The Apostle Paul writes: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” – Ephesians 3:14-21
“After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
“When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.” – John 6:1-21
“The Feeding of the Five Thousand” is a familiar story, one many of us learned as children in Sunday School. The moral of the story of course is that Jesus can take whatever we have to offer, no matter how small, and use it to provide for the needs of many people. This is a comforting thing to know, especially when I look at how limited my resources are and how great the needs are in the world.
But as I was reading the story again this past week one phrase jumped out at me: after the crowd ate, Jesus told his disciples to “gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost”.
I never noticed the fragments before. John writes that the disciples gathered up twelve baskets of fragments. The number twelve is meaningful: it’s one basket for each disciple. But it made me wonder why Jesus would command them to do this, and why would John bother to tell us about it? So let’s return to the scene and picture it with fresh eyes.
Jesus and the disciples are in the region of Galilee, an area of hilly meadows above the Sea of Galilee. Jesus sees a huge crowd of people coming in their direction – John says 5000 people; Matthew, in his version of the story, says there were 5000 men plus women and children.
Just to give you an idea, a sell-out crowd at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh is about 2500 people so double that and we’ve got a fair idea of how many people there were. Imagine what it would be like to be outdoors somewhere and have that many people coming in your direction!
Jesus turns to his disciple Philip and says, “where are we going to get food for all these people?” Philip points out it would probably take half a year to earn enough money to buy food for everyone. (Anyone who has ever planned a wedding reception knows the truth of this!) Andrew goes out and finds a young boy with five barley loaves and two fish but he says, “what’s this going to do for so many?”
But Jesus tells the disciples to have the people sit down on the grass. He then takes the loaves and fish in his hands and prays over them. Luke tells us Jesus “blessed and broke them” and gave them to the people – a foreshadowing of what he would do at the Last Supper.
When the people were done eating they were satisfied. More than ‘not hungry’, they were full. As in, stuffed. The people have just witnessed a MAJOR miracle, and it’s got them thinking.
Meanwhile Jesus tells the disciples to gather up the broken pieces. Three things I want to mention about these pieces:
- When I’ve read this story before I always imagined these pieces as… kind of gross… like they’ve been bitten into already. Who would want to touch that, let alone save it? But as I looked at the story I realized there’s a different sense to it. The bread was broken and passed, broken and passed, like at communion. There were no teeth marks. The leftovers were still edible.
- The word ‘leftovers’ is the wrong shading of meaning. When we think of ‘leftovers’ we think of things in the back of the fridge. A better translation would be ‘abundance’… as in, there were an ‘abundance of broken pieces’ (not a pile of leftovers).
- Jesus said ‘gather up the pieces that none may be lost’.
Which brings us to one of the core spiritual truths of this miracle. The Greek word for ‘lost’ in this verse is usually used to describe people, not things. For example, “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” (Matt 18:14) Or speaking of the Prodigal Son, “he was lost and now is found”. Or speaking of Jesus, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10) Jesus’ concern with fragments of bread becoming lost paints a picture of his concern for people who are lost.
Sadly the crowd misses the point. They have witnessed Jesus healing all kinds of sicknesses, and they’ve been satisfied with plenty of food, and they decide this is the man they want to have as king – so he can keep on doing these things, keep on healing people, keep on feeding everyone.
The problem is, Jesus seems to be unwilling to lead a rebellion. So the people decide to make him king – ‘by force’ is implied. And while Jesus cares about health and food his primary mission on this earth is not about providing these things. His primary mission is to announce the good news of God’s kingdom and to provide a way for people to get there. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and to try to force his kingdom into this world is to lose the Gospel.
Let me say that again, especially now with presidential campaigns ramping up and all kinds of people claiming to be on God’s side: to try to force Jesus’s kingdom into this world is to lose the Gospel, because the Gospel is about a kingdom greater than this world. Jesus’ kingdom cannot be voted in, legislated in, or mandated in. It’s not about movements or programs or what’s on the evening news. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.
Jesus’ primary mission on this earth was and is to bring good news to the broken so no-one is lost.
Which brings me to our theme for the day: Fragments matter.
- Fragments matter to God. Nothing in God’s hands – even a broken piece of bread – is ever wasted. Nothing is so small that God loses track of it. It’s like the old hymn says: “his eye is on the sparrow / and I know he watches me…”
- Fragmented hearts and minds matter to God. You may have heard the story about an alcoholic named Bill who had a conversion experience, and then figured out how to explain the Gospel to other alcoholics. He became the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill’s life was in fragments but when he met Jesus, Jesus gathered up those fragments and gave meaning to Bill’s life, even the broken pieces.
- Fragmented bodies matter to God. Remember Joni Eareckson, a few decades ago, the teenager who broke her neck in a diving accident? She was paralyzed from the shoulders down, but she learned to paint by holding a brush between her teeth and became a famous artist. She put her broken body in Jesus’ hands and she has been used by God to work with the disabled and to teach churches all over the country how to minister to the disabled.
