The Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Reading: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Earlier in chapter 6, St Mark has told us how Jesus sent the apostles out in twos having given them authority over unclean spirits. St Mark writes of how the apostles preach that people should repent; they cast out demons and heal the sick. In other words, as we saw on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity, the apostles acted in persona Christi. They represented Christ and acted on his behalf. This was all in preparation for the ministry that Jesus would give them after his resurrection and ascension to heaven.
St Mark interrupts his account of the apostles’ ministry to tell us how Jesus is becoming well-known and to inform us of what people are saying about Jesus as well as to relate the circumstances of the death of John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod. Jesus and John have so much in common that King Herod, along with many people in Israel, associates them both with Elijah.
Now in our Gospel reading this week, St Mark writes about the apostles’ return and how they report to Jesus all that they have taught and done. We are not told what they taught, and, indeed, what it was that they taught is an interesting question. It is clear from what we have read about the disciples so far in St Mark’s Gospel that they have not yet themselves come to a full understanding of who Jesus is. Presumably then, their teaching was about the nearness of the coming of the Kingdom of God and the need for people to be prepared for it. In all likelihood, in many ways, their teaching would have been a continuation of the message of John the Baptist.
Jesus decides the apostles need a rest and, as it is so busy where they are because of the number of people wanting to see Jesus, Jesus says to them:
‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ (Mark 6:31)
In an attempt to get to a deserted place, they cross the Sea of Galilee in a boat. Precisely where they go to, St Mark does not tell us. St Luke gives the location as ‘Bethsaida’ (Luke 9:10) and St John ‘up a mountain’ (John 6:3). (Somewhat confusing, however, is that St Mark writes that, after the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples leave where they are, again by boat, to go to Bethsaida.)
St Mark’s reference notwithstanding, we probably are not far wrong in thinking that the place Jesus takes the disciples to, in a forlorn attempt for them to get some rest, is up a mountain in the region near Bethsaida! It is at this location that the feeding of the five thousand will take place. Interestingly, in St John’s account, Jesus says to Philip:
‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ (John 6:5)
Philip, St John tells us twice in his Gospel, is himself from Bethsaida (John 1:44; 12:21), so this is perhaps why Jesus asks this question of Philip.
Unfortunately, the deserted place that they hoped to go to isn’t deserted by the time they get there. People spot them in the boat and, seeing where they are heading, rush there ahead of them. When Jesus goes ashore, he finds a great crowd waiting for him. St Mark describes Jesus’ reaction:
‘… and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.’ (Mark 6:34)
When evening comes, Jesus will perform one of his most well-known miracles. It is, in fact, the only miracle that is recorded in all four Gospels. The lectionary for this week leaves it out of our Gospel reading and passes over to what happened after it. The reason for this omission is that next week, for three weeks in the lectionary, we are going to be thinking about the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’ teaching after it in John chapter 6. So, we will be returning to the miracle and its meaning.
St Mark in his account of the feeding of the five thousand, however, links the apostles’ ministry with the people for whom Jesus has compassion and whom Jesus teaches and feeds, so this week we will not be ignoring what St Mark has to say in his account of the miracle.
St Mark describes the crowd who gather to meet Jesus and his disciples when they land as being ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. There is more to this description than at first meets the eye. It links this episode in Jesus’ ministry with what we read about Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Firstly, in Numbers, chapter 27, we read of how God takes Moses up a mountain to show him the Promised Land that God has given to the Israelites. God tells Moses that after Moses has seen it, Moses will die. Moses says to God:
‘Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd.’ (Numbers 27:16-17)
It is Joshua, which is Jesus’ name in Hebrew, whom God appoints to lead his people into the Promised Land. In future, however, when the leadership of Israel proves inadequate, the people will again be described as ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ (see, for example, 1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chronicles 18:16; Ezekiel 34:5; Zechariah 34:5; Judith 11:19).
