This past Sunday I departed a bit from the lectionary and used Mark’s version of Jesus feeding the 5000.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the church (not just First Baptist). I don’t think we’re sustainable for the long haul if we continue what we’ve been traditionally doing. However, there is no prescription for the future, either. Anyway, below is the sermon. I chose not to focus on the food, but on the people that late afternoon.
“This story is one of the few which appears in all the gospels, and we hear it every year. People call it a miracle. Many try to figure out how five loaves and two fish can feed all those people. I’ve heard some say that the generosity of sharing provoked people to share the food they brought – sort of like a pot luck supper. Of course, Jesus multiplied the food. The sermon focus typically expounds on the miracle of food and feeding.
“Today, though, let’s step back from the story and consider what actually happened. We’ll set aside the miracle for another year.
“First, what happened?
“Jesus blessed and broke the loaves. The disciples distributed it and then gathered up 12 baskets of what was left over. Afterwards, he sent the disciples by boat to Bethsaida while he stayed behind to dismiss the crowd. After saying farewell, he went to pray.
“What didn’t happen?
“No one left with the disciples. No one stayed with Jesus to pray. No one volunteered to join the movement. People ate and left.
“Let’s think about that. The hour was late and people needed food. Jesus saw the need and told the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” His instructions did not come with any expectations. Basically, fill the needs of the people.
“And that’s what we’re to do as the body of Christ. We’re to fill the needs of the people. Furthermore, we’re to fill the needs of the people and not expect anything in return. We’re not asking them to pray with us nor are we asking them to join the church.
” Yet, somewhere deep down it’s not far from our thoughts. I admit that has been my thinking for a long time, however, over the last year my theology of ministry has changed a lot. I always believed that we, as the church, needed to engage in active, hands-on ministry, and I still believe that. People would lament: “We need more people.” “We’ve got to grow the church.” As I understand the generational shift in faith values, young people, people in their 20s and 30s look to put their faith into action; they want to do the work of Jesus, not just pray and sing about it. My theology would prompt me to say that if you want young people, “You’ve got to do more hands-on ministry.” My theology of ministry was, “if we’re going to grow the church, we need to do more hands-on ministry.”
“But over the last year, as I said my theology of ministry has changed. Ministry is not about growing or even sustaining the church. Ministry is what the disciples did that afternoon. It’s what Jesus said, “You give them something to eat.” Jesus had no other reason to provide food except to respond to their need in that moment. Jesus’ entire ministry was not predicated upon growing a movement, let alone growing a church.
“My theology of ministry that was so last year tacitly held the church in higher regard than ministry. My theology shifted because it implied that we do ministry in order to grow the church. But if we do ministry in order to grow the church, what happens if we don’t grow or don’t grow fast enough to fulfill our institutional needs? Should we stop doing ministry? Or maybe we need to do a different ministry in order to grow faster?
“And that’s why I’ve had this shift in my theology of ministry. Ministry is paramount. Right now, I’ve distilled my theology of ministry to the following pericope: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12a – even ignoring the second half “for building up the body of Christ.”) We’re called by God as disciples of Jesus to do ministry. That was the implicit promise made at our baptism in our name or by our own profession. We have to do ministry because for all of God’s power and might, we are still God’s instruments of peace and justice. That line we say each week in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” cannot happen without our active participation and engagement in ministry.
“I’m not saying that the church is irrelevant or that the church shouldn’t have a prominent place in our lives. I love the church. But the church as an institution seems to crowd out ministry. The church has become the focus of ministry with buildings and budgets. When we say, “We’ve got get new members to grow this church,” we may not realize that we’re not seeing members as saints who will join us in ministry, we’re seeing members as increasing our revenue stream in order to sustain the church. If we look at where we put our energies, where does it mostly go? How much time do we spend in meetings talking about our buildings and finances versus feeding people? How much effort do we put towards fundraising versus feeding people? How much of our pledge goes to support the church and how much do we dedicate to feeding people?
“Jesus said, “You give them something to eat.” As the people sat in groups of hundreds and fifties, the disciples had to serve each person. That’s something we shouldn’t overlook, either. They didn’t leave baskets out for people to help themselves. They served. They were face-to-face with each person that afternoon.
“It reminds us that ministry is more than writing a check and thinking that we’ve done it. While giving away money is an important responsibility for a church, that shouldn’t be the extent of its ministry because in reality individually we can do the same thing. The church gathers us to work collectively in ways we cannot work by ourselves. The church facilitates ways to equip us to tackle issues too big for any of us to do alone.
“The church exists in order to do ministry. Think of church not as a noun, but as a verb. God calls us to be church to each other, to family, to neighbors, to friends, to strangers, and to enemies. But the ministry does not exist to be the church. Without the church, we can still do ministry. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mat. 18:20) Ministry happens because each of us takes it upon ourselves to serve God using the spiritual gifts with which we were given. Ministry doesn’t require dozens and dozens of people. Ministry doesn’t need lots and lots of money. It happens in each of us. It happens when two or three of us join together. It happens when we take seriously and respond intentionally to Jesus, who said, “You give them something to eat.”
“Ministry happens not because we want to grow as a church or that we want to be more financially secure. Ministry happens not in order to have more members. Ministry happens for no other reason than to feed the hungry, lift up the downtrodden, heal the broken, free the captive, restore sight to the blind, and make the lame leap for joy. Ministry happens by speaking truth to power, to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable. Ministry happens because the need to heal a broken world is very real and has to be done if we truly wish for God’s will to be done here on earth as in heaven.
“Seeing the need, Jesus gave a simple command, “Your give them something to eat.” He had no other reason than to minister to the needs of the crowd that late afternoon on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It seemed like an impossible task, but it wasn’t much more complex than giving them something to eat.”