TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, eternal goodness, immeasurable love, you place your gifts before us; we eat and are satisfied. Fill us and this world in all its need with the life that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
John’s gospel doesn’t spoon feed us the good news. Instead, we are given signs, metaphors, images and symbols that don’t always fit neatly together into a coherent whole. Reading this gospel is hard work. This week’s lesson tells us that Jesus is the “bread come down from heaven.” Unlike ordinary bread, it is not obtained by human labor. It is a free gift. The “work” God requires of us is to believe in Jesus. But is that really “work”? The language Jesus is using here does not set well with my Lutheran upbringing. From Sunday School through seminary I have been taught never to mention “faith” and “works” in the same breath. Yet Jesus seems to be doing just that. He is telling us that the bread which comes down from heaven is more than a simple handout. Receiving it gratefully is the work God requires of us.
Perhaps it is best to think of the bread from heaven as a precious gift that nevertheless demands much. It is not simply a cash gift that can be spent in any way the recipient pleases. Receiving the bread from heaven is more like being given a very fine violin. As a gift, it is obviously free. Yet such a gift clearly demands much of the recipient. If a violin is going to be of any use to me, I must learn to play it. Unless I happen to be one of those rare musical prodigies capable of picking up an instrument cold and making music, I will probably need years of instruction and hours upon hours of practice before I am merely proficient. If I want to become more than proficient, if I want to become a performance level violinist, I am looking at a lifetime commitment that will require much sacrifice and dedication to the instrument.
It is not surprising to me that relatively few people become accomplished musicians. Though I am not a musician myself, I have them in my family and among my friends. They know how much time goes into learning scales, practicing arpeggios and learning to read music-all of which comes before you can begin making music. They know the frustration of being stuck at a plateau in development beyond which it seems impossible to advance. They also know that every advance must be maintained by relentless practice. There is no such thing as a vacation from the instrument. Nevertheless, they tell me that making music is their greatest joy.
I believe the gift that is Jesus is a little like that. God offers us through him a restored relationship, friendship with God’s self. Friendship is not built over night. It takes time. Friendship requires a lot of energy, forgiveness, growth and patience. Friendship changes you in ways you cannot predict. Friendship is risky. You can never know the price you might have to pay for loyalty, faithfulness and love for your friend. Jesus called his disciples friends. John 15:14-15. That is a marvelous gift that demands much of us. Perhaps that is what Paul means when he urges us to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Ephesians 4:1. Maybe that is just another way of telling us to live fully and completely out of our friendship with Jesus. There is no other way to receive such a free, precious and wildly extravagant gift.
Less than two months into their new found freedom brought about by God’s marvelous, liberating miracle at the Red Sea, Israel is in a deep funk. The people are learning that freedom is in many respects more difficult than slavery. The slave knows that the master will feed him/her for no other reason than that a slave must eat to live and live to work. A slave has few weighty decisions to make. The master makes all the decisions. A slave does not have to wonder about what tomorrow will bring. The following day brings more of the same. Cruel, burdensome and oppressive, to be sure, but at least it is predictable. By contrast, the wilderness (and freedom) is highly unpredictable. You can’t assume that you are going to find enough water to sustain your community ten miles down the road. No master will be there to give you your rations. In the wilderness, you have no choice but to place your trust in the God who brought you there.
The people of Israel were hungry. As we all know, hunger can bring out the worst in us. Such was the case for Israel. It seems the people caught a bad case of “good old days” disease. They began reminiscing about the days back in Egypt where at least they had food. “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full,” they complain. Vs. 3. I doubt that, as slaves, they really were that well fed. But that is how it is when you look back at the past through rose colored glasses. Everything was better back then. The church was so full we had to set up chairs in the aisles to accommodate everyone. The Sunday School was filled with kids-and they behaved themselves better and had more respect than kids these days. Neighborhoods were friendlier. City streets were safer. Food tasted better. On and on it goes. Was the past really all that wonderful? Of course not! The Israelites were slaves. Had they forgotten so soon what it was like to be treated like cattle? Evidently, they had forgotten and that should not surprise us overly much. Good old days disease is as much a part of our age as it was in Biblical times. As Barbra Streisand sang in the movie, The Way We Were,
Memories, may be beautiful and yet
What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget
That is the problem with the “good old days.” Our selective memories make the past seem a lot rosier than it really was. We fall into the trap of measuring the present against a past that is no more real than the Emerald City of Oz.