Secondly, the prophets spoke of a day when God himself would shepherd his people (Ezekiel 34:12-15). Like a shepherd, God promises to seek out the lost and scattered sheep and to lead and provide for them. God will set his servant David over them to be their shepherd (Jeremiah 23:5; Ezekiel 34:23). St Mark presents Jesus as fulfilling this role. Jesus does this, first, by teaching people and giving them guidance, but then, secondly, by feeding them. St Mark writes:
‘Then he [Jesus] ordered them [the disciples] to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties.’ (Mark 6:39-40)
It is very easy to miss two significant references here. First, St Mark stresses that the disciples got all the people to sit down on the ‘green grass’. The most popular Psalm in the Bible is the Psalm 23 in which the Lord is described by the Psalmist as his shepherd, and because the Lord is his shepherd, he ‘shall not want’. The Lord makes him to ‘lie down in green pastures’ (Psalm 23:2). The Lord ‘prepares a table’ for him (Psalm 23:5), that is, the Lord feeds him.
Secondly, St Mark’s account of the people sitting in rows of hundreds and fifties would immediately remind anyone who knew their Hebrew Scriptures of how the tribes of Israel were arranged in the desert.
In Exodus, chapter 18, we read of how, when the people of Israel are in the wilderness, they go to Moses for advice and judgement in any disputes they have with each other. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, seeing Moses working hard from morning to night, tells Moses that he will wear himself out if he goes on like this. Jethro’s advice is that Moses should teach the people the way they should live. Jethro’s thinking seems to be that if they learn how they should behave, they will, hopefully, have fewer disputes. Jethro continues his advice:
‘You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.’ (Exodus 18:21)
St Mark is telling us that God is fulfilling his promise to be the shepherd of his people in the person of Jesus. Jesus is, in turn, entrusting his work of shepherding God’s people to his apostles, just as Moses entrusted his shepherding of God’s people to men he had chosen. Jesus is going to go on to feed the people with bread here in the wilderness, again as the people of Israel led by Moses, were fed in the wilderness with manna from heaven.
Moses taught the people God’s laws in the wilderness; Jesus teaches them in the wilderness. Moses appointed men to look after the people for him; Jesus does the same. In the wilderness, under Moses, the people are miraculously fed with bread; now Jesus too performs a miracle and feeds the people with bread.
In the next few weeks, in our readings, from St John’s Gospel we will look at both the miracle and at Jesus’ teaching following it. In his teaching, Jesus discusses the relationship between the bread that he gives and the manna that people ate in the wilderness. While the crowd all love the miracle, it is what Jesus teaches after the miracle that causes problems for people and, not least, for Jesus’ disciples themselves. St Mark himself, however, concludes his account of the feeding of the five thousand and what happens after it simply by telling us:
‘And they [the disciples] were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.’ (Mark 6:51-52)
The crowd’s enthusiasm to see Jesus, however, has not been diminished and our Gospel reading describes how people continue to seek Jesus out, primarily in the hope that he will heal those who are sick.
The first thing that we learn from all this is that Jesus cares for us holistically, including our physical, psychological, and emotional needs. Jesus isn’t just interested in us spiritually, important though the spiritual dimension of our being is. Jesus also cared for people physically. He was concerned that the disciples needed rest; he made sure that the people had something to eat; he healed the sick. St Mark tells us that when Jesus saw the crowd that was waiting for him and his disciples that he had compassion on them. And he has compassion on us too.
This means that we can bring all our needs to Jesus knowing that he cares for us. We can bring him our problems, worries, failures, sins, guilt, regrets, difficulties, and offer them all to him. At the beginning of each service, I read the ‘comfortable words’, one of which is a saying of Jesus, ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28).
The invitation Jesus offered to people then, still stands today.
Secondly, however, Jesus wants us to prioritize our relationship with him. It used to be said that there was a danger of believers becoming so focused on people’s spiritual needs that they ignored their physical needs. This, in the past, was undoubtedly a warning that some in the Church needed to hear. Jesus provided food for people who needed it and healed their bodies from sickness.
To the credit of the Church today, we are very much aware of people’s physical needs, and we do genuinely try to help alleviate them. There is a real danger, however, of the Church becoming so focused on people’s physical needs that the Church can appear to people as little more than a religious NGO.
What is striking in what we read in our Gospel reading this week is how Jesus puts teaching first. When he sees that the people who meet him and his disciples are like sheep without a shepherd, he teaches them. Jesus is well aware that the people have come seeking him, not to be taught, but for him to meet their other needs. In St John’s Gospel, after the feeding of the five thousand and seeing the crowds looking for him, Jesus says to them that they are only searching for him because they ate their fill of the loaves (John 6:26).
