Saturday, April 9, 2011

What Faith Looks Like: Another Look at the Feeding of the Five Thousand

Even if you are not a churchgoer or well-versed in scripture, you probably know the story. This is the only miracle, other than the resurrection of Christ, to be recounted in all four gospels.

Jesus and the apostles are grieving the execution of John the Baptist. They have tried to retreat, and the crowds have followed them. The apostles, making sure the logistics are covered, point out to Jesus that the hour is late and it is time to dismiss the crowds who are getting hungry. They pray - for, after all, prayer is simply a religious word for conversation with the Almighty - and tell Jesus what He should do.

We are all often guilty of this kind of prayer. Intercessory prayer is a decidely New Testament concept, and we are indeed often called to lift up our brothers and sisters to the throne of grace. What we tend to do, however, is exactly what the apostles did. Not content to point out the people's need to Jesus ("they are hungry"), the apostles proceed to tell Jesus what to do ("send them away so they can go to the villages and buy food"). How often we do the same - going to Jesus with our own program and expecting Him to bless our choice of how to address the need.

Jesus surprises the apostles as He often surprises us. He says "no." He has no intention of sending the crowds away. Jesus continues, moreover, to tell those saying the prayer that they are the answer to the prayer: "You give them something to eat."

How often is our prayer simply a disguised request for the mantle of responsibility to be lifted off of our own shoulders? We have little trouble praying for the starving people of Africa. When the issue is the need of those immediately around us, we may hesitate to pray, because we know the answer may well come back to us: "You give them something to eat."

At this point, the apostles are at what Henry Blackaby would call a "crisis of faith." Notice the order of what happens here. If I were writing the story, I would tend to put it in this order: (1) Jesus finds the loaves and fishes that someone in the crowd has brought; (2) Jesus performs the miracle and expands the food to an amount sufficient to feed the crowds; (3) then Jesus tells His followers, "You give them something to eat." That is how I like things to happen - I like to know the program, see the results, know that the path to which I have been called will be fruitful. The apostles, however, don't get a formula or a set of empirical results on which to rely. They do not know what Jesus is going to do. They are given only their relationship with Jesus. Jesus gives them an instruction that has no apparent chance of success - there are no raw materials with which to work, and the apostles have no ability to make it work. All they have is Jesus. Faith says to follow Jesus. Jesus has told them to feed the crowds. It is crisis time.

The apostles answer as we would: "We don't have enough food." It is the same answer Moses gave when God called him to go to Pharoah: "I can't do it. I don't speak well. They won't accept me. They won't know you sent me."

Jesus' question in answer to the apostles is the same as God's question in answer to Moses: "What have you got in your hand?" It is the same question He asks us. Moses had a rod in his hand, and God told him to throw it down. The apostles had five loaves and two fish, and Jesus demanded that they "bring them to me." For us, our crisis of faith is to accept that the recipe of whatever we have, added to Jesus, is enough.

Jesus blesses the two sandwiches and leftover biscuit, and there is more than enough. God transforms the rod and empowers Moses to let the people go. And God waits for us to act in faith.

Don't be too hard on the disciples. They could have laughed at Jesus. They could have looked around dumbly. They could have waited for more explanation. Instead, they take some action. Jesus tells them to feed the people, and they look around to see what food they have. That is better than most of us would do.

I think it is easy to see a miracle of Jesus and respond to it appropriately. If you see Jesus heal someone, you are likely to bring your own sick friend to see Jesus. That is not really faith. That is just good sense.

It is not easy to respond to the command of Jesus as though you can already see the miracle. It is not easy, but it is faith. Faith dances today to the music of the future.

You have prayed. It may be for your country, or for your church, or for the poor, or for a specific person. The answer may have come echoing back to you: "You give them what they need." You have no idea how to do it. You don't see the raw materials. All you know is that God has called. You are at a crisis point.

Jesus is waiting for you to offer what you have. His words, as in the gospel, will be simple: "Bring them to me."