(Ephesians 2, 11-22; Mark 6, 30-34 & 53-56)
Do you like sandwiches? I like having them as a meal, because I don’t usually have to prepare them. Either we buy them, or my husband makes them, because his sandwiches are tidy and don’t tend to fall apart when you lift them up as mine do!
But what really makes a sandwich is the filling! We all have our favourites. Though I remember once curling up with embarrassment at an infant school Harvest Service when one of my children said their favourite was ‘banana and Marmite’; “Not in the same sandwich”, I wanted to add, as the other Mums all gave me strange looks!
Our Gospel reading today is like two parts of a sandwich without the filling.
We hear in Mark 6, 30-34 about the disciples returning from their first foray into ministry without Jesus, full of excitement; and how Jesus plans a time of quiet debriefing for them and a recharging of batteries in a desert place; but his plans are thwarted when the crowds arrive, hungry for spiritual and material food. Then, in verses 53-56, we find Jesus and the disciples again searching for a quiet space across the lake – but again being overwhelmed by the demands of the crowds seeking teaching and healing.
The ‘filling’ in the sandwich is Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5000, and Jesus walking on the water – miracles designed to show Jesus exercising divine control over the material world. You will get the flavour of that filling (and may well get very tired of it!) over the next five weeks, as the lectionary sets passages from John’s account of the feeding of the 5000 and the discourses on ‘The Bread of Life’ as the gospel readings for those Sundays.
Perhaps we may wonder why those who planned the lectionary gave us these two passages for this Sunday’s Gospel, the bread on the outside of the sandwich, rather than the more interesting ‘filling’. But the resulting passage does give us important pointers, both as individuals and as congregations, to the way we should exercise ministry in Christ’s name.
In our readings today we recognise many familiar features of Christian life and ministry.
In Ephesians we are reminded of the work of evangelism and reconciliation. May of you are involved in taking the Good News to people from many different classes and cultures in this locality and throughout the world, and some of you may also be involved in trying to build bridges between people from different religious and cultural backgrounds.
The passage from Mark is a snapshot of busy parish life. We hear of the disciples reporting on their mission activity, of Jesus reacting to the needs of his ‘flock’ and of the apostles and their master travelling from one place to another, meeting the spiritual and physical needs of those they meet. It gives the impression of lives full of activity, meeting the diverse needs of everyone who approaches.
What it doesn’t show is how this busy life of service and ministry is sustained, or how it is related to the will of God, or what is the cost of it. Sometimes a busy life can be driven not just by a desire to serve others, but also by a need to avoid facing the big questions of life, even a need to avoid meeting with God, for fear of what that might mean to us.
About twenty years ago, I studied for a Masters Degree in Applied Theology. The course was open to anyone in any kind of Christian ministry, ordained and lay, whether working for the Church or in the secular sphere. One of the things we were taught was how to be ‘reflective practitioners’: how to take time out from the everyday practice of ministry to think and be self-critical, to read and study both the Bible and secular writers, in order to judge whether what we were doing was effective, how it could be improved, and whether it was what God would want us to be doing. It taught me that being a good Christian minister did not necessarily mean filling every moment of the day with activity; the quiet times before God were an essential part of effective ministry too.
Of course, it is not always as easy as that. Every Christian minister will recognise the scenario in this passage of Mark. After a particularly busy time – Christmas or Easter, or even just the weekend – you are in desperate need of time to yourself, to unwind and to prepare for the next sermon or round of duties. But your carefully planned time disappears, as the phone rings, people call at the door, and parish and domestic crises demand your attention.
And I am sure that people who are not in official ministerial positions find the same thing happens to them. Whatever good intentions they may have about regular time for prayer or Bible Study, other things intervene and they find their ‘time with God’ has disappeared.
One of the consequences of failing to take time out to reflect is that we stop listening to God. God can speak to us through other people, and especially through those we try to serve in Christ’s name; but God also speaks to us through the Scriptures, through the tradition, and in our times of prayer; and if we are so busy ‘doing good’ that we don’t have time to test our actions against those ways that God addresses us, the result can sometimes be that we take a wrong path; and sometimes that our bodies give out on us, or even lead us astray, into sin or addiction. Sometimes we can expend so much time and energy on building and maintaining a physical ‘temple’ or church for God that we forget that the real temples in which God dwells are our own bodies.
That point is made in the passage from Ephesians, which speaks of the members of the church as citizens with the saints, members of the household of God, growing together around Christ the cornerstone into a holy temple in the Lord. That passage also reminds us of the ultimate cost of ministry – that our power to minister comes through the cross and the blood of Christ.
The Ephesians passage also reminds us that we exercise ministry together. It is all to easy to imagine that we are the only people who are doing the work of God, and that if we re not constantly active, God’s purposes will not be fulfilled. But no one person can do everything. Paul often speaks of the church as a body, with different people exercising different, but equally essential functions. So, some people will preach, others will sing, others will beautify the building, others will maintain it; some will look after administration, some teaching, some care of the young and old, some will simply be available as a listening ear and a comforting arm. But all will need time out to listen for God’s word to them if they are to minister effectively in Christ’s name.
We don’t hear, in the passage that was read from Mark’s Gospel today, of how Jesus provides an example to us of the proper balance between active ministry, and waiting on God. We simply hear of him being constantly available, showing, no matter how much he is interrupted and how often his plans have to change, the faithfulness and steadfast love that is characteristic of God his Father.
But in the missing ‘filling’ of the sandwich, in Mark 6, verses 45 & 46 we read: “At once, Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to Bethsaida, on the other side of the lake, while he sent the crowd away. After saying good-bye to the people, he went away to a hill to pray”. Those ‘times out’, of prayer and waiting on God, were the source of Jesus’ power, when he was renewed and filled again with the Holy Spirit. If we want to be his body on earth and to carry on his ministry, we must build occasions like this into our lives too, when we can be healed, taught and recreated in his image.
Of course, we will want to be busy about God’s work whenever we can. Preaching, and teaching, and worship, and discussion and pastoral care are the ‘bread and butter’ of the Church’s ministry. But unless we make time for God, to listen for the divine voice through reading and study, reflection and prayer, the ‘filling’ of our ministry sandwich will be without flavour, and will not nourish the people of God as it should.
This anonymous poem makes the point well, I think:
Take time to think; it is the source of power.
Take time to read; it is the foundation of wisdom.
Take time to play; it is the secret of staying young.
Take time to be quiet; it is the opportunity to seek God.
Take time to be aware; it is the opportunity to help others.
Take time to love and be loved; it is God’s greatest gift.
Take time to laugh; it is the music of the soul.
Take time to be friendly; it is the road to happiness.
Take time to dream; it is what the future is made of.
Take time to pray; it is the greatest power on earth.
R & R (Rest and Recreation) is an essential component of serving Christ well.
So, this summer – and regularly – make sure that you take ‘time out’ for God.