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Mighty Acts

Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-14

Manipur Baptist 125th Anniversary #1

Nothing is more familiar to people than eating. Nothing gets more praise and compliments than delicious dishes presented on a banquet table. Nothing is more amazing than to feed 100,000 people 3 meals a day over this anniversary weekend. Nothing is more miraculous and mighty than Jesus feeding 5000 men and probably another 10,000 women and children with only five loaves of bread and two fish!

The “Feeding of the Five Thousand” story is the only miracle of Jesus that is told in all four Gospels. It occurs twice in Matthew and Mark. In a Gospel so succinct as Mark’s, to tell a story twice must mean that Mark thinks it is very important. Since the Gospels, eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry written by different people for different audiences all included this act, this would also suggest that the miracle of feeding five thousand people was a mighty act.

Jesus and his disciples arrive at a lonely place, a deserted spot where they look for respite from the pressing demands of ministry. However, it’s ironic that the deserted place has become an assembling spot for great multitudes, people who have followed Jesus out to the desert.

We are told that Jesus looks upon the multitudes and has great compassion for them. He invited the multitudes to eat. The disciples were shocked, for they could locate only two dried fish and five barley loaves, hardly enough to feed themselves, much less a crowd of thousands. Nevertheless, Jesus instructed them to feed the crowd, and not only did all get enough to eat, but there were also twelve baskets left over. The disciples were in for a surprise that evening—as they were often—at the miraculous power of God’s mighty love.

How many of you are hungry right now? The simple but hearty meals that I have received have filled me and I am satisfied. I think it’s a miracle that the hundreds of volunteers who have made this 125th Anniversary celebration possible and who are now feeding us is nothing short of a mighty miracle. Thanks be to God!

God, Land, People

This lonely deserted place where the miracle took place was outside of town. It was on the other side of the Sea of Galilee from Nazareth known as the Sea of Tiberias, near the town of Bethsaida. The Gospel writers included these geographical details because they want to tell us that this mighty miracle happened for people like you and me.

In reading about Nagas in NE India and specifically about the Manipur tribal people, I know that land is sacred. Mar Imsong* writes that the Naga identity embodies you in a “God-Land-People” relationship. Although you have encountered conflicts from time to time, the Nagas have also managed to live with your traditions and land since the beginning of your history.

When Naga identity and faith are integrally related to the land, the whole Naga community whether you reside in Manipur, Nagaland, Sagaing or other places, you share a sacred common identity that provides for the needs of each and all. And according to Mar Imsong, when you praise God for the creation of the land and the people, you would have a sacramental commonality that links what you do on earth is what God does in heaven.

From reading Takusenla,** quoting tribal wisdom, “The land never lies; do not lie to the land.” When conflicts over land arise, the effects lead to death, violence, destroyed relationships, divisions, and the lack of cooperation. While we can justify fighting for one’s land since land is important for our identity, we are ultimately defined by our relationship with God.

In the Old Testament, we have the tradition of Jubilee when every 50 years, the debts are forgiven, the slaves are set free, and the land is redistributed so that everyone would have land to thrive. In many of the New Testament teachings, we also see the unity of all things under heaven and at Jesus’ reading of Isaiah in Luke 4, it is a Jubilee ministry he will be embarking. Takusenla reminds us that the Kingdom of God is here and now, not just in the future. This means that we don’t lie to the land. We are called today to bring harmony among our people as there is harmony in the relationship of God-Land-People.

We often quote Jesus when he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, saying, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3). But in the miracle of feeding 5000 people, Jesus is praising and thanking God, the ruler of the universe “who brings forth food from the earth” (Ps. 104:14). Jesus is acknowledging that God is the one who provides all that is necessary for human life. Jesus recognizes that, while we may not live on bread alone, without bread we cannot live. When manna rained down on the people of Israel in the wilderness, it was said that, “mortals ate of the bread of angels” (Ps. 78:25).

Imagine the food that we have eaten since we have been at this anniversary. We have eaten dal but before it was dal, it was beans that grew in the ground miraculously from seeds. We have eaten rice but before it was rice, it was encased in the chaff that grew in rice fields. Our dal and rice food is like the 2 dried fish and 5 barley loaves miraculously multiplied until everyone has eaten and satisfied. And after the meal, there were many baskets of leftovers to eat again.

Baptist Missionaries

You and the many informed scholars and researchers know the history of the Naga tribal people better than by my little reading. I am only a student and you are my teachers. There have been clashes between villages. The British came in 1880 to suppress the Naga rebellion. Today you are facing new challenges as Christians living in a predominant Hindu country.

