Struggle and Blessing by Pastor Will Nelson

Sermon Matthew 14:13-21

Many of us are familiar with most of the major characters in the Bible.  We know about Jesus, we know about Peter, we know about Paul, we know about Mary and Joseph.  We know about the disciples, the chief priests, the Pharisees, and the scribes.  But there is another major character that I think gets overlooked most of the time, and I believe that this character is just as important as any other.  This character does not really have a name but is almost always there.  This character is known simply as ‘the crowds.’

The crowds first appear after Jesus has gone among the people, teaching them, and curing them of their illnesses.  The crowds begin to follow him, listening as he gives his sermon on the mount.  They follow him everywhere, and he continually has compassion for them, and teaches them and cures their ills.  Jesus sees them as harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, and he takes responsibility for them, becoming their shepherd.  He continues to teach them, continues to cure their sick.  Sometimes he calls them to him, but mostly they follow him of their own accord.  Sometimes Jesus sends them away, but they always return.  They joyously welcome him to Jerusalem, and then they come after him with swords and clubs at Gethsemane.  Persuaded by the chief priests, they demand that Barabbas be released, and that Jesus be crucified.  They have their moments of great faith, and they have their moments of great doubt and fear.  They suffer, and they rejoice.

But who are these crowds really?  Who are the people in them?

At various points throughout Matthew’s gospel, an individual person will come out of the crowd and approach Jesus.  It is a leper, asking to be cleansed.  It is a centurion, asking that his paralyzed servant be healed.  It is a scribe, asking to follow Jesus.  It is a church leader, asking that his daughter be restored to life.  It is anyone with a need, be it physical, spiritual, or emotional, for themselves or for someone close to them.  It is anyone of any station in life who is harassed, anyone of any station in life who is helpless.  It is you, and it is me.

There are times when we can relate to Peter or Paul.  There are times when we can relate to the disciples. Though we may not want to admit it, there are even times when we can relate to the chief priests, the Pharisees, and the scribes.  But with the crowds, it goes beyond merely relating to them.  We are them.
What was it like to seek Jesus out on this precise day, knowing that he had purposely gone off to a deserted place to be alone?  Why didn’t we just leave him be?  I imagine it stemmed from our being so harassed and helpless.  We needed something, even if we were not exactly sure what, and we knew that there was hope and rest with Jesus.

So, we left our towns on foot, seeking Jesus.  And we found him, sitting in a boat.  We were unsure of ourselves, not really knowing why we had come, not knowing what to do now.  And Jesus saw us milling about on the shore, and once again he had compassion for us.  He came to us, and he cured those of us who were sick.  And we watched in awe, knowing that nothing like this had ever happened before, praising the God of Israel for these miracles, unaware of the greater miracles yet to come.  As evening came, we were still there, in Jesus’ no longer deserted place.

Perhaps we felt a little bit of panic when we realized how long we had been there.  Perhaps we felt a little lightheaded from being in the sun all day, with no food.  We had not realized it before because we were so engrossed in Jesus’ miraculous healings, but we realize it now.  I imagine we were somewhat confused when he ordered us to sit down on the grass, but we did it anyway.  We saw him bless five loaves of bread and two fish and give them to the disciples.  We saw the disciples begin to distribute the food, and those of us in the middle and in the back were rather envious of those up in the very front, the ones who would get something to eat before the food ran out.

But those baskets continued to be passed along, and we could see that people were taking more than a crumb or two.  As the baskets got closer to us, we could see that folks were taking big pieces, handfuls, enough to satisfy a full day’s hunger, yet the food in the baskets never diminished.  Imagine the awe we felt as the baskets were put into our own hands, still overflowing with bread and fish even though thousands before us had already eaten.  We had seen how much food there was to begin with, and that there was not even enough to feed Jesus and his disciples, let alone those of us in the crowds.  Yet we ate and were filled, and passed the baskets along, and all of us ate and were filled, with food left over to spare.  We could not believe it, because we had just experienced the impossible.  But we could believe it because we would just experienced Jesus.

We first encountered Jesus when he walked among us, and, not knowing the whole story, not even understanding what we did know, we followed him.  There have been times when he specifically called us to him, and there have been times when we have just followed him on our own accord, but he came to us first.  There have been times when we have been filled with awe by him, and we have been certain that with him we could find hope, and rest.  And there have been times when we have shunned him, pushed him away from us as we sought another, rejected all that he had to offer us.

Am I still talking about Matthew’s gospel?  Or am I talking about what we know to be true from our own individual experiences, our very own lives?

Is there even a difference?

I have encountered Jesus.  He came to me and, even though I did not understand, I was curious, and I wanted to see more.  I followed him.  I went to church, I talked with other Christians, I read the Bible, I prayed.  Sometimes things happened in my life that some people would call coincidence, but I was certain that it was a miracle, performed especially for me.  Maybe it was as simple as getting a phone call from a friend at a moment of deep loneliness, and once it was as complex as being offered a full scholarship for seminary three days after losing a job I never would have quit in order to go to school.  I’ve also shunned Jesus, run from him, wanting nothing to do with him, because I’d been influenced by people who said they knew him, and the picture of him they painted was of someone cold and distant, strict and demanding, unforgiving of my many sins and inadequacies.  I have denied his very voice , and put my trust in myself, my own ability to take care of things, my own strength to face things, my own wisdom to know things, only to fail.  And as I lived my life crucifying Christ by not obeying his voice; I myself, became battered and broken, because by myself I could, then or now, do nothing.  And the Christ I crucified, in my own life and as a person within the crowds, came to me again, took my brokenness upon himself, lifted me up, forgave me, and showed that he always walks with me.

The crowds in Matthew’s gospel only got to experience the earthly Jesus, the one who was tied to a time and a particular place.  We experience the risen and eternal Christ, through whom God made the world, through whom God saved the world, who always exists and in all places.  It is through Christ’s resurrection that we can reach back and be that crowd, and it is through Christ’s resurrection that the Jesus they experienced teaching, healing, and performing miracles can be here with us now.

In a few minutes we will celebrate Communion.  The message of institution is taken from the Last Supper, which Jesus had with his disciples only; the crowds were not there.  However, the Last Supper was not the only time Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to all to eat.  You were there when he did it before; today I invite you to the Table again to relive that experience.  Only this time, Jesus will not just be giving you the bread; he will be coming to you in the bread.  Amen.