After Amy and I had been married for two years, and her mom had spent some time around the Surburg family, Carol observed: “Well I am never going to have to worry about Amy going hungry when she is with the Surburgs.” Now loving food and eating well is certainly not something that is unique to our family. But I will say that we are a classic example of how good food can stand at the center of family gatherings and events.
Admittedly, our whole family really likes food. But over the last couple visits with my parents, my mom has concluded that there are two members of our family who are the same in their unique focus on food. She has noted that my dad and Michael both always want to know what the next meal is going to be. Breakfast will be over, and they want to know what we will have for lunch. Lunch will have just finished and they want to know what we are going to have for dinner.
Now in the case of both of them, they like to eat and they like to look forward to what they are going to eat. For my mom, providing information about the next meal is usually no problem at all. She is an excellent cook, and on top of that she is retired and it is just my dad and she at home. Having meals planned out is no real problem.
For Amy and me things can be a little more challenging. Amy is a very good cook, but she also works part time and we have four kids still at home. At some times of the year their activities turn life into a juggling act, and we find ourselves having to improvise on the fly about meals. And so Michael has learned that on a day when mom works and there are sports events, if he asks what we are having for dinner tonight he may get this answer from me: “I don’t know. And that’s what makes it so exciting.”
In the Gospel lesson for today, the question is not simply what’s for dinner, but rather how it possible to have any dinner in the first place. Jesus works a miracle in which he demonstrates his compassion for the people and his power to act on that compassion. Yet his disciples display a lack of faith and understanding about who Jesus is and what he has come to do.
As we think about the apostles and their failures, we tend to focus on the events of Holy Week. We see them flee from Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as he is arrested. We see Peter then return to follow Jesus to a site of his trial. After brazenly declaring earlier in the night that he would die before ever denying Christ, we hear him deny the Lord three times.
Because of the gravity of the events of Holy Week – the fact that they lead to Jesus Christ’s crucifixion - these do stand out. But the circumstances that night did involve the possible threat of death. This doesn’t justify the actions of the apostles, but at least we can understand how it happened.
What is in many ways a more puzzling failure is the one we find in our text today. As we come to our text, it is important to recognize that in chapter six Jesus had been teaching a crowd of more than five thousand people in a deserted area along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. When it became late the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
Instead, Jesus told the disciples to give the crowd something to eat. Their response wasn’t about where to get food. Instead they focused on how much it would cost – more than they could possibly afford. And so Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fish and used it to feed the whole crowd with leftovers remaining.
Now in our text we learn, “In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.’” Once again, a large crowd has gathered to hear Jesus. They were obviously caught up in what Jesus was teaching, because they had been there for three days.
Jesus was the center of attention. And yet he was focused upon them and their need. He said, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat.” And he expressed the concern that if he sent them away hungry they would faint on the way home.
In response, the disciples asked, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” It as if the feeding of the five thousand had never occurred! Last time the disciples focused on how big and expensive the task was. This time, they focus on how difficult the circumstances are.
The disciples set their attention on the challenging situation and so they despair of any solution. But of course, in doing so, they ignore Jesus. They lose sight of the One in their midst who has brought the reign of God – the kingdom of God. They think about things only in the ways of the world, instead of thinking about the ways of God. It is true, normally a deserted place and a large hungry crowd is an insoluble problem. But this moment was not like every other moment, because Jesus Christ was there.
The truth is that you are no different. Your inclination is to set your attention on the circumstances and to ignore Jesus. You focus on your failures and mistakes – the ones that keep gnawing away at you because of the way they have harmed your life and the lives of others. The devil is only too glad to take you back there again and again so that he can marinate you in your sin and the harm it has done. Or when the events of your life go in a way you don’t want, you set your attention on those facts. You get frustrated or angry or you despair because things aren’t the way you want them to be.
Like the disciples you focus on these things and you forget about Jesus. And so this morning God’s Word sets Jesus in front of you. We hear Jesus say, “I have compassion on the crowd.” Jesus Christ’s natural inclination was to have compassion for people. He was concerned about them. Yet he was far more than just a caring individual. He also had the power to do something about it.
Jesus had come into the world to in order to bring God’s reign – his kingdom. He came to free people and creation itself from sin and all of the ways it had warped and twisted things. He came as the incarnate Son of God who is the Creator of the cosmos. He possessed all might and power, but he did not come to use it for his own benefit. Instead, he came to help others – to serve others.
We see this in our text this morning. Jesus takes something that seems paltry – seven loaves of bread and a few fish – and he uses it to feed the people. What he did that day points forward to his saving work for you on the cross. On Good Friday the means seemed paltry – a tortured bloody body hanging on a cross breathing its last gasp in death. But Jesus had said, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” By that death he received the judgment against your sin. And yet then by his resurrection on the third day he began the new creation. He began the resurrection that will be ours because through baptism we have been buried with him into death and so we too will be raised.
This forgiveness comforts us with the knowledge that as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sin from us. It says that though your sins have been like scarlet, the blood of Jesus has made you as white as snow in God’s eyes. And the good news is that God determines how things really are. When he declares you forgiven in Christ, that is what is true no matter what lies the devil may try to tell you.
To comfort you with this fact, our Lord continues to have compassion. He has compassion as he once again takes seemingly paltry means and uses them to feed us. He takes bread and wine. Through his almighty power he uses those means to give us his true body and blood to eat and to drink. And when we eat and drink that body and blood, we know that we are receiving the salvation won by that bloody body on the cross. We are receiving the forgiveness of sins. We are receiving the faith renewing work of the Holy Spirit which allows us to embrace and rejoice in our status as those who are holy in God’s eyes because of Jesus Christ.
Yet when you commune at the Sacrament of the Altar, you do not do so alone. Each believer individually receives the body and blood of Christ into their mouth. But as we receive the body and blood of the same Lord, we are united together as the Body of Christ. And so just as we have been shown compassion by the Lord, now we show compassion to our fellow Christians who commune with us. In fact we become the instruments of our Lord’s compassion. Our mouth becomes his mouth which speaks the assurance of forgiveness found in the Lord. Our arms become his arms that share support and compassion through a hug. Our feet become his feet that drive a car in order to visit someone who is lonely, or to take an elderly individual to a doctor’s appointment.
These acts of love and compassion find their source in Jesus Christ who loved us. He had compassion on us when we did not deserve it in any way. Like the crowd in our text, he uses his power to feed us just as he fed them. And in a few moments here in the Divine Service, he will do it once again.