- Fragmented churches matter to God. All over our country, in every city and town, you can find church after church a lot like this one: churches over 100 years old that used to hold 500 people on a Sunday and are now down to maybe 50. The kids grew up and moved away and nobody has taken their place. And all the churches are wondering what went wrong. I think maybe that’s not the question to be asking. Jesus had something important in mind to do with those twelve baskets of bread-fragments, and I think he’s got something important in mind to do with our church-fragments too.
I don’t want to make it sound like I’m wearing rose-colored glasses. I know our churches face all kinds of challenges, and the immediate future looks difficult. But I do think that God is saying to churches across the country, ‘gather up the fragments that nothing may be lost’. Small churches across the country are finding that people who have attended large churches are discovering how good it is to be in a church ‘where everybody knows your name’. The key to building a future, with the fragments we have, is putting those fragments in Jesus’ hands… and then being willing to do what Jesus asks in service to the community.
God does not need a whole lot of people to accomplish God’s purposes. Let me give you a few examples from scripture of how God has used fragments.
- In the book of Judges we see God using a small group of people to build up the faith of a nation. There was a man named Gideon who needed to defend Israel against attackers. He went out with the entire army and God said, “you have too many men. Send home anybody who’s afraid to fight.” So Gideon sent home 22,000 men and had 10,000 troops left. God said to Gideon, “that’s still too many. Take the men down to the river and have them drink. Anyone who bends over and drinks with their hands stays home, and anyone who drinks by putting their mouth right into the river gets to fight.” Only 300 men made the final cut. God won a mighty victory with just a fragment of the army. God wanted a fragment that day. God chose a fragment so that Israel would know that in God alone is the victory.
- In the book of Ruth we meet another fragment – a fragment of a family that God uses to build hope and a future. This once-happy family of husband and wife, two sons and two daughters-in-law… their lives are shattered when all the men in the family suddenly die. Naomi, the mother, tells her daughters-in-law “I have no hope… go home to your fathers.” And one of them did, but Ruth refused to leave. The two women, who had nothing left but each other (and God), returned to Bethlehem… where Ruth met her husband Boaz and became the great-grandmother of King David and an ancestor of Jesus. God used that little fragment of a family in the master plan for the salvation of the whole world.
- And in the New Testament, Jesus Himself becomes fragmented on the Cross. Jesus said at the Last Supper, “this is my body broken for you”. He made himself into fragments so we could be made whole.
How can we respond to this?
As we look at our lives… our families… our churches… we need to know that nothing is insignificant or worthless in Jesus’ hands. We need to know, down to the depths of our hearts, that broken pieces can become things of beauty in Jesus’ hands.
I have an old friend whose heart has been fragmented in more ways than I can count. I don’t usually talk about friends in sermons but he has told these stories in public so I’m not talking out of school. He lost his father at an early age; his step-father was an alcoholic who beat him; he was a victim of attempted rape as a teenager, he lost his first fiancee in a car accident, he lost his only son in childbirth… the list goes on. This man has been through more than I can imagine. But he put his life in Jesus’ hands, and when the light of God shines through all those broken pieces – like light through a stained-glass window – it’s beautiful, and people’s lives are changed, because what they see is God’s compassion and God’s miracle-working power.
The question then becomes how to go about putting our lives, our families, and our churches into God’s hands? Three things I would suggest.
First, prayer… and more prayer… and more prayer. You know how they say in real estate it’s all about “location, location, location”. In God’s kingdom it’s prayer, prayer, prayer… because the Christian life is all about a relationship with God, and all relationships have their foundation in communication. We need to pray for ourselves, for our families, for our churches, and we need to ask others to pray for us.
The passage we read from Ephesians this morning is a perfect example of the kind of prayer I’m talking about. In this passage Paul prays for the Ephesians that God would give them gifts including:
- Inner strength
- The power of the Holy Spirit – that is, God living in us
- Jesus living in their hearts through faith
- Being rooted and grounded in love
- Understanding of the height and depth and breadth of the love of Christ
- Being filled with the fulness of God
- Giving glory to Jesus in every generation
Let’s join Paul in praying for these things for our lives and our churches.
Second, worship. If we grasp all that Jesus has done for us, and all that he is still doing, we can’t help but love him. Our hearts become wrapped up in his.
Have you ever talked to someone who’s in love? You know how they can’t stop talking about their special person. Or a new grandparent with baby pictures? Good luck getting them to change the subject – you know what I mean? Love Jesus like that. Be amazed at Jesus like that. Let those feelings spill over into worship, into our prayers and our songs.
And third, have an outward focus. If we focus on our brokenness – our broken lives, our broken families, our fragmented church – then that’s all we’re going to see. But if we put the fragments in God’s hands through prayer, then we can pay attention to the voices of need outside the church and God will use us to respond to those needs.
As an example – in a moment we will be dedicating some blankets our women have made. The ladies of our church have heard there is a need for children in Pittsburgh hospitals to have warm blankets and they are responding to that need. It’s a great example of putting what we have in God’s hands and having an outward focus.
So where do we see fragments in our lives? In our relationships? In our churches? In Jesus’ hands those fragments can and will find meaning and purpose.
Fragments matter to God. Join me in putting all those fragments in Jesus’ hands. AMEN.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 7/26/15