In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you’ve seen the film The Imitation Game, then you’re familiar with the British mathematician Alan Turing. During World War II, Turing was trying to find the key to solving the “enigma code,” in which the Nazis’ encoded all their communications. They had a machine called the Enigma Machine, and they programmed it to encode and decode all their messages. The Enigma Machine, like other encoders, had certain letters and numbers stand in for other letters and numbers. What made the code nearly impossible to solve, even though the British had an actual German Enigma Machine, was that the Nazis would change the key to the code every single day. So the codebreakers only had about 18 hours to solve the enigma code before the key was reset by the Germans. Finally, in the movie Alan Turing notices that each day the Nazis would send out a weather report, so they knew what the first word was. And they knew that the communication always ended with “Heil Hitler.” So when Turing added that information to the machine that was programmed to solve the code, the almost limitless combinations of letters and numbers was narrowed down to a workable number, and the code was broken.
A single piece of information was all they needed in order to solve what many people considered to be an unbreakable code. A single phrase to decode the enigma. In Mark 6, the disciples still do not have that piece of information, the key that will unlock for them the enigma who is Jesus. They are in a boat in the middle of the lake, as they were in chapter 4. This time, though, Jesus is not in the boat with them; He had sent them ahead alone. Jesus dismissed the crowd and went up on the mountain to pray. Toward morning, Jesus sees the disciples struggling against the wind, being beaten back, unable to reach the other side. Jesus sees them just like He saw the crowds harassed and helpless without a shepherd. So Jesus comes walking to them on the water! And, Mark says—curiously—that Jesus intended to pass by them. But the disciples see Him, and they are terrified and cry out in fear. Perhaps it’s a ghost, or a phantom, or maybe some demonic apparition come to kill them. But Jesus turns toward them; immediately, He says to them, “It is I. Take heart, take courage, it is I.” And He gets into the boat with them, the wind ceases just as it did in chapter 4, and they go safely to the other side.
But Mark tells us something else as well: that when Jesus gets into the boat with them, the disciples are utterly astounded, completely beside themselves. Why? Because “they did not understand about the loaves, but rather their hearts were hardened.” They did not understand about the loaves. But what does that story of the feeding of the crowd with those few loaves, besides coming right before this—what does that have to do with this? What is it that the disciples do not understand about the loaves? What piece of information are they missing? They have seen what Jesus can do; they have heard what He has taught. But there are almost unlimited combinations in which someone can put together the information we have about Jesus. If you don’t believe me, pick up any of the tens of thousands of books that have been written about who Jesus was and what He did. People put the data together in all sorts of ways. But do they understand about the loaves? Or are their hearts hardened? Is it just a miracle? Does Jesus use divine power to feed the people? If that’s all it is, then Jesus doesn’t do anything particularly unique. In the New Testament, Peter and Paul both heal people and raise from the dead. In the Old Testament, the prophets Elijah and Elisha feed people with just a little, like the time when Elijah was with the widow and her son, and their food didn’t run out, even though they started with just a little. Both Elijah and Elisha raise people from the dead. In Elisha’s case, it’s after his death. Someone throws a dead body into the cave where Elisha is buried, and when the dead body touches Elisha’s bones, the man comes back to life (2 Kings 13:20-21). So none of that is unique to Jesus’ life and ministry. What is it about the loaves that the disciples (and we) should understand?
