July 22 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 16
This Sunday is designated Social Services Sunday. The readings for that are given in the Lectionary. It is also the Feast Day of St Mary Magdalene, and readings are also given there for that. In keeping with my usual practice, I am sticking with the readings set for this Sunday, the 16th in Ordinary Time, although they could be used quite successfully, I suggest, to say some helpful things about Social Services. (I doubt if they could be stretched to bring in St Mary Magdalene, but over to you.)
Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Theme: A bit trickier this week. All sorts of ideas have suggested themselves; "Running to Jesus"; "Work-Life Balance"; "Of Kings and Shepherds"; "Breaking Down All Barriers"; "Spiritual Globalisation". After much tedious debate with myself I'm going with "Life in the Real World".
Introduction. The shepherd motif is an obvious link between the first lesson and the gospel passage. More generally, the ministry of Jesus in the gospel passage can be seen as the fulfilment of the messianic prophecy in verses 5 and 6 of the passage from Jeremiah. A less obvious connection between the gospel and the second lesson may be found in the divide between Jew and Gentile, with the lake acting as a physical barrier between the Jewish territory on the western side and the Gentile territory on the eastern side. [Cue a quick reminder to notice how many times Mark refers to Jesus crossing over to the other side.] Overall, it could be said that the unifying theme for all three readings is something to do with the whole idea of the scattering and gathering of the people. In Christ the gathering of the people of the world into one flock (a new humanity) is foreshadowed in the first lesson, explained theologically in the second lesson, and demonstrated in action in the gospel reading.
Background. The first thing that strikes me about the gospel passage is the "split" reading. That always leads me to read the bit missed out first, and today it seems more than passing strange. Why on earth (or "in the realms of Christendom", as Greg King put it) would we want to jump over the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and the story of Jesus walking on the sea? However, all is not as it seems: there is no conspiracy to reduce the number of miracle stories to appease the Liberals in the Church. We have these two stories next week, albeit from St John instead of St Mark.
So what's going on? As always, it's useful to look at the structure of chapter 6. It starts with Jesus' lament that a prophet is without honour in his own hometown: St Mark states bluntly that Jesus was unable to achieve much there because of their lack of faith. That's followed by Jesus sending his disciples out two by two to preach, exorcise, and heal. Then comes a strange interpolation, the account of St John the Baptist's gruesome execution, before the narrative resumes in real time with the return of the apostles as they report back to Jesus.
In other words, the story about John's death is book-ended by reports of ministry carried out by Jesus and the apostles. This is what prompted m to select the theme I have. Jesus has come into the world to bring life, and he has commissioned others to continue this ministry with him. But the world into which he has come, and into which he has sent them, is a real one, full of darkness, division, hostility and ungodliness. The awful execution of John (whom at least some of the apostles knew, admired and followed before joining with Jesus) serves as an illustration of all that is corrupt in the real world. It follows the sending out, where Jesus clearly warns them that they will not be welcome everywhere and by everyone.
Sometimes when I am reading Scripture a snatch of liturgy crashes into my mind, and it happened this week as I was pondering the gospel reading. One of the positives from leaving out the heavy stuff and concentrating our attention on what at first sight might seem relatively inconsequential extracts is to give a graphic picture of the energy and excitement that followed Jesus on his journeying around Galilee. Twice we are told of people running to him, even arriving before him in the first case. (Do I detect faint echoes of the famed foot race between Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved to the empty tomb on Easter morning?) Individual cases (the man lowered through the ceiling on a stretcher and the woman with the blood discharge problem) are now multiplied into hundreds of similar cases: the sick are carried to Jesus on mats and people beg to be allowed just to touch the hem of his robe to be healed.
With this scene in mind turn to pages 456-7 of the Prayer Book and recite the following slowly (out loud):
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator, the love at our beginning and without end, in our midst and with us.
God is with us, here we find new life.
Let us give thanks for the coming of God's reign of justice and love.
Jesus Christ is good news for the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, and liberty for those who are oppressed.
Do you see what I mean? Isn't that exactly what was going on among those people in those two little extracts?
