Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sunday 19 July 2015 - 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Shepherd and Sheep / Sheep without a shepherd / Compassion / The mission of God / New humanity / God's reconciling grace

Sentence: Jesus had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34).

Collect: P18:1

Father God,
imprint on our hearts
that because we belong to you
no one can pluck us from your hand
and because we fear you
we need fear no other. Amen

Readings (related):

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56


Jeremiah 23:1-6

This passage rounds off a survey of the kings (i.e. shepherds) of Judah (ch. 22). They are a bad lot and the Woe of verse 1 is addressed to them.

But all is not lost: the Lord will 'attend' to them for their 'evil doings' (2). Then the Lord himself will intervene to 'gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them' (3). Then, so to speak, the order of shepherds will be restored (4). But, in particular, 'the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land' (5, see also 6).

In other words, the future great David-like and descended-from-David shepherd king will save Judah and make Israel safe. It is to that kind of prophetic promise that our gospel reading alludes when it presents Jesus as the compassionate shepherd of God's people.

Psalm 23

I will be brief here when every line of this greatest of psalms deserves a paragraph!

When David says that the Lord is his shepherd, he is not only speaking of the Lord's personal care for him as one of the sheep of the Lord's flock, he is also speaking for Israel, as the flock which desperately needs the loving care and protection of the Lord as its shepherd.

Part of the deep poignancy of this psalm is that David composed it as an experienced shepherd. He knew first-hand what caring for the flock means.

Ephesians 2:11-22

It is a pity to skip bits of Ephesians when working through it as it is a tightly woven theological argument which leads into a carefully constructed set of instructions for living out the gospel. Here, with the 11th verse of chapter 2 we pick up Paul in full flight about what the gospel 'of redemption through his blood' (1:7) means. 2:1-10 has made the point that although we are 'dead through our trespasses', God has 'made us alive together with Christ' (5). Since God has done this, it is a work of grace (7), in fact, so gracious is God that even our 'faith' (i.e. responsive acceptance of God's salvation) is 'the gift of God' (8).

What do we find in verse 11? 'So then ...' Paul wants his Gentile readers to remember what the 'blood of Christ' (13) has achieved: it has brought them into relationship with Christ. In turn this means that they have been brought into relationship with 'the commonwealth of Israel' (12), two groups, Gentiles and Jews which Christ 'in his flesh ... has made ... into one' (14). This in fact is 'one new humanity' (15), reconciled 'to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it' (16).

We should pause on these verses, less intent on explaining them and more drawn to praise God (see 3:20-21) for the wonderful, dynamic and miraculous achievement of the cross: enmity between human beings, alienation from other men and women, division into separated hostile groups of humanity can be overcome. The secret is to come to Christ, to accept his saving work on the cross, and to acknowledge the new, united humanity which results.

Verses 19-22 then develop what this new humanity looks like: 'the household of God' (19), 'built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,* with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone' (20), 'a holy temple in the Lord' (21) and 'a dwelling place for God' (22). With these series of images, Paul sets out this new humanity as a new Israel, a living building ('built together spiritually', 22), which fulfils the purpose of the Jerusalem temple. In short, a new society - a new people of God.

What does your church and mine look like by comparison?

Does the world outside the church look on the church as a new people of God?

*The phrase 'apostles and prophets' means the apostles of Jesus and the first Christian prophets rather than the apostles of Jesus and the prophets known from the Old Testament. See 3:5.

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The omitted verses here mean we engage with a chunk of Mark's Gospel concerning the mission of Jesus minus the events of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Walking on Water. (Since these stories occur in other gospels, there are plenty of opportunities across a three year cycle to engage with them!)

Note that 'the twelve' of verse 7 and now described as 'The apostles' (30). At the very least this is a functionally deserved description because the twelve were sent out on a mission which they accomplished. They are now the 'sent ones' i.e. apostles. Mark, writing around 70 AD, nevertheless is aware that this description became their title as the founding members of the Christian church. His point then is that the apostles earned their laurels by being active in the mission of Jesus while Jesus himself was on earth.

The next verse, 31, could be written for all Christian ministry and mission activity through all of time: take some rest, make sure you have a day off, annual leave is not a luxury but a necessity if you are to recharge your spiritual batteries, always go on an annual retreat, never miss the opportunity for sabbatical! Many are the days when ministry feels like 'many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.' How difficult it can be when we need it most to 'Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.'

From that perspective verse 32 sounds like a great idea: get a boat and get away in it! I once had a colleague who mused about purchasing a boat and naming it 'On Presbytery Business.' If the church secretary then explained his absence with 'He's away on Presbytery Business', would a lie have been told :) Seriously, sometimes a boat or bike or canoe or caravan or holiday bach is essential to cutting ties to the telephone, the doorbell and the internet.

But there is no guarantee here (please note, just before you lash out on a new and expensive boat): the crowds eager to see and to hear Jesus were not deterred by the boat moving away from shore (33a). The winds on Galilee must have been light that day as the crowd got to Jesus' landing place before he did (33b).

Did Jesus sigh and mutter 'I was hoping to have a decent Day Off and this lot have shown up'? No. Mark reports that 'he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd' (34).

Here, in a phrase, is the essence of Christian ministry: the sheep need a shepherd, the people need a pastor. But, put like that, the image evokes a sense of pastoral care: the minister is the pastoral visitor to needy people, to people needing a compassionate ear. So it may be surprising to read on in verse 34, 'and he began to teach them many things'.

It seems, then, that Mark is thinking that the sheep without a shepherd are not sheep in need of pastoral care but sheep in need of guidance and direction. In Old Testament passages (e.g. Numbers 27:17, 1 Kings 22:37; Ezekiel 34:8; Zechariah 10:2) 'sheep without a shepherd' is an image for Israel without a king or a prophet to lead them. So now the new David, the new shepherd-king sits down with God's people and teaches them, that is, teaches them about God's new kingdom and its ways.

In doing this, Jesus is being contrasted by Mark with Herod the king-who-is-not-a-shepherd, the king who (bad pun coming up) fleeces his people rather than looking after them. (That looking after is highlighted in the passages we now omit, the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Walking on Water).

Picking up the passage again at verse 53, we find Jesus and the apostles now moored at Gennesaret. Again the people 'recognise' Jesus and 'rush' about, corralling up the sick and bringing them to 'wherever they heard he was' (55). Many healings take place as people 'begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak' (56). The passage ends with Jesus being (so to speak) the Most Popular Person in Palestine, except with religious leaders in Jerusalem. They are waiting to examine his theology once again in chapter 7.

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