TRINITY VII – Omnes gentes, plaudite
Introit: (Ps. 47) O clap your hands together, all ye people: O sing unto God with the voice of melody. Ps. For the Lord is high, and to be feared: he is the great King upon all the earth. Glory be … O clap your hands …
Collect: Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: As yet they shall use this speech in the land of Judah and in the cities thereof, when I shall bring again their captivity: The Lord bless thee, O habitation of justice, and mountain of holiness. And there shall dwell in Judah itself, and in all the cities thereof together, husbandmen, and they that go forth with flocks. For I will satiate the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish. (Jeremiah 31.23-25)
Gradual: (Ps. 34) Come, ye children, and hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord. V. They had an eye unto him and were lightened: and their faces were not ashamed.
Epistle: Brethren: God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness. I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness. For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness. What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death. But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6.17-23)
Alleluia. Thou, O God, art praised in Sion: and unto thee shall the vow be performed in Jerusalem. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: In those days: The multitude being very great, and having nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples unto him, and saith unto them, I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now been with me three days, and have nothing to eat: and if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way: for divers of them came from far. And his disciples answered him, From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness? And he asked them, How many loaves have ye? And they said, Seven. And he commanded the people to sit down on the ground: and he took the seven loaves, and gave thanks, and brake, and gave to his disciples to set before them; and they did set them before the people. And they had a few small fishes: and he blessed, and commanded to set them also before them. So they did eat, and were filled: and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets. And they that had eaten were about four thousand: and he sent them away. (St Mark 8.1-9)
“For I will satiate the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish.”
Today’s Gospel reading could very easily be taken as simply a different version of the feeding of the five thousand, as found back in chapter 6, but it is not. That story took place in Galilee, but the setting for this episode is across the Sea of Galilee in the Decapolis (7.31), that is, in the heart of Gentile territory. The implication, then, is that the message of Christ, His care and His blessing, are for all people—Gentiles included. And by the use of a different word for “basket” (in this instance more like a hamper), the superabundance is even greater.
In his concise presentation of the Gospel, St Mark has arranged the events in a significant way, which looks beyond simple chronology, in order to expound specific theological principles. Thus in chapters 7 and 8, he presents a series of stories that reveal Christ’s concern for the Gentile “outsiders.” These stories are linked even more strongly through the use of “bread” imagery, continued from chapter 6. The first such instance (often obscured by modern translations) comes at the beginning of chapter 7, where the Pharisees found fault with some of the disciples for “eating bread” without ritual handwashing, thereby challenging their notions of “clean” and “unclean.” The second, and more significant for our understanding of today’s reading, comes in verses 24-30, in Our Lord’s encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. This Gentile woman approaches Jesus and begs Him to do something He has seemed eager to do for countless others—to cast a demon out of her daughter. But He responds in what seems a very un-Christ-like manner: “First let the children [read: Jews] eat their fill; for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs [read: Gentiles]!” This appears to reflect the prevalent attitude of the Jews of His day: that the blessings of the Kingdom are primarily, if not solely, for the children of Israel. This was a harsh response, but the mother seems undeterred, cleverly retorting that even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. For her firm expression of faith, Jesus answers the woman’s prayer and her daughter is healed. But the encounter leaves the reader wondering whether this is indeed how Jesus feels—that those outside the nation of Israel will have to be satisfied with only the leftovers of the Kingdom. Does He really see them as dogs, worthy of nothing more than scraps? Or does He want to give them something more? Today’s reading gives us our answer.
You will note how Mark says that the people who flocked to Jesus came from “a great distance” (v. 3). And one senses here that he is speaking in terms more spiritual than geographical (cf. Ephesians 2.11-22). These people are Gentiles and outsiders, “far off” from the Kingdom of God. In the eyes of many of their Jewish neighbours, they are “dogs.” And yet, Jesus now makes the blessings of the Kingdom available to them, just as He had done earlier for that Jewish multitude. Neither is He satisfied to give them merely a few table scraps. Instead, He warmly invites them to share in all the abundance of His Kingdom, providing not only enough, but far more than enough—so much more that there are seven hampers full of leftovers. Here Mark shows that, contrary to what the disciples, the Pharisees, and even his readers might think, no one is outside the reaches of God’s grace. In Christ, the blessings and abundant life of the Kingdom are available to all. Through Him, those who are far off have been brought near (Eph 2), united into one body just as the many grains of wheat are gathered into one loaf of bread.