In Manipur, Christianity came here later than other places where Nagas lived. The first missionary to reach Manipur was William Pettigrew in 1894. He came as a missionary of the Arthington Mission but joined the American Baptists in 1896. Pettigrew developed a special interest in the Manipuris and met in Cachar but could not enter Manipur until the British acting political agent, A. Portious gave him permission to open a school in Imphal, the capital in 1894. Though the school did little else but provide tuition for the children of government officials, even that was considered too much for the British political agent, Maxwell when he returned from leave. Afraid that Pettigrew’s work would disturb the orthodox Hindu Manipuris, the British Maxwell told Pettigrew that he could not continue in Imphal—but that he might work in the hill areas, which were under the direct administration of the agent.

For a year in 1894, Pettigrew searched for a suitable location for the new mission. First, he turned to the south and approached Kamkholun Singson, a Thadou chief of Senvon village in December 1895. But when the chief did not welcome Pettigrew and his teachings, the missionary proceeded toward the northwest to the Mao areas. Here too, he faced the same treatment he met in the south. Not only this, he was warned by the village authorities to leave as soon as possible. In his search for a suitable location, he came to Ukhrul and went as far as Paoyi (now Peh) to the north; and on his return from Paoyi, he came up the Shirui Mountain and further to Khangkhui.

Having wandered through some of the neighboring villages, he finally came back to Ukhrul and decided that it was most suitable place for his missionary work. In 1901, twelve students of the mission including the Kuki, Komren, and Naga people—established during the 1890s at Ukhrul in the hills north and east of Imphal—were baptized. In 1902, a church was organized. This Phungyo Baptist Church became the first Baptist church in Manipur.

William Pettigrew and the Baptist mission work continued spreading among the Kukis and Nagas and to many other tribes. More missionaries from America came including Rev. and Mrs. U.M. Fox in 1911 who opened the gate for higher education. In 1919, when Pettigrew was on furlough, Rev. Crozier started work of clearing and building at a new location in Kangpokpi under the direction of the Kuki Christians. Crozier was the first missionary who started a dispensary and leper asylum in Kangpokpi.

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The government in 1910-11 appointed William Pettigrew as superintendent of the first census of the hill territory because he was the only person who knew the languages of the hill tribes. With the help of his school’s teachers and senior students, Pettigrew undertook the work of the census and carried it out successfully. In the end, the census work enabled Pettigrew and his colleagues to preach the Gospel in new areas.

This is only a snapshot of how Baptist missionaries with the power of God and the revelation of God’s Word in Jesus Christ among the Nagas, Kukis and other tribes in Manipur became Christians. Pettigrew, the other missionaries and the village tribal leaders participated in the mighty acts of God over 125 years ago.

Today, we celebrate God’s mighty acts in the past but we must also believe that God continues to call us to perform mighty acts today.

Jesus Saves

In the Gospel of John’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, we see two stories. Jesus feeds the hungry multitudes, transforming five loaves and 2 fish into a feast. Then before his amazed disciples, Jesus walks upon the stormy water of a raging sea. These stories must be read together.

In the feeding of story, John seems intent on moving our gaze away from the bread and the feeding and toward Jesus. In the second story, John widens, or perhaps challenges, our understanding of Jesus. Jesus not only feeds our hungers on the green hillside; he comes to us in a raging storm. He not only nourishes us but also saves us.

The crowds are confused about the bread and don’t really perceive the “sign” (6:26). The crowds were only thinking about their hunger and wanted bread but Jesus moves the story to the sea, in the middle of the night when the wind was strong to tell us that he saves.

In many churches in the United States, they have become places where people are fed. Jesus said, “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy-burdened,” so the church is a place for “unburdening” the people. The church has become a “filling station.” “I come to church empty and that’s where I get filled up for the week.” Outside the church, a sign might read, “Hurting? Come here. We care.”

So what do we do? We send out a questionnaire to find out what the neighborhood needs. Maybe the neighborhood needs childcare, eldercare, counseling, health, recreation, etc. After all, the church is about meeting people’s needs, right? Hungry people flock to a compassionate Jesus. He miraculously gives them bread. People say, “I come to church because when I have been hungry Jesus fed me.” It’s a transaction that characterizes our life with Jesus. It is an exchange of goods that typifies Jesus’ church. Why do you come to church?

What surprises us in John’s account of this miracle is that Jesus in effect rebukes the crowd for its preoccupation with bread and refuses their attempts to crown him a king. The crowd misunderstood who he is.

Who is Jesus? If he is about more than filling our hungers and healing our hurts, what is he about? This brings us to the second story in John. The action moves from the serene hillside where needs are met and hungers are satisfied to a raging, dark, deadly sea. And Jesus is there as well. He comes to them across the waves, speaks to them, and saves them.

On the sea, there is much fear. The disciples are fearful because of the sea, but they are also fearful because of Christ. We have moved from the feedings by Christ to the fear of Christ. We have sailed from “Jesus, what can you do for us” to “Jesus, what do you do to us?”

