“Come apart and rest a while.” It sounds so wonderful and refreshing just to imagine Christ saying that to us. This Gospel is used at a lot at retreats…which always seems strange, because as soon as Christ and the apostles get away from everybody they are immediately swamped by people again. The only time they have apart is the time where they are all rowing together and looking for a place to stop. Actually, I think the whole thing is kind of Christ’s plan. Hey you think you need a break – look at how desperate these people are out there. They are longing to be led. You might be tired….in fact you might be even more tired physically now that you’ve been rowing, but you already have what they want: you have a purpose….You have a leader.
Actually, the word retreat when used to describe the act of taking some time away to pray is a little strange in itself. Retreat is a military term. And militarily it’s not something that you are supposed to want to do. You would never start off a battle with a retreat. There’s the old fighting spirit that this or that team “Never calls retreat!” But, retreat is not the same thing as surrender. Surrender involves the leader or a delegation from the leader going to meet the opponents and giving up. Retreat on the other hand involves the leader taking his side in the direction away from the opponents as quickly as possible to find cover, so that they might keep on fighting. The idea is to regroup, to treat the wounded, to reflect on the mistakes that have been made, address weaknesses, and to make a new strategy to win.
Christ has called us sheep, not soldiers – but yet He still calls us forth to battle. Spiritual warfare is different from the material warfare of this world. In a worldly battle – fighting a material enemy is all about divide and conquer. Dividing an army from their supplies of food and ammunition, breaking down their lines of communication so that their leader cannot get the message to the troops, and finally separating sinew from bone with the sword and soul from body. Fighting our spiritual enemy is all about uniting to un-conquer – or to liberate. Yes, Christ desires to unite His people to Himself, but not as their tyrant, as their Divine Bridegroom. We will find our greatest freedom in unity with Him. And not only freedom, but when we finish today’s scene next week, Jesus will show how He is the new supply line of food when He multiplies the bread and fish. He ultimately gives us His Spirit – the perfect communication of God’s presence to us. In His Cross and Resurrection, He will reunite Flesh and Blood for the victory of New Life.
Still, even with Christ as our shepherd – today, if we thought of Christianity as a team – the papers have been trashing our team and given up on our chances. We had a lot of promise, but it looks like our Shepherd is not around. Things seem pretty dark. In the first reading, God takes the shepherds of His people to task and in our own day leadership has come under fire. Many of the sheep are scattered. Well, I went and looked through some clips of famous half-time speeches. One of the coaches rallied his men by stating that “this game is not for nice people.” In a way, that is very true. As Christians, we are certainly not supposed to be mean. But we are supposed to get in the thick of things. We could only be “nice” if we stayed on the sidelines. Alexander the Great once said, “I’m not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I’m afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” Christ always has the heart of a lion who tells us the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force. Perhaps this very week we can besiege heaven with our prayers and lead others off the sidelines – away from simply being respectable and nice and into some form of charitable service.
You know it’s so easy to get down on our condition and the lack of goodness in culture. I’m guilty. Another coach put it simply: “Great moments are born from great opportunity.” What we have is a great opportunity within the darkness of our world. It might seem crazy – why would God let His Church become so battered? Yes, many sheep seem adrift. People in our own families and friends have lost their sense of direction. But, we who are here have a tremendous opportunity. The pressure builds from the outside (and even from the inside) – but it can push us to make an act of complete trust in Christ and move us to love each other in the Spirit knowing that our lives depend on our faith. Jesus has called us to have the very unity that He shares with the Father. We were never going to achieve that unity in peaceful pastures where we could all safely comfortably spread out. Is there any reasonable way to expect that if we were all doing fine that we would need that kind of unity? That kind of love? It is when the chips are down when things are so difficult on the outside and we are so torn on the inside that we need to draw close to one another. Maybe that’s how the Church will begin to turn the corner. We will finally be brought into such a tight unity that others will see us and know once again that there is something unique about Christianity and sense that they are truly missing something….and through the Spirit – they will realize they are missing Someone.
Remember if physical battle ends in the death of the enemy – that is in the greatest physical division….spiritual battle is all about seeking the greatest unity: that of our hearts and minds with Christ, who is our Shepherd and our friend. He gathers, He brings us to the meadow, He helps us to increase, He knows each by name, and none of His flock shall be missing. How does He achieve this? One coach yelled out and then repeated for effect, “We didn’t come this far to get this far….we didn’t come this far to get this far.” We are in this battle till it is done. He unites us by calling us all into the spiritual unity He creates by giving Himself on the Cross. Because He is God, He is able to fulfill the Law. Because He is man we can follow Him. Because He is God, He can ascend and so our trajectory is beyond the terrain of this life. This life is a zero-sum game. If I win, you lose. In Christ, our lives find the ladder to a new terrain where you can win and I can win. If we follow the Shepherd and give everything, even when we seem to be rowing without physical relief we will find our refreshment, for His call for us to come apart to rest is only for a while so that we might the more fully come together and awaken as one.