Sunday, July 19, 2009
You will have have noticed that we are still in this very action-packed 6th chapter of St Mark’s gospel; its week 3 and we will be there again next week. It is a pivotal chapter in Mark's presentation of Jesus, both as the embodiment of the expected Davidic Messiah and as the Divine Son of God.
Those who have compiled our lectionary readings have grouped today’s so that we have as a more definable theme than we sometimes get. This theme - one which weaves its way through both Old and New testaments – is that of God’s loving concern for His people expressed as that of the quintessential Good Shepherd.
The bad shepherds that Jeremiah speaks of in the first reading, are, in his time, personified in the person of the King Zedekiah; a weakling who like his immediate predecessors has been devouring the flock and causing them to scatter. Jeremiah proclaims that when God brings about the new order ‘the deliverance will be far more wonderful than the deliverance from Pharaoh and the land of Egypt’.
Over the past few weeks the Old Testament readings have tempted some people to see them as a commentary on our own time. This is a dangerous path to take – the readings tell us firstly and primarily about God and his loving care; only secondly do we read of the activities of the prophets (good and bad) and then we hear of the effect of these events on God’s people.
The stories are recorded for us so that we may see that the unfolding of salvation is all in God’s plan – they are not there so that we may indulgently see ourselves as either the ignored prophets or the scattered and forgotten flock.
Yes, we may note that ‘history repeats itself’, but more importantly we are to note the work and intention of God to care for and shepherd His people.
The appointed psalm for today, psalm 23, is a wonderful recapitulation of this message. Its almost universal inclusion at Christian weddings and funerals is testament to the truth that in all life, in our joys and sorrows, God is there, beside us as the shepherd who protects - and going before us as the shepherd who provides.
When we re-enter Mark's gospel today, the disciples have just returned from their missionary duties, they are tired yet enthusiastic about what has happened. Jesus recognises their need for some time alone, some space and a debrief. The crowd still press in, such was the ‘success’ of their mission. They take off in the boat, only to have their progress observed by the crowd who follow on foot around the shores of the lake. When Jesus and the disciples finally make land the crowd is there ahead of them and the dire need of the people takes precedence.
Mark tells us that Jesus had compassion for the crowd for they were like ‘sheep without a shepherd’. It is this 'compassion' for the crowd that identifies Jesus as the true shepherd, the one who has come to restore Israel. It is God’s compassion for His people enacted through Jesus. This compassion extends to feeding them both through his teaching and then through the miracle of providing enough food to feed the multitude through the multiplication of five loaves and two fish.
From the time of the European Enlightenment onwards, men have tried to explain away this miracle. The explanation with the most currency is that the offering from one encouraged others to share what they had, but Mark is not saying this. We loose sight of the shepherd image when we turn this into something again of our doing, our sharing - rather than God’s providing.
Mark is saying that it is spiritual leadership that the people lack and it is the spiritual hunger that Jesus initially feeds with his teaching. The teaching and the miracles belong together - in his teaching Jesus instructs the crowd about the Kingdom of God and in his miracles Jesus provides instances of its coming.
For the Kingdom of God is a place where miracles of healing and feeding happen. The one who presides over the Kingdom is the Shepherd who serves, protects and provides for those within it. The Shepherd who is constantly inviting people into the fold, that he might provide for them and nurture them in the way in which God intends. The Kingdom is a place where healing takes place, where people are released from troubling spirits and where peoples spiritual hunger is fed.
Timothy Radcliffe in his book “What is the point of being a Christian?” asks:
How are we to heal the wounds of Christ’s body? How are we to learn to breathe again with the rhythm of the Eucharist, gathering people into community to share the bread, and reaching for the fullness of the Kingdom?
Quoting Archbishop Rowan Williams he goes on to say of the Kingdom that it is:
A place where those who need a home and have none may find it… not some closed holy space… but… a temple whose doors are open, where God is to be found and where God’s peace makes a difference.
With all of the instructions to “go, heal and cast out” that our readings have imparted to us over the last few weeks, what a comfort it is for us to hear today’s readings, with their assurance of God’s shepherding care and love for us for us to hear that is right and proper for us to take regular rest with, and to be fed by God.
But may we never forget that the care that God shows to us, we are expected to show to others as imitators of Christ and co-builders of the Kingdom.