Jesus challenged those in today's Gospel with the same hidden metaphor he had used earlier with the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4:1-14). "Do not work for the food that perishes," he said. "Work for food that lasts unto eternal life. The Son of man will give it to you. He has been endorsed by God the Father." Jesus said, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst." He spoke to take their interest away from barley loaves and fish, from worldwide prestige under a king, and to direct it to himself. He had to make them ask, What do you mean, come? What do you mean, believe? The meaning of the Gospel lies in the words Jesus spoke when the crowd was willing to earn the daily food by trying to do righteous deeds. He said, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." The people remembered the stories of the manna, but they had forgotten the challenge to trust with which it had been given. It is the sin of human nature to regard God's gift as deserved. We feel that we have health and wealth because of what we are and do. We resent what we do not have, and we search for ways to manipulate God into giving them to us by whatever name we call him: fate, or luck, or God. Jesus' answer to the crowd's question is that we gather to fulfill God's purpose, not to satisfy our appetites. That is particularly true when we gather to eat and drink. Eating and drinking is the sign of our fellowship. In our fellowship God is present. Where God is present his purposes prevail.
The story of the feeding of the 5000 begins in Capernaum, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. A large crowd of pilgrims had gathered there, preparing to make the hazardous journey to Jerusalem together for the Passover. They would travel around the land of Samaria through Perea on the east of Jordan. Jesus healed their sick, and the pilgrims gathered around him. To escape the press of the crowds (as indicated in last week's Gospel), Jesus set out across the Sea of Galilee to the lonely area on the north end. When he arrived, he found that the crowds had preceded him, walking around the shore of the lake. They came to hear him and be healed, with little thought and no provisions. Jesus commanded the crowd to sit, blessed a boy's lunch, and patiently broke it into servings enough for 5000 people. It was an amazing miracle because it was hidden. No one in the crowd realized that a miracle was happening until the cleanup began. They picked up twelve baskets of fragments left over. The meaning of the Gospel lies in the final words of the text: "The people saw the sign…(and) said, 'This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!'" The 5000 on the shores of Galilee, finally understanding the miracle, realized what Jesus had done. He had repeated their experience just before their feast of deliverance, the Passover. He had taken them out into the desert and there fed them as God had once fed Israel. A central point of the Gospel is that God is present in our fellowship of food and drink. He is with us in our fellowship, when we are gathered together. The fellowship of the table is His fellowship with us and our fellowship with one another. We pray that our fellowship will be filled with the Holy Spirit. Both the 5000 in Galilee and the people around Sinai are pictures of unity, peace, and acceptance. God's people were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Like a loving shepherd, Jesus showed compassion for his disciples. No doubt they returned from their mission tired but full of stories about "all that they had done and taught" (v.30). Mark does not record any of these stories, however. Instead, summing up their return in one verse, he concentrates on Jesus' compassionate concern for them: "Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while" (v.31). We are struck here by the common sense of Jesus. Compelled as he was to an urgent ministry, he still knew the need for a balanced life. There was a time for work and a time for rest. After a lot of hard work the disciples needed a period of relaxation for physical and mental recovery. Jesus knew that they would have to receive if they were to give and set a time for retreat and refreshment. Impressed by the great purposes we have been given in the church and eager for success in our mission, we easily become convinced that our work is indispensable and so urgent there is no time for rest. Then, as compassionately as he said it to his disciples, Jesus says to us, "Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while." Dietrich Bonheoffer, in his book Life Together, made the striking statement: "Let him who cannot be alone beware of community." Jesus provided a retreat for his disciples. Christians ever since have found spiritual retreats valuable. Our own family lives are daily retreats for rest and refreshment.
Coming just after the story about Jesus' rejection in Nazareth, the tragic story of John's death becomes a foreshadowing of what awaits Jesus: rejection and even violent hostility. However, whatever Herod can do will not overcome Jesus. Christ's victory over death and the grave reveals how He can turn something so evil into forgiveness and salvation. Mark wants us to know that Jesus understood Herod's dramatic message, and his next move was to "go away with his disciples to a solitary place." No doubt Jesus wanted to get away to explain to his disciples that his ministry was different than that of John the Baptist. Jesus, undoubtedly, taught the disciples how to have a daily quiet time with god. Through Jesus' death the disciples would no experience death, but a new and eternal Kingdom. A Kingdom we are given through baptism. Not a baptism of repentance like John's baptism, but a baptism of blessing which the Risen Lord will offer.