Desmond Tutu once said: ‘… I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, Now is that political, or social? He said: I feed you. Because the good news to a hungry person is bread. When you are ill, I heal you. Those are physical, mundane, secular, nonreligious things… But you will be judged by whether you fed the hungry, whether you clothed the naked, you visited the sick and those in prison…’ The good news to a hungry person is bread…
What Jesus had heard about was the beheading of John the Baptist. When we hear of the death of a loved one - don't we all too often retreat either literally or within ourselves? Jesus needed to be alone. The crowds got wind of this and followed. I wonder what did the members of the crowd feel so convinced that what they were looking for could only be found in or satisfied by Jesus. They were certainly looking though. Perhaps that’s why this story is one of the very very few that feature in all 4 Gospel accounts. The people were hungry. People still are hungry for what Jesus can offer.
We all know how it feels to be deeply moved by something. We may know something of what Jesus felt that day. We even have an expression which catches it - I felt it in my guts. Sometimes something touches us so deeply that we are compelled to act.
‘…When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them…’ Gordon Hartman from Texas realised that there were no theme parks where his disabled daughter Morgan could go and play and be accepted, so he sold his property development business and used the money to build just such a park where everyone could do everything; where people with and without special needs could play. People come from all over the world. "Yesterday a man came up to me and just held my hand," Hartman says. "He pointed to his son, who has acute special needs and started crying. He said he hadn't been able to play in water before.”
Hartman says three out of four visitors to the park are not disabled, and that the park is having precisely the effect he hoped for.” It helps people realise that though we are different in some ways, actually we are all the same," he says. That’s compassion. That’s love. Moved to act but not just for selfish benefit, but for the good of many. Jesus felt splagchnizomai - moved in his gut. Compassion. Even though He is tired, or even grieving - Jesus gives of himself to those who have sought him. Here Jesus fulfils of of the consistent calls of God in Old Testament scripture to feed the hungry.
The disciples said, ’… This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Taking the five loaves and the two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds…’ In recent days the papers revelled in news about how much the BBC's on-air stars get paid. In Norway, there are no such secrets. Anyone can find out how much anyone else is paid - and it rarely causes problems.
In the past, a list of everyone's income, assets and the tax they had paid, could be found on a shelf in the public library. These days, the information is online, just a few keystrokes away. Nothing is hidden. The disciples’ comments about sending the crowds away aren't words of practicality. I believe they reveal a hidden selfishness. The disciples wanted to tend to their own needs not those of those around them. Using words and actions that link to the Last Supper, Matthew depicts what happens when you move from a worldview of scarcity – “we have nothing here but five loaves and fishes” – to one of abundance – “thank you, God, for these five loaves and fishes.” Whatever their initial doubt or self-preoccupation, the disciples are caught up in Jesus words of abundance and gratitude and distribute what they have and in so doing they share in the wonder and joy that “all ate and were filled.” God used even these reluctant disciples, that is, to care for the poor and hungry that God loves so much.
We’re all guilty of responding like the disciples. We’ve seen Jesus at work and we’ve heard him teach but that’s enough religion for one day thanks. Can we just go home now? All too often we don’t realise that we are supposed to do something with what we see and hear in Jesus ourselves. I remember hearing about an American pastor called Rob Bell. He used to run a mega church - 30,000 people attending each week. He knew how to lead a service and to preach and for people to respond. But it took for him to have a crisis of faith of sorts to realise something about Jesus’ teaching - it isn't just abstractions - he said, ‘…I’m convinced being generous is a better way to live. I’m convinced forgiving people and not carrying around bitterness is a better way to live. I’m convinced having compassion is a better way to live. I’m convinced pursuing peace in every situation is a better way to live. I’m convinced listening to the wisdom of others is a better way to live. I’m convinced being honest with people is a better way to live…’
The real miracle in the gospel today - the disciples tending to the needs of others - continues when a graduate shuns a high-paying job in order to teach disadvantaged kids, or when a parent puts dreams of an academic career to the side to care for a special-needs child, or when a church makes the difficult decision to celebrate its century of faithful service and close its doors after significant decline in order that another ministry might flourish, or when one student stands up against bullies in defence of another student, or when, or when, or when… God is still at work performing miracles through disciples eager, reluctant, and everything in between, miracles that easily rival those reported in today’s reading.
What miracles are we going to play a part in revealing? Messy church needs volunteers once in a while to sit at a table doing craft or preparing it or prepping or serving food; people are still needed to be part of our soon to be launched pastoral visiting scheme; the small group Lent listening exercise now needs a small group to work out how we respond to some of the issues in our church and wider community.
The gospel to a hungry person is not a sermon. It’s bread. Jesus said to his disciples, you give them something to eat. Being a Christian is not an adjective it’s a verb. What are you going to do?