s heart of tender love toward us, and his desire to satisfy all of our needs.
We read that Jesus was planning a retreat for his disciples, who he had just sent out into the villages to practice proclaiming the Kingdom of God. His disciples are weary, and he has in mind to bring them somewhere remote to debrief and encourage them. And here we see Jesus pauses from his plan, and he focuses his compassionate heart on these hungry people. He gives them not just any bread, but his very self. The gospel of John records this a little more clearly, because it is here that Jesus announces to all gathered that he is the Bread of Life that satisfies our spiritual cravings and nourishes us unto eternal life. Jesus is feeding these people from himself, giving them bread that feeds their souls, as well as their stomachs.
Peter remembers both of these miraculous feasts vividly after Jesus’ resurrection, because it is after Jesus is risen anew that he meets Peter on the beach of Galilee, after Peter has disowned Jesus three times. Jesus asks him three times, “Peter, do you love me?”. After each time Peter answers that he does, and each time Jesus tells him, “Feed my sheep.” Peter remembers these feasts, how Jesus fed these sheep without a shepherd, and realizes what Jesus was trying to teach them then already.
The Mission of the King
At the time, the disciples didn’t understand the lesson. These miraculous kingdom feasts are important work, and Jesus takes time to sit and eat with the ones he cares for. But he also wants his disciples, the inner 12, to fully grasp his mission. These feasts are above all gestures of Jesus’ compassion, but Jesus also uses them to show his disciples that there is more at work here than a potluck.
In both instances, Jesus takes the few loaves of bread that are offered, blesses them, breaks them, and gives them to his disciples to distribute to the crowds. Each disciple is holding a part of a loaf of bread, and they must be terrified that Jesus has now sent them on a truly impossible task: to feed groups of fifty and one hundred people with the little chunk of bread in their hands. What would you do in their place? And yet they obey, as foolish as it seems. I’m sure they started small, giving those first groups only little bites of bread, hoping to spread the little they have as far as they can. At some point, though, they must realize that the bread in their hands isn’t shrinking. In both stories, Jesus works the miracle of multiplication in the disciples’ very hands! Somehow, there seems to be enough to go around, group to group, giving each person enough to satisfy their hunger.
And more than enough! In both stories, we read that the leftovers are carefully counted: 12 baskets first, and 7 baskets later. In the first story, we read that Jesus was in Jewish country, speaking primarily to Jewish listeners. Peter remembers the picnic baskets of bread and fish left over, that there were 12 of them, and understands in this that Jesus came as the true Shepherd of the 12 tribes of Israel. In the second kingdom feast, Peter remembers the 7 baskets of leftovers collected. The Greek word for basket used here is the same word for basket in Acts, when Paul is lowered in a basket over the city walls to escape persecution. These are man-sized workbaskets, for carrying heavy loads. This is a wealth of bread, many feasts worth. But the second feast takes place in Gentile country, among the Roman Decapolis, and the crowds here would be mostly Gentile or Samaritan people. Another key detail Mark records is the number of baskets again, this time 7. In that world, 7 was a number of completeness, signifying wholeness, entirety. Mark writes these details down to show us that Jesus Christ is not only the King of the Jews, but he is the Emperor of the Whole World!
And the disciples were given the bread to distribute, and the baskets to collect; Jesus is directing them to rehearse the mission he has for them! Later on, he will send them into all the world with the good news of the Kingdom of God; these sacramental feasts are dress rehearsal for the grand enterprise that awaits them. The disciples of Jesus, then and now, are to be agents of Jesus’ great compassion.
The Bread of the Kingdom
But they didn’t understand. Somehow all of this escapes them, even after seeing it twice! Jesus’ heart breaks at the plight of the people, without any shepherds to lead them in paths of righteousness; his heart breaks again when after all of this, the Pharisees ask for a sign, refusing to accept the kingdom of God as it comes. And I imagine on that last boat ride, when Jesus warns them about the leaven of the Pharisees, and the leaven of Herod, that his heart breaks again when his disciples once again fail to grasp the lesson. They think to themselves, “Well, he must be saying this because we forgot to bring bread.” Rather than hear the lesson Jesus wants to teach them, they are worried about their stomachs! How quickly they have forgotten that Jesus multiplied the few loaves to feed the multitudes, not once, but twice! This isn’t about the scarcity of food. Quite the opposite!
Jesus is warning the disciples about the influences of the world. Leaven is a metaphor throughout Scripture referring to the way sinfulness spreads and puffs up within a person or a community. This is why the Passover feast in Exodus requires unleavened bread, bread without yeast, to remind the Israelites of the purity that God is calling them to. And Jesus playfully tweaks this popular understanding by announcing that the kingdom of God is like yeast; a small amount is mixed into the dough, and it changes the whole batch! So here in the boat with the disciples, Jesus returns to this idea, that leaven mixes in, spreads, and changes things. The leaven of the Pharisees changes the character of the community to one of hypocrisy, of legalism, of a preoccupation with the rules. The leaven of Herod, on the other hand, changes the character of the community to one of officiousness, violence, conquest, and scheming. Jesus warns his disciples against the transforming influence of the religious and political leaders of the day, offering instead his own influence, his own kingdom, as the better way. And he uses bread language to remind them of what they’ve seen: that Jesus Christ can multiply a few loaves to feed thousands, because Jesus Christ is himself the Bread of Life, given for the ones he loves.
The disciples didn’t get it at the time, but they certainly understood the significance of the bread after Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. Jesus Christ offers himself to us, just as he offered himself to the crowds, and to his disciples, as the spiritual bread that feeds our souls, that satisfies all our spiritual appetites, if we will receive him as hungry people. That’s what we re-enact here at the Lord’s Table, when we take the bread, bless it, break it, and receive it from Jesus Christ, who is the host of this sacramental feast. And what we are eating and drinking is not bread and juice, not really; by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, this feast becomes for us the very presence of Jesus Christ, his real body and blood. And just as we will go to our homes to eat our Sunday dinner for our life and health and strength, it is at this table that our souls receive Jesus Christ for our spiritual life, our spiritual health, our spiritual strength. All that is asked of us is that we come hungry, believing that Jesus Christ himself is the only bread that truly satisfies. And as we receive the bread of life, the leaven of his kingdom works in us and changes us and makes us anew, to follow and serve him in all we say and do, to the glory of God the Father.