Lectionary texts: Second Samuel (7:1-14a; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
For nearly all of my professional life I’ve been in front of groups of people, anywhere from a college classroom to a symphony orchestra, a chorus, a congregation or a large audience. Inevitably, the cumulative pressure sometimes gets to me and I long for an opportunity to escape somewhere for a quiet meal or at least a bit of time alone. We just returned from a Chicago Master Singers tour with about 75 people in our group and audiences of varying sizes wherever we performed. Our CMS friends are wonderfully respective of our time to get away on our own during a tour, and they rarely if ever invade our space.
But I wonder how I would feel if we headed off for a bit of respite only to find that “a large crowd” had rushed on ahead of us by another route and were already there waiting to invade our quiet time? It’s hard to imagine that I would not feel at least a little resentful of the intrusion.
But today’s Gospel reading tells us of a situation in the ministry of Jesus that’s exactly like the one I just described. And His reaction to seeing the crowd was not at all one of resentment. Rather, Mark tells us that “He felt compassion for them.” And instead of heading off in another direction, Jesus “began to teach them many things;” and, when similar things continued to interrupt His quest for solitude, He engaged in a healing ministry throughout “that whole country.”
If He was waiting for His annual summer vacation on the Mediterranean, we hear nothing about it. If He knew His time was short and He hoped for light at the end of the tunnel, He was all-too-well-aware of what things the tunnel would bring His way. But in the time that was His, compassion overruled the need for respite, because, as Mark wrote, He saw the crowds as “sheep without a shepherd.”
I think there’s actually a lesson in that for all of us. We who call ourselves Christians because we’ve made a conscious decision to follow Jesus and become more like Him should be emulating His compassion for others and welcoming them into our space so that we, too, might help them find that Great Shepherd of the sheep, the One Who deeply cares for us as His own sheep, Who makes us lie down in green pastures, Who restores our souls, Who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, and Who follows us throughout our lives with goodness and lovingkindness.
How all this plays out in our lives will look a little different for each one of us. But the underlying principle should affect the ways that we live from day to day, living out our care for those we might naturally be inclined to resent when they crowd our paths or invade our space. Let’s all commit to working on that as members of the Body of Christ or, as often is heard, when we function as His hands and His feet in our troubled world.
In today’s epistle, the apostle Paul uses very different language to describe our identification with Jesus, placing us in the context of a great building that has Jesus Himself as its cornerstone. We’re to be building blocks “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” - parts of a holy temple in which the Spirit of God dwells. He calls us “fellow citizens with the saints,” members “of God’s household.” How does that sound to us? We could hear it as risky business or we could hear it as something incredibly prestigious. Should we not feel deeply honored to be part of that holy temple?
Going with “prestigious” for the moment, what does being part of this amazing building entail for us individually and corporately? It comes down to carrying on the work that was begun by Jesus and the prophets and apostles that preceded and followed Him. That’s a formidable company of faith heroes who did whatever was required of them in order to serve God and His Kingdom. Their ministries reflected the ministry of Jesus.
And what was that ministry? What did it accomplish? In this particular context in Ephesians, Paul is emphasizing two things: reconciliation and peace. That juxtaposition immediately made me think of post-WW II Europe, an entire continent torn apart by fierce and costly warfare, millions of deaths, and the devastation of everything from large cities to small villages. Recovery seemed daunting. And given the rather short interval between the first war, the so-called “war to end all wars,” and the far more extensive and costly second world war, it must have seemed that reconciliation and peace were simply idealistic concepts, figments of someone’s imagination.
Yet Jesus came as the Prince of Peace to reconcile all the opposing parties of His day and ours, to tear down dividing walls, to bring together Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free persons, the rich and the poor. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (I Cor. 1:10).
Does that sound like contemporary America? Does that characterize the Christian community today? How are we contributing to reconciliation and peace? Those two things were essential to the ministry of Jesus, things for which He was willing to shed His blood. Paul said of Jesus, “He Himself is our peace,” and he applied to Jesus the words of Isaiah, “He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near” (Ephesians 2:17, from Isaiah 57:19). There the reference is to the Jews who were near and the Gentiles who were far away, but the underlying principle may be applied to any walls of division.