Furthermore, “good old days” disease represents more than just delusional thinking. It constitutes rebellion against our God. “This is the day which the Lord has made,” says the Psalm. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118:24. Who are we to throw the gift of today back in God’s face and tell God it isn’t good enough? Who are we to reject the time and place where God now places us and sit pouting because our memories of some other time and place seem better? God calls us to a new day. Our stubborn insistence on remaining in the old one needs to be named for what it is: sin.
That said, the journey from slavery into freedom is long and difficult. The people of Israel spent forty years in the wilderness on the way to Canaan. The way was slow and fraught with dangers. Sometimes it seemed as though they were not making any progress. Sometimes they appeared to be going nowhere. Often it seemed that they were losing ground. The life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us is no different. Perhaps that is why Paul and other New Testament writers employed the stories of Israel’s wilderness wandering as metaphors for that life. It is hard to believe that Jesus is leading us into a new creation when our bodies increasingly show their age, our energy level isn’t what it used to be and it seems as though the best years of our lives are behind us. It is hard to believe that Jesus is leading his church for the sake of the world when that church looks increasingly fractured, divided and marginalized. It is precisely when the going gets rough, when we see no evidence of progress and there seems to be no end in sight that the temptation to look back is strongest. But the scriptures warn repeatedly that there is nothing for us in the past and that the only way given to us is forward.
Of course, the good news here is that God can be trusted to provide for our needs along the way. Our needs may not be the same as our wants. Perhaps quail is not what Israel would have chosen from a more varied menu. The manna may have been sweet as honey, but even the bread of angels can become tiresome after forty years. Yet it was enough to sustain Israel throughout her journey and that is what Jesus promises as well. As the gospel for this Sunday points out, Jesus is our “bread from heaven” that sustains us.
Our psalm for this Sunday is but a snippet from a much longer saga reciting Israel’s history from the Exodus to the rise of King David. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 78 in its entirety.
This is one of the historical psalms in the psalter. It is similar in form and structure to Psalm 105 and Psalm 106 of the same genre. Historical psalms were employed by Israel chiefly in her commemorative celebrations, i.e., Passover, Day of Atonement, Feast of Booths, etc. They celebrate the acts pivotal to Israel’s self-understanding. Accordingly, the historical psalms also serve a didactic (teaching) purpose. In learning these psalms, each new generation internalized the great acts through which God displayed salvation to Israel and made her the unique nation she was.
The faith of Israel was unique in the ancient near east. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians and Israel’s Canaanite neighbors saw the power of the divine chiefly in the realm of nature. Thus, their religion was built around the natural cycles of birth and death, seedtime and harvest, summer and winter. Their worship revolved around mythical themes of creation, the interaction of the gods behind the cosmic forces of death and life at work in the change of seasons. By contrast, Israel experienced the salvation of her God through God’s mighty acts in her history. Though Israel also recognized the cyclical processes of nature critical to agricultural existence, her worship gave meaning to these cycles through recitation of historical events taking place not in some distant mythical past, but in the realm of human events. Israel celebrated her deliverance from Egypt, the conquest of the land of Canaan, the establishment of the royal house of David and the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Her worship and world view were anchored in these historical watersheds rather than in cosmic battles between the gods at the dawn of time.
The section of this lengthy psalm constituting our reading echoes in poetic form the lesson from Exodus. The story is not all sweetness and light as one might suppose from reading only the verses given us by the lectionary. Verses 17-22 point out that the gracious outpouring of mana and quail comes in spite of some serious provocation:
Yet they sinned still more against him,
rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
They tested God in their heart
by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God, saying,
‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
Even though he struck the rock so that water gushed out
and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread,
or provide meat for his people?’
Furthermore, God’s carrot is accompanied by a stick:
But before they had satisfied their craving,
while the food was still in their mouths,
the anger of God rose against them
and he killed the strongest of them,
and laid low the flower of Israel.
