Imagine with me for a moment or two;
there is about to be a royal tour or a rock star on tour or the Dali Lama or Desmond Tutu.
It doesnt matter so much which figure with the mass attraction it is.
You can imagine the sort of scenes they seem to generate.
People gather we want to see the flesh and blood of such people for ourselves, often just to have been there, to be a part of the spectacle.
With the gathered people there is a sense of expectation and excitement, even if its just to see the person go by.
With the excited people, thronging, there is expectant talk and there are stories told.
And along with all this, these days are the security people, the barriers, the photographers, the camera crews and hoards of people with official passes swinging around their necks.
Have you been in a scene like this?
In this section of Marks gospel, Jesus is the one at the centre of the Palestinian paparazzi. He seems to be a crowd magnet.
Wherever he goes, Jesus has a multitude gather, needy people, sick people, outcast people, and just people wanting to hear and see and learn from Jesus. But Why?
Was he attractive because of the family he was born into?
The gospels give a plain no there, Jesus birth was suspect and his family think hes mad a few chapters back in Marks account.
Was Jesus attractive because he had long golden flowing hair and beard, chiseled features (like we see in so many Italianate paintings)? If it were the case, the gospels dont bother to mention it at all. What we do know is that they came.
Many people came, flooded out to see and hear him, they came from the towns and the countryside and they chased him from, one side of lake Galilee to the other.
Ill come back to the story and its questions in a moment.
But I want to draw a sharp contrast with our present experience first.
In western cultures like ours there is no rush to hear Christian teaching. Healer, helper, mystic or guru, teachers and prophetic voices are suspect, left to the zealots and ridiculed far away from the mainstream. Those who are attracted we pity. We think of victims of religious novelties.
In our times Mission has a generally malodorous taint and for the majority faith is a nebulous and often useless commodity. We prefer to be occasional consumers of a spirituality that suits us, at a time of our choosing.
And then only if we perceive it to be of benefit to ourselves.
Our consumerist cherry picking from the traditional tables of faith becomes more and more spasmodic. Churches close, congregations collapse under the weight of financial pressure. We lament that family and friends are no longer here, or attending anywhere, that generations have opted out.
And lament we should!
Christian critics on the conservative side say, "see what we have done, numbers are down, weve lost influence and power, we must return to our old traditions and ways or else the church is doomed." While critics on the progressive side say, "see what our traditional practices led to, numbers are down, weve lost influence and power, we must change more or be doomed."
Both are unattractive, wrong perspectives, and partly right too.
Jesus drew crowds, not because of a tradition of crowds, not because of deception or a slick modern program of entertainment. No, they were attracted because he was good news. He actually did good things, taught helpfully, helped compassionately. People came because they were healed, restored, taught and welcomed.
Jesus didnt take from the people, he gave and loved and after equipping, sent them on to do the same for others, in what must be the most profound mark of trust and respect.
In Mark's gospel, the story we heard concerned the disciples who had just been out on their first mission putting their faith into practice. They come back to Jesus full of stories.
Jesus response to their return is a pastoral one.
"He said to them, come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." They went away in the boat to a deserted place, Mark tells us.
You see, Jesus himself knew what it was like to be active in the work of Gods kingdom - to teach and to meet peoples needs. The gospels often tell us that he went to a quiet place or up a mountain to pray - to be by himself, to have some time out.
Jesus concern for his disciples then, and today, is for our well being, a well being that includes human needs. He knew the need for balance, for rest and for food, for reflection and for having the spiritual batteries recharged.
It's interesting that even this drawing aside is something the disciples were expected to do together, not an individual private thing, but something to do as part of the community of faith, it's a retreat rather than a hermitage and perhaps there's a hint for us here that the development of our faith, our formation as disciples and even our spirituality and life of prayer are developed as we share with other Christians, in community, in the same task as we are called to be about the same mission a mission of being and doing the good news as Jesus did.
And its here that Pauls words from Ephesians really find their mark.
In striking words he asks the Christian church to remember that once you were "without Christ", once aliens, once strangers and without God - once we were disconnected from the source of life, once we were not a community, together in Christ. But through Christ, who has broken down the walls between us, we are reconciled, brought together, the peace is made. In him, says Paul, "the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God."
Well thats lofty stuff, if ever Ive met it.
And I suspect the essence of his is what our western mainstream traditions have lost a focus on, or perhaps, never had much of at all.
You and me together, we, the body of Christ, the church in this place, are to be of such a quality of togetherness that God will be seen to dwell among us!
Im not sure how long that might take to really sink in?
"We are to be of such a quality of togetherness that God will be seen to dwell among us!"
It might take a lifetime to sink in, ... and another to put into practice!!!
But then it is Christ that is the cornerstone who gives the shape to it all and who hold the structure together not us, thankfully!! And it is the very Spirit of Jesus Christ who enables and empowers the whole enterprise. Attraction to Jesus, as we see it in the gospel, is meant to translate into attraction to Christs church.
However we look at it, the nature of our togetherness is unquestionably important!
Like us, Jesus and his disciples werent always together, he sent them out to get on with the job, to put their faith into practice, but he also received the back to reflect and share and retreat together.
So here as we gather as Christs body, to reflect, to celebrate, to pray together, the question is most pointed.
Where is our faith exercised, and in what ways do we come together to retreat? What is the pattern of our going out, and what is the nature of our togetherness?
Is this a place where God is seen to dwell?
And then there is the ecumenical question.
Perhaps it might sound like this?
"the tourist says to his guide, you must be very proud of your city, I was so impressed by the number of churches you have. The people here must really love the Lord. Well, replies the guide, that may be so, but they sure cant get along together.
When the Christian church has made itself the butt of jokes and the front pages of the papers for all the wrong reasons the quality of our togetherness is obviously strained and it is little wonder that not many from outside the church are seeing this as a place where God dwells.
Jesus mission though, was not all plain sailing either.
Faith has always attracted controversy, always upset some, always been misunderstood by many - perhaps theres something healthy to come from all this?
It's worth remembering too that Jesus and his disciples had their intentions to rest and reflect thwarted on the occasion quoted.
He was very weary. His was an exhausting ministry. He said to his friends: "Come away with me to a lonely place, and rest a while."
He went to that unpopular shore looking for a bit of peace and quiet. Yet when he arrived, another crowd of human needs found him there, and he did not send them away. He let them invade his space. His love still included them.
It is that incomparable Jesus who always welcomes us, allows us to celebrate life in joy or grief. He is the one who is there for people, even on his day off. This Christ enables us to go on celebrating even in the most adverse circumstances.
Jesus and his followers lived in the real world of interruptions and human need and pressures, just like we do - and sometimes our needs may get put off, but part of the balance of putting our faith into action has to be in the drawing aside with Jesus.
Only there is our direction, our rest, our fellowship, the equipping we need and our purpose.
Only there is the authentic pattern of Christian life and service, the shaping of a people who will do and be Gods good news in the world.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen