Text: Jeremiah 23:1-6, Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 6:30-44 W 7th Sunday after Pentecost
The Household of God
In the name of the Lord our Righteousness, dear friends in Christ: in our worship together last week, we spent some time reflecting upon the supreme importance of keeping the Word of God intact and inviolate. We had the vision of the prophet Amos – how he saw God’s Word illustrated as a plumb line coming down from heaven above and hanging straight and true. The idea is that God’s Word is the absolute standard by which all people and all their actions and beliefs will be judged. When that perfectly vertical Word is held up beside anything we think, say, or do, immediately everything that’s crooked or leaning one way or another is revealed to be what it is: false, sinful, and out of alignment with the Lord’s perfect design for this world and for our lives. The point of vision was that only what’s true and upright from God’s perspective will stand. Everything else is destined to fall. And so it’s vital that we not fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to whatever’s popular or wise according to the standards of the world because these things are built from the bottom up. They’re built from the perspective of sinful man, which means that from the start you have a crooked frame of reference. It’s like one of those rooms in a fun house in which everything is built fifteen or so degrees off true vertical. You end up leaning to the side to avoid the sensation that you’re falling over. That’s the way this world is: it’s like a building that’s aligned all higgledy-piggledy because it’s rooted in sin and man’s rebellion against God – and our natural inclination is to adjust ourselves according to whatever it is that captures our attention or the room we happen to be in at any particular moment. Only when we hold the plumb line of God’s Word up to the walls to compare can we see how crooked things really are. And what we need to do is adjust ourselves according to the Word to ensure that we’re standing upright – and therefore stably. Of course, it will also mean that from the world’s perspective, we’ll be the ones who are leaning. And on account of it, we’ll stand out. We won’t quite fit in. And that will bring on us the world’s hostility – as it did for the prophet Amos who was threatened with arrest, and John the Baptist who lost his head, and the Lord Jesus who was crucified, all for speaking God’s truth.
Anyway, that was the thrust last week – keeping God’s Word straight. This week all three of our readings are about the importance of the Christian Church and its function and purpose in the world. And there’s a natural progression here. Now that we have the plumb line of his Word, the Lord has in mind to build for us a house in which to live – a house that’s built square and true according to his Word. Or maybe it would be better to call it a household, because we aren’t talking so much about a physical building as we are a family. You see, while it’s true that we are called by the Holy Spirit individually to personal faith in Jesus, the Lord doesn’t intend for us to be individuals in isolation from one another; rather, just as children are born into families where there are parents to take care of them – along with an entire safety net of others – grandparents, aunts and uncles, older siblings, and so on – so also by coming to faith in Christ are we gathered into the household and family of God. It’s a community of people who share saving faith in Jesus, who are bound together in him and are being shaped and aligned by his Word. And who, as a result, love, share, and are responsible for each other.
And this is what a lot of people who profess faith in Christ don’t quite understand. It’s especially true in our country where we so value such ideals as personal freedom, independence, and the pioneer spirit that says, “I’m on my own. I can take care of myself. I don’t need you or anybody else. And I expect you to take care of yourself and leave me alone.” For people who think like this – and we all do to some degree – it’s easy to think that the church is something dispensable. It’s a take it or leave it proposition. If it works for you, great, have at it; but if I don’t think I need it, well, then don’t bother me. I can be a good Christian all by myself.” That’s the Lone Ranger Christian mentality, “Ah don’t need nobahdy, nohow; it’s jus’ me and mah Bah-ble.” Today there are variations of it aided by modern technology. There’re people, for instance, who substitute Christian radio or television programs for the place of the church in their lives. You can sit at home in your PJs (or nature’s own, for that matter) and listen to the preacher over the air waves – and then pat yourself on the back for having fulfilled your religious obligation for the week. There’s also a growing phenomenon called “virtual church” in which people “participate” in worship services online via the internet. Why, they even have online communion services – and no, I’m not making this up. You set your own bread and wine in front of the computer screen and a prerecorded pastor or priest (take your pick) will consecrate them for you. Just click on the icon. They even say that if you don’t have any bread or wine handy, or if you’d simply prefer to use something else, you can substitute crackers, tortilla chips, or chocolate chip cookies for the bread, and for the wine fruit juice, soda pop, or beer will do – and then you can commune with all the saints united in Christ – and do it in your own unique way in the privacy of your own home. (Do they not see the inherent contradiction in that?) Along these same lines, I can remember once as a kid going to a church in a drive-in movie theater. Each person or family sealed up in their own car – at least ten feet of distance and two layers of steel and glass between you and the next guy—whose name you don’t know; but hey, you know what kind of car he drives and how clean he keeps it. Talk about a sense of community, huh? I remember how I heard lots of engines starting during the last hymn. Everybody wanted to be the first one to the exit so as to avoid the inevitable traffic jam – what with all the honking and cursing other drivers that went with it.
None of that is what the Lord has in mind for his church. But while I’m on the subject, it may surprise you to know that many modern Evangelicals – particularly those who hold a dispensationalist point of view – believe that the Christian church as we know it is something of an accident. According to them it’s not at all what the Lord intended. His original plan was to save only the nation of Israel. Period. We were supposed to be left out. It’s only because the Jews at the time of Christ largely rejected Jesus that God was forced to resort to plan B – which was to take the saving Gospel of his Son to Gentiles like you and me. So it’s a rather happy accident for us, I’d say. But the mistake these people make is to think that the Lord makes judgments about people based on race and ethnicity – as if he cares what color a person’s skin is or what land their ancestors came from.
