So when they were filled, He said to His disciples, “Gather up the fragments that remain, so that nothing is lost.” (John 6:12)
Within each believer – even the most committedand sincere – there are emotions which remains, emotions which so often creep in and undermine our faith and even our zeal for God, His Word and His work. Elijah is a perfect example of this – this great man of God, after achieving what is argueably one of the greatest victories atop Mount Carmel, plunges into overwhelming despair in which he can make absolutely no sense of anything. I felt, this morning, that there is someone in need of encouragement, and that today’s verse has particular relevance for all of us as we seek to live in obedience to the calling and purposes of God.
The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is a wonderful illustration of ministry of any kind. We are all called to follow the Shepherd, and like His instruction to Peter, to feed His sheep. This is an underlying principle in any form of ministry, and we may go through the ordinary days of simple, faithful obedience or the days of miraculous provision of the living Word. We may see times where we need to simply work consistently with no obvious results, or times where our God moves in miraculous power and the results are manifest and dramatic. But in all of these, His purpose remains – feed the sheep.
This aspect of Christian ministry is one in which we all participate, whether we realise it or not. Whether we preach, pastor, evangelise or encourage, this includes feeding the sheep – spreading the bread to the hungry. Even the ‘ministry of helps’ is involved in this, because their service contributes to the opportunity in which others may minister in a more active and visual way. It is this constant giving out, this constant breaking and sharing, that so often wears away at the believer and triggers despondency.
How often have we looked at our work and not been able to see the results? How often does it feel that we’re putting all we have into it, and just don’t seem to be making progress? How often do we come to that place of despondency, where a sense of failure creeps in and we wonder why on earth we’re still slogging away? Is it worth it? Our little contribution is so inconsequential, that we might as well pack it in and let the successful Christians get on with it. Clearly there’s something lacking in our efforts, or perhaps we’re not meant to be doing this at all. Maybe we heard wrong, and God isn’t blessing or minitry because it’s not His will. And so it goes, until despair is overwhelming and depression our only reality.
I believe this is the message in today’s verse – that we step back and look at matters from His perspective. I believe He has a special word of encouragement for those who find themselves in the place of ‘why bother,’ a simple truth to restore all who are in that weary place of wondering.
The first thing is to take hold of the fact that, like us, the fish and the loaves were really nothing special. To look at them, they really did not display even the slightest potential, or the ability to feed a multitude. We have the miraculous catches of fish – surely it would have made for sense for Jesus to send out the disciples with their fishing nets to catch what they needed? The message here is that Jesus chooses to use our simple offerings to do His work. We may look at ourselves and our abilities, and judge ourselves unsuitable, and when things don’t seem to be producing ‘results’ according to our understanding, we look back and remind ourselves that it’s likely our lack that has caused our failure.
It’s so easy to lose sight of the fact that He works outside of the expected, or our human limitations. His power is made manifest in the fact that He takes what appears limited, inadequate or unsuitable and produces beyond what we could ever imagine. Our plans have nothing to do with it. Our expectations are irrelevant. Our desires have not part in His purposes. It is our obedience, our yielding the little we have, that has any relevance in Him at all.
The second thing to remember is that Jesus gave thanks. I believe that this principle applies to every single instance where God works in and through us. Jesus, if we look at many of the Bible miracles, gave thanks rather than elaborate and lengthy prayers. No matter the size of the offering we bring, if our hearts are yielded and our motives focused on Him, He will always give thanks. We are insignificant. Our offerings are insignificant. We cannot dispute the truth of this. Outside of Christ, we are and have nothing of value. But in Him there is the potential of God Himself, the promise that the impossible is possible. If you have been obedient, if you’ve freely given your small portion and yielded yourself to His purposes, Jesus gives thanks. You may not see any value in it, but it’s true value is Christ in it. By giving thanks, He effectively receives it into Himself and transforms it to His purposes.
Finally, today’s verse stands out with reassuring truth. It’s essentially a ‘when it was over’ detail, the moment where the miracle has happened and life starts to go on as normal. Its the moment where the dust settles and despondency creeps in. It’s the moment where we wondered if we imagined it, or in which we can’t seem to find any value or feel that our expectations were disappointed. It’s the moment where the input seems to outweigh the output. But Jesus says a remarkable thing.
He directly addresses the sense that, after all is said and done, we seem to be left with nothing more than broken fragments – leftovers. The very term suggests worthlessness. Fragments are incomplete and so have even less value than when we started – if it all had such limited potential or value in the beginning, what possible good can come out of the broken fragments? But Jesus is very specific.
First, gather the fragments. We can be assured that not one single fragment is to be left, discarded or ignored. Every single piece, great or small, is to be carefully gathered. What we often overlook is that leftovers are just that – what is left over after the original is used. It indicates surplus. We may look at our ‘offerings’ and see limitation, but in Jesus they are always more than enough. It’s the principle of divine multiplication in action. Not only is He able to use our ‘little bit’ to feed a multitude, but there is enough left over to share even more. What others may regard as something to discard, Jesus commands that we gather it. To Jesus, even the leftovers are valuable and have divine purpose.
Which brings us to the second part – so that nothing is lost. Every single thing, no matter how great or small, that is surrendered to Christ becomes valuable in Him – even what we perceive to be simply leftovers. Once He receives it, once He gives thanks and distributes it according to it’s purpose, we may not see the results. That is the reality of spiritual food. It often takes a long time for things to be ‘seen,’ and perhaps we may be led onward and never see the fruits of our labours in a certain life. But Jesus does, and therein lies our faith. We may not be able to measure ‘our’ success, but He knows exactly where each small offering was used, and how, and to what effect. Ours is not the task to distribute the food. It is simply to yield it up in faith that He will use it – wonderfully, powerfully, miraculously – to fulfill His purposes even though we may not see it.
We may see ‘not enough.’ Jesus sees enough and more than enough. We may see fragments. Jesus sees easier distribution. Let us never lose sight of the fact that, in order to feed the multitude, the bread and the fish needed to be broken. Handing out whole loaves would have achieved nothing. The multiplication came in the breaking – in making many pieces out of one whole. This is the crux of the encouragement. The breaking is both the hardship and the blessing. Bread which is broken goes further. Never lose sight of the fact that, although you may be seeing nothing more than fragments right now, the baskets that were gathered at the end contained an increase, a multiplication of the original offering, that could have fed the multitude over and over.
This gathering of leftovers actually manifested a greater miracle than feeding the multitude. It reveals divine continuity. Nothing we do remains separate and distinct. Every single action, every moment, is part of a greater whole. What is broken today will be used tomorrow, and what is planted today brings a future harvest. Be encouraged. Take hold of the truth that, no matter what we see or feel, the God of miracles continues to work in His own time and in His own way. Our joy is in knowing that it’s not the size or the value of the offering in and of ourselves that is relevant. The miracle, thankfully, is not dependent on us. It’s dependent on Jesus, and what He is able to do with what we might discard or despise.