Ephesians 2:11-22

Mark 6:30-44

I grew up in farm country, and farmers generally fall into two camps: those who use John Deere tractors and those who use International Harvester tractors. People in each of these camps swear by their brand. They wear baseball caps with one or the other logo on them. Some of them decorate their houses in green or red, depending on their brand loyalty. People who take their brands this seriously even claim that theirs is of far superior quality, as if they expect the other brand’s wheels to fall off every 300 feet or something.

People in other areas are not usually so rabid about brand differences (although they’re not usually so dependent on their equipment, either) – but some do insist on one make of pickup or snowmobile. Someone was even clever enough to come up with a set of inappropriate bumper stickers making it explicit that “my” truck brand is better than “yours.” As far as I can tell from the bumper stickers, the three U.S. truck brands are each better than the other two, like Detroit is one giant game of rock-paper-scissors. That, of course, is clearly not the case. It may be that one brand of truck (or snowmobile) is better than the others for a particular purpose, but that’s not the truth of these stickers. It’s basically about a person’s individual preference.

The cleverness is that there is marketing potential in our preferences. You can make extra money by playing the different groups off of each other. You energize the “faithful” if you can get them to identify themselves by denigrating others. That makes for an efficient use of advertising money: divide the audience, then sell your product to the people who already wanted to buy it anyway. Apparently, people are susceptible to this approach. People want to be told what they already thought. Or maybe more, they want to be told just how the people with ideas different from theirs are wrong, because that makes their thoughts even more right.

People have played each other like this since Genesis. In marketing, politics, and combat, the old rule is “divide and conquer.” We call it that for a reason. If you’re being split into a group, it’s likely that you’re being taken advantage of – or worse, sold to. People want to use our natural need to discover ourselves against us, by telling us whom to be, and more importantly, whom not to be.

This is Rome’s approach to empire (to say nothing about Britain and more recent empires). Rome liked to unify the people by dividing them against each other. They let the people do their own fighting, to keep them occupied against each other enough that they c0uldn’t unite against Rome. The empire maintained client kingdoms that were responsible for their own affairs while they competed with each other for resources and imperial favor. Rome held this all in line by military force – with the infamous Legions – but even the Legions had to be kept busy building roads and aqueducts, or they’d revolt too. Rome did all this because it worked. It kept “the peace” for years, which preserved Rome’s brand identity: unity and prosperity. There was relative peace because no one could oppose the Legions, but the “peace” depended on execution, assassination, and division.

In contrast to Rome, Jesus’ approach has an obvious marketing and leadership problem. “Unite and conquer” hasn’t gained quite the same traction as that other phrase. But uniting is what Jesus does. He sees the people wandering “like sheep without a shepherd,” and he lets his compassion lead him. Jesus takes on the shepherd’s role, to unify and feed the people as a good shepherd would, and he does so beyond what his disciples could imagine. This whole scene was beyond imagination, a miracle, God’s ways taking flesh when we pictured the world’s ways instead.

Jesus plays on Rome’s approach here. Mark’s gospel is all about showing us how Jesus’ approach is different from the world’s ways, especially those of Rome. Mark makes the point for us when he counts 5,000 men at the feeding. To Rome, 5,000 men make a Legion, a fighting unit. They’re even organized as a Legion would be – in ranks, by hundreds and fifties. To a casual observer, it would have looked like Jesus was organizing a revolt.

Roman leadership would have taken advantage of this situation. If you find a group of hungry, leaderless people, you can make them fight for their food. Kings and emperors knew not to waste an opportunity this good, with followers there just waiting to be taken advantage of. God and the prophets insisted that leaders were accountable for the people as shepherds were accountable for their flock, but that’s not how it was done most of the time. Leaders throughout history had reputations as shepherds who raided the flock – selling, fleecing, and killing the sheep they should have been protecting. That’s how it was usually done, and that’s how Rome did it. The ruler made it his prerogative to take advantage of a subordinate people.

Jesus chooses to be a different kind of shepherd, one led by compassion. He ties himself up in the plight of his sheep. Jesus actually takes care of the sheep. He brings them together, not because he wants something from them, but in order to give something to them. Jesus’ way is unity. Not the unity of a military force, but that of a heavenly people, a beloved family fed by God and feeding each other.

Jesus’ way brings us all together, beyond the categories we find in the world, beyond the insider/outsider roles that define us. He goes beyond roles like citizen or foreigner, Jew or Gentile, slave or free. These roles divide people, but nothing divides us from Christ’s love. Jesus invites us to give up our roles, to submerge them under a more profound role: Christian, follower of Christ. Rome depends on having people mistrust each other, but Christ’s unity took Christians outside Rome’s system into a new way of life.

Christians even created a new symbol of trust. As our kids learned in Vacation Bible School this week, in Rome, when Christianity was illegal, people couldn’t always trust someone else without identifying each other as Christians. So they found a symbol, which they drew in two parts. One person would make an arc, and the other would makes a second arc, to form a fish profile. This was a new way for Christians to identify each other, to find those who understood the unity we were about, and to begin living that new unity with them. This is different from other ways to be united, like business, politics, or military connections. This is a symbol of being connected to each other, not being separated from others. It’s about giving to others, about resisting sin rather than fighting for our own advancement, about living to share with others.

Jesus calls us to find that identity. We’re called to be tied to each other – tied to all people – with bonds of sharing, as we’re led by compassion. When we find walls between ourselves and others, we’re called to tear them down, to open the world to new life, to open our lives to a new way of living. We’re invited to live as sheep under one shepherd, to give ourselves to each other as he did. We’re invited into this wonderfully mysterious new way to live.

Amen.

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