This is the message that I am presenting at Gaylordsville United Methodist Church on July 19th. The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 7: 1 – 14; Ephesians 2: 11 – 22; and Mark 6: 30 – 34, 53 – 56
I will also be at Germantown UMC (Wilton, CT); services are at 11:00 and you are welcome to attend.
“We Gather Together”
The people came to the shores of the lake because that is where Jesus and the disciples were. It always seems that wherever Jesus and the disciples were, huge crowds would immediately appear.
To understand what is happening with regards to today’s Gospel reading, you have to know what has already happened in Mark.
First, in what was the Gospel reading from two weeks ago, Jesus has preached, without success in Nazareth, and sent the twelve disciples out on their first mission. Then, last week, Mark reports on the death of John the Baptizer. In today’s Gospel reading, the disciples return from their mission and they are telling Jesus all that they had done (there is an analogy if you will in what will happen when the ASP team returns today).
After getting their reports, Jesus suggests that they go somewhere to rest, a practice that He often did and which was not unique. After all, even God rested after seven days. What Jesus and the disciples were doing was physically demanding and there were times when they needed to get away, to physically rest their bodies and recharge their souls.
This is something that we need to do as well. We spend so much time focusing on the former that we too often forget that we need to do the latter as well.
But when they had crossed the Sea of Galilee in an effort to get away from the crowds, the people still came. It is noted in the Scripture reading that Jesus felt compassion for the people and he continued to teach. Now, in our reading of the Gospel today, we skipped verses 35 – 52 which are Mark’s account of the feeding of the multitude. This is not necessarily to minimize this aspect of the ministry but so we can focus on another part of the same ministry.
As we also read, the people brought their sick to Jesus so that He could heal them. Everywhere Jesus and the disciples went, there were crowds and in the crowds were people bringing their sick friends so that Jesus could heal them. And, shortly after this passage, a Phoenician woman will try to sneak up on Jesus while He is not looking in order to touch his cloak and hopefully be healed.
Whenever we read a passage from the Bible, we have two often conflicting tasks in front of us. First, we have to put the passage and what it is saying in the context of the lives of the people of Jesus’ time. Then, we have to put the same passage in the context of our lives. And there are many times where these visions of the passage conflict with each other.
If we were to view such scenes as this one in terms of today’s understanding of medicine, disease and sickness, we might be tempted to call Jesus a faith healer. But this would also invalidate our moments when we put our prayers in the book and lift them and ask Jesus and the Holy Spirit to pray for our own friends and family that they might be healed.
But we know that Jesus did heal the sick and the infirmed, that He brought sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, that He gave life to the useless limbs of the lame and He empowered the disciples to do the same. So our prayers count and they mean something.
But we also have to understand that there is a substantial difference between our understanding of medicine and disease today and some two thousand years ago. While I trust that we have a more enlightened view of physical and mental illnesses today (though I sometimes wonder), two thousand years ago many of the diseases that we routinely treat were often sentences of death and/or exile.
Because people did not understand what caused someone to get sick and die, the populace in general quarantined the sick and the dying. While this may have unknowingly kept infectious diseases from spreading, it also served to place a stigma on the sick as well. The result was that many of those who suffered from various ailments were denied access to the temple because their illness (physical and/or mental) caused them to be deemed ritually unclean.
Then, the reality of the moment was that people who were sick were shunned by society. It is why people sought Jesus; He was truly their only hope for redemption and a return to society. How many times did Jesus cure someone of a disease or an ailment and then have the person seek the religious authorities to insure that they were certified clean? It is not a question of whether or not going to the temple would help them be healed but was a gesture that said they were once again part of society.
Still, any discussion of Jesus’ healing the sick must account for the fact that He healed all those who sought His touch and that He turned no one away. It is a part of the healthcare process today that seems to get forgotten. While the Bible does not outline specific public polices regarding the provision of health care it does make it clear that protecting the health of each human being is a profoundly important personal and communal responsibility for people of faith.
Jesus and the disciples demonstrated that sharing the good news and healing the sick are bound up together (Luke 9: 6; Mark 7: 32 – 35). Physical healing was a part of the salvation Jesus brought. The word “saved” was used throughout the gospels to refer to physical healing. Healings represent a sign of the breaking of God’s reign into the present reality.
So where do we fit into this? This last week, I listened to a discussion about mega-churches and whether or not they were beneficial or not. Now, it should be noted that I am not a fan of such churches and that I would much rather be in a physically smaller church.
But it isn’t the size by itself that bothers me; but as the size of the church grows, it seems to me that the “personal touch” disappears. That may be why the new mode of worship is what are called “house churches”, churches which emulate the early church when believers met in each person’s home rather than in a formal building. Of course, back then, the idea of a formal building for a church was missing because to publically acknowledge a meeting of Christians was tantamount to asking to be arrested.
What I do know is that the personal touch, the idea of a community of believers being together for each other is independent of church size. In that same discussion about megachurches was a comment that the daughters of one individual were going to a more Pentecostal and definitely non-United Methodist church because the United Methodist church did not offering the daughters anything in the way of spirituality (I believe the term “boring” was used as well).
And I still remember that Sunday many years ago when one pastor of the largest church made the invitation to join the church one Sunday. Now, I had indicated that I was interested in joining this church but I wasn’t sure how it was done. This church qualifies as the largest church in which I was a member and I wasn’t sure how you went about joining the church (it had also been several years since I had transferred my membership and this lead to part of my confusion). After the service, I went looking for someone who might tell me what to do; as it happened, the person whom I sought was in fact looking for me for that very reason. I joined the church the next week.
One of the questions that we have to ask ourselves in the church today relates to that very issue. Are we doing what we have to in order that people will seek us out? Or do we view our church as a church for only a select few? This was one of the points that I hopefully made last week and it is one of the major issues facing the church today.
In the Old Testament reading for today, David has settled in Jerusalem and has a fine palace. But the Ark of the Covenant still rests in a tent. So David decides to begin building a fine and impressive structure in which God may reside. But God, through the prophet Nathan, tells David that it is not yet time for him to do that. David must first establish his own house before there is to be a house of God. And we know that in telling David that he must first establish the House of David, we are being given the first hint of the coming of Jesus the Messiah.
It is not that David should not build a permanent place for the Ark of the Covenant but those weren’t God’s priorities. David saw the building of the new home for the Ark in terms of the old ways where humans served gods by building temples. God, in his words to David, says that he had raised the rulers of Israel to be the shepherds, to care for the people. God’s plan is to build the House of David, not a physical house.
This goes back to something I said last week. When we are more interested in the building in which we meet, we destroy the sacredness of that place and we go back to the old ways. Now, I am not arguing that we shouldn’t maintain our churches and our homes, but we have to make sure that we are also maintaining the relationship with and between the members.
Let us not kid ourselves; the church today is dying. It is a slow and painful death, brought about by years and years of neglect and abuse. Often times, church members have been more concerned about the physical state of the church when they should have been concerned about its spiritual state. People today are not seeking “modern” services; they are seeking the Holy Spirit, even if they don’t know that is what they are seeking.
We have a generation called seekers because they are seeking something and because of how we have viewed the role of the church over the past few years, this younger generation hasn’t got a clue as to what they are seeking. They don’t have a clue perhaps because the church today has forgotten what it once was.
In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote
There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably linked to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners for the struggle for freedom.
I hope that the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.
To meet this challenge, to be what we once were and can still be, we must make some changes. These are not changes in where we gather but in what happens when we gather.
This new community may be in a massive and ornate structure; it may be in a small wooden-frame building built almost 150 years ago; or it may be in someone’s home. But despite the fact that this piece is entitled “where we gather”, where we actually gather doesn’t matter. What does matter is what happens when we gather together. What matters is what we do after we have gathered.
If two or more have gathered together to ask the Lord’s blessing, then we have been promised that He will be there with us. But we cannot gather as we once were but as we must be. We must first understand who we are. Paul points out to the Ephesians that they, the Ephesians, were once the outsiders but are now part of Christ’s community. Christ treats us all as equal and as equals we are building a new community.
It is not an easy task to build this new community. It requires breaking down walls built over the years; it requires seeing things perhaps in a different light.
When Jesus began His ministry, He began with a call to repent. The Hebrew word that we translate as “repent” originally meant “return.” To repent is to return to where we came from. We are God’s children and we have gone astray; if we repent, we return to God. The Greek word from which we get “repent” means “to change one’s mind for the better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins.” So when Jesus called on the people to repent, He was really saying that one needed to stop what they were doing and return to the way of life that was first in God.
No one has the right to call on others to change their ways unless they have a better alternative. Getting people to stop doing wrong is only half of repentance; heading in a new direction is the other half. The call to repentance is accompanied by the announcement that the Kingdom of God is here. For Christ, it was the way, the only way for people to live. (Adapted from “The Sermon on the Mount” by Clarence Jordan)
It is no wonder that people are turned off or driven away from the church. How can we ask people to be Christ’s disciples if they cannot see Christ at work in this world? How can we call men and women to conversion without seeing that Christ calls all of us to repent of our prejudices and be open to the fullness of life? We cannot practice Christianity and be a false witness; we cannot be evangelists while escaping from Christ’s demands for ourselves.
We cannot preach peace or the love of Christ unless it is in our own hearts. So we must change, we must allow the presence of Christ to redefine our views and our thoughts. If we allow ourselves to be imprisoned by our old systems, old options, and old values, then we cannot even begin to think in new terms. New visions cannot come from old structures; new values will not be created from old assumptions. Visions come when people are renewed, not by their reactions. If we allow our reactions to guide the paths we walk, we will never be able to see as we should and as we can. (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)
We have gathered here this morning to ask the Lord’s blessing; now we prepare to leave, refreshed and renewed. We have heard the call from God to repent of our old ways and return to the ways that we were once supposed to walk and can again walk. And as we leave this place today, we leave with a new sense of community, open to all and in which all are welcome. We go, taking the light of the Holy Spirit with us to reach out to those around us, inviting them to gather with us next week.