But notice also that Jesus did not create food out of nothing, although He might well have done so; He, who fed His people in the desert with manna every morning for forty years, has no need of the disciples’ bread. But they need to give it. And what they give, however little it might be, however grudgingly they give it, He blesses, multiplies, and uses for His glory. He received what was offered to Him, things of which He Himself is the Author and Giver, and then gave it back to His disciples to distribute. And in so doing, He blesses not only those whom He feeds with it, but He blesses also the givers, grafting in their hearts the love of His Name, increasing in them true religion, and nourishing them with all goodness, so that they might learn to trust in Him more fully.
Similarly, God gives us all that we need, indeed all that we possess, and asks that we offer it back to Him. He then takes, blesses, multiplies and uses our offerings, our stewardship, our service, to be a blessing to others. And finally He asks His disciples to gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing should be lost or wasted, and they find that they have more left over than they began with! Yet the message of today’s Gospel isn’t primarily about stewardship, but about service. A short while later (Mk 10.35-45, which will form part of next week’s Gospel), Jesus admonishes His disciples, “Whosoever desires to be great among you, shall be your minister: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Our Lord defines Himself as the One who came to serve, and we who seek to follow Him must also be defined by service, the loving and sacrificial service of God and neighbour. God has delivered us from bondage into the perfect freedom of His service (cf. the Collect for Peace from Morning Prayer).
We all serve and obey someone. St Paul writes just before today’s Epistle reading, “Know ye not that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey?” Paul uses the language of slavery, but in our day a more helpful but equally strong and effective analogy might be that of addiction. In both cases, something else wields an inexorable power over us and controls every aspect of our life. The world wants nothing to do with Jesus. I know many people who take a big interest in “God,” but they don’t want to talk much about Jesus … unless it is their own distorted “foofy” Jesus. A distant and non-interfering God is OK—intriguing, even—but a personal Saviour who confronts us with our shortcomings, expects commitment, calls us to account, and demands that we change our ways? No, thank-you! This is why the most popular churches are those that teach pop-psychology and self-help, that affirm people in their sin, self-righteousness, and spiritual immaturity, and do not hold their members accountable. Nobody likes to be convicted of sin. We would rather have a religion that makes us feel warm and fuzzy and comfortable. The problem, according to Paul, is that we want God and all the good things He has to offer, on our own terms; but Jesus reminds us that we are sinners and can only come to God on His terms—that we have to give up our sin and make Him our Lord. When we were ruled by sin, we wanted nothing of Christ because He only convicted us of our sin. Our redemption flips things upside down, so that now Christ rules us, and we should have no desire to serve sin.
In Baptism each of us was consecrated to God. But what does it mean to be consecrated to something or someone? In our baptismal vows we do not promise to renounce the world, the flesh and the devil only when convenient or when it does not interfere with our own plans. We give ourselves over wholly to God, planting ourselves firmly in His Kingdom and renouncing everything that is not a part of it. Like the ancient Israelites, we have been called by God to a new life, serving a new King. They were slaves to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but the Lord brought them out of that bondage and into a new land and a new life of freedom. So likewise, we were slaves to sin and the devil, and Christ has delivered us spiritually, and brought us into His eternal Kingdom of righteousness, as St Paul says: “For as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity leading to more iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness leading unto holiness. For when ye were the servants [literally, slaves] of sin, ye were free from righteousness. What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death. But now being made free from sin, and become servants [slaves] to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.”
