Coming and Going
This morning’s Gospel brings us the conclusion of the sandwich started two Sundays ago when Jesus sent out the Twelve on their first mission trip. Today’s Gospel begins with their return. Earlier Jesus had sent them out two by two with authority to proclaim the message of repentance, to heal the sick, and to cast out demons just as Jesus himself had been doing (cf Mk. 6:7-13).
As they gathered around Jesus to tell him about their experiences, Jesus perceived that they were worn out from their travels — because of the crowds, they could not even find time to eat. Thus, they went off in a boat to a “deserted place” for a time of rest (6:31).
Nonetheless, the people followed them on foot, and Jesus and the disciples had scarcely disembarked before they were surrounded by eager followers. As Jesus looked out over the crowd, “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (v. 34). Here the word “compassion” (cf 1:41; 8:2; 9:22) is used in the sense of merciful love. The image of sheep without a shepherd reflects the Old Testament understanding of God as shepherd who cares for the sheep (Num. 27:17; Ezek. 34:14-15; Is. 40:11; Ps. 23). Now Jesus fulfills the role of the tender guardian who brings God’s peace and healing.
Rather than seeing the crowd’s presence as an unwelcome intrusion on his privacy and time alone with his disciples, Jesus used this as an opportunity, since the people’s need was greater than his own. They were hungry for the truth he could impart; and so he began to teach them. Here we see that Jesus is always available to respond to the needs of those around him and will change his course of action when necessary.
After these two events, the second part of today’s reading (vv. 53-56) provides a summary of Jesus’ ministry and activities as a transition. Once again, as Jesus and the disciples disembark, they are surrounded by throngs of people who bring their sick to him for healing. Wherever he went, the response was the same. People begged just to touch the fringe of his garment, and “all who touched it were healed” (v. 56; cf Mk. 5:27-29). The eager acceptance of Jesus’ ministry here is in marked contrast to his experience in Nazareth, where he “could do no deed of power” (Mk. 6:5).
Christianity does have a mission to the world, and that mission is the most basic reason for the existence of the church. There are religions (some would claim that Judaism is one of them) that do not have a missionary impulse in them; but Christianity has been pushed out into the world from the beginning, like a little fledgling bird nudged out of its cozy nest by its parents. That is in fact a good simile, because what drives Christianity (as distinct from Christendom) towards the world is not personal eagerness for exposure to the public sphere, nor a desire to become big and powerful, nor a sense of its superiority over every other faith. No, it is “sent out” (that is what the word apostolic means), usually against its will, by the God who has called it into being, because of love for the world. The mission of the church is of central importance to Christian faith, so much so that it constitutes the most basic reason why the church must exist. Of course, the church needs to have periods of retreat from the world, to recover its own identity through study and prayer, to renew its courage, and so on. But precisely in these times of renewal, the church learns once more that it does not exist for its own sake. A church that hived off to itself and was content to be a comfortable “fellowship” would contradict in the most flagrant way the whole message of the New Testament.Douglas John Hall, Why Christian? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), pp. 138, 139.
While the love of the Lord is expressed through Jesus’ compassion toward those in need, the letter to the Ephesians speaks of God’s promise of unity made available through Christ to everyone — Jew and Gentile alike. This new spiritual community is built on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets with Jesus as the Cornerstone.
Before Christ came, Gentiles lived beyond the hope of God’s promises. Now, through Christ, the barriers between Jew and Gentile have been abolished, as all are brought together in the fullness of God’s peace. The distinction between the circumcised and the uncircumcised concerns only the physical aspect. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross draws the alienated to God and unites the Covenant people with those previously outside the Covenant.
Christ has proclaimed peace to those on both sides of that division and has broken down former walls of hostility. Therefore, all can be united with God through the Spirit poured out on the whole community of Jesus’ disciples. Now there is reconciliation with “one new humanity in place of the two” (2:15).
Because of Jesus Christ, no one is a stranger or alien in the household of God, which “is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (v. 21). We too have a share in this dwelling place as we grow together spiritually through the love of God in Christ.