The readings were Ephesians 2,11 to the end and Mark 6, 30 to 44 (I know, playing fast and loose with the lectionary, but what an empty reading if you stuck with the allocated gospel passage!)
Some material from rootsontheweb.
Today’s sermon might be titled “predestination, what’s all that about then, part 2, or, what does it mean to be untied in Christ?” I’m inspired mostly by international events, but if what I share with you helps us on a local level, all the better. The two things in my mind that kicked off this line of thought were the decision this week of the General convention of the TECUSA to overturn a ban on practising homosexuals in holy orders, and the decision of the Greek orthodox church to declare that other churches’ baptism is not valid.
The first part of chapter 2 of the letter to the Ephesians (vv. 1–10) had reminded readers of their liberation from forces beyond their control and their place with Christ. God's grace had saved them, not their own efforts. Today's reading moves on from that to reflect on the unity that Christ brings.
There was in Christ no division between people because of ethnicity, culture or religious background. Gentile believers were first asked to imagine themselves as they might be perceived from a Jewish perspective (vv. 11–12): they did not belong to the elect nation and had no hope. However, Christ has drawn them in (v. 13), not into the old religious context but into a new relationship of peace (vv. 14–18). Christ not only reconciles people to God, but also to one another. Assurance of this double reconciliation is a special contribution of Ephesians. Those who are predestined, then, are not passive but active in relating to each other within the Kingdom of God. In other words, being predestined is not just about sitting back and soaking it up, but about actively proclaiming the unity that has been wrought for us by Jesus.
Even if churches seem sometimes to go into meltdown, we can be assured that the more important body, the Kingdom, remains intact. Once again we a strong illustration of how God’s sovereign will overarches our human understanding of things like time; Paul exhorts his gentile readers to look back at what they were before they came to faith in Christ – and it is that faith in the blood of Christ that has brought them near to God. Yet for God, this perspective has no meaning, as both before and after their conversion he was with them and had chosen them. Their recognition of his choice, and their own submission to his rule and authority brings into effect the power of the Cross.
And the Kingdom, the new temple, the family of God, whatever we call it, is founded in order to bring about a unity among believers – a good thing to remind ourselves of this week.
Although the divisiveness of Old Testament legalism was abolished at the cross and resurrection of Jesus, says Paul in v. 15, the underlying values were not – verse 20 is clear that the prophets play a part in the foundation of the new covenant. Christianity was more than a reshaped Judaism, but God had not given up on the foundational ideals proclaimed under his inspiration. The final verses of the passage use some strong images. Christians are not aliens but citizens and are members of God's household (v. 19). Together they are built into a new temple (vv. 20–22). In this building image we can see a contrast between a dividing wall (v. 14), which kept people apart, and the new structure, which incorporated them and gave them all access to God. Buildings were important symbols of power and glory in the Roman Empire. This new structure symbolised a different reality. It is not a matter of architecture designed to dominate and rule, but of a united community all seeking to serve the cornerstone, Christ.
How we read chapters like Ephesians 2 will be affected by how we interpret the scope of the pronouns – I mean, who we understand the “you”, the “we” to be. If Paul is distinguishing between groups within the church, it is only to make the point that the work of Christ is to unite them. These people he refers to as “you” are not outside the church, they are simply not from a Jewish background – and yet God has chosen to include them in his family. So both we (the Jewish believers, from Paul’s perspective) and “you” – the gentile converts, are united by hope in Christ.
So that’s fine for the first century, but who are “you” and “we” today? If we are talking about different groups within the church, I guess worldwide you can take your pick as to what issue might be dividing God’s people. It isn’t circumcision any more, but it might be sacraments, sex, money, bishops or other aspects of legalism, such a fundamentalist attitude to and reading of the Bible. It might on the other hand be too liberal an attitude to traditional Christian morality. Locally it might be something trivial like those who like one kind of service and those who like another; those who like formality and those who prefer to get messy. Those who like pews, those who don’t.
But don’t spend too much time wondering which group you fit in, just remember that the unity of the church is not something we have to work for, it is something that has been done for us by the grace of God upon the cross of Christ.
The passage emphasises the work of Christ in making one humanity, with the abolition of the fundamental categories that divide people. It also removes the grounds for the division of the Church into multiple sects. Like I say, if you’re at all concerned about what you might be reading in the papers, just hold on to the truth that the Kingdom is not of this world but we are nevertheless citizens of it. And I’m pleased to say that this benefice is enriched by our diversity; we need to remember that the heart of Paul’s’ message to the Ephesians is that you do not have to be the same to be united.
There is a saying that you can choose your friends, but not your family; in the worldwide church right now it would be a good thing if that could be remembered. Of course, alongside it goes the sovereignty of God; churches might be fallible human institutions, but they contain those whom God has chosen. We might not get on with all of them, but they are God’s chosen people – and if we start saying, “no they’re not”, we run the risk of being excluded ourselves – but that’s another sermon.
The opening verses of our gospel reading carry on the story from the mission of the twelve (Mark 6.6b–13) which we looked at last week. We can imagine the excitement of the disciples jostling round Jesus, each wanting to tell their story. What a great picture of unity – all wanting to share, all excited about what Jesus has done in a d through them. That’s the kind of expression of God’s family, God’s chosen people, that I like.
Add to that the crowds attracted by Jesus and there was no space even to eat. Little surprise, then, that Jesus decided to take the Twelve off to a quiet place for debriefing and rest. This is the only time in Mark's Gospel that they are called 'apostles', perhaps emphasising that they were acting in their mission as authorised representatives of Jesus.
Then of course we come to the famous feeding of the 5 thousand. What more can be said about this? Well I’ve been wittering on for a while now so briefly, a few things resonate with me on the topic we address today from these verses.
First, and I’m sure I’ve said this to you before, though Jesus gets the credit for this miracle, it is the 12 disciples who actually have to turn and face the crowds with a few crumbly bits of food in a basket and start sharing them out. This is a picture of how the family of God should be – reliant on God, yes, but not passive, not backward in coming forward to take risks, so that others might have their needs met and so be drawn closer to God.
Second, it is important to note the context of this miracle; these people were not starving for food, but for leadership, for teaching, for knowledge of God; Jesus’ compassion is not initially there because they are hungry, but because no one has told them the good news - perhaps in contrast to those who received the ministry of the 12 in their recent mission. I will never rule out practical and social aid and development as a core part of the mission of the church, but let us not lose sight of the fact that what most people lack is a basic understanding of who Jesus is, and what he has done for the world. Like the disciples with their baskets of food, it is our task to meet that need.
And third, and finally, let us take courage from the tiny amount of resources Jesus used to meet an enormous need. We are a small Church in a small community, but we are God’s family, God’s people here, and we must trust that he will continue to use us for his work, even if we feel inadequate for the task.