The first thing to say is that this is a story, and it is going somewhere very specific. It’s not just a collection of stories put together randomly. Mark and the other Gospel writers have very specific reasons for why they put the story together in the ways that they do. They know that the story is headed to a conclusion in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
When I was in the Graduate School at Concordia Seminary, one of the requirements for the degree was to pass a foreign language exam. I took the German exam, and all I had to do was translate a passage on theology from German. When you’re not fluent in a language—and I’m not—it’s kind of like breaking a code, putting things in the correct order to figure out the meaning. Even though we could use a dictionary for those words we didn’t know, there were still sentences that didn’t quite seem to fit. I had all the words translated, but obviously translation is more than knowing the right words. If I couldn’t quite get the sense of one of the sentences, I waited until the end, until I had the basic understanding of the whole passage. Once I knew what the whole passage was trying to say, I could go back and make sense of some of the individual parts. It’s not until the climax of the story that the disciples can see the whole picture. At this point, they don’t understand, and that goes through much of Mark’s Gospel. A little later in the Gospel, Jesus is with the disciples in another boat, and He tells them to beware of the leaven of the scribes and Pharisees; that is, to watch out for the influence of their teaching. But the disciples think He’s talking about how they don’t have enough bread in the boat. Jesus says, “Hey disciples, how many baskets were left after I fed the 5,000?” “Twelve.” One for each of them. “And, disciples, how many baskets were left after I fed the 4,000?” “Seven.” A whole number, a complete number, enough. “Do you still not understand or believe? Are your hearts still hardened?” Not too much after that, Jesus asks the disciples who they say that He is. They say, “The Christ.” But He tells them not to tell anyone, because they still don’t understand about the loaves.
And that’s how this story is different from the story of Alan Turing and the Enigma Machine. With Jesus, you can’t just have all the right information. It’s not just a matter of having the data, of knowing enough, and breaking the code. Lots of people have all the information, but they don’t understand about the loaves. You can’t just have a machine, into which you feed the information, and out comes the answer. You need, in fact, a Ghost in the machine. The Holy Ghost. It is not until after Jesus dies on the cross, is raised from the dead on the third day, ascends into heaven, and sends the Holy Spirit, that the disciples can finally understand about the loaves: that they can finally understand who Jesus is and what He is doing. It is only after Jesus gives the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies them with the Word of Jesus that they can finally see. They finally understand that the Jesus who was crucified and raised is God in the flesh among them. That just as God led Israel in the wilderness and fed them with manna, so Jesus leads Israel in the wilderness, gives them Himself as bread from heaven, fully satisfies them with His own body and blood, and leads them out of the wilderness into the eternal land of promise. That is the meaning of the loaves, and what Jesus does. It’s not just another miracle; it’s a definitive description of what Jesus has come to do.
This Jesus is who went up on the mountain to pray in the night is the same Jesus who went up on the Mountain of Olives to pray on the night He was betrayed. There He asked His Father that the hour of His suffering and death, the hour of His fearful crucifixion, the hour of His betrayal and rejection—that that hour might pass by Him. That it might pass by Him as God passed by the houses of Israel, marked with the blood of the lamb, and instead struck the firstborn of Egypt. But that was not the will of God. The Father’s will was, as Isaiah said, to crush Him under the weight of the sin of the world, and the wrath of God against sin and sinners. And because it was the Father’s will, it was also the Son’s will; they are united in their will to save you. The hour would not pass by Jesus; it would fall on Him as the firstborn of all creation, so that His blood might mark the doors of all who trust His promise. Just as Jesus was alone on the land when He saw the disciples going nowhere, beaten and tormented by the wind, and comes to save; so also Jesus was unique on the earth, the God-Man. He alone was on the cross, and He saw you in your sin, going nowhere, unable to do anything about it. Taken down from the cross, He was raised up to come to you in the midst of the unending assault of sin, death, and the devil on you in your life. And because that hour did not pass by the Son, the Son refuses to pass by His own. He speaks immediately: Take heart! It is I! It is I, your Lord, your Savior, your Good Shepherd. It is I who am in your midst, God in the flesh. It is I who am speaking these words of life, forgiveness, and mercy to you. It is I who am feeding you with the very bread of life, My own flesh and blood. Take heart, it is I, the one and the same Jesus.
And so it will be until the wind of this world ceases to be against us, and He brings us safely to anchor on the far shore of the eternal Land of Promise.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 7/26/15