The Disciples’ Private Picnic

 Sermon Notes 2008   for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost    (Matthew 14:14-22)

 [14] When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. [15] When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” [16] Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” [17] They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” [18] And he said, “Bring them here to me.”[19] Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. [20] And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. [21] And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. [22] Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

The context for today’s Gospel lesson (the verses which preceded the above verses) has Jesus looking for a place to go and be alone as he has just learned of the execution of his cousin, John the Baptist.  No doubt the disciples were glad themselves to be away from the demands of the crowd.  But the people somehow figured out where Jesus was headed in his boat and they beat him to his vacation destination. 

Imagine if you can that you decide to take a much needed day off and you want to get away from the demands of life and the crowds, and you get into your boat and go out to your favorite island far from the crowds, only to discover that everyone you know and everyone who is looking for you is already there.   That’s what happened to Jesus.

But Christ’s response to the crowd is not bitter disappointment, or a weary sigh, or a grumpy resentment.   Rather Jesus has compassion on them.   The whole story that follows stems from Christ’s own compassion, love, concern, and care for these people who are hounding Him.   Keep Christ’s compassion in mind as the story unfolds.

So it starts to get dark and the disciples are tired and they tell Jesus to send the crowd away so that the crowd can go and buy food for themselves.

It seems at first glance that the disciples too are being compassionate and are only concerned about the hunger of the crowd.

But take note – the disciples do not say to send the crowd away so that WE might all have a chance to buy food, but so that THEY might buy food.    The disciples are not worried about having to buy food for themselves.   Why?

Because they have brought some food along for themselves – a little picnic lunch that they were going to enjoy alone with Jesus.   But now they are embarrassed to bring out the food they have in front of the crowd and to start eating.  That surely would not be polite, so they politely ask Jesus to send the crowd away.  They aren’t concerned about the crowd, they are concerned about themselves, and about how it would appear if they began eating without offering food to the crowd.

Jesus tells the disciples to feed the crowd themselves.  The disciples are stunned.  Surely Jesus can’t mean it.  They’ve only brought along enough for themselves, if they try to feed the people there will be nothing left for them.  And no doubt they had heard enough of Jesus’ message to know that Jesus would just go off and do exactly that – give their food away  because He always taught love for the other and self denial. 

Jesus tells the crowd to sit down, and the apostles know that He is going to give their food away and they can’t stop Him.    And Jesus does take their five loaves of bread and two fish from them.

But then the miracle occurs.   The Evangelist does not give us any detail as to what happened or how, but suddenly after Jesus prays over the food there is an abundance of food for everyone.  And the disciples begin distributing the food to all.  Everyone eats and is filled, not only the disciples but the thousands of people who had invaded the disciples’ private picnic.

When the meal is over, twelve baskets full of still uneaten food is collected.  And what is the significance of 12 baskets?

There is an entire picnic basket of food for each of the twelve disciples.  Each who had been so concerned that they be given a chance to eat, each who didn’t want to share with the crowd, are now amazed, and perhaps a little ashamed, that at the end of the meal each of them is given a thanksgiving charity basket of food to take home.  They each are given way more than they need or can use at that moment.

As for the message of the story, unfortunately, we sometimes miss a major point of the story because we so want miracles in our lives.  The feeding of the 5000 is not mostly about Jesus doing a miracle, otherwise he could have simply repeated this same action every day and people would have proclaimed Him king!   But that isn’t what happens in the Gospel.   The miracle is not so valuable in itself, rather it is a sign to the disciples and to all who believe in and follow Christ, that He Himself is making the Kingdom of God present in this world and near to us.  Jesus warns people not to follow Him just to have their stomachs filled with food.   Jesus is much more concerned that people begin to think about the reality which is beyond this present world, namely the Kingdom of God.  He was pointing that Kingdom out to us and pointing us to that Kingdom.  And when we each receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we are again being reminded not to live for this world alone, but to seek the Kingdom of God knowing that all else will be given to us when our priorities are straight.    And Jesus sends the disciples away in the boat, just like at the end of every liturgy, we are sent back into the world, to tell the world what we have witnessed and received from God.  It is not an endless supply of food that we have to offer the world, as wonderful as that would be.  Rather we experience Christ to find our way to the Kingdom of God, and to offer to a world which hungers for God, the road map to His Heavenly Kingdom.

Maybe like the disciples, we too just want to spend time alone with Christ at a private picnic, far away from the needy crowds.   But to be a disciple of Christ means to be ever willing to share all His blessings with the world.

See the follow-up Sermon: The Kingdom of God is at Hand: Jesus Reaches out to Peter

Of Paul, of Apollos, of Cephas? Remaining in Christ

 Sermon Notes 2008   for Epistle for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost    (1 Corinthians 1:10-18) 

“I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or”I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul  crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

What would be the modern Orthodox version of St. Paul’s argument?

Let’s see:

I belong to the Greek Archdiocese.  I am for Constantinople.  I belong to the Antiochians.  I belong to the OCA.  I am for Moscow.

