St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at St Peter's, July 23rd 2006 [Trinity 6]
Ephesians 2. 11-22 & Mark 6. 30-34,53-56
It's great to be here with you once again; we've been worshipping at St Peter's on our occasional visits for more than twenty years now, and we always enjoy coming.
Let's look first at our Gospel reading from Mark. In our three-year Lectionary this is supposed to be the year of St Mark but so often he gets short-changed and the lectioneers put in a piece of St John instead. We never give ourselves the chance to look at the whole great bold sweep of St Mark's gospel, the first, you could almost say, the original gospel. Why on earth do we never look at the whole thing? It isn't a blockbuster novel — it's just thirty or forty pages. You could easily sit down and read it straight through one evening when there's nothing on the telly. But we never seem to do that — we just get it in bite-sized chunks on a Sunday, if we're lucky and if we're listening. And this Sunday the lectionary compilers in their wisdom have given us a bite-sized chunk with a great bite taken out of the middle of it. If you were listening without too much attention you'd say, Oh yes, it's the story of Jesus healing and teaching on one side of the lake and then on the other. But the first part of our reading was verses 30–34 of chapter 6 and the last part is verses 53–6. Well, what happened in between? Oh, not a lot — Jesus just fed five thousand people and then he walked on water! So today I think perhaps we should look at the gospel that isn't there, even more than the one that is.
Feeding five thousand people and walking across the stormy sea. Those miracles of Jesus are ones that worry people; they think: could it ever have happened like that — how can we explain it rationally? But those really aren't the important questions for us today: much more we should ask: what is the message of these stories; what truth are they trying to tell us? They obviously seemed centrally important to the gospel writers: the two stories, these ‘signs’ as John calls them, come one following the other in three out of the four gospels. Only Luke, a Greek writing for sceptical Greeks, leaves out the account of Jesus walking on the water; perhaps he felt his audience would have problems with it, as modern audiences do. So what point are these stories making; what is the message for us today?
They are signs of Jesus as Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour, the deliverer, Christ the power of God made manifest among us. The feeding, the banquet, is introduced with the words we heard this morning: ‘He saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.’ He fed them spiritually, symbolically and physically. Picture it like a huge open-air Eucharist at Greenbelt, or in Eugene Peterson's marvelous version in ‘The Message’: &ksquo;They looked like a patchwork quilt of wildflowers spread out on the green grass!’ It is a foretaste of the Church, of its Eucharist, the nourishing and growth that is to come. The food shows that: bread that is broken, the body of Christ, and fish, the food that Christ and his disciples shared in the resurrection, the symbol of the Church which the disciples would gather as fishers of men, a fish the secret sign of the early Christians in danger. I want to mention the organization of that great picnic as well a little later.
The picture changes to that same night on the lake — the disciples have been sent on ahead while Jesus, exhausted by a day of pouring out God's love and healing and bounty, has gone up the mountain to pray. The weather has changed and the disciples are in real trouble: ‘They were straining at the oars against an adverse wind’ It's another picture of the church of Christ — a boat has always been one of the symbols of the Christian church, and how often when we are doing our utmost in serving our Lord we feel that we are straining at the oars against an adverse wind, rowing fit to bust and getting nowhere. Then those tingling words: ‘he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea.’ Not on a calm sea but on a stormy and dangerous one — the wind would have whipped up huge waves and the boat would be taking on water. The sea in Jewish thought was an image of chaos, and the young Church faced crises and situations of chaos as the Church still does today. The disciples' terror is increased by the appearance of what they think is a ghost. They call out for help, as the psalmist calls to God: ‘Save me, O God, I have come into deep waters and the flood sweeps over me.’ Immediately, says Mark, Jesus spoke words of reassurance to them: ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. The boat would still be a small and rather fragile thing, and the waters of chaos would still be fathoms deep below them, but the wind had dropped and, with Christ to give them fresh heart, they would reach the shore where they longed to be. It's another manifestation of God's power over creation: ‘I the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people's cry.’ God is Lord even over the chaos and conflict of this world.
So we have two pictures of the church: the first the more visionary and idealistic: a listening and growing church. There was green grass, a sign that it was spring-time in Galilee, a time of growth and hope for coming harvest. An organized church — they sat down in groups of 50 or 100, very much a good size for healthy churches then as now — and they were fed, taught and fed. That process still goes on faithfully week by week steadily and unspectacularly today. The second picture we recognize all too well: an inclusive church, an inner city church, doing its best in the chaos and uncertainty of the modern world, can feel that it is straining at the oars against an adverse wind. Adverse winds are blowing through the churches today, certainly through the Anglican Communion. What a lot of faith it needs to recognize that Jesus is still doing the impossible for us, that he isn't a distant image or a ghost of what he was, that he still says ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Too often our churches seem like a whole fleet of small and rather rocky little boats, trying to sail in different directions and sometimes set on collision courses. If we truly encounter our Lord, then throughout the dangers and chaos the Church will be seen still to be under God's care and protection — we cannot save it in our own strength, but we can be faithful, and have courage.
If there was time we would look too at another image, the picture of the Christian Church in our epistle. The theme of that passage from Ephesians is breaking down and building up, breaking down the dividing wall, breaking down hostility between different groups of God's people and building up the church on the firm foundation of Jesus Christ. There were deep differences within the Church in Paul's time as there are today but the only answer was and is the real presence of Christ and our true discipleship. Paul wrote: ‘He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.’
‘Peace to those who are far off and peace to those who are near.’ What on earth am I doing, picturing the church as a picnic or a boat trip when we look at the realities of the world today? The scene of these stories from Mark's gospel is the area round the sea of Galilee, the towns and villages where today young men are being called up for the army and Israeli artillery rolls through into South Lebanon, where Hezbollah rockets are landing in Nazareth and Tiberias in the tit for tat war of strike and retaliation, the war that makes us weep for that land called Holy — the land which we feel we know and love whether or not we ourselves have walked on those shores or sailed on those waters. But about those dividing walls and that hostility I don't really have anything to say. I only know that our Lord still weeps over Jerusalem, and has compassion for those who are like sheep without a shepherd. Their need, whatever their faith, is a fresh recognition of the love of God for all his children; they need to remember our common humanity. As well as the good news of reconciliation and peace, people, all people, need to be fed, and need to feel safe. It seems a more than human task, an impossible task, to cross the waters of chaos and mutual destruction to bring peace and new courage and hope, but it is a task that has to be attempted by those with true dedication and vision. Pray for all who are involved, and for ourselves, that at last we and they and we may touch the fringe of that vision, and be healed.
Shiela Shield is a Reader in the Central Parish of Wolverhampton