However, we must be careful here, because our service alone will not save us. Rather, it is a response to the gift of salvation. There is a danger, particularly prevalent in our day, of preaching salvation by means of social justice (the so-called ‘social gospel’). But Holy Scripture is very clear: we cannot make ourselves right with God by our works, no matter how noble our intentions. The disciples do not give their bread to Jesus to earn merit or because it is a good investment; they give it because He is good, and they love and trust Him. Our service is a response to God, not a means of obtaining His favour. We cannot earn God’s love, we cannot buy salvation, and we cannot demand forgiveness. And that is our temptation. We think we have worked hard enough, done enough, given enough, and so God ought to be as gratified and impressed with us as we are with ourselves. There is no attitude more deadly to the Christian Faith than the self-righteous conceit that we have done our part, and so God “owes us.” We must beware, as St Paul says, of demanding of God our wages, for our just wages are death and condemnation. Divine blessing and eternal life can only be a gift—the free gift of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Still our priorities continue to be misplaced. We put everything else first, and feel good about ourselves if we are willing to give God an hour or two on Sunday morning. Instead of devoting our time, our talents, and our treasures to the One who gave them to us, we squander them on the things of the world and give God the leftovers—if there are any leftovers. We profess with our lips that He is our Lord, but we refuse to serve Him with undivided loyalty and devotion; we fail to put our trust in Him, instead trusting in ourselves and in earthly ways and systems for our security. Here St Paul leaves room for no middle ground: Either you are a slave to sin and serve the world, the flesh, and the devil, or you are a slave to Christ, serving Him with whole intention of body, soul, heart, and mind. We may foolishly go forth into the world and try to “be good” on our own initiatives, but we will never succeed, because without God’s life sustaining us we have no life or goodness in us, and we will wither and die. We do well to make today’s Collect our daily prayer and our daily commitment. Eternal life is not the reward we receive after we die, it is God’s gift to the faithful every day, right here and right now.
The entire world has a deep and pressing need. We are all sinners, and the just result of that sin is death. But Jesus had compassion on the crowd in the wilderness, and He has compassion upon our need, as well. And whether we realise it or not, we are all hungry for what He alone can give. If, as this feeding miracle demonstrates, He shows compassion for the people’s physical hunger, we can be assured that He is genuinely concerned about our greater and more urgent need. He assumed our human nature and bore the burden of the Law for us, died on the cross for our salvation, and rose from the dead for our justification. Christ had compassion on us. He is merciful to the unmerciful, faithful to the unfaithful, and generous even to the stingy and lazy. He receives sinners and eats with them. But He doesn’t expect them to stay sinners, but to “go and sin no more.” He invites them to feast without money, and without price (Isa 55) upon the Bread of Life, giving them life and strength to serve God with renewed vigour. That is what the Gospel is all about. He has compassion on us, but more importantly, He has the means to supply what we truly need—forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Christ served us in order to save us, and we are saved that we might serve: that is the theme of today’s readings. We all serve and obey someone. St Paul writes, “But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.” In our natural human state, we serve sin, which leads to shame, frustration, and despair, and the end of that service is death. But God, in His great love and compassion, has delivered us from that bondage and into the perfect freedom of His service. Our Lord defines Himself as the one who came, “not to be served, but to serve,” and we who seek to follow Him must also be defined by service. We serve Him, because He first served us. And we serve Him because He saved us. We do not serve Him in order to save ourselves, but as a response to His gracious gift of salvation. And so we must offer ourselves—our bodies, our souls, our minds, our wills, and everything we have to Him, to be used as He sees best. And who knows what the result will be? When the disciples offered what they had, inadequate though it was, the Lord took what was offered, and blessed it, and it became much more than they ever could have imagined.
In this miraculous meal, we see also a foreshadowing of another banquet where Our Lord gives His servants bread which He has blessed and multiplied, to sustain us lest we faint along the way. Christ has had compassion on us, and supplies our soul’s need, feeding us with a sustenance the likes of which no one else could ever provide. He gives us His own Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins, to our eternal blessing, refreshment, and salvation.
The compassion of Christ provides so much more for us than we desire or deserve. When we surrender all to God in His service, He will multiply His blessings upon us, and the miracle will continue. We cannot earn God’s favour, or buy our own redemption. It is a gift—the free and abundant gift of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. But the point is ultimately about the Word of Life whereby we live. “The free gift of God,” St Paul says, “is eternal life,” all because of the compassion of Christ, who is “the Lord of all power and might,” and “the author and giver of all good things.” He cares for us and for our good. He provides for our wellbeing, “nourish[ing] us with all goodness and of [His] great mercy keep[ing] us in the same.”
“For I will satiate the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish.”
Collect: Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask, and our ignorance in asking: We beseech thee to have compassion upon our infirmities; and those things, which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, vouchsafe to give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.