It was a miniature golf course, on a brutally hot day, when I saw a father on his own with three children.
“Who’s winning?” I asked cheerfully.
“I am” said one child.
“No, I am” said another.
“No,” the father said “their mother is!”
There comes a time, I think, when most people find that they need a break. Whether you spend your day at home looking after various family members, or in the office, or in church, or wherever, sometimes it becomes necessary to step back and find some space for yourself. Some time to rest. To refresh your batteries, so that you’re ready for another term or another year, or whatever.
So I feel for the apostles in today’s gospel reading. They’d just returned from their very first mission. They were full of it. They couldn’t wait to pour out to Jesus all they’d seen and heard and experienced. We read, “They told him all they’d done and taught.” But they were also exhausted. They’d put the whole of themselves into this demanding and new work of mission, and they were tired. And Jesus, always sensitive to people’s needs, calls them to rest and recuperate in a lonely place. To recharge their batteries. Exactly what they needed. So, they all pile into a boat and set off for this lonely place. More than ready for a break, for some time away from the pressures of work, from the constant demands of people.
But unfortunately, the people wouldn’t let them go. Crowds tend to be selfish, and as the disciples set off in their boat for their lonely place, everyone followed. You’d have thought Jesus might have had compassion on his own workers, and said to the crowd, “Just give us a bit of space. You can come back tomorrow, but today we really need to be alone. We need some time to recharge our own batteries. So go home now and come and find us again tomorrow.”
But he didn’t say that. Rather than having compassion on his own workers, he had compassion on the crowd, and he instantly began to teach them. Almost as though he couldn’t help himself. And the apostles went along with it. Even though they were perhaps desperate for a break, nonetheless they dragged out that last ounce of their resources and helped Jesus out with the crowd. Supporting him as best they could as he ministered to the throng.
But when it grew late, they’d had enough. It was becoming evident Jesus wasn’t going to do anything, so the disciples thought ahead for him. They suggested Jesus send the crowd on their way while there was still time to buy food, and to find a bed for the night.
But amazingly, Jesus refused. What’s more, he gave his disciples, his weary and exhausted disciples, an impossible task. He said, “You give them something to eat.”
What does this say about the disciples’ needs for rest and renewal? Is the implication that Christian people go on working until they drop? Especially if their work is some sort of service, ministering to the needs of others? And is that even more so if they’re volunteers, where holidays aren’t built in?
It seems the disciples weren’t best pleased by Jesus’ response: their reply was pretty sharp and sarcastic, “You want us to go and buy bread for all these people at this time of night? At a cost of well over a year’s wages? Are you having a laugh?”
But Jesus, even though he too must be tired, isn’t looking for a fight. He ignores the sarcasm, and turns instead to practical matters. He looks not at what can’t be done for the people, but at what can be done. He sends the disciples to find out just what resources are available.
The resources come from the people themselves, and they’re woefully inadequate. The people seem to have just five loaves and two fish. And that to feed 5000 people. I think at that point I might have given up. I think I might have said, “You do what you like, Jesus. I’m not staying around to be part of this fiasco! I’m going to cut my losses. I’m off. And if you’ve any sense, you’ll send these people away and come with me.”
But none of the disciples said that. Despite their tiredness, and in the face of all the odds against a satisfactory outcome to the situation, in the face of common sense, they trusted Jesus. Even though privately they may have thought it misguided and a waste of time, in fact they followed Jesus’ instructions to the letter. They sat the people down in groups of hundreds and fifties, and waited for Jesus.
And Jesus did what we do in a Communion service. He took the offerings of the people, in this case the bread and the fish, he blessed them, he broke them, and he distributed them. I’m sure this story has as much to tell us about Communion as anything else. Perhaps each loaf was divided into ten, and a tenth of a loaf was shared between each group of a hundred people until all 5000 had received. Perhaps each group found some more food in their pockets and bags to share.
We’ll never know what actually happened. And the point of a miracle isn’t to explain it away, so that it ceases to be a miracle, but to accept it in whatever way feels most comfortable. And more importantly, not ask if it’s true, but to ask what truth it tells us.
So what is the point of this particular miracle? Jesus certainly creates an opportunity to demonstrate God’s power. An opportunity which at first sight, doesn’t appear to exist. The resources are not sufficient. They’re too small to do anything. But Jesus not only uses them, but turns them to huge advantage.
And Jesus nourishes everyone, not just a chosen few. He doesn’t turn anyone away. He doesn’t question anyone, to discover whether they’ve reached a suitable commitment in order to receive. He doesn’t judge anyone, to discover whether or not they’re living the right kind of life. He doesn’t demand any requirements before he offers nourishment.
Everyone who is present, receives their fill. Those hanging about on the edges, just looking but not really taking part. Those anxious to be right in the middle of the action. Those content to wait around and let someone else do the organising. Those who were tired and fed up with it all, and who just wanted to go home to a decent meal and bed. Those timid people, who don’t mind mingling with the crowd, but who couldn’t possibly be singled out for any reason. Those who simply followed the crowd. And those who came for a good story or a good laugh or to be with their friends.
Somehow, Jesus catered for them all. All ate and were satisfied. The nourishment wasn’t bought. Nor did it come from some vast heavenly store. It came from the people, and it was pretty rubbish. Common sense would have said it was hopelessly inadequate. But Jesus took what the people already had, and transformed it into something deeply enriching and satisfying and filling.
But what about the disciples, those weary folk who needed a rest? Once they were nourished along with the crowd, we’re told, “Jesus made them get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.”
So, I guess the recharging of batteries starts with nourishment by Jesus, which might not always be how we imagine it will be, and it’s followed by rest and recreation which are also in his hands. As long as we trust him, when he demands the seemingly impossible, in some way he will provide the necessary miracle to ensure it comes about. Because something appears to be impossible, that’s no reason to reject it. This is why we’ve embarked on the Pilgrim Project, and attempting to unite with Farnham Methodist Church.
As long as we remember to follow Jesus, rather than demanding the impossible of ourselves, God will make sure our batteries are fully charged.