Mark 6 30 -34 53-56 Ephesians 2 11-22
Whenever I am due to preach I have to confess that I do check my electronic folder of sermons to see whether or not I have spoken on the passage before. Now I would hate you to think that this is so I can simply rehash an existing sermon (although there may be a tiny element of that!) but it’s more because I like to ponder on what I have written before and consider whether God is prompting me to revisit the message that He gave me previously with respect to His word or whether He has something completely different for me to say.
The last time I spoke on our passage from Ephesians was nearly five years ago, not long after the EU referendum when there was a distinct feeling of uncertainty surrounding the country and divisions in opinion as to the best way forward abounded. Today as we rapidly approach what the media have dubbed somewhat inappropriately to my mind “Freedom Day” that feeling of uncertainty is very much with us again and once more there are disagreements about how we should approach this new season as the remaining restrictions are lifted.
This morning is not the time to start discussing how we will approach these matters here in the parish although I can assure you that there is already a great deal of thought happening to ensure that we minimise risk and ensure the Gospel imperative of loving one another as God loves us is at the core of our planning. It does strikes me, however, that the theme of division and unrest that we read of in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is as relevant to this context as it was five years ago. Paul describes God’s reconciling work in and through Christ and reminds us that regardless of how far off we may have been from God in other times in our lives, however challenged we may feel in these times of turmoil, we are brought near to God through the blood of Christ.
Paul is writing to members of the emerging church in Ephesus – a sophisticated town in Asia Minor where many nationalities lived together in relative peace, trading together in what was one of the most important commercial cities in the known world. This is a community that is also experiencing great change, that is trying to forge a new way of being that both honours what has gone before and the context in which the community finds itself and acknowledges that the previous way of life needs to adapt to a new reality.
The passage opens with words of encouragement to those new Christians who were previously not part of the covenant with God and as a result are struggling to find their unique place in the church. Paul reminds them that it is through the blood of Christ that those divisions that previously existed between communities have been swept away. He exhorts them to reflect that in Christ there is peace, that all the laws and regulations that previously served to separate people are redundant, that through Jesus’s radical act on the Cross all people are reconciled to God.
Ephesus was a truly multi-cultural environment with many languages being spoken, many religions being practiced and where it would be all too easy to feel isolated and alienated. But within that place there is the promise of hope, hope of a new life in Christ which will restore and replenish even the most broken. And it is the mission of the church to draw others into the place of refreshment, to encourage those around them to seek God, to enable those who feel unloved and uncared for to know that they are loved beyond measure, that they are cherished in both this life and in the promise of life eternal.
And that mission remains – we too are called to encourage others to know church to be a place of reassurance and safety, whether that is as a gathered community worshipping in a building or a dispersed community meeting in places that offer comfort, which includes our own homes and through the use of technology. No one should feel excluded – whether they are able to be physically present or virtually so. God rejoices in our worship however we express it. As I read Paul’s words to the Ephesians it makes me feel that in some ways the world is not so very different. We may have sophisticated technology; we may have access to modes of transport that enable us to travel half way across the globe in a fraction of the time that it would have taken Paul to complete the many journeys he undertook in his quest to proclaim the Gospel. But the divisions still exist. Disagreement about mask wearing, vaccinations, singing, gathering in crowds, the list feels endless and can cause unprecedented dissent amongst communities and indeed families. Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians that they are being built up and most vitally being built together to form a holy place in which the Holy Spirit can flourish remains relevant to us today.
The Christian faith remains a faith that seeks to stir things up, to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and as followers of that faith it is beholden on us to be prepared to stand up for what we believe in, to stick our heads over the parapet in order to spread those beliefs among our community and also to remind people of our duty to care and love one another as far as we are able to do, through whatever means we can.
If we briefly turn to our Gospel passage, we see another group of people desperate for reassurance and care. Jesus and his disciples are inundated by a clamouring crowd all demanding that their needs are met. Jesus recognises that the disciples need some time out and encourages them to go with him to find some peace and quiet. Despite taking a boat to what appeared to be a solitary place, those who sought to be near Jesus followed him and managed to arrive at his destination before he did – sounds a bit like the first century equivalent of the paparazzi chasing a celebrity from place to place! I guess to all intents and purposes Jesus was exactly that for the crowds that pursued him – from being an unknown, itinerant preacher from a dodgy Judean town, his reputation had grown into that of cult figure who performed miracles and spoke with authority about a better world. His fellow Jews were hungry for change, they were tired of being oppressed by their Roman invaders, they were desperate to be liberated from lives in which hope had been virtually eradicated – and then along comes Jesus with his message of liberation and transformation, with the promise of a world where all were equal, where justice and love governed. It’s hardly surprising that people wouldn’t leave him alone! And of course, Jesus responds to their need – despite desperately requiring some space and time to be alone with his Heavenly Father, Jesus’s compassion overrides everything else. He recognises how lost the people are – like sheep without a shepherd – and he draws them close in order to teach them a new way of living that will be transformational
If we were to be using the full set of lectionary readings that have been set for this week, we would also have read Psalm 23 – The Lord is My Shepherd. The psalm speaks of how God will provide peace and restore our souls, that we need have no fear as he walks alongside us wherever life takes us, whatever dark places we may find ourselves in. Those words of scripture should have been familiar to the crowds that followed Jesus but they were like the lost sheep stumbling around in confusion. They had lost their way, they had wandered away from God, the good shepherd and were unable to find their own way back. That is why God sent His son to us – to lead us back into the light of his presence, to restore us into relationship with him as his precious children.
I love the words of the Eucharistic prayer in the Book of Common Prayer where we read how Jesus, through his death on the Cross, made there a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world – such beautiful words to describe such an amazing and radical act through which a new humanity has been created. A way of life has been instituted in which the barriers between God and his people have been torn down, where we have been reconciled with our Father in heaven and where we can find peace, the peace that can feel so elusive in our daily living but is actually right there for the taking if only we could reach out to claim that which Jesus freely offers to us all.
This new covenant that Paul is describing places God at the cornerstone of our lives. Unlike the crowds in Galilee, we don’t need to set off in hot pursuit of Jesus because he is right here, among us, within us, around us. We don’t need to go and find him because he has found us, he has invited us into a relationship with him – all we need to do is accept that invitation and allow him to transform our lives which he longs to do.
Tomorrow is the fourth anniversary of my being licensed in this parish as Vicar – how time flies when you are enjoying yourself! My spiritual director once told me that as priests we are wilderness people, called out to be nomads as we travel to those places that God calls us to. And I guess that’s true and actually a bit scary! But I know that Paul’s words hold true – in common with all Christians I will never be a stranger or an alien wherever I am sent. Through Christ we all become one not only with God but with all who believe in His saving power.
Once more scripture speaks into our lives now as much as it spoke to those for whom it was originally written. Once more we are blessed by our Heavenly Father and affirmed as partners in His mission. However, each of us may be feeling on the eve of yet more change if we can remain firm in our trust in God, if we can ensure we act in ways that honour His word, if we can be guided by His wisdom then we have hope, we have comfort and we have the reassurance that God is alongside us, strengthening us and enabling us to do His will, for His glory and to build his kingdom here on earth