When Jesus was alone in the wilderness after being baptized by John the Baptist, the devil tested Jesus by suggesting that Jesus turn the stones to bread. St Matthew tells us that Jesus answers him:
‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’ (Matthew 4:4)
In John, chapter 6, Jesus tells the crowd the same thing:
‘Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’ (John 6:27)
Jesus makes plain that he sees his teaching of the Word of God, and our need to hear it, as something that is fundamental to our well-being. Sadly, I would suggest, that is not how most of us see it. Congregations don’t really value teaching and hearing the Word of God. This lack of enthusiasm for preaching and teaching has, in turn, a knock-on effect on the clergy.
Now, I hope you will agree that I know a little about what is involved in being a Vicar. There are many different aspects of the role: from leading services to looking after the buildings that they take place in. It includes both pastoral care and fund-raising. All these are important, and I wouldn’t want you to take what I am saying as suggesting that they are not. The problem, however, is where exactly preaching and teaching fits into all this.
Preaching and teaching, if it is to be of any good, takes time. By good, I don’t mean popular. Sadly, preaching can often be more about performance than it is about content. So, when people say the sermon was good, what they mean is that they enjoyed it. I don’t imagine that Jesus’ teaching was always enjoyable to hear. While it may always have been effective, I don’t think you could describe it as having always been enjoyable to listen to; indeed, people would sometimes try to kill Jesus because of what he taught (Luke 4:28; John 8:59; John 10:31-32). By good, then, I mean effective at communicating the Word of God.
For a sermon to be any good, there needs to be time spent on preparation. A rule of thumb when it comes to preparing for a sermon is that there needs to be about an hour of preparation for every minute of the sermon, and that doesn’t include the general study that clergy need to do if they are to be effective in their ministry. Proper preparation won’t of itself guarantee that a sermon will be good, but a sermon is unlikely to be good without it.
Now realistically, if you are to spend that amount of time on a sermon, you have to be convinced that it is worth it. But if, as a clergyman, you are not convinced that it’s worth it and your congregation are also not convinced that it is, then when all the different demands come in, and come in they do, then, as a clergyman, you are going to be tempted to neglect the time spent in preparation. And when you discover that you can get away with spending less time on preparation and that the congregation doesn’t seem to mind too much when you spend less time, then the pressure to spend time on other things becomes overwhelming. Something you will never hear a clergyman say is that they can’t go to a meeting, or whatever, because they are busy preparing a sermon! It’s just not seen as important enough to take precedence over other things.
I am not going to attempt an answer to this problem this week. Quite simply, despite my years in the ministry, I still haven’t found one. All I would say is that if Jesus and the apostles are our model for ministry, we all need to take preaching and teaching the Word of God more seriously than we do, and be willing, both as clergy and congregation, to spend more time on it.
Congregations have a real role to play here. To an extent, congregations get the sermons they deserve. If a congregation doesn’t value preaching and teaching, it can be hard for clergy to value it. As preachers, we should, but it is hard to value it when it feels like no-one else does! If, however, a congregation is eager to hear the Word of God and to learn more about their faith, it is a great encouragement to a preacher to make sure that what he preaches is the Word of God and is worthy of it.
Jesus was concerned to train people to continue his ministry. I talked a bit about this on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity. Jesus saw that the people were ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. When the evening comes and the people have had nothing to eat, the disciples ask Jesus to send the people away that they may buy food in the surrounding villages. Jesus answers the disciples:
‘You give them something to eat.’ (Mark 6:37)
Jesus is inviting the apostles to share in his ministry of caring for his sheep. After the resurrection, St Peter will be charged by Jesus to ‘feed his sheep’. St Peter will himself write to leaders of the Church:
‘… I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it …’ (1 Peter 5:1-2)
St Paul, fearing he was about to be killed, wrote to his co-worker St Timothy:
‘In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.’ (2 Timothy 4:2)
May God grant us, then, to take preaching and teaching seriously. May we be hungry for the Word of God and take time to feed on it.