Our nation has experienced in the last three weeks tremendous shifts in our understanding of ourselves. One horrific event showed us the divisions that pull us apart as witnessed in the racial violence that took the lives of nine people studying the Bible together. The other showed a new form of unity among us evidenced by the decisions of the nine Justices on the Supreme Court; we have agreed to abide by their rulings rather than the mere impulses of our habituated vision.
In these stark events, we heard – even from people with differing perspectives – a call for calm and reconciliation, for forgiveness and new pathways to follow toward greater understanding and more enduring peace. These recent crucial moments have made clear both how hard it is to root out old prejudices and how possible it is to take the promise of unity to heart, changing our ways.
Jesus looked at the people who brought him their needs as “sheep without a shepherd.” We, too, are in need of the shepherd who can pull us out of our entrenchments, out of our self-importance, out of our complacencies, because we are unable to heal ourselves without the one who protects us by breaking down dividing walls.
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Anticipating the very full treatment the Great Multiplication (vv 35–44) and Jesus' walking on water (vv 45–52) will receive during the next five weeks of lectionary readings from John 6, this week's Gospel lection skips over the telling of these two stories in Mark 6. We do, however, set the stage by hearing what happened immediately before (vv 30–34), and we receive a brief report about how people responded to Jesus' power to heal (vv 53–56…).
As the apostles return from their mission (6:6b–13), Jesus offers to take them to a deserted place for a rest. However, there is one situation from which Jesus, in his compassion, will not withdraw: when he is confronted with people who are “like sheep without a shepherd.” In contrast to the leaders who fail to provide their people with leadership, guidance, and sustenance (cf. Jeremiah 23:1–2), Jesus is the Good Shepherd who never abandons his sheep…. Jesus is presented as the source of wisdom, and this wisdom is so vital and necessary to human life that Jesus was willing to forego his time of rest to provide this wisdom to the directionless people. – Steven H. Fazenbaker
Following a chapter of oracles against the rulers of Israel, who have failed to execute justice, Jeremiah employs shepherd imagery to foretell the fate that awaits these rulers. Jeremiah accuses the “shepherds who shepherd my people” of “scatter[ing] my flock, and [driving] them away, and … not attend[ing] to them” (v 2). God, through Jeremiah, promises to drive out the “evil” shepherds, gather the scattered sheep and “raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them” (v 4). – Steven H. Fazenbaker
If we understand this letter as addressed to several different churches, we can see the very Pauline message of “unity in Christ made manifest through a diversity of gifts” (cf. 1 Corinthians 12–14) expressed through this letter. In this week's lection, the author begins by emphasizing two very distinct and mutually exclusive groups: the “uncircumcision” (Gentiles) and the “circumcision” (Jews).
Indeed, before Christ, there was “no hope” that the divided creation of Jews and Gentiles could ever be reconciled. But, in and through Christ, “you who were once far off have been brought near,” and “he has made both groups into one.”
As a circular letter to a number of different churches, the invitation is for each individual faith community to grow beyond thinking of itself as separate from each another, and to realize that each local church is part of one universal act of salvation in Christ Jesus….
Each church is not an individual household of God; there is one universal household in which God dwells, and Christ Jesus himself is the cornerstone of this universal household (v 20). And, in and through Christ Jesus, each local church is “built together spiritually into [one] dwelling place for God” (v 22). – Steven H. Fazenbaker
God’s Word shows us the possibility for healing divisions. It is the great work of the Church to use the power of the Holy Spirit and the hope that we have in Christ Jesus to lead us into the truly green pastures where God has set the table for feasting with all people.
Steven H. Fazenbaker is director of the Wesley Foundation at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Homily Service 42, no. 3 (2009): 79-87.