Unworthy Disciples: Disciples Who Do God’s Work

Scripture: Mark 6:31-44

One of the ministry hats I wear besides being your pastor is that I help lead a program of the Virginia Conference that offers summer church internships to college students who are discerning a call to ministry.  At the end of the summer, all of that year’s interns gather together back in Richmond to process their experience together, and we usually start this event by sharing what a colleague dubbed “Highs, Lows, and Uh-ohs” from the summer.

Highs and lows – those are probably pretty self-explanatory.  Highs might include preaching for the first time and having it go really well, or a week spent at a conference-run camp for children whose parents are incarcerated, or seeing an event you’ve helped plan come together at the end of the summer.

Lows might include some host family drama, or coming to terms with the fact that the congregation seems to be of a very different political bent than you are, or some experiential learning of church politics.

“Uh-ohs” are a little harder to define, and in fact, we usually tell interns to define it however they want.  These are the surprises of the summer, the times they were caught off guard, the things they didn’t think they could do.  We had an intern once who had to step in and lead worship on her own one Sunday morning when her host pastor’s baby came sooner than expected.  Another intern found himself and the youth group he was chaperoning in the middle of a fight downtown on a mission trip to an urban area.  These are the experiences that make you ask, “What do we do now?”

Over the past six weeks we’ve been following the twelve disciples in the Gospel of Mark and I think it is fair to say that they have experienced some highs and lows in their three years of following Jesus.  Highs: That first time Jesus spoke their name, that first experience of being sent out in mission on their own and being given authority to cast out demons.  Lows: That time they were caught on the lake in a storm and Jesus admonished them for having such fragile faith.  The time Jesus mentioned the yeast of the Pharisees and they thought he was talking about lunch and he bemoaned their thick-headedness right in front of them.  The time they made a public spectacle of themselves trying and failing to cast out a demon, even after they’d been given that authority.

And uh-ohs?  That time there were five thousand people gathered to hear Jesus’ teaching and, when the disciples pointed out that it was probably time to break for dinner, Jesus told them: “You give them something to eat.”

A couple big things have just happened in Mark’s Gospel before this story takes place.  The disciples have just returned from that first mission Jesus sent them out on.  While they were gone, John the Baptist was killed by King Herod.  Jesus and the disciples all have some processing to do.  So Jesus invites them to come on a little mini-retreat with him and rest, and they all get in a boat and head for a deserted place.

In pastor circles they say that ministry happens in the interruptions.  That is certainly true here.  People see them leaving, and when Jesus and the disciples disembark on the other side of the lake, the crowds have beaten them there.  As an introvert, I can certainly imagine how disheartening it must have been to  find five thousand people crashing your silent retreat.  But instead of telling them to go away, Jesus sees their need for hope and direction, and he begins to teach.

Just before dinner time his disciples come to him and say, “It’s getting late, Jesus, better let these people go get something to eat.”

“You give them something to eat,” Jesus says.

The disciples look around awkwardly and say, “Well, uh, there are kind of a lot of people here, and, uh, that’s going to be pretty expensive…”

In other words, they tell Jesus, “Sorry.  We don’t have what it takes.”

But instead of accepting that answer, Jesus says, “What do you have?”  They have five loaves of bread and two fish.  So Jesus says, “OK.  Use that.”

Here’s the thing about a life of discipleship: there are plenty of times when we won’t have what it takes to do the thing that God is calling us to do.

But God tells us to take what we have to offer and do it anyway.

So far in this series we’ve followed the disciples’ story pretty chronologically, from their first call through some of their highs and lows, but we are actually going backwards in the story a bit today with the loaves and fishes story. I admit that that’s because I wanted to end this series on a high point, which the Gospel of Mark itself does not do.  At this point in the story, the disciples have not quite gotten to some of their biggest misunderstandings and discipleship fails.  But at the same time, Jesus knows who these guys are.  Jesus knows who he has called.  He knows they’re not just going around impressing everyone at every turn.  And yet Jesus trusts them with doing God’s work. Those loaves and fishes aren’t going to serve themselves.  You give them something to eat.

We have talked over the past six weeks about how much we ourselves sometimes resemble the first twelve disciples: unready to trust, unwilling to understand, unable to carry through with the tasks they are assigned.  We’ve talked about how sometimes, all those imperfections in our own lives and journeys of discipleship make us hesitant to even claim that title of disciple at all.  But God’s Kingdom isn’t going to witness to itself.  God’s love isn’t going to share itself.  The good news of God’s mercy and welcome isn’t going to spread on its own.

It makes me think of these words attributed to St. Teresa of Avila, who lived in the 16th century.  She said, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world.  Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which he is to go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which he is to bless his people.”

In other words, flawed and failed and imperfect disciple though you may be, God needs you.  And sure, God is powerful enough that God could do whatever God wants without us – but that’s not how God has seen fit to make it work.  God needs you to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world, continuing this work that Jesus started.

