Mark 8:14-21 – Adventures in Missing the Point

The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat.“Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”

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? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

“Twelve,” they replied.

“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

They answered, “Seven.”

He said to them, “Do you still not understand?” (New International Version)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus uses yeast as a metaphor for corrupting influences. It only takes a little bit of yeast to work through the whole batch of dough. Christ, upholding the teachings of Old Testament law, didn’t just want people to avoid eating actual unleavened bread. He desired his disciples to be unleavened themselves, a holy people, free of all crookedness and malevolent motives.

Christ’s disciples, bless their pea-pickin’ literal interpreting hearts, were too dense to pick up on the metaphor. They began anxiously chattering about how Jesus might be disappointed with them in having no actual bread to eat. Although they had just witnessed an amazing miracle of literally feeding thousands of people, the disciples did not discern what that miracle meant beyond just filling bodily stomachs.

Had Christ’s disciples been able to see beyond the literal to the metaphorical, they would have likely understood several lessons Rabbi Jesus was teaching them:

  • The provision of bread pointed to who Jesus truly is: Living Bread from heaven. Just like the miraculous provision of manna in the desert to the ancient Israelites, so God was graciously meeting the total needs of people through Jesus. Conversely, the yeast of corruption saps the life out of people.
  • The presence of bread doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all good. There’s leavened bread and unleavened bread. That is, there is the healthy bread of God’s Word to eat, and there are other words to eat which is unhealthy bread. A life set apart for goodness and mercy in the world brings life to others. A person with mixed motives and personal agendas of power and privilege brings no nourishment to others – only inedible bread.
  • The puny amount of bread became a huge feast. A little bit of Jesus is enough to feed thousands and satisfy empty stomachs. A little bit of false teaching and hypocrisy is enough to corrupt thousands of people and make them sick.
  • The prosperity of bread multiplied by Jesus was so much that there were leftovers. In the kingdom of God, there is abundance. The disciples served the bread to the throng of people, and they received bread for themselves with twelve basketfuls of bread pieces – enough bread to feed their families, as well. The leavened bread of corruption doesn’t satisfy; it only decreases health.

But the disciples didn’t get it. So, Jesus chided them for their profound lack of spiritual awareness. By this time, the disciples had been following Jesus for a while – watching him do miraculous works of healing and meeting people’s needs, as well as being on the inside track of receiving his gracious teaching. If anyone ought to get what’s going on, it was them.

If we continually possess only a one-dimensional interpretation of Holy Scripture, a literal one, we are most certainly going to miss most of what’s really happening with Jesus. Rigid and narrow hermeneutical approaches aren’t just inadequate; they’re a corrupting influence. It is an adventure in missing the point because there is only a dim awareness of self, others, God, and God’s Word. It doesn’t nourish anybody. In fact, it makes people sick.

That sad situation makes such people, along with disciples at the time, no better than those on the outside of God’s kingdom.

“You will listen and listen,
    but never understand.
You will look and look,
    but never see.” (Isaiah 6:9, CEV)

Spiritual blindness and deafness are the symptoms of an unexamined and unaware life. And the lack of awareness is a malady from the bread of corruption.

Jesus Christ has a mission, along with the authority to make it happen. He was hoping for a more adequate understanding of this from his disciples, instead of getting the obtuse deer-in-the-headlights response.

Although, in some ways, today’s Gospel story is downer, it is also hopeful. The disciples ultimately do not remain stuck. They illustrate for us the nature of faith. Faith is not a one and done event of praying a sinner’s prayer or accepting Jesus. Rather, faith is an unfolding drama of redemption.

We grow in and into faith. Faith is much more a gradual awareness of God’s character and working in the world, with maybe a few dramatic epiphanies along the way. It is piecemeal, rather than wholesale. It’s more like taking small bites of delicious bread and savoring it with friends, instead of ravenously devouring an entire loaf alone.

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51, NKJV)

Lord Jesus, as you came to serve us living bread, fill us with the compassion and insight to respond to human need by loving service. Let the fire of your goodness and justice burn into us and through us, that we may seek to transform the unjust structures of society. As you come into our lives to redeem all that is good, guide to renew and sustain the life of your creation. Let your glory fill our lives. Let your glory fill this world. Amen.

Mark 6:35-44 – You Want Us To Do What?

Late in the afternoon his disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the nearby farms and villages and buy something to eat.”

But Jesus said, “You feed them.”

“With what?” they asked. “We’d have to work for months to earn enough money to buy food for all these people!”

“How much bread do you have?” he asked. “Go and find out.”

They came back and reported, “We have five loaves of bread and two fish.”

Then Jesus told the disciples to have the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So, they sat down in groups of fifty or a hundred.

Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, looked up toward heaven, and blessed them. Then, breaking the loaves into pieces, he kept giving the bread to the disciples so they could distribute it to the people. He also divided the fish for everyone to share. They all ate as much as they wanted, and afterward, the disciples picked up twelve baskets of leftover bread and fish. A total of 5,000 men and their families were fed. (New Living Translation)

I once knew a dear church lady who made a pan of lasagna for a local soup kitchen. When she showed up, it turned out, other church ladies didn’t. Hers was to be one pan amongst many. Instead, it was the only one. When a long line formed of hungry impoverished people, she felt both compassion and heartsick. Her immediate thought was to go and buy several pans of lasagna. But she knew it would take too long, and she wasn’t even sure she could find enough to feed everyone.

So, rather than turning the people away, the dear woman looked up to heaven, uttered a prayer of thanksgiving to God for what little she had, and began serving. She said, “I just kept sticking my spatula into the pan, and lasagna kept coming out. By the time the last person in line came, I served the last of it. I can’t explain it. It just happened.”

No one left hungry.

Today’s Gospel lesson of Jesus feeding the five thousand men and their families is not just a nice account of something that happened a long time ago. Jesus is still doing miracles. The Lord is still expanding his benevolent reach all across God’s big world.

Jesus takes our meager resources and turns them into something with a large impact on a lot of people. For this to happen, all we need to do is follow our Lord’s simple instructions: “You feed them.” 

“But Jesus! I don’t have much money. I’m not a good organizer. I can’t do what you’re asking!”

“I don’t…” “I’m not…” “I can’t…” Jesus hears it every day.

Jesus really doesn’t want to hear about our “buts.” Maybe we ought to take the word “but” out of our language altogether. That’s because it’s not about us, at all.

Jesus can multiply whatever little we have to accomplish his benevolent work through us. 

Jesus could clearly do miracles without us having any involvement. Yet, he deliberately chooses to use us and our drop-in-the-bucket resources to participate in his work. Jesus wants to use our minds, our mouths, and the very marrow of our being to effect a miracle.

Our work is to bring Jesus our five small loaves and two fish. He’ll do the rest.

It is the compassion of Jesus which motivates him to miracles.

The crowd did not leave him alone. Rather than being annoyed by the situation because it was not on his agenda to deal with any people, Jesus looked at the large group of people and had compassion on them.  His heart went out to them.

God does not begrudgingly deal with us, as if we are an interruption to his day.

All these hungry people. What to do about it? “You feed them,” Jesus says. I perhaps detect a hint of sarcasm in the tone of the disciples reply: “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish.”  Their math was way off because they did not count Jesus. 

Through simple prayer and active obedience, we must give Jesus what we have, no matter how little or insignificant.

In this contemporary era, much of what we do is concerned to be reasonable and rational with a strong scientific or proven base for engaging ministry. Although I don’t have much of a stomach for believers who incessantly want a miracle for everything and see devils under every rock, I equally have no stomach for doing ministry as if it were an Enlightenment project, completely drained of all faith and the possibility of seeing God work in ways that are incomprehensible to our modern sensibilities.

Indeed, looking out at all the vast Western resources have accomplished with money and buildings and programs, it makes me want to explain, “This is amazing! It is incredible what we know-how American Christians can do without God!” 

I am curious what Christ’s Church would look like if we were to have an underlying presupposition and assumption that God is still in the business of doing miracles? I wonder: Would it impact the way we pray, and the way we act? 

What if we altogether forsook shame and had the boldness to say, “This might sound crazy, but what if we…”

  • “Found everyone in our city who needs food and go love on them and feed them” (instead of just going the rational route of only supplying the food pantry).
  • “Used our property to create a community garden and seek to help people grow their own food.” (instead of just giving out some food cards).
  • “Built a smart robot to plant the fields of disabled farmers and gave them the rights to the tech we developed.” (am I getting too crazy yet!?). 

In the kingdom of God, there are no boundaries – only unlimited opportunities to give our small ideas, little bits of strength, and puny resources to Jesus so that he can take it and feed the world.

Jesus is perfectly able to do his work without us and without what we have. However, he wants to use us and our meager resources to accomplish the miraculous meeting of needs far beyond what we could ever imagine. 

We too often do nothing. That’s because we mistakenly believe God either cannot or does not want to use me or what I have.

It just won’t do to stand afar off and expect God to work without us giving what we have, whether that something is time, money, conversation, food, hospitality, or whatever. Our excuses won’t do for Jesus – my home is too small, it is not clean enough, I don’t have enough money, I am not smart enough, my schedule won’t allow it, I don’t have enough resources…. All you need is something, no matter how seemingly insignificant it is.

You want me to do what? Feed thousands? The real pre-miracle work for many people is to be open, real, and transparent enough to believe Christ can do a miracle through confessing sin, participating in a ministry, having a spiritual conversation with somebody different than me, or just saying what I actually think and feel.  

