In the Old Testament reading this morning we heard a description of the Garden of Eden. The garden had a great river watering it, trees with all manner of fruit, all the fresh produce one could imagine. And in contrast with this description of the garden, we have the line in the Gospel reading, “they had nothing to eat.”
What brought about this change in the earth? Why was it once a garden but now the great crowd is in a desolate place? You know how Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, that tree of which God had commanded them not to eat. As a result, the Lord told Adam, “cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.”
But that first sin was not just a bodily act with bodily consequences. That sin started with trusting the wrong word. The Lord had said, “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” And then the devil said, “you will not surely die.” Adam and Eve trusted what the devil said instead of what God had said. Trust is a matter of the soul, not the body, and false trust brings consequences for the soul, namely eternal condemnation. Yet that false trust of the soul did not remain confined to the soul, but, as we heard, led to a bodily act of sin, as well as bodily consequences.
We see that the body and soul are quite connected. This is important to note, because we live in an age that tries to separate the body and the soul. The world associates the person or identity with something like the soul or the mind, and views the body as nothing more than a tool to be used for pleasure, or a prison to be escaped, or a wrapper to be discarded. Yet we heard in Genesis 2 how the Lord made the man as body and soul, and we see also from the man’s sin how tightly joined the body and soul are. And because body and soul are so connected, the consequences of sin for the body actually illustrate the consequences of sin for the soul.
I’ll give an example. We’ve been having some scorching days lately. The sun beats down, the heat bakes, and it feels like your life is being broiled out of you. This is exactly the sensation your soul, or conscience, feels when you’re aware of your sin. David expresses this in Psalm 32. Before he acknowledged his sin to God he says, “day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.” And this isn’t just a convenient analogy. Why is it scorching hot outside instead of more temperate? Because of man’s sin. Why does the crowd have nothing to eat at the start of today’s reading? As a consequence of man’s sin.
But in the midst of the hungry crowd is Jesus. The Son of God came in flesh and shared in our hunger by fasting forty days and forty nights in the wilderness. Jesus said, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat.” Here you see what Jesus’ attitude is toward you. He has compassion on you in your bodily need, meaning he wants to provide you with the necessities of this life, with daily bread. But Jesus’ compassion extends beyond the needs of the body. The only reason we have bodily need is because of sin that started with the soul. If Jesus held our sins against us and then saw us hungering he would say, “Serves you right. That’s what you get.” But the fact that he has compassion on us as we bear the physical consequences of sins shows very clearly that he wants to overlook our sins entirely, not just treating the symptoms of sin by filling hungry bellies, but removing and forgiving sin itself. So we see here the compassionate heart of Christ who has mercy on us both in body and soul.
Jesus continues, “If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” Now certainly Jesus possesses the ability to feed the crowd. For three days he had been making the lame walk and the blind see and the mute speak. If he could do things like that, he could give them food. And indeed, on a former occasion he had fed five thousand by multiplying loaves and fishes, and there he showed very plainly that he can provide food for those whom he wants to feed.
The disciples had witnessed these miracles, and yet they ask, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” Where’s it going to come from? Well this question has an obvious answer. The food is going to come from the one who is standing right in front of them, just like it did before. It’s going to come from Jesus.
Yet as obvious as the answer is, the disciples wonder and doubt, and we do as well. When it comes to the needs of the body you wonder, “Where’s it going to come from?” With matters of home or employment or food; when there’s illness, when things break, when mammon fails you wonder, “Where’s the daily bread going to come from? Where are the necessities of the body going to come from?”
We wonder similarly about the needs of the soul, especially when you’re attacked by the devil and are in spiritual distress: the forgiveness of sins, comfort for the conscience, peace with God – where’s it going to come from? From Jesus! It’s going to come from Jesus! You know this, and yet have difficulty staying mindful of this. This points to the corruption of our sinful flesh, and to our constant need to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s easy, and dangerous, to think here in this place, “I know this already. I’ve heard this before.” Well maybe you do know it here, but what about at home, out in the world, in the midst of trial and tribulation, in the midst of the devil’s attacks? After all, we’re not just talking about knowledge of facts, like two plus two equals four; but we’re talking about the trust of the heart, which is a far different kind of knowing. Knowing the answer to the question, “Where’s it going to come from?” doesn’t just mean being able to pencil in the bubble next to Jesus’ name, but means looking to him for everything and expecting every good thing from him. The fact that we ask, “Where’s it going to come from?” betrays our little faith, and shows the need to keep hearing the same things.
