Importance of the Christian Community
Mark 6:30-34 and 53-End
May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Well, this morning’s Gospel reading certainly has an interesting shape to it. For those of you with your bible in front of you, note how the Lectionary skips over two important miracles – the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water. Today we have been given two similar and seemingly innocuous stories which act somewhat like bookends. As ever with the Lectionary, this has of course been done intentionally and for good reason and I will unpack this in a moment. Now when I first began to prepare this sermon, I skim read ahead to see what I would be preaching on and I was delighted to see that I had a juicy miracle to get my teeth stuck into. And then I noticed to my surprise (and if I’m being honest disappointment) that the first part of the Gospel reading stopped just short of the good bit! Now I strongly suspect that if these miracles were included within this morning’s Gospel reading, many preachers (myself included) would have gravitated towards them, much to the detriment of the two snippets of scripture we have been given today.
It was only when I began to study these short passages in detail that my eyes were opened to the wealth of material contained within them. Go Lectionary. I can almost hear the echoes of my biblical studies lecturers reminding me at college to study the whole passage in detail, every verse is important. But as we know when reading the Bible its all too easy to jump ahead to the familiar or the exciting ground. These nine verses in particular have so much to tell us about Christian leadership, teaching and spiritual self-awareness, about how Jesus saw himself and about human nature itself. And so, I apologise to the Lectionary for my initial disappointment, as ever, it knows best!
Earlier on in Chapter 6, Jesus had sent out the disciples into the villages around Nazareth to preach, to drive out demons and to heal. It is at this point in today’s Gospel reading at verse 30 where they return to him. As they return, they tell him all that they had done and taught. This is in essence a feedback session. It was a chance to review things with the master Himself, to share successes and knockbacks. To learn and grow together in community under the authority of the one who had sent them. This style of learning is indicative of much later models for Adult Experiential Learning. The disciples observed Jesus, listened to him, went out to put the theory into practice and then came back to review and to feedback. It is an excellent way to learn and it is in my mind a powerful counterargument for those who claim there is no need to belong to a church community. The early disciples learnt together as part of a community acting under the authority of an experienced leader. And they did it through observation, analysis, practice and reflection – perhaps as Christian disciples, we should seek to adopt this learning style into our own ministries.
Verse 31 is an important reminder that Jesus who is the Son of God is also fully human. He needed to eat. But more significantly, as their leader, he recognised that his disciples were hungry, and they were exhausted. And he actively encouraged them to retreat and rest for a while. I’ve heard it repeated time and again in war films, that a good officer always looks after their troops first. I wonder if any of you have worked or are working for a manager/leader who is oblivious to your basic human needs at work. A boss who either demonstrates superhero-like workaholic qualities and therefore expects their staff to be and do the same; or is so incompetent to the point where they are totally and utterly oblivious to your physical and mental wellbeing. If you’ve been in those situations, you’ll know that its unsustainable and it will lead to breakdown and illness. You cannot give all the time, you have to rest, and you need to have time away. Jesus recognises that here. The disciples must have been drained and exhausted after their mission. Jesus encourages retreat and rest and a time to recharge the spiritual batteries. In our busy lives, we need to recognise that we cannot effectively serve God or His Church from a position of exhaustion. To paraphrase William Barclay, we meet with God in the secret place to serve humanity in the marketplace.
Now I want you to imagine for a moment, you are going on holiday to your luxury château in the South of France. You need this holiday you really really need it. It has been a long time coming, you’re exhausted, you’re on the edge, you’ve just got to get away. You get on the ferry and you have a dream crossing. Your drive south is delightful, you enjoy the scenery and the lovely conversation with your spouse or friend. As you’re pulling into the village you notice a crowd on the hill, right outside the gates to your property. What’s that? Hundreds of people milling about waiting for you. Your heart sinks as you recognise the faces, each and every person has come to demand something of you. As you slowly pull through the crowd voices begin to clamour “I know you’re holiday but, could you just…”. Would you be happy. Probably not. Mark doesn’t record the disciple’s response to the crowds of people who had got there ahead of them, but you can well imagine what it may have been.