Or how about:

I am a follower of Fr. Ephrem.   I am of Fr. Seraphim Rose.  I am of Fr. Schmemann.  I follow Bishop Kallistos.  A follow Archbishop Lazar.


I am for Kondratick.  I am for Metropolitan Herman.   I am for Archbishop Job.  I am for

The problems of the church are the same for the past 2000 years.  They are human problems, resulting from human sin, hubris, desire for power, jealousy, greed, control, lust.

St. Paul disagreed vehemently with St. Peter (Cephas).  He disagreed with St. Peter’s understanding of what it meant to follow Christ.  He disagreed with Cephas over how to interpret Christ’s teachings.   But St. Paul was still clear that each of them belonged to Christ and were trying to follow Christ.  

And St. Paul understood that it was not his goal or Peter’s goal to draw people away from Christ to follow them personally or them alone.

St. Paul spoke about being a father to his disciples, and he understood that the followers of Christ would be naturally attracted to those leaders who taught them the faith.    And he thought that was natural and good.

But St. Paul would not accept that Christians would make their leaders and teachers into different or divided religions.  If someone you want to follow as a Christian is demanding that you follow them alone, and if they say they alone have the only right interpretation of Christ, then be on your guard.  St. Paul would warn you away from such people.

For each Christian teacher should be leading you to Christ, uniting you to Christ, keeping you with Christ.  But if all they are doing is dividing Christ and pitting Christian against Christian, then they are not doing what St. Paul taught and you should have nothing to do with them. 

If any one Orthodox teacher or priest or bishop draws you away from the fellowship of other Orthodox and from the entire Body of Christ, then he or she is doing what St. Paul condemned.

Each of us should be working to unite all others to Christ and to the fullness of Christ’s Church – to the one, universal and catholic church we profess in the Creed.  That Church is not limited to Paul or Peter or Constantinople or Moscow or Ephrem or Schmemann or Herman or Job.  It is the responsibility of all church leaders and all Christians to unite all to one another and to Christ.

And as can be seen in the life of St. Paul who was willing to argue with his fellow apostles, union in Christ does not always mean compromise or avoidance.  Sometimes we need to deal with our disagreements and to argue with one another to discern the truth.

Sozhenitsyn, the OCA, and Good Enough Morality

The death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn prompted an outpouring of articles about him and his role in the 20th Century, including his steadfast opposition to the Soviet regime.  He is credited by some with helping bring the Soviet regime to an end by his exposing the lies on which that system was based.    His being in the news made me look into his thought a little more and to read his famous speech at Harvard University in 1978, a portion of which I reproduce below because I think it apropos to the OCA’s ongoing scandal and how our metropolitan and  the central church is dealing with that scandal.   Here is what Solzhenitsyn said:

“Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes, based, I would say, on the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting and manipulating law, even though laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. …

I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.

And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.”

Why I think his comments are relevant to our OCA scandal is that I have the impression that right now the central church administration feels “we have finally, at last and at least, risen to the level of doing things as a central church legally.”   This has in fact entailed a great amount of work on the part of a few individuals who were recently hired/appointed to their jobs at Syosset.   It has not been easy getting the central church to the level of doing things legally.  And though it leaves behind what was the business as usual methods of the old regime, it still leaves it behind – that mess is still there, though now we can see it as our past.  Some, especially those in the central church administration now want to leave that toxic dump where it is and build a new edifice around it.   In my estimation they have attained Solzhenitsyn’s “letter of the law” morality.  This is a whole lot better than what did exist.

However, for others, Solzhenitsyn is correct and “letter of the law” morality leaves a “moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.”   Certainly in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus challenged those who thought following the letter of the Torah was moral enough.  Read Matthew 5:21-48.  Jesus rejects letter of the law thinking and demands much more from His followers. 

Interestingly Solzhenitsyn mentioned in 1978 that in the letter of the law morality, we end up having to rely on an “expert” (an attorney, lawyer) to help us navigate through society.  We see in the OCA that is precisely what our metropolitan has done – and at great expense to the OCA, diverting monies that could have been used for the mission of the Church, to supposedly “defend” the Church.   But in so doing, he conveniently defends himself and anything he has done, and now can justify his position by saying the “experts say…” and then mentioning that we spent a fortune to get the expert opinion so it would be foolish for us to follow the teachings of Christ rather than these experts who certainly know best how to navigate through the legal system.

As Solzhenitsyn noted, we might be doing everything legally right, but is that moral enough?  Is that the level of morality to which Jesus Christ called us?   Are we expected to go beyond moral enough and practice self sacrifice, self denial, self emptying love? 

Is it good enough to simply leave the toxic dump of immoral and illegal behavior behind and to build a new edifice around that toxic waste?   Or do we need to do a total cleaning of the toxic waste dump before we try to build a new edifice?   That is the morality of confession and repentance, which is the basis for Orthodox spirituality.  Letter of the Law thinking may be good enough morality for American society as a whole but it is not the level of ethics which Jesus taught nor to which Jesus raised humankind in dying on the cross.