Church is for All- Invite & Feed Them

   Many people have a picture of Jesus followers and the early Church as an open, loving, warm community. However, today’s Gospel reading from the Eighth Sunday of Matthew (14:14-22) shows in fact the opposite. In the passage right before today’s reading, we hear that Jesus was rejected by His own people in Nazareth who “were offended at Him” (Mt.13:57). Because of that, 58Now He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief (v.58). Right after this we hear about Jesus’ most faithful prophet, John the Baptist being beheaded in prison by King Herod at the urging of Herodias (Mt.14:1-13). From there we hear that Jesus withdrew to by boat across the sea of Galilee/Tiberias where the multitudes followed Him (v.13). When we hear the words “crowd” or “crowds” or “multitudes” it is often referring to Gentile people. And there were many Gentiles in the region of Galilee. 14And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick. (v.14).

   However, 15When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food." (v.15) The disciples said this not because they cared for the multitude and wanted to make sure they had food. Rather, these Jewish disciples wanted the multitudes to go away because they were Gentiles and thus did not want to share a meal with them. So much for unity and love in the early years.

   Jesus rejects the disciples urging by saying, 16But Jesus said to them, "They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat." (v.16). In other words, you must share your food with them. How do the disciples respond? 17And they said to Him, "We have here only five loaves and two fish." (v.17). In other words, we only have enough for ourselves. This response also is symbolic in that the five loaves represent the Torah, the five books of the Law given to Moses. According to Fr. Paul Tarazi, the mention of the two fish is further proof that the disciples wished to maintain two separate communities, one Jewish and one Gentile.

   Jesus, probably annoyed with His intransigent disciples, says, “Bring them here to Me” (v.18). And we know what Jesus does next.

19Then He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass. And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes. 20So they all ate and were filled, and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained. 21Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (vv.19-21)

   Jesus establishes a new community of believers that comprise both Jews and Gentiles and He feeds everyone. The baskets left over show the super abundance of Jesus’ love and grace. The willingness and ability of God to fill all people is represented by the number twelve of the baskets, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. As well, it is shown in the multiplication of the five books of the Law by one thousand to equal the number of men fed besides woman and children.

   The question is: “How does this event that took place two thousand years ago apply to us today?” Well, think about it, we are very much like the Jewish disciples. How often in our circle of friends and even in our parish community do we think of people as Greeks on one hand and everyone else on the other hand? Some even say the Greek word “xenoi”, which means “strangers” to refer to non-Greeks. How often do we invite our non-Greek and our non-Orthodox friends and neighbors to share fellowship in our parish community? Probably very little? Why? Probably because we still think of ourselves and our church as a parochial, sectarian little ghetto just for “our own people.”

   Now some might say, “my friends and neighbors, since they are not Orthodox, cannot receive the Eucharist in the Liturgy, they might feel excluded” Well, don’t worry about that. The apostles of the early Church did not accept non-believers into the Eucharistic fellowship until they were baptized and chrismated. We just need to invite people and show them an example of firm faith and right belief born in actions of love. Let God take care of the rest.

   Some might say, “I invite my friends and neighbors to our Greek festival and our community feeds them.” Yes, but we make them pay for the food and that food is mere physical food, it’s not the spiritual food of the Gospel preached and the Eucharist given. In fact, the marketing of our festival which promotes five loaves of food, fun, music, dancing and fellowship pales in comparison to the superabundant Gospel message of the twelve apostles handed down through the life of the Church of Christ. Our two fish of either chicken or lamb, and gyro or souvlaki at the Greek Festival will never compare to the two natures of Christ (human and divine) given in the Body and Blood of the Eucharist.

   I am not saying the Greek Festival is a bad thing but the relative priority we give to it makes it an idol, a false god, within our community. We do that by skipping nearly the whole summer of Sunday liturgies and then show up the weekend of the festival. We do that by only signing up for the festival on our time and talents pledge card. We do that by holding back our financial offerings and expecting outsiders to subsidize our ministries through the festival.

   The account of Jesus feeding the 5,000 that appears in the Gospel of John (6:1-14) we hear that Jesus went up on the mountain today around the time of the Passover. As Tarazi says these are clear references to connect Him to the person of Moses who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt through the final sign given by God in the Passover. Moses also ascended the mountain of Sinai to receive the Law from God. God also gave manna to the Israelites in the wilderness as they journeyed to the Promised Land. But we know that the Jews also fashioned the golden calf to worship because they did not trust Moses nor God to care for them. Let’s not make our Greek Festival our golden calf.

   As we conclude today, we must remember that the main image of the Messiah in the Gospels is that of the Prophet Isaiah’s suffering servant. Not a dancing Greek, not an evzone, not what most of the people want in an earthly king. Jesus points this out later, “Truly, truly I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (v.26). In other words, don’t let the juicy food at the Greek festival distract you from trusting in God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

   If we do not trust God enough to give Him a tithe, a tenth, ten percent of everything He has given us first, then what do we have to offer to our friends and neighbors and patrons of our Greek festival? Nothing really. In Luke’s account of feeding the five thousand it says that Jesus “welcomed” the Gentiles (v.11) just as they “welcomed” Him (8:40). “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows His riches upon all who call upon Him” (see Rom.10:12; Gal.3:28; 1Cor.12:13; Col.3:11). My brothers and sisters in Christ, there is no distinction between Greeks and non-Greeks, between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. We are all one in Christ. Thus, let us share Him by welcoming everyone into His Body, the Church. Amen!