Well how does Jesus react to this lack of faith on the part of his disciples? He simply continues in his compassion. He answers their question with a question, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” Then Jesus directed the crowd to recline on the ground and get ready to eat.
“And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd.” With this, Jesus satisfied the bodily needs of the people. And just as Jesus provided for their bodily needs, so also he provides for your bodily needs. He has taught you to pray to your Father in heaven, “Give us this day our daily bread,” with the assurance that your Father will. Jesus has also taught you to give thanks to God for your food, as he gave thanks for the loaves, acknowledging that God is gracious and cares for you and is the source of every good.
But the feeding of the four thousand makes us think about more than mercy for the body. The language here in today’s reading is remarkably similar to the language describing the Last Supper, “he took bread, and having blessed it, he broke it and gave it to them.” We’re meant to see a common cause behind our reception of daily bread and our reception of the forgiveness of sins, behind the feeding of the four thousand and the Lord’s Supper. And the cause that makes us recipients of both is the redemption that Jesus has accomplished. God has not given us over to sin and death, either in our bodies by starving us or in our souls by condemning us to hell. Instead, he has given his Son for us, who suffered our hunger and thirst and was often in desolate places, who bore our sins and bore our curse, “you shall surely die,” and who by rising from the dead has restored life to us.
In Jesus we have care for our bodies and souls, just as the four thousand received care from him for their bodies and souls. Now concerning care for the body, God does give daily bread to everyone, even to all evil people, as Jesus says in Matthew 5, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” If those who don’t acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior receive their daily bread, someone might wonder what benefit there is in being a Christian when it comes to the needs of the body. Well there’s very much benefit. Even though God gives daily bread to the whole world, those who do not trust God as Father through Christ have no conception of daily bread as a gift, but can only think of it as something earned.
As Christians you certainly go about the duties that God has given you to do, but you’re free from thinking that your labors are the cause of your daily bread. Rather, based on accounts like the feeding of the four thousand, you believe that the Lord will provide for your bodily needs out of his grace, that he has compassion on you, that you need not worry about your life. You know that your Father in heaven is not angry with you or seeking your destruction, because he gave his Son for you to turn away his anger and bring you his favor. And therefore, even if there are times of distress―such as the four thousand suffered: three days with little or no food―you rest secure knowing that God will not forsake you. As David writes in Psalm 37, “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.”
And then, of course, as Christians you also have the bread of heaven, the Holy Supper of our Lord’s body and blood. It’s easy to think of the Lord’s Supper as a benefit for the soul. But consider the blessing that follows the distribution: “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you in body and soul unto life everlasting.” The Sacrament is good for the body, though not because it heals diseases or fills your belly; it is for the forgiveness of sins. But consider: what is the most harmful thing for the body? Starvation? Injury? Death? Not quite. The most harmful thing for the body is a bad conscience, which makes you terrified of God’s wrath, makes you doubt that you have a gracious God, and causes you great anxiety. With a bad conscience the body languishes, feels weak, doesn’t want to eat, has trouble falling asleep, and waking up, and doing anything well. With a bad conscience, the body would even prefer death or some injury rather than continuing in such anguish. And so when the Sacrament of the Altar bestows the forgiveness of sins and a good conscience, not only is the soul soothed, but the body likewise feels its life and strength return.
And so we see that, just as in man’s first sin body and soul sinned together, so also in receiving the redemption of Jesus body and soul benefit together. The Father has created us body and soul. Christ has redeemed us body and soul. And therefore we continue to receive the gracious care of God for both, thanks be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.