There was a member of our weekday community here at Arlington Temple who told me about someone he used to pass each day on his way to a soup kitchen in a different city.  This person clearly had needs that were not going to be solved by a free meal.  So the man telling me the story said he went around trying to figure out whose job it was to help this guy – to get around, get an appointment with a doctor, whatever it was he needed – but he couldn’t find anyone whose job that was.  So he continued to walk past this guy every day until, he said, I realized: it was my job.

Let me assure you, the man who told me this story was not a person who had it all together, by any kind of outward appearance.  But he got that right.  For some some reason, God trusts us with this important work – unworthy disciples though we may be.

There’s an author I like named Sara Miles who writes about the enormous power that Jesus gives those who follow him.  “’It’s actually pretty straightforward,’ Jesus says. ‘Heal the sick.  Cast out demons.  Cleanse the lepers.  You give the people something to eat.  You have the authority to forgive sins.  Raise the dead.’”  “What would it be like,” she asks, “…to just take his teachings literally, go out the front door of your home, and act on them?”[1]

Sara Miles herself was, again, not a Christian who had it all together.  She was an adult convert to the faith.  She didn’t have a “neat set of beliefs” or an intricate knowledge of Scripture.  What she did have was an experience of being fed – of wandering into church one morning, taking communion, and realizing that Jesus was real – and the belief that she was then supposed to feed others.  So she started a food pantry, in the same space where worship and communion took place on Sundays.  For her, they were the same thing.  And people came to that food pantry – people old and young, speaking Spanish and Chinese and Tagalog, some homeless, some mentally ill, some addicted to various substances.  And, she says, some of them stayed.  They volunteered at the pantry and they, too, fed others like they had been fed.

That’s what this life of discipleship is all about: feeding others as we have been fed.  Not necessarily just with literal bread, of course.

Another of my favorite preachers, Nadia Bolz-Weber, put it this way: “Never once,” she said, “did Jesus scan the room for the best example of holy living and send that person out to tell others about him.  He always sent stumblers and sinners.  I find that comforting.”[2]

I told you at the beginning of this series that if you came away with one thing, it would be that if these twelve guys with all their flaws and failures could be disciples, then there is nothing stopping us from claiming that title either – whether not we feel worthy of it. But I also don’t want to leave things there.  I don’t want the only thing you take away here to be “Well, if I’m a just-OK disciple, that’s cool, because God can still work through me.”

God can.  And God will.  But God also keeps inviting us to go a little farther, to open our eyes just a little bit wider to those opportunities around us, to cultivate hearts that are just a little bit more ready to respond.

One of the theological debates John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, once had with a man wonderfully named Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, was about whether the life of a Christian was a life of growth.  Zinzendorf said no.  Once we accept Jesus, we are as holy as we’re ever going to be.  Wesley heard that and said, wait, no: You mean to tell me “that an father in Christ is not a whit more holy than a newborn babe?”[3]

Wesley called this process of growing in grace over the course of our Christian lives sanctification.  And he did actually believe that a person could be entirely sanctified in their lifetime, though he never claimed to have reached that point himself.  Still, kind of intimidating, especially given I’ve been talking to you for the last six weeks about all of the ways we fall into fear and miss the point and fail at our given tasks.  Could we really imagine that, by God’s grace, things could be different?

Here’s the thing: Wesley never meant that we would always get things right.

He meant that we could reach a point of a life lived fully from a place of love.

A few weeks ago I asked what you needed to be able to grow to that next level in your discipleship.  I got lots of great responses and I really appreciated them.  In those responses three things stood out to me – one, that there are those of us who could use some help discerning what God is calling us to and putting our gifts to work inside or outside the church; two, that there are those of us who could use some more help talking about our faith outside of church; and three, that there are those of us who could use some help staying connected to God – incorporating spiritual disciplines into our daily lives and staying accountable to that.

I’m going to be thinking – and maybe you can help me – about what opportunities we might have to help you all grow in these ways.

Because God calls unworthy disciples.  God calls us despite our misplaced fears, our hardened hearts, our frequent misunderstandings, and our worst failures.  God calls us and needs us and trusts us with God’s work in this world.

But it’s our job to offer what we have in God’s service.  And to offer a little bit more, and a little bit more, and a little bit more, as God gives us the grace to do.

Fellow disciples, it is a hurting world out there, and people are hungry.  They are hungry to know mercy, hungry to belong, hungry for signs of justice in the midst of injustice.  They are hungry for new beginnings, hungry for a sense of call and purpose, hungry for community, hungry for some sense that God is not far away.

Well, God, that sounds like a pretty tall order, and I’m not really sure I have what it takes...

What do you have?  God asks.  Use that.  You give them something to eat.



[1] Sara Miles, Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead, p. ix

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, p. 30

[3] Albert C. Outler, ed., John Wesley, p. 370

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