Noting could be further from the truth. And we see it flatly denied in today’s Old Testament reading, in which the Lord declares that he has sheep scattered throughout every country of the world. They were led astray by self-serving shepherds who failed to do their duty for the sheep entrusted to their care. That is, they failed to properly teach God’s Word. They threw away their plumb lines and tried to eyeball it; so the sheep got lost. But we heard how the Lord promised to gather his lost sheep together again – specifically by sending faithful and true shepherds to them where they are. They will call the Lord’s sheep back to his fold. Just as Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. And when they hear it, they recognize it and they follow me.” So that’s what these shepherds will do: speak the Words of Jesus. And those who are the Lord’s sheep will hear his voice and gather to him – not into a political, earthly kingdom confined to one geographical location; but into the flock of God, his church, a kingdom that transcends all governments, cultures, and borders. What unites these people is not common ancestry, but the faith they have in Jesus, their King, who is “the Lord our Righteousness”. They look to him, his death on the cross for them—and not to themselves or anything they have done for their ability to stand before God holy and blameless in his sight.
These same themes are echoed in today’s Epistle reading in which St. Paul is writing to the Christian Church at Ephesus. The difference is that in the Old Testament the Lord is promising to gather his lost sheep some time in the future and here Paul is describing it as a past and current event – it’s something that started already and is under way as he speaks. First he reminds the Christians at Ephesus what they used to be: godless Gentiles, separated from Christ, strangers to the covenant of grace, having no hope and without God in the world. They were lost sheep doomed to destruction. “But now”, he says, “you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace…” Obviously he doesn’t mean they were brought physically closer to Israel – they’re still in Ephesus, which is on the west coast of what is modern Turkey. What he means is that those who were spiritually distant from God, practicing all kinds of pagan rituals and believing in a whole pantheon of gods, they who were once strangers and aliens have been brought near to God through Christ and made fellow citizens of a greater kingdom – the kingdom of God – and members of the family and household of God. How? By the shed blood of Christ through which their sins were atoned for. Because Christ died for them in his body, the Law of God that condemned them has been abolished. The list of charges was totally erased – and it remains erased as long as they remain by faith in Christ.
Then Paul goes on to explain how these Christians in Ephesus are being united together, as it were, into a building: a living, breathing temple of God. Its solid foundation is the testimony of the prophets and apostles – the true Word of God and the doctrines they taught. That’s what everything stands on. The cornerstone, that is, what determines plumb and square in this temple, is Christ Jesus. He’s the one all Christians line up on. He makes them straight because he is straight. It’s his perfection that counts. And just as the stones in a building all stand on the ones below them and help support the ones above them, so each Christian plays a part in the overall integrity of the structure. Each one has a role to play. Again, there’s no such thing as a Lone Ranger Christian.
And of course, Paul could have been writing to us at this church. I suppose in a way he is, because by Christ’s blood we have been brought near so that we are God’s household and his temple here. And at the same time, we are part of a greater temple that is made up of all Christians past, present, and future—in all places: one immense house of God … one immense family of God, all standing together in saving faith in the Lord Jesus.
And today’s Gospel lesson illustrates what we do together as the household of God. In a word, we eat. And that makes sense. After all, isn’t that what you do whenever you have a family gathering? Isn’t the family meal the one thing that brings everyone together? It certainly was that way in the ancient world. To dine with someone was considered the pinnacle of closeness and friendship. To invite someone to eat with you at your home was like saying, “We consider you to be a member of the family.” And that’s precisely what we see going on in the Gospel reading. Jesus and his disciples have attempted to step away for some quiet time because they’ve been so busy. But a large crowd follows them. I imagine that the disciples were none too pleased about it. There’d be no rest for them. But Jesus sees things differently. He sees lost sheep without a shepherd. And the Good Shepherd that he is, he sacrifices his well being for theirs. He has them lie down in green pastures. And he feeds them—not with physical food, not initially anyway; but with the food they need far more: the Bread of Life from heaven, which is God’s holy Word. That’s what feeds their souls. That’s what makes them God’s family. And having become family, after he’s done speaking to their spiritual needs, he sees to their physical needs as well.
And interestingly enough, he has his disciples do the serving. “You give them something to eat”, he tells them. What he’s doing is making them shepherds too. He has them start with physical food; but his goal is to make them spiritual shepherds who, like him, feed souls. He knows that before long he’ll be sending them out with what doesn’t look like much: namely the five loaves of God’s Word, and the two fish of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Blessed by Jesus – filled with Jesus as their content, they will be enough to feed multitudes and give them life everlasting.
My friends, we have been called by Jesus into this flock, this living temple, this family and household of God. So let’s do what a family does together. Let’s eat. Let’s eat the Bread of Life from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s eat together his body broken and his blood shed for us that our sins may be forgiven, that our faith may be strengthened, and that we may grow in love and closer fellowship and support for one another. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!