At a purely human level there is something important we must learn from this. We need to carefully safeguard our annual leave, our holiday time and our time alone with God. There will always be emergencies, sure, but the troubles of the world and the nitty gritty of daily life, our service to the church; it can wait a short while. We must look after our own health and wellbeing if we are to continue serving God to the best of our ability. But at a theological level Jesus’ response to the crowd reveals something of his true identity. Jesus did not intend to diminish the need for rest, food and prayer, after all, it was Him who suggested they get away in the first place. No Jesus seized this moment to fulfil ancient biblical prophecy. For when Jesus got out of the boat, his heart was filled with pity for the crowd. Instead of sending them away, as I’m sure some of the disciples would have longed for him to do, he recognised that they were sheep without a shepherd and he began to teach them. The Old Testament prophets had condemned kings for failing to act as shepherds to the people of Israel. Ezekiel chapter 34 promises of a new age where God himself will come to shepherd his people. Verse 8 says “as surely as I am the living God, you had better listen to me. My sheep have been attacked by wild animals that killed and ate them because there was no shepherd. My shepherds did not try to find the sheep. They were taking care of themselves and not the sheep’. Verse 23 says ‘I will give them a king like my servant David to be their one shepherd and he will take care of them.’ In this truly significant moment Jesus is presenting himself as that promised shepherd. And as a shepherd, his needs come secondary to the wellbeing of his sheep. If we were to read further on into Mark 6, we would see that Jesus then proceeds to teach the crowd and then feed them in a miraculous way.
Following the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water, we arrive at the second part of today’s Gospel reading. Jesus and the disciples cross the lake at arrive at Gennesaret. They’ve probably not had much time to relax, their retreat was invaded by the crowd and the disciples were needed to distribute bread and fish to the 5000 families, no small undertaking! Following this they had been caught up in a storm and frightened half to death by seeing Jesus walking on the water. Their nerves must have been fraught, imagine a never-ending delay at an airport followed by seeing the pilot floating to the cockpit. They must have been shattered and well ready for that promised rest. But what do they find as they disembark, another series of crowds!
In preparation for this sermon, I have read various commentaries and I’ve found that some scholars (in my opinion) have unfairly criticised the motives of the crowds following Jesus. I’ve read comments like ‘the people were using him’, ‘they had come to receive not give’. ‘They were constantly demanding of him’. ‘Take take take’. That sort of thing. But for me, this line of thinking fails to take into consideration the brutal world in which they lived in, where medical provision was either non-existent, extremely expensive and often quite dangerous. The people saw in Jesus someone who could change their physical lives forever. In their shoes, I would have followed Jesus to the ends of the earth if he could have healed my sons or my wife of life-threatening or debilitating illness or infirmity. No, I don’t see selfishness here but a very real human response to the misery of illness and infirmity. These people demonstrated a remarkable level of faith; for some they recognised that if only they could just grasp the edge of his cloak then they would be healed - what faith and what determination!
But it is valid to pause at this point, reflect on the motives of the crowds and what some scholars have suggested and ask ourselves a couple of searching questions about how we see and approach Jesus. And these are questions we should be asking of ourselves constantly in our walk with Jesus. Do we, like the crowd only appear to Jesus at times of difficulty, only to drift away when the issue has been resolved? Or are we more like his faithful disciples, often confused, wondering where we are going at times, but nonetheless walking alongside our Saviour in the good times and the bad. The crowds saw in Jesus someone who could free them from their physical misery and offer healing. They dropped everything to get to him. But what would motivate us to drop everything and seek Jesus today? Some have argued that the crowds acted out of a selfish motive, they came, they were healed and then they disappeared. How balanced is our relationship with Jesus, do we ask of Him more than we offer Him, or conversely, do we perhaps not ask enough afraid of the response?!
Nine short verses of scripture, but what hidden depths! Lesson learned Lectionary!
And so, may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip us with everything good that we may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.