john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Mark 6: Jesus - touch the flesh

    Good Shepherd Morning Communion, 19/7/2009

    Ephesians 2.11-end , Mark 6.30-34,53-end

    Jesus is flesh and blood:

    - something we know but need to be reminded of from time to time;
    - the whole meaning of the story of God as believed by Christians;

    Jesus is flesh and blood:
    - important in understanding today's two readings:
    - Jesus feeling the pressures of being flesh and blood as he went about his demanding missionary work in Galilee;
    - Paul persuading the Ephesian believers that they belong to Christ just as much as any other believers do.

    Jesus is flesh and blood: this God-become-man is what makes Christianity unique. But 'flesh' comes into other religions:
    - sacrifices (animal... human...)
    - dancing
    - fasting
    - altering the look of the body by tattooing, piercing, circumcision...

    ... and it is with the Jewish practice of circumcision in mind that we come to our readings today.

    The circumcision is something done to the flesh - that marks a person out as different, distinctive, shows they belong to that faith.

    Paul noticed that the Jewish believers - who had been circumcised - were telling the Ephesian believers - Gentiles, who hadn't been circumcised - that they didn't belong to Christ. The flesh was dividing people....
    Ephesians 2.11
    So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called 'the uncircumcision' by those who are called 'the circumcision' - a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands - remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
    Arguments about who does and doesn't belong to God: based around circumcision - the flesh divides people.
    Ephesians 2.13-16
    But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.
    Jesus is our peace - his flesh unites people.
    "For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us." It is the "in his flesh" part which is often left out of the discussion of this oft-quoted, key verse. But it is crucial for St. Paul who sees that the dividing wall is precisely in the rite of circumcision. This passage begins with: "So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called "the uncircumcision" by those who are called "the circumcision" -- a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands...." Notice particularly the description of circumcision: made in the flesh by human hands. Circumcision is basically a sacrificial rite, in which just a tiny (but significant!) piece of flesh is substituted for the whole person. And as a sacrificial means for signifying membership to a community it excludes people. Inclusive human community can never be formed on such a basis. St. Paul won't stand for it. Rather, baptism into the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is our peace; the dividing walls of hostility built up by us, "made in the flesh by human hands," are broken down by Jesus "in his flesh." [1]
    So Jesus was flesh and blood, and so reconciling us to each other is something which Jesus does in the flesh. It's physical, it's for real, it's for the here and now, our belonging to each other in Christ. What does that mean? - we flesh out our faith with Jesus.

    We are flesh and blood and so if we are to follow Jesus then that is something we must do in the flesh. Though our scriptures are very important to us our religion is not a religion of the Word, but of the the Word become flesh...
    John 1.1-3
    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. ...
    John 1.14-17
    ... And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. ... From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
    ... And the Word became flesh and lived among us... So John's gospel tells us.

    And Mark's gospel makes us realise just how much Jesus must have known he was in the flesh. It wasn't just the crucifixion which physically hurt him. It was his day-to-day ministry.

    Jesus had become so well known as a healer in the area around Lake Galilee that he and his apostles were constantly pursued by crowds of people, all wanting his attention, all wanting a piece of him. All wanting to touch his flesh, believing that would heal them. It wore him and his friends down.
    Mark 6.31a
    He said to them, 'Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.'
    Even there they were not left alone:
    Mark 6.31b
    For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.
    (Imagine the effects of that on the already weakened bodies of Jesus and his disciples).

    When your body is aching and hungry and you have tried to be left alone but can't and you have tried to eat but haven't been given the chance - you know you are in the flesh. And you feel very deeply that your flesh is weak.

    That was how Jesus was that day beside the lake. What does he do when the crowd just keep hemming him in, wanting more and more?

    If it had been me or you he would have probably exploded in anger, sent them away, told them to leave him alone and come back when he was ready for them.
    Paul Nuechterlein:
    But there is to be no rest, because the mob follows along and is soon demanding not only attention but food. Jesus and the disciples are so busy that they do not have time to eat (6:31). When the crowd follows them even to their wilderness retreat, we expect indignation on the part of Jesus, but instead "he was moved with pity for them because they were as sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things" (6:34).

    The mob have driven Jesus into the wilderness and harried him in his place of retreat, but he pities them. He has compassion on his persecutors. He sets about teaching them things - not healing them physically but telling them things which may help them be healed in mind and in spirit. [2]
    And after that, still aching, still hungry, feeling the limitations of his weak flesh, Jesus sets off again on foot, fleshing out his ministry, allowing these needy people to come and touch him, to get right up close and personal, to be healed of all that harmed them.And so we come to communion. And here we remember that the communion is a physical thing.

    It is a reminder that Jesus fleshed himself out for us.

    It is an invitation from Jesus to us needy people to come and touch him, to get right up close and personal, to be healed of all that harms us. To gather around his table together, not divided, a new humanity in the body of Christ.

    In communion, at his invitation, we touch the flesh of Jesus (as the words of our service say, the bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Christ).

    Just as Jesus was food and drink to those who followed him, trying to touch him, so the communion is food and drink to our weak flesh.

    And just as the Gentile believers in Ephesus were united with the Jewish believers, their divisions broken down in the flesh of Jesus, so we too, at the communion rail,
    Ephesians 2.21-22
    ... are no longer strangers and aliens, but [we] are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom [we] also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

    [1] and [2] These sections adapted from Paul Nuechterlein's Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, PROPER 11 (July 17-23) -- YEAR B