Dear Fathers, Friends in Christ,
Romans 6: 19-23 and Mark 8:1-9
Jesus asked his disciples, "How many loaves do you have?" "Seven," they replied. Then he directed the crowd to take their places on the ground. Taking the seven loaves, he gave thanks, broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute. And they handed them out to the crowd.
Our Church uses the story of the multiplication of the loaves about four different times in the course of the Church Year. Obviously, it's a favourite with her. This morning what you are hearing from Mark's Gospel is what the Scripture scholars call a doublet. A doublet sounds like something that comes from poetry, but here the meaning is different. A doublet in Scripture is a repetition of something that was used elsewhere.
And that is exactly what has happened here in Mark's Gospel. We have the story of the feeding of four thousand with seven loaves of bread two chapters after we read about the five thousand with five loaves and two fish. Scholars tell us it is the same story. A few of the details have been changed, but the essence of the story is the same. That's what they mean by calling this story a doublet. Sometimes people hear that and say, "Well, weren't there two times that Jesus fed the people in the wilderness?" "Probably not," say most contemporary Scripture scholars.
What happened is this: Before there was a written Gospel, the Church had an oral tradition. After all, Jesus told his disciples, "Go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature." He didn't say, "Go into the whole world and write down a Gospel and make books and hand them out." He told the to preach the Gospel. So they did the preaching. Communication being what it was - or what it was not - in those days, oral traditions grew. And what we have in today's Gospel are two different oral traditions, two different versions of the preaching put into one Gospel.
Mark incorporated much of the preaching that St. Peter was doing. When he wrote his Gospel, he would write it down as he heard it. Now there were two traditions. What should he do with them? Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he put them both into his Gospel, but they are one and the same incident. They vary in some little details though. Those little details are very interesting to look at and to ponder. Perhaps these are the reasons why the oral traditions diverged a little bit.
Notice that the miracle couldn't happen unless there was some bread available. Consider this: There were all these people - four thousand - out there in the wilderness. They've been with Jesus, following him around, for about three days. Whatever food they had brought out there with them was pretty well gone. There were no Myers or David Jones's nearby to restore their larders. They were getting pretty hungry. Jesus said, "I have compassion on the multitudes. I can't send them away". His disciples said, "Well, what can you do about that?" Jesus and the disciples huddled together, and Jesus said, How many loaves do you have?" They said, "Seven. But how are you going to feed all these people with seven loaves?" That wasn't the point. He asked the question, "How many loaves do you have? You give me what you've got and I'll work a miracle."
That's the point of the story. "You give me what you've got and I can transform it. I can change it. I can make it grow. I can make it beautiful." And that's what he did. From the seven loaves handed over to him, he fed four thousand.
Throughout Scripture, we read of event after event where God takes a little bit and creates an abundance. I think one of the most wonderful stories in all of the Old Testament is the story of Abraham and Sarah. If you remember the story in the book of Genesis, God sent his angel to talk to Abraham about being the father of a great nation. "Your descendants will be as numerous as the sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky. You're going to have a son within the year." Do you know what Abraham's reaction was? He fell down laughing. He was ninety years old. This is the funniest thing he had ever heard! "I'm going to be a father at the age of ninety. And you should see Sarah. This is ridiculous." He fell to the ground laughing. Meanwhile, Sarah is in the tent, eavesdropping. She hears the promise: "I'm going to be a mother; I'm ninety years old. This is absolutely hilarious." She was laughing uncontrollably. God said, "I can do it." In a year's time, they had their son, Isaac. The promise was kept.
What did Abraham and Sarah have, besides a sense of humor? They did have faith. Ultimately, they believed the word of God. God could take that little bit of faith of these two old folks and a child is born; the beginning of the nation of Israel, from which would come the Messiah. Later on, Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son. After all he went through, God asks for Isaac in sacrifice. This time Abraham thought, "All right, even my own child is not as important as my faith in my God." As he was about to sacrifice his son, Isaac, God stayed his hand. God takes a little bit and creates a whole nation.
In the New Testament, we have another example of God taking something very little and making a lot. The angel Gabriel appeared to a young girl named Mary and asked her to be the mother of God. Think about that! Now, Mary could have said, "Well, I don't know. You see, I'm engaged to Joseph and we're going to be married shortly. I'm honoured. I'm pleased. Thanks, but no thanks. I don't really want to do that." No, in her generosity, she would say, "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Be it done to me according to thy word." She surrendered completely to God. In doing so, in giving the little bit that she had, she became the mother of God, the mother of the Redeemer, the woman who is blessed among women. God can take a little bit and make so much out of it.
I believe that that's really the message of this multiplication of the loaves in today's Gospel. Think about yourself and what God asks of you. What is it that is most precious to you? Your family? Your spouse? Your children? Your job? Your health? Your money? Your possessions and property? What is the most precious thing that you have? God wants it. I am here this morning to tell you that God wants it. You are to surrender it to him.
The most precious thing that you and I have is our will: our ability to say "yes!" to God. A small thing. Yet you hand your will over to God and you are blessed a hundredfold. You and I know that's true. You and I also know that it's very difficult to do. But is not this the very essence of our religion? Think about what religion is. Going to church on Sunday - a good thing to do. But it's not the essence of religion. Keeping the commandments. Excellent. Don't kill anybody. Don't do all those other bad things. Is that the essence of religion? No. I know some very ethical pagans. How about praying daily. That is something exemplary, something that we all must do. Is that the essence of religion? No. Are all of those things together the essence of religion? No.
What is it then? The surrender of our wills to God. That is the very essence of our religion. This is what Jesus came into the world to do, to give us an example. "Not as I will it, Father, but as you will it." The same prayer is ours. "Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven." The surrender of our wills is at the very core of who we are, of our religion, of our faith. As we surrender ourselves to God, he can take that little bit and he can bless it and multiply it. In the fulfillment of God's will, we can see real growth, experience real joy. That is the essence of true religion.
Surely, God can work a miracle with seven loaves of bread. But if that fellow didn't show up with those seven loaves of bread or decided, "I'm not going to give away these loaves of bread. I'm going to hang onto them", four thousand people wouldn't have been fed. But that person gave up that little bit for the sake of a miracle.
It's the same with you and me. What is most precious to us, we surrender to our God. This morning as we offer the Eucharist, this is what we offer - ourselves. Our bodies, our souls, our minds, our wills - everything that we have - we surrender to our God. We ask our God to multiply his blessings upon us. We know that he will continue to work his miracle in us if we but surrender to him.
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne
Launceston on Tasmania