The readings this month begin and end with stubborn preconceptions of who Jesus is. First, Jesus’ own community refuses to see past the local boy it once knew, and members close themselves to the work of the Spirit—to the point that Jesus, uninterested in forcing liberation on anyone, must leave. Three weeks later, the crowd has the opposite response. People are so overwhelmed by the freedom he brings—from sickness, loneliness, exclusion, hunger—that they want to crown him king. Frightened by the crowd’s inability to understand that they must participate in the new reign, and thus in their own freedom, Jesus flees in desperation.
In between, the fate of the prophet is made all too clear by John the Baptist’s execution, and we are reminded that our own hands are far from clean when we confront the implications of discipleship in our own lives. The gift and burden of free will means that we can choose how to respond to the good news. Are we prepared, like Jesus, to welcome the lost, forgotten, and excluded, those who hunger and thirst for justice? Are we prepared to shepherd the suffering of the world, and one another?
Though we may not feel up to the task, Paul reminds us that we are not alone in the new and difficult responsibilities of discipleship, for the spirit of the resurrected Christ “at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
Michaela Bruzzese, a Sojourners contributing writer, lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Finding Power in Weakness
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
Following multiple healings and exorcisms in other towns, Jesus returns to his hometown to continue to preach, teach, and spread the good news. To his surprise, however, his own community is so skeptical of him that “he was amazed at their unbelief.” When he preaches in the synagogue, Jesus is questioned and almost ridiculed by the people—who does he think he is? Since “he could do no deed of power there,” aside from a few healings, Jesus ultimately looks elsewhere: “Then he went about among the villages teaching” (Mark 6:5-6).
Being badmouthed and rejected is nothing new for Paul, who is having problems with the community of Corinth. Rumors disparaging his motives and leadership compel him to respond in one of his most passionate and honest letters. In it, Paul is as forthright in examining his own behavior as that of the community. He admits his weakness but insists that, since “power is made perfect in weakness,” it is ultimately not a hindrance, but a means by which to improve his work as a disciple:
“So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Though the circumstances are different, both Jesus and Paul come head-to-head with communities who are more concerned with their own preconceptions of who is bearing God’s invitation to new life than with the invitation itself. Jesus does what he can, but—confronted by preconceptions and hardness of heart—he ultimately seeks out communities more open to the work of the Spirit. Paul, having cobbled together a fragile chain of believers throughout the Roman Empire, faces criticism honestly and forthrightly in order to defend the faith he so passionately proclaims.
Free to Choose
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
The account of John the Baptist’s violent death, which parallels Jesus’ death, is more than historical. Its level of detail and the fact that it is included in all three synoptic gospels are signs that its message contains important implications for our own discipleship.
As with many biblical stories, the characters are in fact symbolic of all human nature—chances are that each one of us has played the parts in these stories to some degree. We have acted like Herodias and her daughter do in this Mark passage, ambitious and greedy at any cost. We have been Herod and Pilate in the accounts of Jesus’ death, cowardly and prideful in the face of injustice. And we have been the crowds who demand Jesus’ death, eager to scapegoat those whose messages, acts, or beliefs threaten or frighten us. Beware! Mark warns us today, for within each of us lie these responses to the reign of God. Jesus’ message and mission still profoundly challenge our deepest beliefs and practices, and demand that we leave our comfort zones to build the new reign.
Paul, on the other hand, though he endured the same persecution as John and Jesus, is able to assure us that faith in the resurrected Christ will help us struggle through the fear and choose a new way of being: “In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14). The reality of Christ’s victory over death means that our fear no longer has to guide us. Marked with the seal of the Spirit, we can choose to become builders, instead of destroyers, of our own liberation.
The Good Shepherd
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Following three weeks of descriptions of what Jesus is not—Elijah, John the Baptist, welcome in his hometown—this week we see what Jesus is, the true shepherd who has compassion for his sheep. Unlike the shepherds described in today’s alternate reading, who “have scattered my flock, and have driven them away” (Jeremiah 23:2), Jesus is the one who reconciles all, who welcomes all into the fold. According to Paul, “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14). Not only are we joined in Christ, former enemies now equally inherit the reign of God: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).
The true shepherd promised in Jeremiah and described by the psalmist—“He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul” (Psalm 23:2-3)—is embodied by Jesus. The unruly crowds that followed him in desperation must have been overwhelming and chaotic, and yet Jesus “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). He teaches, comforts, and feeds them. Most importantly, he takes in those who are unwelcome everywhere else and offers them rest, dignity, and a place to belong.
Simple as it is, the image of God as loving shepherd is perhaps the only one by which to measure our own efforts as Christian community. Too many of our communities have been led by false shepherds who respond to those in want with complicated doctrines on sinfulness and worthiness instead of the compassionate mercy of the Shepherd. How will we respond?
2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21
This week we switch from Mark to John’s gospel. As in the other gospels, John’s account of the feeding of 5,000, followed by Jesus’ walking on the water, is meant to invoke images of the manna in the desert and a new exodus. To this, John adds an element of Communion. Today and for the next four weeks we will see how Jesus feeds body and soul; he is the source of physical and spiritual nourishment, freely given to all.
The emphasis on Communion, however, isn’t the only difference between John and the synoptic gospels. John also notes that following the feeding of the 5,000, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (John 6:15). Jesus is forced to leave them—as he did when he was rejected in his hometown. During the past four weeks, he has gone from being scorned and rejected to being almost forcibly crowned king. Jesus knows that both extremes are dangerous and demonstrate that neither his followers nor the great crowds who seek him truly understand his message or his mission.
These responses to Jesus are not unique to his time. In both cases, the communities closed themselves to the work of the Spirit because members refused to see Jesus as anything other than what they wanted to see: an ignorant local or a military king. They were captive to their assumptions about Jesus; though they heard the good news, they could not internalize it, and though they were invited to freedom, they refused to accept.