In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Send them away! This is what Christ’s disciples said that He should do to the multitudes that had been following Him, in today’s Gospel lesson- send them away. Let someone else feed them, see to their needs. And, on the surface, this seems to be a reasonable request, given their situation, their apparent inability to care for all of them. Send them away! But even if this request was made because the disciples thought it would be in the people’s best interest, it was still, as we learn, the wrong attitude, the wrong response to that situation. Yet, knowing this, what we must ask ourselves, brothers and sisters, is how often do we say this very thing?
And, as we heard, Christ’s response then, as it still is today, is “NO! You feed them, you take care of them. Don’t expect, or assume, that someone else will do it. As My disciples, My Royal Priesthood, you cannot delegate your responsibility to care for those who are in need, those for whom I have suffered and died.” Remember what Christ Himself says of the Day of Judgment, when the Son of Man comes in His glory: those who will be set at His right hand, His sheep, will inherit the Kingdom. Those who will be set at His left hand, the goats, will perish, even those goats who cry “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your Name, cast out demons in Your Name, and done many wonders in Your Name?” And the difference between these two groups is simple - the righteous are those who have fed the hungry, taken in strangers, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoners. They have not “sent them away” so that someone else might care for them. Don’t be fooled into thinking that we somehow fulfill our Christian obligations by giving a few bucks to the local Soup Kitchen every year.
Now, sometimes the way in which we try to send them away is done in an obvious manner: Let the State take care of the hungry, the homeless, the physically or mentally handicapped. We can’t be bothered with them, let the government set up some program, or agency to care for them. Send them away! But other times the way that we do this is more subtle, we may not even be aware of the fact that we are doing it. Things that we do, or don’t do, messages that we send, that can have the same effect- sending them away, letting them know that they are not wanted. This happens in our relationships with other people both within our Parish families and outside of them.
What people really need is not one more government program or agency. What people really need, what we all need, is to be near Christ, to receive His love, His care, His teaching, His healing - sanctification, salvation. And I have yet to find a single government program that provides these things - this is why God expects these things of us - it is our calling, it is our Faith, we who would call ourselves “Christians”, our faithfulness. The attestation of our belief must be more than words we say, or thoughts we think - you’ve heard it said that Orthodox Christianity is not a religion, but a way of life - I prefer the quote from a priest that I once read - Orthodoxy is not a way of life, it is life itself. It is the defining characteristic of who and what we are, and not something we leave at the door of the Church on our way out after a Service on Sunday, only to be picked up again as we enter the next week.
Be careful, however, to not fall into the trap that so many Western Christians did, and begin to assume that, by thinking and saying and living in a certain way, that we somehow earn our salvation, as a laborer earns his wages. Salvation is God’s gift to us, it is He Himself, coming to dwell within us, His creation. It is our opportunity to develop a personal relationship with the Almighty - certainly not something to which you can attach a price tag, or something that a person could ever earn, or deserve.
Nevertheless, our faithfulness, that small part that we play in our salvation, is required. And that’s because salvation is our relationship with God, as our Lord said, “and this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom You have sent,” and every relationship requires the efforts of two persons, not just one. The result of this relationship is the way that we live, the priorities that we set, the love that we have for one another, made real in the way that we serve one another. This is why our “Good Works” are a vital aspect of our salvation - they are the fruit of our living, growing, dynamic relationship with God. This is why the Apostle said that we are saved by Grace, thru Faith, for Good Works.
Consider the example set by the Apostles in today’s Gospel reading. When Christ told them to feed the multitude, they didn’t know how they could do it. But they were willing to give all that they had, a few fish and loaves of bread, and they had faith that Christ would be able make it happen. We, too, must be willing to sacrifice all that we have, offering it to Christ, demonstrating that same faith that He will be able to use it to feed the multitudes. God’s love for us is so great that He allows us to participate in His work; He wants to use us, His disciples, to care for His sheep, for whom He suffered and died on the Cross.
Through our love, our faithfulness, God will take that small, insignificant offering of which we are capable, and, just as we heard in the Gospel Lesson, He will multiply it so that it is sufficient, and to spare, for those whom we serve. And I’m speaking of more than simply the food we offer - the true gift that we serve to people is God’s love. And the indescribable blessing that we receive is that we get to see, to actually see our Lord, God and Savior in the very faces of the people whom we serve, because in each and every one of those precious people, we are serving Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters, we may not ever be so blessed as to be present at the Feeding of Five Thousand, or Four Thousand, or the conversion of Three Thousand, as when St. Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost. But God gives each and every one of us the opportunity to touch the life of at least one person, to be the example, or the counselor, or the helping hand, or the shoulder to cry upon, to be the instrument of God’s grace in the life of one person, maybe even today.
And maybe another next week, and another the week after that. And, by God’s grace, throughout the length of our lives maybe we will be so blessed as to be able to minister unto five thousand people, to feed them, to touch them with God’s love... to encounter Christ five thousand times, one person at a time. In this way, God continually becomes incarnate in our lives, on a daily basis.
But only if we are ready and willing to give all that we have, as the disciples brought forth all that they had, without hesitation, knowing that God will indeed complete our works, our manifestations of faith, where we are lacking. I pray that none of us ever send away even a single soul, but that we receive each and every person that we encounter with an open heart, seeing in them the Image of our God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to Whom is due all glory, honor and worship, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Fr. Gregory Czumak,
Four Evangelist Parish, BEL AIR, MD