Saturday, 30 July 2011

The coat of discipleship

GospelMatthew 14:13-21 
When Jesus received the news of John’s death he withdrew by boat to a lonely place where they could be by themselves. But the people heard of this and, leaving the towns, went after him on foot. So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them and healed their sick.
  When evening came, the disciples went to him and said, ‘This is a lonely place, and the time has slipped by; so send the people away, and they can go to the villages to buy themselves some food.’ Jesus replied, ‘There is no need for them to go: give them something to eat yourselves.’ But they answered ‘All we have with us is five loaves and two fish.’ ‘Bring them here to me’ he said. He gave orders that the people were to sit down on the grass; then he took the five loaves and the two fish, raised his eyes to heaven and said the blessing. And breaking the loaves handed them to his disciples who gave them to the crowds. They all ate as much as they wanted, and they collected the scraps remaining; twelve baskets full. Those who ate numbered about five thousand men, to say nothing of women and children.

The tradition of the rabbi and disciple goes a far way back. There is more than one way to be a disciple, just like there is more than one way to be a football supporter - armchair; occasional; fan; fanatic. But there is a rule of thumb that the truest disciple is the one who literally eats the dust from the teacher's shoes; who gets to lean against them at suppertime and who can look across the campfire into their eyes when they are teaching their 'way'.

The Gospel is full of people and events; the crowds and the characters can be disarming and distracting - the one you have to watch - is Jesus.

'the Son represents God to the world- but in the mode of the Son who regards the Father as 'greater' and to who he eternally owes all that he is - and he represents the world to God, by being, as man (or rather as as the God-man), humble, lowly, modest, docile of heart.' - Hans Urs von Balthasar

Balthasar is not an easy read; not an easy mind to get into, although I enjoy the challenge. This excerpt literally fell before my eyes when I was avoiding reflecting on the Gospel by tidying up.

Whether it is a literacy trait or the way the Gospel is parceled up each week, we often reach the end of the Gospel very much aware of the 'God to the world' face of Jesus. He feeds thousands with a few half forgotten fish and loaves - that is a miracle - only God can do that.

We are impressed and thankful for Jesus' act of compassion and that these early followers were not left to go hungry. And perhaps we can even rest in the faith that God will always provide for us in our hour of need.

But that is not the only lesson here. Jesus did not need to be fully human to answer this call. God has provided for his people for thousands of years already.

What Balthasar suggests and what Jesus displays is that his life with us is perhaps less about showing us a human face of the power of God and more about showing us how humanity could be with our eyes turned towards God.

Jesus begins the scene in grief and distress; acknowledging a need to rest, to escape. Many of us have been there; many of us know that feeling. But whilst we may feel aggrieved and justified in not wishing to be disturbed, the needs of the crowd - and this is a crowd of curious and demanding strangers - cannot be ignored. The grief and tiredness prove his humanity - as a man he is able to overcome his needs to welcome the stranger.

Eventually,  the disciples decide they want Jesus back for themselves - it is a lonely place - Jesus needs to look after them now. Their demand to have the crowd sent away is answered, perhaps wearily, with a challenge - 'I have been caring for them - now, you look after them'. They can't or they won't - they have had all afternoon and into the evening yet this moment has still surprised them - they have set limitations on their abilities and see them as not enough.

The have forgotten the power of prayer. Jesus knows his limitations and knows that these are not obstacles; there is someone 'greater'. Jesus does not 'do' miracles - his Father does - the love between the Father and Jesus means he just knows how to ask.  Jesus reminds us many, many times we have it in ourselves to do the same.

Some may think the title of this blog is a typo - not that I am immune to them. But I was thinking that discipleship is not only a price we pay it is something we must be prepared to put on - a coat that announces that we are part of God's workforce. As a romantic - perhaps even the surcoat of a knight.

As disciples of Jesus it is not enough to follow him; we must learn to be him - to be clothed in him as Paul eloquently describes it.

I am reminded today of the people of East Africa - 10 million suffering from a thousand illnesses, starvation and conflict.  How easy to turn over the channel: to send them away; to decide that the problem is too big; we are too small.

Easy to say 'they are in God's hands'?

Perhaps not - when Jesus would want us to realise that, you - and I -  are God's hands.



claire said...

Ah, yes, Word, we have to look beyond ourselves and help feed those are hungry -- in Africa and next door...

This is the challenge. It is so much easier to tell people, "Go home and eat there." ...

It is easy to be like the disciples, harder to be like Him...


Anonymous said...

A sobering post Word. It is so easy to change the channel but as the world grows smaller, it gets more and more difficult to ignore. I was reading something about the youth the other day and it was saying that with the globalization through the media, tech, etc., this generation is taking on a new view of service and social justice and it predicted that our future church will look like this - one can only hope!

Word in the Hand said...

It would be good to believe that that was true - I hope so.