The question is never, “Can God use me?” The real question is, “What miracle does Jesus want to do through me and through his Church?”

It was no accident when Jesus distributed the bread that it sounds a lot like communion.

The Lord’s Supper may seem to be irrelevant to some – as if it is only a way to remember Jesus, a mere regular ritual. Yet, God’s design is much bigger. Jesus wants to do a miracle through the distribution and ingestion of the common elements of bread and wine – a miracle of healing, a miracle of bringing true satisfaction the world can never give. 

It isn’t realistic to expect that Jesus can use the Table to feed and reach thousands. However, we don’t serve a God who is limited to work through rational means by only using our five senses. 

We serve a God who does unexpected miracles within the life of the community.

Lord, I believe. Help me in my unbelief! I open my mind and heart believing in your infinite power and possibility. I believe in your constant expression of perfect good in and through me. I know that with you all things are possible. All that I am, all I was, and all I hope to be I give to you. I am yours. Amen.

*Above painting: Feeding of the 5,000 by Laura James

**Above: Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of Christ feeding the 5,000

Mark 6:45-52 – Facing Fear

Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.

Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. 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, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out because they all saw him and were terrified.

Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. (New International Version)

Sometimes, we are afraid – even terrified. And Christians aren’t immune to the feeling of fear and terror.

The truth of the Christian life is that it is a herky-jerky process of three-steps-forward, two-steps-backward, not always knowing with certainty everything we encounter.  

The expectation that we will have a consistent upward trajectory of spiritual development with no scary experiences is wrongheaded and misguided. Throw into the mix that our self-awareness is often skewed, and that we have difficulty assessing ourselves with any accuracy, and voila! we have a recipe for the true human condition.

Doubt, fear, failure, and stubbornness aren’t just endemic to other people – it also characterizes many Christians, as well. We will face severe storms in life. They will be harsh. We will wonder if we’ll even make it out alive, or not. And it may very well seem like Jesus is nowhere to be found. Then, when he does show up, we don’t recognize him, and it scares the bejabbers out of us.

This was the experience of Christ’s disciples, who too often reflect our own stories of faith and fear all rolled up in one person. Today’s Gospel lesson is this: Our fears and foibles do not need to define us because Jesus is Lord over the water, the weather, the wondering, the waiting, the wildness, and our own whimsical natures of seeing miracles accomplished in others, then not believing it can happen in our own lives.

So, what are we really afraid of? Failure? Fear itself? Death? Irrelevance? Loss? Change? Perhaps, everything? Yes, all of life is a risky scary business. There are no guarantees, except one: Christ is present with us, whether we are aware of it, or not.

If the worst scenario you worry about in your head would actually come to pass, it will still never change the reality that God loves you and is with you.  And it will not stop Jesus from assuring us of his presence and climbing into the boat to be with us.

We don’t have any accounts of Jesus freaking out in fear, or when other people flip out in their own fear. Jesus was a person of prayer, completely grounded in his relationship with the Father.   

Jesus made his disciples get into a boat and go out on the lake – all the while knowing what they were about to face with the weather. Even though the disciples were doing God’s will by going out on the lake, they were not spared from adversity. In fact, Jesus wanted them to experience the storm because it is through the storm that we really learn faith and to face down our fears. 

There is no shame in being afraid. We all experience it. And there is no shame in admitting we’re scared. Where shame exists, our instinct is to run away like our ancestors Adam and Eve and hide, thus hiding ourselves from the grace that could be ours.

Being out on the middle of a lake during a storm did not prevent Jesus from being present with the disciples – he just walked on the water to be with them. Even though the disciples had just seen and participated in the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand, they were not looking for another miracle – which is why they did not recognize Jesus and were afraid when they saw him.

Jesus never chided his disciples for their fear, or their hard hearts. He simply invited them, with the tone of grace and mercy, to not be afraid. And the Scripture is replete with continual encouragements to not be afraid because of God’s presence. Along with psalmist, we can say:

But when I am afraid,
    I will put my trust in you.
I praise God for what he has promised.
    I trust in God, so why should I be afraid?
    What can mere mortals do to me? (Psalm 56:3-4, NLT)

I sleep and wake up refreshed
    because you, Lord,
    protect me.
Ten thousand enemies attack
from every side,
    but I am not afraid. (Psalm 3:5-6, CEV)

When I called, you answered me.
You made me bold by strengthening my soul. (Psalm 138:3, GW)

Ultimately, fear has to do with disconnection. It is to feel powerless, separated from any resources, unable to do anything about what is presently staring us in the face and scaring us.

Yet, when we have an awareness and a sense of connection with Jesus, there are unlimited resources of grace to accept, cope, and transcend any and every storm we find ourselves in the middle of.

