Symposia on Green Grass

Text: Mark 6:39 (6:30-44)
Date: Pentecost VII (Proper 11) + 7/19/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

The title for this sermon is “Symposia on Green Grass.” A “symposium” (these days) refers to a conference dedicated to the presentation of various papers or speeches and an opportunity for discussion of issues. For the past number of years, for instance, our seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana has held the annual exegetical (Biblical) symposium and a symposium on the Lutheran Confessions. The two running together, then, are referred to with the plural form of the word “symposia.” A “Symposium on Green Grass” may, at first, make you think you should expect a meeting of people interested in gardening or lawn care with presentations by True Green or Scotts fertilizer. This title is, rather, a literal quote from the Greek of today’s Gospel, St. Mark’s account of the Lord’s feeding of the 5,000 in the wilderness, v. 39 of chapter 6, where this Evangelist, and Mark alone, tells us that Jesus commanded the people to recline, quote, “symposia symposia” on the, quote, “chloro,” or “green,” “xorto.” grass.

Now this may seem to be a small detail, not worth even a second look much less being the main issue of an entire sermon as we consider the whole story. But just the choice of words by Mark draws our attention to the wider and deeper meaning of the feeding of the 5,000 in the wilderness. That wider and deeper meaning provides the wider and deeper answer to our perennial question, “Who is this Jesus,” as it draws upon the Old Testament imagery of God coming to shepherd His people, to do as Psalm 23 says, to make them lie down in green pastures. More than that, these words speak not just of eating a snack or grabbing a bite to eat for mere physical sustenance, but are words that point us to a great banquet and, as such, make us think forward to the great Messianic heavenly banquet of eternal life. These words proclaim Jesus as the Savior who comes to save us and to shepherd or lead us to our eternal, heavenly home.

This is the first time in Mark’s Gospel that the disciples whom He had just recently sent out are called “apostles” which means “sent ones.” They return to Jesus and report their excitement at what they were able to accomplish in their short preaching and healing tour. As a wise teacher He then invites them to “Come away by yourselves to a desert place and rest a while.” Apparently the “desert place” he has in mind is a little ways away, across the lake, because they departed in the boat. The crowds somehow figured out where they were going and ran around on the shore to get there ahead of them.

Here, then, we are told of the heart of the shepherd, that, when Jesus went ashore and saw the great crowd, “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Indeed, this is the Biblical picture of all mankind to this day in their native spiritual blindness and deadness, “sheep without a shepherd,” wandering around aimlessly and through life without any sense of ultimate purpose or meaning in life lived apart from and separated from the God who gives life.

So who is this Jesus? This is the Messiah of God come to reunite, to reconcile God and man; to whom all the prophets of old, all the way back to Moses, pointed, as when Moses was told his time was at an end and he spoke to the Lord, saying, “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.” And the Lord immediately appointed Joshua to succeed Moses (Num. 27:15-18). God promised that He would shepherd His people as when He spoke through the prophet Ezekiel. And in today’s Old Testament reading from the prophet Jeremiah, after warning the shepherds or pastors God had set among His people, but “who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture,” the Lord says, “I will gather the remnant of my flock…and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply…I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed…I will raise up for David a righteous Branch” (Jer. 23:1-6). And here He is, born of the house and lineage of David, the righteous Branch, God Himself come to shepherd His people.

Now it was growing late in the day. The disciples came to Jesus suggesting He send the people away into the surrounding villages to buy themselves something to eat. But Jesus said to them, “You give them something to eat.” Having determined they had only five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus, nevertheless, went into action. He commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass, and He fed them all from the five loaves and two fish, and they all ate and were satisfied, even leaving twelve baskets full of leftovers. Mark says there were five thousand men there not counting women and children! Can you imagine that?

Now at least two details should grab our attention, maybe three. First, here they were in a “desert place.” And yet Jesus commanded them to sit on the green grass. Where did the green grass come from? Well, it could have been there all along, just in certain spots around. So we don’t need to imagine some magical appearance of grass or anything. But the implication should not be missed: the Shepherd leads His people “to lie down in green pastures” (Ps. 23).

But even more interesting, as we said at the beginning, is this phrase “symposia symposia.” Most translations take this to mean merely sitting down as companies or groups. But Mark is also writing to a people and at a time familiar with the Roman Empire to whom a “symposium” brings to mind not a quick visit to the drive-through at McDonald’s but a leisurely banquet where invited guests “recline” at tables overflowing with food and drink. Actually, the secular use of the word “symposium” literally implies a convivial drinking party! Which makes the use of the word here even more mysterious since we’re not told whether there was anything to drink, just bread and fish to eat. The feeding of the 5,000 certainly teaches trusting faith in God who “gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people” (Small Catechism). Yet there is more. Jesus is the promised Shepherd who saves us and leads us to the heavenly symposium, the heavenly banquet of eternal life in the resurrection. That it all depends on His gift of the forgiveness of our sins we are reminded, furthermore, in the daily banquet of His body and blood in the Holy Communion where we continually receive the forgiveness of all our sins and is, as the liturgy calls it, a foretaste of the feast to come, the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end (Mt. 25:10). That we ought to also think of the sacrament of the altar is further indicated by Jesus’ typical four-fold action of taking the loaves, praying a blessing, breaking the loaves and giving them to the disciples to give to the people. So He did at the Last Supper, and so we and the whole Church does at each celebration of the sacrament.

In a day when it seems most people look to Christianity, if they look at all, in terms of what’s in it for themselves only for their daily lives now, St. Mark powerfully proclaims and draws our attention to eternal matters, seeing the feeding of the 5,000 in the wilderness as an opportunity to proclaim Jesus as the great Messiah, come to gather His people, to provide both for their bodies and souls as He leads them to the goal of salvation in the great Marriage Feast of the Lamb in the eternal courts of the new heavens and earth. As He continues to lead you today, so follow Him.