I’m giving this devotional for our DMin seminar on Thursday morning, March 4, 2010 at Fuller Seminary.
In Matthew 14:13-21, we have the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. This is an interesting story for several reasons, but I want us to focus on the disciples response to Jesus. And, I want us to think about how we do ministry in light of this story.
Of course, the story goes that Jesus had just heard that John the Baptist had been killed. He attempted to withdraw to a “solitary place” but the crowds followed him. The Bible says he had compassion on them, and healed their sick.
As the day wore on and was nearing sundown, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “This is a remote place and it’s already late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
Jesus response was first, “They don’t need to go away.”
And, secondly, he said, “You give them something to eat.” In other words, you feed them.
The disciples did a quick inventory, and said, “We have only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish.” Jesus said, “Bring them here to me.”
You know the story from that point on: Jesus has the crowd seated, he blesses the bread, and then gives it to the disciples to hand out. They hand it out, everyone eats, and then they take up 12 basketfuls after everyone has eaten and is satisfied. One basketful for each disciple. Keep that in mind.
A Personal Story
In the late 1980s I was in my first DMin program here at Fuller. I was studying Church Growth with Peter Wagner, John Wimber, and Eddie Gibbs. I was actually very good at the technique of growing churches. I had grown a small country church from 60 to 125 in 18 months. I had lead a small suburban Atlanta church to grow from 80 to 150 in less than 2 years.
After seminary, I led another Atlanta suburban congregation to grow from 250 to 350 with a high attendance of 714 one Easter Sunday.
I parlayed that experience into a call to a church in Greensboro, NC, where we grew from 400 to over 600 in attendance in less than 2 years. But that church split, so I started another church in Greensboro, and at the end of 4 years we moved into our new $1-million building with over 400 in attendance.
I was very good at the technical stuff. Because of that, I attracted some attention from my denomination and got asked to lead conferences and speak. Leadership Journal published the first article I did for them titled, “Getting To Your Marketplace.” I was on a roll.
But by February, 1990, none of it made sense to me any more. I was drained, empty, burned out, and had nothing left to say. And so I quit. I resigned the church I loved, the church I had founded, and left the community and the ministry.
I thought I would take a couple of years off, then get back in to pastoral ministry. But those two years stretched into 13 before I stood in the pulpit again to preach to a church congregation.
I was good at the technical stuff, but that wasn’t enough.
Back to the Disciples
The disciples were good at the technical stuff, too. They recognized the need within the crowd — people were getting hungry. They also were good at logistics — they knew they couldn’t find enough food to feed this large crowd which they estimated at over 5,000.
But they had things organized. They found a little food, they had the people sit in orderly fashion. And, when Jesus gave the command, they moved among the crowd to distribute the food.
The only thing they couldn’t do, was the thing that needed doing: They couldn’t feed the people.
They could organize, count the crowd, figure out the needs, find a few resources, but they couldn’t feed the people. And when Jesus said, “You feed them” Matthew records no response. Nothing. They just stood there.
So, Jesus fed them. And, as a humorous lesson, he had them take up the leftovers, which amounted to 12 basketfuls — one for each of them. A big object lesson in their failure and God’s provision.
You see, it’s not enough to be a good technician. You have to be able to feed people.
Another Day, But the Same Disciples
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, John says Jesus meets the disciples on the sea shore, where he has prepared breakfast for them. He’s going to feed them, again.
In the course of the meal, he turns to Peter, who has betrayed Christ 3 times, and says to him:
“Simon, son of John, do you really love me more than these?”
Peter replies, “You know that I love you.”
Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.”
Then, Jesus asks Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you really love me?”
Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus says, “Take care of my sheep.”
Then, Jesus asks him a third time: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter is offended, and replies, “Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
We Are Sheep-feeders, not Crowd-Counters
Of course, there are several things going on here. Jesus uses different verbs for the word “love.” And, Jesus is giving Peter three opportunities to say “I love you” not long after Peter has said “I don’t know him” three times. All that is going on, but the most important part is the part about feeding the sheep.
Because as good as we might be at the technical stuff, Jesus calls us to be sheep-feeders, not crowd-counters.
Which brings me back to my story. So, in a series of highly unlikely events, I was called to Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia. Where I immediately set about to do what I knew I could do — be a good technician and grow the church.
Only this time, it didn’t work. As a matter of fact, I came pretty close to both being fired and quitting. I had told the search committee that called me, “I’m not a chaplain. Don’t call me if you want a chaplain.”
That was pretty arrogant, and stupid, but they called me anyway. And, within 18-months I had failed at all the technical stuff I knew how to do. Leadership published my article about my frustration, and ultimate shift in ministry, titled, Learn To Partner.
But mostly what I learned was that I had to be a sheep-feeder. While the technical stuff has to be done, it is always the servant of ministry, not the main point. If I was going to move from being a technician to a shepherd, I had to spend time with the sheep, they had to know my voice, they had to trust me, I had to take care of them, and I had to feed them.
Peter Gets It
In Acts 3, Peter finally gets it. Peter and John, both of whom have been present for the feeding of the 5,000, the breakfast on the beach, and the day of Pentecost, are walking to the Temple.
On their way, they encounter a beggar, a lame man who is asking them for money. Now they can’t send him away like they wanted to send the 5,000 away, because he can’t walk. So, they could have cut a wide arc around him, or looked the other way like we do to the homeless people who beg on the freeway exits.
But instead, Peter finally gets it. He says to the beggar, “Look at us!” He engages the man, he doesn’t send him away, he doesn’t think the situation is hopeless, he doesn’t get frustrated this time.
Peter says to him, “Silver and gold have I none. But such as I have, I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”
I like verse 7 — “Then taking him by the hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong.” He walked. He praised God. He shouted. He made a big commotion. Peter and John got in big trouble. All because they fed this poor sheep — they gave him what he needed. God changed the beggar’s life through Peter and John.
These are the same two disciples who couldn’t feed hungry people, who didn’t stick around to help Jesus, who didn’t understand even after spending three years with Jesus.
Until they were filled with God’s Holy Spirit, and believed that a new day had come. That Jesus could make a broken man whole and healthy — which is what salvation is.
We can’t just be good technicians. We have to feed the sheep. But we don’t have to do it alone.