Lately I have been reflecting on the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (Mark 6:30-44), and I think it has a lot to say to those of us seeking to cultivate people and communities that can move out in discipleship and mission.
Anyone who has actually tried to do this stuff knows how difficult it is, how fraught with unanticipated challenges and constant feelings of inadequacy. It’s easy to think that no “progress” is being made, it isn’t moving fast enough, and maybe I don’t have what it takes to do this stuff in the first place. I have come to believe, though, that all of this is a necessary part of the training Jesus will take us through as we seek to join him in his mission. It’s the same training the first disciples went through in the feeding of the five thousand.
Like us, the disciples first saw a need: people were hungry. Jesus had been teaching all day and the disciples prudently suggest that because of the lateness of the day and the remoteness of the location, they ought to be dismissed to go to the surrounding villages to buy something to eat. They saw a need and attempted to fill it with their own ingenuity and street-smarts.
Jesus, however, gives them a bit of a shock with his own suggestion: “You give them something to eat.” The disciples are incredulous. “Do you have any idea how much it would cost to buy food for all these people? Are you really suggesting that we do that? Are you crazy?” They’re still attempting to solve the problem with their own abilities and intelligence, and they’re despairing because they realize there is no way they can do anything even remotely close to what Jesus is suggesting.
Jesus then asks them the question that gets to the heart of what he’s trying to teach them: “How many loaves do you have?” he asks, “Go and see.” The disciples answer, “Five–and two fish.” Jesus tells everyone to sit down on the grass, and I can imagine the disciples thinking, “He’s going to start a riot! How are we going to split this up to feed five thousand men?”
But Jesus simply takes the little sack lunch, looks up to heaven and gives thanks, breaks the loaves, and tells the disciples to start handing out food. The result is, in Mark’s understated prose: “They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish.”
Jesus always leads and commands us to do that which we could never accomplish in our own ability. You give them something to eat. Stretch out your hand. Take up your mat and walk. Heal those who are sick. Cleanse the lepers. Raise the dead. Make disciples of all peoples.
And when we come face-to-face with the impossibility of what we’re trying to do, and finally start to give up doing it in our own strength, Jesus says, “How many loaves do you have?” The disciples count them up and give them to Jesus. This is essential. They don’t give him a few of the loaves and keep a few for themselves, just in case. They give everything to Jesus, relinquishing the meager provisions they had, trusting Jesus to do something with them. The disciples wouldn’t get their loaves and fish back in the same form they gave them.
Jesus took what was offered, insufficient as it was, looked up to heaven and gave thanks, broke the loaves, and gave them to the people. It’s the same structure as the Eucharistic meal: taken, blessed, broken, given. That which was offered in trust is gathered up into the life of the kingdom, broken and distributed, and finally multiplied to meet the need, bringing dinner to five thousand families, plus leftovers!
Whatever you have is always enough when it is offered to Jesus completely, because God multiplies it to meet the need, however large.
So if you’re discouraged in the journey of cultivating communities of formation and mission, I implore you to resist the temptation to throw in the towel. The reason it’s hard is because we’re learning not to strive in our own strength. I also implore you to resist the temptation to, in frustration, engineer solutions birthed in your own ability or intelligence. Keep looking to Jesus and offering him what you have, however meager. Whatever you offer will be taken up into the life of the kingdom, broken and transformed by God’s power, and multiplied to meet needs you could never hope to meet in your own ability.
They’ll probably even be leftovers.