Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Good Shepherd - Mark 6

Ah, the Good Shepherd. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, looking after us, his woolly wards. All those chocolate box pictures of our Lord replete with blond curls and somewhat suspiciously effeminate eyes with a sheep draped over his shoulders like some grande dame's ermine stole. Well, all I can to say to that image, is - "baah."

Yes, here in Mark 6, Jesus is portrayed as a good shepherd. Yes, our Lord cares for his flocks, he tends for them and - in the bit the lectionary has cut from the middle of today's reading - he feeds them in their thousands with food of miraculous generation. But! But, the disciples, the people who are supposed to be closest to him, his followers, his church, are not among those flocks.

Think about the story as Mark tells it. It's the other folk who are so eager to see Jesus, the other folk who believe in his miraculous powers, the other folk who are fed and even healed by him. Remember the woman with haemorrages? - 'it was your faith that healed you.' It is the others who have faith in Jesus, the sheep without a shepherd that Jesus comes to teach and save.

Not the disciples, note. Not his nearest, his dearest, his own. They haven't got a clue. They are terrified at Jesus walking on the water, and, Mark tells us, their hearts are hardened against the miraculous feeding. In fact, it takes three such feedings before one of them can answer with any clarity when Jesus quizzes them on who He is. After a few false starts on the buzzer, Peter finally wins the disciples their luxury three-piece suite with the correct answer: 'uh ... the Messiah!' Hurrah. Didn't even have to 'phone a friend. But the disciples get even that only half right, because they are expecting a warrior messiah who will overthrow their Roman overlords. Get thee behind me, Satan. And so, one of them, Judas, betrays him, and the others abandon him at Gethsemane. Not very sheepish behaviour. The Gerasene demoniac, the woman with haemorrhages, the people of Gennesaret, even the Samaritan woman at the well, had more trust in Jesus than that. And note how many of the people with real faith in Him were women, the perennial second-class citizens of the ancient, and still much of the modern, world. But among his own people, his valiant men, Jesus was a prophet without honour.

Seen in this light, the first lines of today's reading are rather sobering for a preacher. 'The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.' I wonder what they were teaching. Judging by his response, whatever it was can't have been up to much. 'Come to a desolate place and rest,' he says, and then takes up the teaching himself. Something of a caution, surely, for those enthusiasts who like to go about 'telling people about Jesus.' Before we can tell anyone anything we need to go out and listen. We need to listen to the flocks that Jesus tended, the ones who really know him: the outcast, the desolate, those outside the smug self-satisfaction of the Church. If there is one lesson to take from this passage, it's this: the Church does not exist for us, for you, or for me. We who are the Church cannot exist for ourselves, not even just for each other. The Church exists for the people who are outside it, and if we call ourselves Christian, we must exist for the people who do not.

The second thing to take away today, is that we must also learn from the others, and be quite prepared that they may know Christ far better than we do. This Tuesday, I hope to do just that, when I visit the Three Wheels Shin Buddhist Temple in London as a representative of the Church of England. Having spent much of the last three years studying Shin Buddhist doctrine, I will go expecting to learn more about God than I might say about Him. Whether the Buddhists there think that they might learn something about Buddha from my Christianity, is a matter for them to decide. But I believe firmly, and I think the Gospel of Mark confirms this, that the default Christian position in dealing with non-Christians should be one of openness - openness to conversion by God, wherever we might find him. By that openness, we live the Gospel, and by living the Gospel, we preach it far more clearly than words can allow. As St Francis put it, 'teach the Gospel, use words if you have to.' The best way to 'tell people about Jesus' is to shut up and listen.

Jesus does not like the propagation of cosy and complacent images of himself. When the disciples go out and tell people about him, they get it wrong, because they do not know who he really is. When we sentimentalise him with some of those comforting, anodyne images of the Good Shepherd, we get it wrong, too. The word for it is 'idolatry': putting our own convenient constructions up in the place of God, whether these are made in words or images, even imaginations. That is how we end up betraying Jesus, the Jesus who died on a bloody cross not for our comfort but to save the outcast, the vast shepherdless flock. If we want to know the real Jesus, it is to the outsiders, in humility, that we must turn.

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