Eucharist Sermon - 18 July 2021

The Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Ephesians 2:11–22; Mark 6:30–34, 53–56
The Revd Canon Sarah Foot, Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History

‘Jesus 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.’ (Mark 6:24)

Our gospel readings over the past three weeks have covered a range of different issues, but all have come from a single chapter of Mark’s gospel. It is worth reminding ourselves where today’s portions fit into that wider whole, because as those of you who read your service sheets attentively will have noticed, the paragraphs that we have just heard read seamlessly, are not in fact sequential in Mark’s text.

The chapter begins, as we heard a fortnight ago, with Jesus’ rejection in his home town and his sending out of the twelve disciples in pairs to preach a gospel of repentance. It was from that mission that we find them returning at the start of today’s lection, eager to tell Jesus about all that they had seen and done. While they were away, as we heard last week, John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded; the disciples’ return follows immediately after the poignant description of John’s burial.

Mark provides us with a vivid insight into what the ministry of the twelve – and indeed that of Jesus – was like in practice. For all their considerable spiritual achievements, the disciples were clearly feeling overwhelmed by the pressures that discipleship placed upon them – by the need of the people for their ministry – which meant they were constantly in demand, not able to eat or rest properly. Jesus therefore tried to take them away via the lake to a more secluded place, so that he could listen to their stories and let them rest.

There were other occasions in Mark’s account, when Jesus called the disciples (or a few of their number) away from other people ‘by themselves’ to deserted places; for example, to explain the parable of the sower (Mark 4:34), to answer the disciples’ questions about the fall of Jerusalem (Mark 13:3); or to witness the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2). For Mark, discipleship does not only involve doing: times of retreat dedicated to listening to the focused teaching of Jesus and finding rest and refreshment are equally vital to healthy ministry. In biblical narratives, wilderness places can be those where God’s people struggle and are tested; but they are also places in which God provides sustenance, protection and spiritual renewal for the faithful. On this occasion, however, when Jesus saw that the great crowd had arrived at the hoped-for wilderness place before them, any hope of retreat proved impossible. So Jesus, compassionately acknowledging the crowd’s need – and seeing that need as greater than that of his careworn disciples – began to teach them.

As the group landed at Gennesaret, our reading continued, more and more people in different sorts of need were brought to Jesus for healing. We should bear in mind, however, that in between his account of the search for a place of solitude and the moment when the relatives of the sick descended on the lake shore, Mark had recounted two episodes manifesting the extent of Jesus’ divine power: his feeding of the five thousand and his triumph over the raging sea.

The lectionary’s concentration on the two paragraphs that frame the narratives of the feeding of the multitude and the walking on the water, rather on those much more readily memorable stories, requires us to stop and reflect on something that we might otherwise have been tempted to ignore: the essence of Jesus’ ministry to the people whom he encountered in different sorts of need. There are important lessons in that ministry for us, for clergy and church workers of course, but also for all disciples, for all the people of God. As our epistle reminded us, ‘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.’ Our collective role as followers of Jesus is to model ourselves on his example, and on that of the disciples (described here by Mark, uniquely in his gospel, as his apostles). So let us pause and reflect on that example here, on what we are, and are not, being asked to do.

The omission of the deeds of power from the larger narrative here seems to me the key to understanding today’s reading. If you had encountered the paragraphs while reading the sixth chapter of Mark’s gospel in its entirety, I suspect that you might (as I know would I) have allowed your eye to skim over these ‘routine’ details of ‘normal’ ministry to focus on the exciting bits: the eucharistic miracle of feeding and the quelling of the raging sea. But we would have erred in so doing. We are not called miraculously to conjure up food for thousands, nor to walk on the water. But we are called to minister on an apostolic model.

In the two short paragraphs of our reading, which at first sight may appear only to provide narrative framing for the important parts of his chapter, Mark sheds crucial light on the difficulties that confronted Jesus and his disciples, problems to which we can readily relate. By stressing the pressures that Jesus encountered relatively early in his earthly ministry, in the period before his conflict with the religious authorities had escalated beyond all control, but when his fame and capacity for miracle working had begun to draw ever more followers, Mark causes us to contemplate Jesus’ humanity. Here we encounter an incarnate Lord, whose work is primarily that of a teacher and healer. With his exhausted and over-stretched disciples, he aches physically and mentally to be left alone; he is tired and hungry, stressed and anxious. He is also grieving over the barbaric death of his beloved cousin John the Baptist. We are often invited by the evangelists to identify with the disciples. Here, I think, we have an opportunity to see how closely Jesus shared in all aspects of our human experience. There were times for him – as there are for us – when the unrelenting pressure of the work of caring for his flock became too much.

Yet, when confronted by the sheer need of the great crowd that he saw awaiting him as he went ashore, Jesus had compassion for them, ‘because they were like sheep without a shepherd’. This resonant phrase evokes an image of Israel in need of protection or guidance, and of God as the shepherd of his people. As Isaiah wrote, ‘God will feed his flock like a shepherd’ (Isaiah 40:11). Had we had the Old Testament reading appointed for this morning, we would have heard Jeremiah’s prophecy of woe to shepherds who scatter the sheep of the Lord’s pasture, and his promise that he would himself gather the flock, bring them back to their fold where they would be fruitful and multiply.

Such stories are integral to Israel’s life and foundational to its hope; they provide part of context in which to understand the narrative of the feeding of the five thousand that our lectionary omitted. There Mark reveals how God’s shepherd, foretold by the prophets, drew to him the people of a new Israel, a needy and demanding people. First, he fed their hungry souls, then with the miracle of bread and fish, he satisfied their bodily hunger.

What lessons are we to take from the brief and somewhat contradictory passages that made up today’s gospel reading?

Preparing this sermon, I struggled to resolve their apparent tensions. Is Mark’s message that we should protect ourselves and take adequate rest and refreshment when we need it, rather than grinding ourselves into the ground by always responding to every last phone call, every out-of-hours email, every call on our generosity? Or are we being urged to be more Christ like, to show more compassion and awareness of the compelling needs of those around us, putting them before our own needs or desires, even when we are exhausted?

I think that Mark describes the continual tension between compassion and self-care, a tension with which Jesus also had to live throughout his earthly ministry. And I finally came to realise that the tension is as necessary to us as it was manifested in our Lord. On the one hand, Jesus actively commended the merits of rest and solitude; he never hesitated to withdraw when he or his disciples needed to do so. But on the other hand, he did not allow weariness, or his need to be alone, to overwhelm his compassion and prevent him from responding to those in need. For the desperate aching crowds that rushed about the whole region trying to get close to him, bringing their sick relatives on mats, reaching out in anguish to touch the fringe of his cloak, Jesus was the last resort. He recognised and responded to that need: he is the good shepherd, who knows his sheep. His personal needs ultimately came second to his love for his flock.

If our call is to be Christ like, then we need to emulate him in the way that we try to balance our needs with those of others, by erring on the side of compassion. We live in a world of dire and constant need. Sheep die without their shepherds. There are stakes, and sometimes, what God demands of our hearts is costly. Yet we should never forget that in this endeavour, we are not alone. Jesus walks beside us as we reach out to his flock; he nourishes and feeds us every day, through his teaching that we read in the scriptures, and at his table. There we come just as we are, in all our exhaustion, weakness and frailty, to be refreshed and sustained by the living bread that brings life to all.