May the risen and ascended Christ, mightier than the hordes of hell, more glorious than the heavenly hosts,
be with you in all your ways. 

May the cross of the Son of God protect you by day and by night, at morning and at evening, at all times and in all places.

May Christ Jesus guard and deliver you from the snares of the devil, from the assaults of evil spirits, from the wrath of the wicked, from all base passions, and from the fear of the known and unknown. 

And may the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.

*Above painting of Jesus walking on water by Brian Whelan

**Above Orthodox icon of Christ walking on water

***Above painting: Christ walking on the sea, by French artist Amédée Varint (1818-1883)

Mark 10:42-45 – True Leadership

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (New International Version)

Leadership as Service

I remember a time when all politicians, government officials, and police were known as “public servants.” It was routinely assumed that such persons served the common good of all persons, regardless of who they are. I am also not delusional about the fact that, back in the day, just as today, there are those who served themselves first. However, at least, the ideal and vision of service was continually before the people.

Power is to be wielded for the benefit of the powerless. Authority is to be used to help those who cannot help themselves. Contemporary understandings of authority for many people today often do not have the common good as their guiding principles of leadership.

Misuse of Leadership

Rather, authority becomes the means of convincing others of the leader’s opinion or position. Power is used to influence, even arm-twist people toward the leader’s ideas. What’s more, those who enabled the leader to come to power expect that leader to use authority to benefit a particular agenda and only one slice of the human population. Lost is the vision of meeting needs for everyone, not just a certain constituency.

The ultimate use of power is to share it, even lay it down. Jesus did it in his incarnation, life, and death. He only took it up again after his mission was finished. We are to follow his cues on power and authority. We have opportunities galore to follow Christ in his leadership practice. For example, I once lived in a community with a large single parent family population. After talking with the elders of my church about this situation, they became excited about the prospects of reaching moms and children struggling to make it day to day.

The discussion did a hard turn of direction when I suggested we have some of those moms come in, sit around the table with us, and dictate what would constitute effective ministry which meets their needs. I was intentionally proposing that we, as church authority figures, share our power with the moms. The elders weren’t having it. One of them said outright, “Well, we can’t do that! We know better!” (than the moms do)

Whenever those in power and authority believe it is their mandate to make decisions without even having conversations with those whom those decisions effect, then they have become masters of small worlds, lords of folly, and ideational bullies. It is not the way of Jesus.

Appropriate Use of Leadership

Proper use of authority doesn’t mean we boss people around. It means we do what we need to do to help everyone in our scope of power. Taking charge must always begin with self. The self-control and self-discipline of the leader is the basis of leadership.

The heart of Christianity is loving service to one another as Christians, and humble service to a world which doesn’t believe, or act like us. Christian leaders are to focus on others’ well-being, success, and growth. They are to value character over career.

Christian disciples follow Jesus in the use of power and authority through:

  • Taking a humble posture of consulting and collaborating with others. And when decisions are made, they maintain relational connections.
  • Including others, and never vilifying or casting blame when stating a case for something.
  • Dealing with trouble and working to clear a toxic environment of noxious attitudes.
  • Directly confronting those they have an issue with, without creating destructive triangles to diffuse responsibility.
  • Encouraging a healthy dynamic of love and service which seeks listening before acting.

Leadership is more about being than about doing. Responsible use of authority comes from the person who understands themselves, is curious about others, and seeks to wisely apply Christ’s compassion to meet human need.

The Leadership of Jesus

Jesus healed people and delivered them from evil, sometimes at great risk to himself. He continually eschewed the perks of power to single-mindedly pursue the Father’s will. Even in his selection of disciples, Jesus purposely overlooked others to choose a rather motley band of men made up of uneducated country bumpkins, the poor, and the overzealous.

The Lord Jesus proclaimed a kingdom that belongs to children, using power to drive out demons and forgive sins. Christ delegated his authority to the disciples to do this same sort of work.

Jesus isn’t offering leadership theories; he is offering himself. Christ is our model of the appropriate use of power. Therefore, humbling ourselves must become our ambition! Our Lord, the ultimate authority above all authorities, humbled himself. Though being powerfully divine, he took the form of a servant, and became obedient to death, even the particularly shameful death on a cross—the ultimate humiliation. Yet God exalted Jesus Christ as Lord of the universe. (Phil 2:5-11)

Will you divest yourself of the pride in believing you know what is best for everyone around you? Will you cease speaking and start listening? Will you follow Jesus to the risky place of sharing power and authority with the powerless?

God, I am far too often influenced by what others think of me. I am always pretending to be either richer or smarter or nicer than I really am. Please prevent me from trying to attract attention. Don’t let me gloat over praise on one hand or be discouraged by criticism on the other. Nor let me waste time weaving imaginary situations in which the most heroic, charming, witty person present is myself. Show me how to be humble of heart, like you. Amen.