He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things. (Mark 6.34)
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. (Ephesians 2.14)
A “Lusty” Bunch
Of late, I’ve been tearing through Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s chronicle of our faith’s origins and evolution. To call it epic is to undersell it. Nearly all of its 1000-plus pages serve up at least one startling detail that sets off far-reaching implications for what the Church will become and our faith will come to mean. The history is so vast the author can’t escape getting lost in the weeds. Still, a picture of our ancestors emerges to startle us with how real and personal their passions are. In another context, we would call them a “lusty” bunch—given their obsession with flesh. Paul isn’t straining for metaphor when he describes the Church as “the Body of Christ.” It isn’t poetic reach that inspires John (writing after Paul’s death) to preface his gospel by framing Jesus as “the Word made flesh.” It is no accident that early Christians choose the table—rather than the cross—as the centerpiece of their liturgies, or why they model their houses of worship on banquet halls instead of temples. They revere the table as the place where they physically encounter Christ’s flesh and blood in communal bread and wine.
So great is the Early Church’s flesh obsession that it’s immediately plunged into crisis over whether Gentile males should physicalize their confession of Christ via circumcision. Shake your head in disbelief if you like. Yet the controversy nearly rends the Church in two and had the Apostles not intervened, Christianity very well might have amounted to no more than a footnote in human history. From there, the first few centuries are consumed with increasingly subtle divisions over the “nature” of Jesus’s flesh and how faith plays out in our flesh. Some believe Jesus wasn’t made of flesh at all; others teach He was fully human and then made divine when God declared Him “My Son” at baptism. Meanwhile, some Christians believe Paul’s insistence that faith frees us from religious law grants us permission to indulge our flesh however we please. In other circles, believers fixate on another of Paul’s tenets—the mastery of one’s flesh—to the point they climb atop poles to subject themselves to hunger and harsh weather and some even integrate self-flagellation into their worship. And most ironic of all: while various groups rip at one another’s flesh, they erect massive cathedrals and monasteries as testaments of their devotion to Christ. By the late sixth-century CE, the entire known world—from Europe to China—is dotted with elaborate structures whose external similarity conceals rabidly divergent dogmas and practices.
Doctrines and rites we accept as fundamental—the Virgin Birth, Incarnation, Lord’s Supper, and Trinity—were hot topics in the Church’s formative years. They were every bit as volatile as current debates about gay inclusion, the ordination of women, birth control, marital equality, and human sexuality in general. And with those comparisons, everything comes full circle. Contrary to what we’d like to imagine, we’ve not outgrown our infantile obsessions with flesh nor our fondness for infighting. We may have found new things to argue. What we’ve yet to discover, however, is the antidote to hostilities sprung from our varying persuasions and fetishes. This is the Church’s great tragedy and, if not reversed, may very well be its undoing.
So it is not for nothing that unity plays the decisive role in Sunday’s readings. In 2 Samuel 7, we read of God’s call for David to “build Me a house to live in” (v5), a house of worship “for My people Israel… so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more.” (v10) This calling comes with a covenant attached, one of the Hebrew Bible’s greatest promises, often celebrated in songs like Psalm 89 that venerate David as the channel by whom God establishes Israel’s perpetuity. “My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him: and in My name his horn shall be exalted,” verse 21 says (giving Freudians among us pause). “Once and for all I have sworn by My holiness; I will not lie to David. His line shall continue for ever, and his throne endure before me like the sun. It shall be established for ever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies,” verses 35-37 sing. In exchange for David’s obedience in building God’s house, God promises Israel will always have a home where its people will dwell in unity.
When we turn to the Christian texts, however, we crash into the fragile nature of unified faith, realizing magnificent houses of worship amount to nothing if those dwelling inside them aren’t united. Of course, Jesus has no church; the great outdoors is His cathedral and He turns hillsides, lakeshores, and boat decks into pulpits. This presents a constant problem for Him and His disciples, as crowds engulf Jesus wherever He goes. Mark 6.31 tells us the multitudes become so overwhelming that “they had no leisure even to eat.” They try to break away, sailing across the lake. But word that Jesus is on the move spreads quickly and by the time He and the disciples reach the other side, people have rushed to get there ahead of them. “As He went ashore,” verse 34 tells us, “He saw a great crowd; and He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things.” Seeing Jesus in the flesh—and watching Him work wonders in the flesh of others—draws the crowd to Him. But it is His teaching that binds them together.
This brings us to Ephesians 2.11-22, where Paul paints the lamentable picture of a burgeoning faith community that confesses Christ as its Shepherd, yet persists in behaving like unpastored sheep. We’re back in the flesh wars here, as Paul strives to neutralize the circumcision debate for what must feel like the nth time. And to get us as close as possible to the heat of this controversy, suppose we paraphrase his premise in its crudest terms. “This obsession with genitals is utter nonsense,” he says. “Your flesh means nothing now that you are in Christ. And if you make flesh your focus, your very skin becomes a barrier that destroys unity within the Body.” Now let’s return to the text, adding emphasis to drive home Paul’s message: “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.” (v14)
Answering Christ’s unparalleled call to a community of righteousness insists that we overcome our fascination with what’s below the waist and practice peace that only exists in Christ’s flesh. Male or female, straight or gay, celibate or partnered, circumcised or not—these issues create hostile barriers that Jesus suffered and died in the flesh to eradicate. It is through His death and resurrection that we, as Christ’s Body, are gathered. It is through the bread and wine that we are united in Christ’s flesh. Until we let go this centuries-old skin game we’re addicted to, we’ll be no different than the hordes that chase Jesus from coast to coast. We’ll be like sheep who've lost their Shepherd, and nothing like the magnificent cathedral Paul describes in Ephesians 2.20-22, “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 you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.”
Will we be gathered and shepherded in Christ? Or will we continue to clash over skin? Will we persist in building walls of flesh that tear us apart? Or will we find Christ’s peace and be built together into God’s dwelling-place? If we attend closely to Sunday’s texts, these questions should answer themselves.
As a result of our infantile flesh obsessions, we’ve become like sheep who’ve lost their Shepherd—like magnificent houses of worship fallen into ruin.
Post-Script: Before You Go…
I realize I’ve thrown a lot at you and impinged on your time with a longer-than-usual post. But before you go, I invite you to take two minutes and let today’s readings settle while watching this simple video I put together. Nothing dazzling here—just footage of sheep on an Irish hillside set to the worship song, “He Is Our Peace”. If you can spare the time, I believe it will help bring today’s reflection to a peaceful, reassuring conclusion.
Podcast link: http://straightfriendly.podbean.com/2012/07/21/flesh/