Biblical Foundations of Integral Mission – Pt. 4 – Eat me … or don’t eat.

I’ve been asked to conduct a training on the biblical foundations of integral mission, also known as holistic ministry or transformational development. There are many folks who have addressed this question more ably than I. My favorite discussion so far is Bryant Myers in the second edition of his book Walking with the Poor. Here are links to the intro, part 1, part 2, and part 3.


The Jesus We Expect

Life has gotten quite complicated for us in this thing we are calling integral mission. It might be worth your while to review the summary in part 3 to remind yourself where we are.

Today we are going to go through the first part of John 6 and talk about what it means for those of us who are involved in integral mission. By now, you should know that all Jesus followers are to be involved in integral mission all the time, right? In this session, we are going to be heavy on the biblical text, and lighter on the commentary. The points are very important, but they are not too complex.

Read John 6:1-15 here. It’s the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. You know it already, but read it again anyway. This is Jesus as we expect to see him. He is teaching, he is healing, and when he sees people in need of food, he feeds them, relying on God for his power. This is integral mission! Notice that Jesus makes what is insufficient into more than enough. Think of that as a metaphor for you and for me. Notice also that it takes faith to set out to do ministry when you are insufficient. The disciples weren’t ready yet. Easy enough?

Does Something Unexpected

Now, read John 6:25-51 here. We skipped over the part where Jesus walks on water to get away from the crowd. I don’t want to presume too far on your willingness to read the Bible. This Jesus makes us uncomfortable, even though it is the same Jesus miraculously fed the crowd yesterday. It is the same crowd of needy people.

What is the difference? It is the same crowd, Jesus is still the same. But this time, Jesus refuses to feed them. Why? Why? It would be so easy. In fact, it would be so easy for God to feed all the world”s hungry. Why doesn’t He?

To be honest, I don’t really know. But I see three clues in this passage. The first clue is Jesus’ response to the crowd.

John 6:26-27 “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me not because you saw the signs that I performed, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life”

The second clue is the crowd’s response to Jesus.

John 6:34 “Sir, always give us this bread.”

The third clue is Jesus’ final response.

John 6:49-50 “Your ancestors ate the manna [bread from heaven] in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die.”  

Integral Mission

Let’s digress just for a moment. If we have learned one thing in the last 100 years of international development (and national social aid programs), it is that both sides are easily corrupted. It is very easy for the giving side to develop a “God complex” or a “messiah complex”. The rich play God in the lives of the poor. It is also very easy for the receiving side to develop a dependency on the gifts and for their own talents and abilities to atrophy.

How does this relate to God’s plan for development that has been in progress since Creation? Not very favorably, does it? God is the one who gave tasks, who gave responsibilities, who empowered, who set high standards for humanity, who acted in love and compassion and justice. When humans play God, we tend to take responsibility, assert our power, set high standards for ourselves, act in shallow mercy. This is deep, deep water and I highly recommend checking out Bryant Myers’ book for more information.

Now let’s return to our passage. The crowd has taken Jesus’ gift of sustenance, and they want it to be eternal. They are rejecting God’s call to work the land …. and therefore, God’s development project. At the same time, the crowd misunderstands where life comes from. Their ancestors literally received bread (and water) from heaven every day while the walked in the wilderness. They died. Those who follow Jesus will not. What kind of compassion is it that provides bread that eventually leads to death while ignoring the bread that leads to life? It is a very compelling, visual compassion.

Pay careful attention here. Our first response is always compassion. We care for the poor. Always. We are not God to decide whom we should help. HOWEVER, we respond in compassion in the same manner that God does, at least to the limits of our wisdom and abilities. Just as God empowers us to follow him, we use those gifts to empower others.

This is a picture of the relationship between the rich and the poor (or the children, addicts, disabled, etc.) from the point of view of the rich.

Rich (Us)Poor (Them)
We have, so we give. They need, so they receive what we choose to give.
We are educated, so we teach.They are ignorant, so they learn what we choose to teach.
We are powerful, so we lead. They are powerless, so they follow where we choose to lead.

Way down deep in our hearts, where we never say it out loud, we think, “We do it because we can do it better than they can.” This is not to demonize the rich. We can perform the same exercise for the poor.

Poor (Us)Rich (Them)
We need, so we receive. They have, so they must give what we ask for.
We are ignorant, so we must be told what to do. They are educated, so they must take responsibility.
We are powerless, so we must be assisted.They are powerful, so they must solve our problems.

Way down deep in our hearts, where we never say it out loud, we think, “They must do it for me. They owe me because they have been given more than me.”

Empowering is not Optional

Those statements are both absolutely untenable in light of God’s plan for the universe. You remember the plan where GOD ALMIGHTY asks His dusty creation for help in tending the earth and spreading the message of salvation? What kind of part are we playing in that plan when we do not act humbly and empower others? What kind of part are we playing in that plan when we feed people without bringing them the message of eternal life?

Let’s summarize. Jesus feeds the poor, then he offers to “really” feed the poor, with the blood of his own sacrificial death. We, in our turn, feed the poor and proclaim the message of the sacrificial death of Christ. The question that we ask is “How do we feed the poor?” Are we sprinkling bread on the ground like manna? Or are we teaching people to farm, building up their capacity, empowering them, learning from them? Are we playing God the Father … or are we patterning ourselves after the Suffering Servant?  

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