Then Paul adds what may be the most important words in this passage when he writes that through His reconciling and peace-making work, Jesus Christ provided “our access to the Father in one Spirit” (vs. 18). It’s all too easy to overlook a phrase like this and to miss its bringing together all 3 Persons of the Holy Trinity in their interactive functions. It was Jesus the Son Who, through His shed blood on the Cross, “broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” between Jew and Gentile (vss. 13, 14), reconciling both to God the Father (vs. 16) and giving us access to the Father through one Holy Spirit (vs. 18).
We may never fully untangle the mystery of the Triune God, but in places like this we see the integral interrelationships that leave us awestruck. Accordingly we give God the Father all glory and honor, we give to God the Son our thanks and praise for becoming one of us in order to redeem us, and we bless the Holy Spirit for being the agent of our union with God, our sanctification, or what our Orthodox friends prefer to call our “theosis,” our process of becoming more and more like God.
And so, coming full circle and returning to our Gospel narrative, what does it mean for us to become more God-like, to become more like Jesus, to be re-made more nearly in the Image of God in which we were first created? It means that we are to be compassionate persons who see others as sheep needing a Shepherd, and that we are to be a force in our society for reconciliation and peace among persons of divergent persuasions. That may sound overly challenging, but I firmly believe it’s possible.
Let me share just one of the beautiful stories of reconciliation and peace in post-WW II Europe. In November of 1940 Hitler unleashed the full force of the Luftwaffe on Coventry, England, using 515 bombers to destroy two-thirds of the city including over 4300 homes and the magnificent Coventry Cathedral, leaving only the tower and a portion of the cathedral’s outer walls. It was not until 16 years later that work was begun on a new cathedral, positioned 90 degrees adjacent to the ruins of the 14th-century Gothic cathedral. In 1962 the work was completed and the new cathedral was consecrated in an elaborate ceremony that included the world premiere of the War Requiem by the leading English composer of the day, Benjamin Britten, himself an outspoken pacifist. Many of the texts were written by an English poet who lost his life in WW I. In front of the high altar is a large cross made of nails from the ruins of the old cathedral. The new cathedral was dedicated to a ministry of reconciliation, a commitment that the cathedral continues to this day as its primary focus. And here is a remarkable piece of this story: the vocal soloists were two great English singers, soprano Heather Harper and tenor Peter Pears; but in the spirit of reconciliation and peace, the baritone soloist was the renowned German singer, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
But that’s only half of the of the story. In February 1945, the Allied forces retaliated for the destruction of Coventry by doing the same to Dresden, Germany, completely destroying the symbol of their Lutheran faith, the Frauenkirche (the Church of our Lady). And because of the partition of East and West Germany, it was not until 2005 that the restoration of the Frauenkirche could be completed and the church rededicated. The restoration was financed half by Germans, and the rest by Americans and Englishmen including British royalty and the Bishop of Coventry. The crowning glory was a new gilded orb and cross on top of the dome constructed by Alan Smith, a goldsmith from London whose father, Frank, was among the airmen who took part in the bombing of Dresden. The reconstructed church was dedicated to the same ministries of reconciliation and peace as was the new Coventry Cathedral, even using in German translation the same prayer for reconciliation that is used daily at Coventry.
What will it require of us to be more like Jesus, the One Who modeled reconciliation and peace better than anyone in human history? Again, for starters, it will require compassionate hearts that see others as sheep without a Shepherd. Then it will require our proclamation of the Biblical message that the Lord is our Shepherd Who removes from us all want (Psalm 23), and that Jesus came to be the Good Shepherd Who laid down His life for the sheep (John 10).
If we could make those truths our own focus, and then be faithful in sharing them with others, we would be accepting the challenge of GAFCON to “proclaim Christ faithfully to the nations,” thereby changing our world with the two-fold word of reconciliation and peace. That’s to be our role in evangelism and discipleship. And whenever we accept that role, we ourselves are changed as God uses us to change others.
“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen