Mark 6:30-34, 50-56
I bring you greetings this morning from the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry at UC Davis, and LEVN, the Lutheran-Episcopal Volunteer Network. I spend my days with a gaggle of young adults—some Lutheran, some Episcopalian, a whole bunch trying to figure out just where they fit in God’s world.
My favorite thing about this—about my job, about ministry—is that not a single one of them is going it alone. For centuries—millennia, even—people of faith have been grappling with just what that means, what that looks like, and what to do about it. Sometimes, we do really well and life is good—we love our selves, we love our neighbors, we love our God.
Other times, we do less well, and life is less good. We doubt ourselves, we hurt our neighbors, we ignore our God.
If we look at the texts before us this morning, there’s some of this confusion. The prophet Jeremiah is lamenting that the flocks have been scattered; Psalm 23—a crowd favorite—acknowledges that we do occasionally walk through the valley of the shadow of death; Paul’s letter to the Ephesians centers on a schism between early Christians; and Mark’s gospel recounts a story of Jesus teaching wayward people who “were like sheep without a shepherd.” These stories take place hundreds of years apart, and yet carry with them the same idea—we cannot go it alone.
I want to focus on the Ephesians passage this morning; it feels like the real gut of these stories. The Apostle Paul is writing to a group of folks who are together, in some way, as a religious community in Ephesus, but who seem to have lost the spirit of that. They’ve tried to set up barriers. They’re all Gentiles, he says, so it’s not the classic Jewish Christian versus Gentile Christian argument. It’s a bunch of people who were once excluded now using their religion to exclude others.
“Remember,” Paul writes, “that you were at one time without Christ…strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” How soon they have forgotten who they once were. “But now,” he continues, “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” How soon they have forgotten the promise.
These texts can speak to all of us. Whether we are “in” or “out”—or whether we’re not sure if we’re “in” or “out”, or whether we’ll remain “in” or “out” for long!
Just like these ancient Ephesians, we as 21st-century Americans have forgotten the promise. We have forgotten that all of our fellow humans are created in the image of God, and we have forgotten that all of us have been created equal. We have treated our neighbor in ways unworthy of the gospel.
We have slandered our neighbor, we have enslaved our neighbor, we have terrorized our neighbor, we have assaulted our neighbor, we have deported our neighbor, we have incarcerated our neighbor, we have subjugated our neighbor, we have murdered our neighbor.
Some among us are bold enough to call this a Christian nation—would the Apostle Paul? He begs the Ephesians, and us, to remember that Jesus “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
We have gone and rebuilt that wall, time and time again. We have built that wall between members of our congregations—between those who prefer the hymnal and those who prefer the electric guitar; between those with small, noisy children and those without; between those who give a lot and those who give a little.
We have built that wall between ourselves and our communities, offering our space to the AA meeting, but not inviting addicts to join our worshipping community.
We have built that wall between ourselves and the poor—donating to the food bank but not asking why children go hungry.
We have built that wall between ourselves and other people of faith—proclaiming the love of God through Jesus applies only through our particular set of circumstances.
We have built that wall between ourselves and the LGBT community—proclaiming that the unconditional love of God does, in fact, have conditions.
We have built that wall between white americans and black americans—by refusing to acknowledge the racist system that continues to oppress and enslave.
We have built that wall between ourselves and God—blaming our struggles on God’s absence, yet failing to praise God’s presence for our every blessing.
The Apostle Paul reminds the Ephesians, and us, that Jesus the Christ “has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death hostility through it.”
In Christ there is no more need for division. In Christ there is a new creation. We are made whole, new, and unified through our baptism into the body of Christ.
“So then,” Paul writes, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”
Here in the household of God, the challenge and the solution are the same—Jesus the Christ lived, died, and was resurrected to end divisions. To free us from the power of sin and death, to liberate us from powers and principalities. In this new, undivided world we are free to love ourselves and one another—and we must.
I know I said that the Ephesians text was the meat of this week’s lectionary selection, but it’s the last two sentences of the passage from Mark that really seal the deal. Jesus and the disciples get out of the boat, and “people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”
The people who meet Jesus, who know Jesus, immediately bring all of their people that they know and love who are sick to also meet him. They rushed about the whole region, it says! They understand that what Jesus is bringing to them is life. They do not hoard that for themselves, they do not keep it quiet. They tell everyone they know, they crowd him, they are relentless in their pursuit of the opportunity to share in the love of God through Jesus.
That, too, is what we should be doing! Since we, through our baptism, meet Jesus and know Jesus, we should prioritize bringing everyone else into the love we know and that we receive, and that we therefore reflect. The way in which we do that is by proclaiming the good news, loving our neighbors, fighting for justice, tearing down walls, seeking reconciliation—all of these are the deeply rooted challenges that come with being people who are oriented in love.
That is a blessing. Thanks be to God. Amen.