Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- In a time when Britain struggles over the nature of the terms of its exit from a long enduring treaty with much of Europe, and politicians rip each other to shreds, and when the self-professed clairvoyant Mr Trump believes he knows best, the Readings for this week speak volumes as to the personal interests and power games played by those who lead our countries. God’s way it appears is very different, devoid of all the bravado and supposedly smart deals which we make, and later discover were not to our benefit at all.
Jeremiah (23:1-6) wrote during the time of the Babylonian exile, C 587 BCE when the horrifyingly misjudged policies of king and court had seen the destruction of the Temple, Jerusalem and other major cities, and the carrying off into exile of the elite of Judah. Jeremiah’s attempts to stop the folly of the king and his courtiers nearly resulted in his own death. His message to the defeated, conquered people was that they comply with the demands of their new overlords, and that ultimately God himself would deliver them, as happened under the rise of the new Persian war machine. Gone would be the smart deals, the seeking for self interest in their leaders (failed shepherds, as he calls them) and instead God would provide them with rulers of ‘Honesty and integrity’, people who could be relied upon to restore the nation rather than looking to their personal interests.
In last week’s Reading from Ephesians, we encountered Paul’s great praise-song to Christ as he considered all that that meeting between divinity and humanity had achieved. Here, in our given passage (2:13-18) he speaks of the way in which this great Saviour and Redeemer has and is achieving his purpose in us. It is one of Paul’s favourite themes. Paul knew full well of the divisiveness of human societies, most especially of the rigid divisions between Jew and Gentile; and quite clearly the newly forming Christian communities had to deal with this in all the cities where the faith took off. Jews who lived by the Torah, the Jewish law, had a host of regulations requiring them to live apart from non-Jews, not to mention their entire Old Testament history, which cast aspersions on foreigners, non-Jews, in general advocating their extermination. Clearly the ministry of Jesus had rejected such separation and negativity, as the Gospels so abundantly demonstrate, and Paul’s and indeed Peter’s work was all about the equality of Jew and Gentile. Paul especially pointed out that the Jewish law did not stop people sinning, nor did it grant salvation; this was only achieved by the death of Jesus on the cross, an act of pure self-giving which reconciled all humanity to God the Father. Yet we know that the Early Church was bedevilled by this problem; indeed that it had caused a huge falling out between Paul and Peter and other missionaries in Antioch. Quite clearly a similar situation prevailed in Ephesus where the Jewish-Christians often separated from Gentile Christians, converts from paganism.
The point is that this bond, forged by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, was not simply some ‘nice idea’, it was fundamental to the life of the Church, the developing Christian community. For those earliest missionaries, the celebration of the Eucharist at that time in the context of a meal, was fundamental to their Christian life. It was THE MOMENT in which day by day they met the risen Lord Jesus, celebrating his presence with them by the work of the Spirit as the culmination of God’s revelation of his ways for them through Judaism, but now opened out to the entire humanity. The capacity of all Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ to eat together was what ‘made’ them the new communities of the redeemed. Indeed, so important was it that Paul insistently describes how Jesus’ death, entered into vividly at every Eucharist, is the great act which forges this new community together in an indissoluble bond. Our Jerusalem Bible translation speaks of Christ ‘Actually destroying in his own person’ the division. In Greek he uses the word sarx here translated person which means ‘flesh’ to stress the bodiliness of this transaction, as those at the agape meal would go on to share his body and blood together. Now united as a ‘Single new humanity’ we are fitted to come to the Father. For us, for Paul, few things were of such seminal significance as our God-uniting in the death of Christ, and its continual celebration; and without this unity the entire Christian project was a waste of time. Sometimes one wonders if the ‘shepherds’ of our day have understood this at all.
As an antidote to all those incidents of misguided human leadership, in our Gospel we see Jesus taking control (Mark 6:30-34) when the apostles return worn out from their mission. He sees that they are in need of rest and recreation if they are to be of use in the future. What is most significant here however is that when they are followed by crowds of needy people, Jesus neither chases them away nor suggests that the apostles just grin and bear it. Rather, he takes the situation in hand and ‘He set himself to teach them at some length.’ Indeed it was the prelude to the feeding of the five thousand! The revelation of the Messiah, the giving of the Kingdom of God it appears can come when we least expect it, or are least well prepared for it. Perhaps at the very core of good shepherding is the need to prepare the shepherds for the unexpected. At the very least we need them to be people able to think and act laterally, risk takers, and those who are prepared to go out on a limb.