Jeremiah. God is complaining about the leaders of the people, who are referred to as "shepherds". We might be tempted to construe that term as meaning "pastors", religious leaders), but that's probably too narrow here. The target is the leaders generally, remembering that Judah was what we would call a theocracy (Modern Iran may give us some inkling of the mix between religious and secular leadership). The ideal for the Jews was always King David, the classic Shepherd-King. They had been falling down in their duty to tend the flock. It's difficult to avoid the feeling that there is something of a contradiction between verses 2 and 3. The shepherds are accused of having "scattered my sheep and driven them away"; but in the latter verse God proclaims his intention to gather the remnant "out of all the countries where I have driven them". Such contradictions are probably inevitable given the underlying theological stance that everything that happens to the people, good and bad, must be attributed to God.
Be all that as it may, the emphasis is on a fresh start. In the short term God will appoint new shepherds to tend the sheep; but this is followed by the great messianic prophecy, once again invoking the name of King David as the ideal leader.
To get a feel for the role of the shepherd have a look at psalm 23, the psalm set for the day; and the re-instatement of Peter in John 21.
Taking It Personally.
· What sort of leadership do we look for in our local church, our Diocese. and the wider Church? Is a shepherd still a useful model for us? If not, what model or image might be better?
· What about leadership in our communities and in our country? How do our leaders measure up against the criteria in verses 5 and 6? Do they reign wisely, and do what is just and right? Are our people safe and secure?
· Take some time in silence. Notice the random thoughts that buzz around in your head. Now reflect on the theme of scattering and gathering. Can you gather your thoughts into some sort of creative and coherent whole, centred on Christ, or are they scattered all over the place?
· Meditate on psalm 23. Make a list of the things the Good Shepherd does for his sheep. How far does your own experience confirm (or contradict) this list?
Ephesians. This one of those wonderful passages that surely makes this epistle one of the most glorious in the whole collection (whether Paul wrote it or not). It defies detailed analysis: it is best enjoyed as one all-embracing vision of the wonder of God's grace. It is hard for us, perhaps, to grasp how overwhelming and uncontested the supposed divide between Jew and Gentile was until Christ broke it down. Remember how difficult it seemed to the early Church to get over the "circumcision" issue. Imagine how long and how many Commissions the Anglican Communion would have needed to grapple with that! And try not to think of our three-tikanga constitution with this passage in front of you. If you do feel the need to take bite-sized pieces, here are three tasty titbits: a new humanity (spiritual globalisation); the Trinitarian thrust of the last few verses; the idea of the people of God being built into a temple to house the Holy Spirit.
Taking It Personally
Something a little different to try. If you have a difficult issue with someone try this. Imagine a room containing three chairs. You are seated on one, and opposite you is seated the other person. The central chair, positioned equidistant from the other two is Christ's seat. Now imagine yourself putting your side of the argument to Jesus, attempting to convince him that you are right and the other person is wrong. But whatever you say, Jesus replies, "Yes, but do you love me?" "Yes, but do you really love me?" "Yes, but do you truly love me?" You, of course, respond with Peter (John 21), becoming increasingly exasperated with Jesus. Then Jesus says, "If you love me you will obey my commandments. And my commandment is this: Love one another."
If Jesus is our peace, if he is the one who breaks down the walls that divide, we have only to let him.
Mark. There is so much here, even without the middle chunks! The apostles, after a period of active ministry, withdraw to Jesus. Something here about accountability, perhaps, but also a need to re-charge, physically as well as spiritually. Even on Social Services Sunday we see the importance of retreat, reflection and prayer. So, despite all the need around them, they try to get away to a solitary place by themselves, but are unsuccessful. As noted above, marvel at the lengths to which the crowds will go to meet Jesus. (When was the last time you ran to church?) Jesus looks at them and has compassion "because they were like sheep without a shepherd". We expect pastoral ministry, don't we? We expect another feeding miracle, or another bout of healing and exorcism. So did the crowd, probably, but what he gave them was teaching on many things. The healing and other stuff comes after the return journey.
Taking It Personally.
· Both these short passages lend themselves very well to imaginative prayer. Run with the crowd. Who or what are you bringing to him? What is your request?
· How do you feel when he starts teaching, instead of doing something practical? (Doesn't he know it's Social Services Sunday?)
· What sort of "many things" might he have addressed in that teaching, given that it arose from his compassion for them?
· Re-read the snippet of liturgy quoted above, slowly, rhythmically, a few times. Does that summarise for you what you have experienced through your imagination around the lake?
· How confidently can you stand in your local church and proclaim, "God is with us, here we find new life"?