Vss. 30-31. Once again, the lectionary folks are doing their best to spare our left leaning, mainline protestant, upper middle class, ever white and ever polite sensibilities by excising all references suggesting that God might be something other than the gray-bearded slightly senile, over-indulgent grandfather that can be inoffensively slipped into our cultural landscape without disrupting the architectural skyline. Obviously, there is a serious disconnect between the God of the scriptures and the inoffensive god we would like to believe in who, like elevator music, fills in the uncomfortable silences but otherwise remains in the background. No wonder church attendance in mainline denominations is in decline. In fact, it is a wonder that anyone still comes! Just as nobody would waste time and money for a concert performance of background music pipped in over a third rate sound system, it is hard to imagine how anyone could become the least bit interested in such a boring god.
The psalm makes the point that God’s love for Israel (and the church, too, for that matter) is not a philosophical disposition shorn of all passion and feeling. The God of Israel’s love is passionate, jealous and intense. Anyone who has ever been in love knows how close anger lies at hand. Nobody can hurt us as deeply as those we love. God’s anger against us is the measure of God’s love for us. The sad reality is that God’s acts of mercy and kindness are too quickly forgotten. Too often we approach God with a sense of entitlement rather than gratitude and trust. Our demands take precedence over God’s commands. Our prayers resemble letters to Santa Clause, filled with our own self-centered demands. Yet God’s passionate love for us never grows cold. Even God’s judgment is designed to melt our cold hearts and re-ignite our trust. This psalm “makes evident how closely God’s grace and his judgment are related to each other.” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Commentary (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 541.
The historical recitation in Psalm 78 culminates with God’s selection of David as Israel’s king.
[God] chose his servant David,
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from tending the nursing ewes
he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel, his inheritance.
With upright heart he tended them,
and guided them with skillful hand.
The rise of the monarchy in Israel was surrounded by controversy. The prophet and judge, Samuel, was appalled when the people demanded appointment of a king to rule over them so that they might “be like the other nations.” I Samuel 8:4-5. After all, God called Israel to be unlike the other nations. In a culture that regarded kings as equal to gods, only the Lord was worthy of the title “king.” Much of the prophetic tradition in Israel remained critical of the monarchy and saw it as a betrayal of all that Israel was called to be. Nevertheless, there is also in the Hebrew Scriptures an express belief that God’s covenant with David and the rise of his Kingdom was a saving event to be celebrated with thanksgiving. Psalm 78 is an example of this pro-monarchy sentiment.
We saw an echo of this pro-monarchy enthusiasm in last Sunday’s gospel when the crowd of five thousand, having eaten their fill of the loaves and fishes Jesus blessed, sought to take him and make him king by force. Clearly, Jesus must be the one sent by God to shepherd his people Israel. Had he not, as the psalm says, “rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven”? Vs. 24. Yet Jesus seems intent on not becoming a king like David-or at least the kind of king the people were seeking. That becomes clear as Jesus speaks in this Sunday’s gospel about the true bread from heaven he has come to offer.
For my general comments on the Letter to the Ephesians, see my post of Sunday, July 12, 2015. At this point in the letter, Paul turns to a description of what life in Christ looks like. The remarkable thing about this text describing life in the church is the total lack of hierarchy. In virtually every other organization, be it social, political or religious, the key question always comes down to “Who is in charge?” In the Body of Christ, however, the key issue is “What is your gift?” “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one God and Father of us all.” Vs. 5. Though the church is made up of individual members, each has his or her own “gift.” The gifts, however they may differ from one another, have one purpose: “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Vs. 3.
Much scholarly debate has swirled around the enumeration of these gifts in verse 11. Some interpreters maintain that the apostles, evangelists, teachers and pastors represent offices in the church. Others maintain that these reflect natural gifts recognized by the community and exercised by individuals in non-structured communities. Lincoln, Andrew T., Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary (c. 1990 by Word Incorporated) p. 233; Fischer, K.M., Tendenz und Absicht des Ephersbriefs, (c. 1973 by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) pp. 21-39. Whichever the case may be, it is clear that the gifts are not intended to enhance the recipient, but to strengthen the unity of the church. Vss. 15-16. So what matters is not who has which gift, but how the gift is used. A pastor that pushes through an educational program that interests him or her, but does not meet the needs of the church is not rightly exercising the gift of ministry. A council officer that manages to get a new addition to the church building erected, but in doing so causes dissent and division throughout the congregation might be improving upon the structure of a building, but he or she is not “building up the Body of Christ.” Vs. 12. That does not mean, of course, that we all walk on egg shells and do nothing for fear of offending anyone. Sometimes uncomfortable truths need to be spoken. Often the mission of the church must take precedent over deeply valued traditions in the congregation. Correction and reproof is part and parcel of living together in love. The church will necessarily deal with divisive and controversial topics. But unlike the rest of the world where the most powerful personality prevails and issues are often settled by a simple up or down vote, we are a community determined to take whatever time is needed to arrive at a resolution and course of action that everyone can live with-even if it means sacrificing “progress.” Getting together is more important than getting ahead. For that sort of living, we need a lot of lowliness, forbearance, patience and meekness. Vs. 2.
