Is the local church able to meet the needs of the local community around us? It’s a very simple question but also a big one too. Immediately our thoughts turn to the very obvious, practical needs we see around us. In many of our communities these include
-fuel and food poverty
-homelessness and housing issues
– fear of the impact of immigration
-Those who are fleeing war, famine and economic troubles but find themselves facing racism, rejection and an uncertain future
-Drug and alcohol abuse
As we run down that list, we realise that the need goes deeper than what we see on the surface. Many people live with deep pain and deep fear. There’s something missing and people are hungry for “more than this.”
At the same time, our churches may feel pitifully small and powerless to help. The material problems are overwhelming and maybe all we can do is send people off to those better equipped to help. We may feel that there are answers to the deeper problems but in a world captivated by secularism, does anyone want to listen.
However, when we come to this event in Matthew 14, I want to suggest that we find the answer to our question and it is “Yes.”
Why? Well simply because it Jesus is the one who provides and so he calls us to offer spiritual food to spiritually hungry people
There are two parts to this:
1 Encouragement from the passage. Why we should and can do this.
2 Practically what might it mean for us to feed the spiritually hungry. This will include a definition of spiritual hunger.
- Encouragement -why we should and can feed the spiritually hungry
I want to highlight three things in the passage that will help us with this.
A contrast – two kings, two banquets (see v 1-12)
Jesus heads out by boat to a remote place. At this point, we realise that we are coming into the story halfway through. Jesus is acting in response to something, to what Herod has done to John the Baptist. So, here’s an invitation to compare and contrast two big gatherings.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been invited to a grand function. I’ve never been the guest of royalty. The closest I’ve come to a lavish event was a university graduation ball. It had music, dancing, food. All the girls dressed up in their ball gowns and the lads were in Toxedos. They had brought in celebrity guests, stars from Hollyoaks and Neighbours. There was even a fair with a Ferris wheel …and a snake! Not quite opulence but you start to get the picture. Herod had called a banquet, a feast, a party to celebrate his birthday. There was food, music and dancing. In the middle of the party, Herod makes an offer to the dancing girl, his step daughter. She can have whatever she wants. Under her mum’s instruction she asks for the head of John the Baptist.
Here we have one King who holds a feast. It is marked by selfishness and self-centredness and the King’s word brings death.
Then in verses 13-22 we meet another King, the true King. Jesus is filled with compassion and heals the sick among the crowd. This feast is marked by selflessness and servant heartedness. The King’s word brings life.
In our communities, today, the choice remains between two Kingdoms; God’s and the World. One brings life, the other death.
It’s Jesus that makes all the difference
There is a debate between Jesus and his disciples. They want him to send the crowds away to find food. Jesus says “No, you feed them.” I’m reminded again of Mike Ovey’s challenge “will you let God disagree with you?” Often, the crucial message in the Gospels is found when Jesus disagrees with the disciples.
They only have a pitifully inadequate lunch. A picnic that won’t feed them, never mind the crowd. You can see why they want to send everyone away. That’s our temptation too isn’t it. We may feel overwhelmed by the needs around us and exhausted by life. We are feebly and pitifully inadequate. Yet Jesus says “No, you feed them.”
Then Jesus tells them to bring the food to him. He prays and blesses it. There is an amazing miracle as more than 5000 people have more than enough food to eat. You see, if it was down to the disciples, then they were right, they could not feed the crowd. But Jesus was with them and he was the one who provided the food. In fact, john will tell us that Jesus himself is “The bread of Life.”
- His grace and mercy are abundantly overflowing and more than sufficient
After the meal, 12 baskets of food are leftover. It’s not just that they manage to provide for the crowd but, as someone at our Sunday Night Church put it, “there’s a doggy bag for each of the disciples.”
The number 12 also figuratively represents the 12 tribes of Israel and God’s ability to provide for all of his people.