We are okay when Jesus meets our everyday needs but we’re not as good with reverence, awe, and fear. Jesus is here to meet our needs. But here, on the sea at evening, Jesus is the one who braves the terrible storm and comes out to save us.

We tend to think of church is where we come to be with Jesus, to obtain his benefits and blessings. But what if church is also that potentially fearful place where sometimes a storm arises, the sky grows dark, clouds gather, and Jesus comes out to us, lays hold of us, reaches to us, grabs us, and saves us? When William Pettigrew was facing resistance from the British authorities or the Hindu government or tribal leaders who wanted no part of Christianity, Pettigrew was at a fearful place. Christ came into Pettigrew’s storm, reached out to him, grabbed him and saved him.

Pettigrew was doing mighty acts for God but God was also doing mighty acts to empower Pettigrew to share the good news of Jesus Christ with you 125 years ago in Manipur. Through you, the Manipur Baptists, Jesus Christ continues to save people today.

Your Mighty Acts

It was not one of the disciples’ best moments. While Jesus had compassion on the hungry multitudes, his disciples urged Jesus to send them away so that they can buy what they want for the healing of their hunger. Not much compassion among the disciples.

At this precise point, Jesus turns to those same disciples and says, “They need not go away. You give them something to eat.” To the ones who want to send hungry, hurting people away, Jesus gives a commission to minister to the multitudes.

Jesus is still challenging and commissioning you to give them something to eat. What do we have to give people who are hungry today to eat?

From the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, what we offer to the world today is first, and foremost, the message that God is love. Jesus’ compassion means that God cares deeply about the most basic needs of all of us. God, who is the ultimate power of the universe, intends peace in the world, an end of hunger, the wellbeing of families, and spiritual wholeness for all people. Who are hungry and need healing in Manipur?

Secondly, as disciples of Christ, we have the awesome responsibility that God entrusted to us. Jesus did not feed five thousand. He told the disciples to do it. God has entrusted us to be the Body of Christ—the hands and feet through which God’s work is done in the world. God does not work alone, but through people, you and me. To follow Jesus is to express our faith in concrete acts of love, justice, and compassion toward others.

Third, this Gospel story reminds us that when we need it most, God will give us the power to work in the world, a reality many of us have discovered when faced with situations we were not sure we could manage. Look at William Pettigrew and the many other missionaries. Look at all the faithful church leaders who have labored faithfully over these 125 years. When Jesus told the disciples to feed five thousand, the disciples thought it was impossible. The needs were so great, and the resources were so few. Do you feel this way today? But when the disciples worked together and followed Jesus, they had more than enough.

The disciples discovered the power of the Holy Spirit to do great things. When Christians join together in unity and faithfulness to God’s good purposes for the world, mighty acts happen. The promise of this story of the feeding of the five thousand is that if we join together in unity and faithfulness, God will be with us. It is not a promise of the absence of struggle and pain—Jesus even had to go the way of the Cross—but a promise that God will be with us and that God’s intention of love, peace and justice in the world will ultimately prevail.

Mighty acts have been happening in Manipur through you. Adakho Lokho in the article, The Triumphal Story of Christianity Among the Tribals of Northeast India shared this story. In 1925, a young boy, Kholi Puni of Punanamei village got baptized at Kohima Mission School. He quits his studies, returned to his village, and established the first Mao Church in 1927 with two of his friends. Kholi Puni donated a plot of land for the first church building. He is credited to have laid the foundation of Christianity in twenty villages of Mao, Poumai, Thangal, and Maram tribes. He wrote the first Mao Primer and translated the four Gospels and fifty hymns in 1928. He served as Pastor, first evangelist of Mao-Poumai-Maram area; first evangelist, Manipur Sadar Association (1931); General Secretary, All Manipur Sadar Association (1932). Here was a young boy, Kholi Puni who gave up his dream to study but performed mighty acts to bring the Good News of Christ to people.

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Stone Soup

Jesus was seeking a lonely place away from the many demands of the multitudes but as the result of his compassion, he performed a mighty act and fed thousands of men, women, and children. As the result of this miracle, Jesus commissions and empowers the disciples to serve as his hands and feet. We pray that many of those who were fed on that hillside were transformed to become believers of Jesus Christ. And the world began to change.

You have retreated this weekend to Imphal where early missionaries shared the good news of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior to celebrate, remember, sing, pray, demonstrate tribal traditions and heritage and eat. But just like the 5000, they had to leave the hillside in Bethsaida. At the end of this weekend, you too will leave this anniversary to return to your homes and villages and towns. God will ask you, “You give them something to eat.”

Let me tell you a familiar American folktale of being a community and the value of sharing.

A soldier rode his tired horse down a back country road on his way home from an ill-advised battle. In truth, to this soldier all battles seemed ill-advised, for he saw little sense to violence and killing.

It was late afternoon and the man was tired and hungry. Up ahead he saw a small village. “I’ll get something to eat there and find a place for the night,” he thought.

Suddenly the horse tripped, throwing the soldier to the ground. As he brushed himself off, he saw that the horse had stumbled over a rock sticking out of the ground in the middle of the road. He walked back to the rock, and with the help of his sword, dug it out of the earth. It was a splendid rock, almost perfectly around and smooth. The soldier liked the rock that he put it in his bag, climbed upon his horse, and continued into the village.

As he rode past the first houses the village people stopped their work to stare. He waved to several of the townsfolk, but no one waved back. Dismounting, the soldier approached a woman standing in front of a small house. “Good evening,” he said cheerfully. “Could you spare a bit of food for a hungry man?”

The woman shook her head sadly and sighed, “We have had a poor harvest. There is barely enough for our family. I am sorry.” With these words she walked into the house.

The man continued to the next house where a farmer was working on his wagon. “Do you have a place at your table for a hungry soldier?” he asked.

“It didn’t rain during the last month before harvest,” the farmer said. “What little we have is needed for our children.”

At every home he visited, the soldier heard the same sad story: The harvest had been poor, there was not enough food to make it through the winter, the family needed the grain for seed.

Completely discouraged, and very hungry, the soldier tied his horse to the branch of a tree and sat down. “In a few weeks these poor people will be as hungry as I am,” he thought. “I wish I could help them find food.”

Suddenly an idea hit him. He reached into his saddlebags, took out the stone and addressed the villages. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the soldier shouted, “you are fortunate that I came to your town. I have in my hands a special rock that will help take you through the long winter. This is a magic rock. With it you can make stone soup.”

“Stone soup?” an old man repeated. “I have never heard of stone soup.”

“The wonder of stone soup,” the soldier continued, “is that it not only feeds hungry people, it helps bring people together. Now, who has a large empty iron kettle?”

Quickly a huge iron pot was found, and delivered to the soldier in a wheelbarrow. “The kettle is barely large enough, but it will do,” the soldier said. “Now we must fill the pot with water and start a fire.”

Eager hands carried buckets of water and firewood. Soon the pot was placed over a roaring fire. As the water began to boil the soldier dramatically raised the magic stone above his head, and then gently placed it in the kettle.

“The stone looks just like the ones we have in our backyard,” a little boy whispered to his mother.

The mother picked up the child and assured him, “You can’t tell if something is magic by looking at the outside.”

“Stone soup needs salt and pepper,” the soldier announced.

Two children ran to find salt and pepper.

After the water had boiled for a few minutes the soldier sipped the brew. “This stone makes excellent soup, but it would be better if we had a few carrots.”

“I have a few carrots that I am willing to share,” a farmer replied. Immediately his daughter ran home and returned with an apron full of carrots.

“It is too bad the harvest was so bad,” the soldier said sadly. “Stone soup is always more tasty when we add a cabbage or two.”

“I think I know where to find a cabbage,” a young mother shouted over her shoulder as she left for home. When she returned she was carrying three large cabbages.

The soldier was busy slicing carrots and cabbages with his sword. “The last time I made stone soup was at the castle of a rich man. He added a few potatoes and a bit of beef.”

Several people talked quietly. “A bit of beef and we can eat like rich people,” they whispered. They went home and soon returned not only with beef and potatoes but milk, onions, and barley.

By the time the soup was ready it was almost dark. Men brought large tables, women brought soup bowls and others carried cider and bread. It was the most delicious soup they had ever smelled, and to think of it all came from the magic stone.

After everyone ate their fill people brought out the fiddles. They danced and sang until the wee hours of the night. Never had people experienced such a wonderful party.

The next morning the whole village gathered to say goodbye to the soldier. As he mounted his horse a small child cried, “You are forgetting the magic stone.”

“I am leaving the stone with you as a gift,” the soldier smiled.

As the soldier rode off a young girl said to her grandfather, “As long as we have the magic stone we shall never be hungry.”

“Remember,” the grandfather added, “that the soldier promised another bit of magic from the stone. He said that the stone also brings people closer together.”

This 125th Anniversary Celebration has indeed brought all of us together. Our magic stone is the love of God we know in Jesus Christ. God is calling you to love as God is love. God is commissioning you as disciples with the responsibility for the next 125 years to follow Jesus by expressing our faith in the mighty acts of love, justice and compassion toward others. God in the Holy Spirit is telling us that what we might see as impossible, all things are indeed possible in God. When we work together and followed Jesus, we have more than enough.

Let us pray.

Gracious and merciful God, we thank you for the mighty acts that we have experienced as Manipur Baptists in the world. You have fed the hungry. You have given your only begotten Son, Jesus Christ so that we may have everlasting life. You have taught us to perform might acts of forgiveness and love among all people. Multiply our convictions and faithfulness so that we may share our love to bring more of your people to be closer together. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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