More than any other epistle in the Pauline corpus, Ephesians highlights the cosmic purpose of the church as a sign of God’s intent to unite not merely Jews and Gentiles, but “to fill all things” with Christ. Vs. 10. “God gives Christ as head over all to the Church and it becomes his instrument in carrying out his purpose for the cosmos. The readers are to see themselves as part of this Church which has a universal role and which is to be a pledge of the universe’s ultimate unity in Christ.” Lincoln, supra at 248. In a religious landscape increasingly dominated by “personal salvation,” individual pseudo-psychological “self-help” and individual “spirituality,” Ephesians sounds a countercultural call to lose the self in a corporate life of discipleship that isn’t all about “me.” The church’s calling is to continue corporately the life Jesus lives in the world, embracing all of the hostility such life invariably provokes.
As you may recall from last week’s gospel, Jesus had to withdraw from the crowd of five thousand he had just fed as they were seeking to take him by force and make him king. The disciples set out for the other side of the Sea of Galilee that same evening. Jesus later rejoined them in their boat on the Sea and they arrived in Capernaum. Some of the five thousand pursued Jesus and found him there on the other side of the Sea. Now they are curious as to how Jesus was able to get himself across the sea without a boat, but Jesus cuts right to the chase. “You are here because you ate your fill. Not because you saw signs.” Vs. 26. Of course, the people had, in fact, seen a remarkable sign. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they witnessed a miracle only. They do not understand that the feeding was a sign; that the drama unfolding in the wilderness of Galilee was intended to reflect the wilderness of Sinai where the children of Israel wandered for forty years depending on the Lord for each day’s sustenance. The fact that they demand from Jesus a sign as proof of his claims demonstrates how thoroughly they have missed the meaning of what they experienced in the wilderness. They were looking for a way out of the wilderness to restored national power and prosperity. Jesus offers them a restored relationship with the Lord who promises to give them abundant life in the midst of the wilderness. That is the true bread that comes down from heaven.
It is obvious that the crowed has misunderstood the story related in our first lesson from the Book of Exodus. The people credit Moses with providing their ancestors with bread in the wilderness and they hope that Jesus will do the same. But Jesus points out that it was not Moses, but the Lord who provided for the children of Israel. Faith in Moses or any other human leader is misplaced. Furthermore, fixation on things like bread that ensure mere survival is insufficient. One does not live by bread alone. Life that is abundant and eternal flows from a vital relationship of trust in the God who alone can give us such life.
So what is this “bread” that comes down from heaven? It is Jesus, plain and simple. There is no “work” demanded by God as a price for this bread. It has already been freely given and now stands in the questioners’ very presence. The “work,” such that it is, amounts simply to “believing in the one God sent.” Vs. 29. Belief, of course, is not mere ascent to a theological proposition. To believe in Jesus is to trust Jesus; to live out of a relationship of faith in his promises. But this is God’s work, not our own. God wins our trust and strengthens our faith by consistently demonstrating his own faithfulness to us.
This is one of many instances throughout John’s gospel in which Jesus uses the “I am” construction (in Greek, “Ego eimie”). This “I am” of Jesus echoes the “I am” spoken to Moses in response to his inquiry about God’s name. God replies “I am that I am” or, as some translators put it, “I will be who I will be.” Exodus 3:13-15. This statement is less an ontological assertion about God than it is a declaration that God demonstrates who God is by God’s acts of faithfulness to the covenant with Israel as shown by what follows immediately thereafter. God instructs Moses: “Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying: I have given heed to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.’” Exodus 3:16-17. So too, the full significance of the “I am” Jesus pronounces will become clear only when he completes the work his Father has sent him to do. Not until he is “lifted up” will Jesus’ glory as the only Son of the Father be made known. John 12:27-36.