One reason why we worry about the question we started with is that we fear if we begin to loo outwards and focus on outreach then it will lead to the neglect of the Church. We think we have to choose between pastoral care and evangelism.
In my experience, as we focus on evangelism, we discover that people become Christians and their lives are changed so that there is a greater expression of love among the believers. We are reminded that God’s grace, mercy and love are overflowing and continuous. They never run out.
- How can we feed the spiritually hungry?
Defining spiritual hunger
You know what it’s like to be physically hungry don’t you? It’s when you know that your stomach is empty and you need food. Spiritual hunger is that need which we all have to know God, to be right with him and peace with him, to know forgiveness.
Now, when we think about our communities, we realise that people are hungry and desperate but are looking in all the wrong places. That’s why they fill their lives with whatever they can find, money, work, sex, drugs etc. Just as we often try to meet physical hunger by feeding on junk food, so we can find spiritual and emotional junk food. Sadly, the church can often end up offering junk food too. This junk food includes
– The Social Gospel (a focus om simply helping people with their practical needs, or joining political campaigns and missing the underlying cause.
– The Prosperity Gospel (promising that people can have their health and wealth needs met by simply saying the right prayers or giving the right tithes)
– The Entertainment Gospel (offering a spiritual worship experience that gives people an emotional high)
– The Intellectual Gospel (turning church into a lecture where we go to have our minds entertained with lots of theories and information).
Now, the problem with junk food is that it doesn’t really satisfy. It’s addictive and we come back looking for more and more. Each time we find ourselves increasingly disappointed with the result but we are hooked.
Offering Spiritual food to spiritually hungry people means that we recognise that behind their expressed and felt needs is an underlying desperate need for something that only God can supply. It is the need that can be satisfied only through forgiveness given by Jesus and made possible at the Cross of Calvary.
Giving spiritual food means giving people the Gospel. It means teaching them God’s Word. By the way, this doesn’t mean that we can wave a magic wand over all those practical issues I mentioned at the start and it doesn’t mean we can ignore them. Rather
– Sometimes there’s a bit of first aid to do. Just as when someone ends up in the A&E room, the first thing you have to do is stop the bleeding, in the same way you may need to help someone get practical help, advice or even medical support. However, we don’t just send them away by themselves to the experts. We stick in with them in their need.
– If we don’t address the root cause in someone’s life then a temporary pause to the bleeding won’t last for long. Heart problems need heart treatment -in otherwords, the new heart that the Gospel offers.
– As we walk with someone as they step out in faith, we will get to know them as friends and will love them and want to help where and when we can.
– We will use our natural gifts to help others but we won’t feel guilty when there’s a practical need that we and our church don’t have the skills to meet.
This will help us answer another related question “Should we seek to meet their needs?” If it is about meeting their needs through social work or whatever then no, we shouldn’t and we can’t that’s not the point. The point is that we are equipped to meet the underlying need by telling them about Jesus, the Bread of Life.
- How do we meet it?
Well it starts by making contact with people. How do we do that? Well I heard someone at a conference this week say that there are 73 different ways to score a goal in football. They ruefully added that Aston Villa have forgotten 72 of them -and as a Bradford City fan I sympathise!
In the same way, there’s a multitude of ways to connect with people: through church events and personal contact with friends, family and neighbours. So, first of all build those connections. Invite people to the Toddlers’ Group, talk to your neighbours and invite them round for coffee, spend time listening to your work colleagues as they talk about their lives.
Then we respond by simply sharing the good news with them. Now this doesn’t have to be confrontational and can be very natural. It might mean that you
– give your testimony: “You know I’ve faced a similar situation, can I tell you how I was able to face it?
– tell them about things Jesus said and did. “You know that reminds me of someone who was in a similar situation to you….”
– Offer to pray with them “Would you mind if I pray with you. You see, I’ve discovered that I can talk to God as my Heavenly father because….”
There are so many spiritually hungry people on our doorstep. Will we have compassion on them or send them away?