Archive for August, 2015
FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our strength, without you we are weak and wayward creatures. Protect us from all dangers that attack us from the outside, and cleanse us from all evil that arises from within ourselves, that we may be preserved through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Our lessons this week focus on what is “clean” and “unclean;” on what qualities are required of one who would approach a holy God in worship; and on what it means to “keep your soul diligently” by obeying the Commandments. These were deep concerns of the Pharisees who, I believe, have gotten a bum rap from Christian preachers over the centuries. These folks were mindful that their call to be God’s chosen people set them apart from all other nations, tribes and peoples. They understood that their lives were to reflect the generosity and compassion God had demonstrated toward them throughout their history. The rituals they observed were designed to remind them that each moment of every day belonged to the Lord; each activity was an opportunity for worship; all the good things in daily life were gifts from the generous hand of a God who never tires of giving. It comes in poor grace for us mainline protestants, whose lives differ so little from those around us that no one would know we were affiliated with a church unless they bothered to ask, to criticize the Pharisees for desiring to give expression to their identity as God’s people. I could wish that my own church were a bit more “Pharisaic.”
But there is a danger inherent in pursuing holiness. In their zeal to keep the Torah, the Pharisees developed “the traditions of the elders.” These statutes, though not specifically grounded in Torah, nevertheless spelled out what the teachers of the law believed to be the natural implications of Torah obedience. These rules formed a “hedge” around the Torah to ensure that nobody ever got close enough to the commandments to break them. The problem is that they also prevented one from getting close enough to keep them. Sometimes faithfulness to the traditions blinded the Pharisees to the demands of the law and even provided convenient excuses for avoiding the divine commandments. What is “legal” does not always equate with what is “holy.”
What was true of the Pharisees is no less so for Christians. White evangelical Christians experience scruples over baking a cake for the reception of a same sex wedding yet, according to a recent poll, they also overwhelmingly support a presidential candidate who promises to boot eleven million resident aliens out of the country if elected. Can you guess which of these two activities the Bible actually condemns? If you are in doubt, check out Leviticus 19:33-34. Apart from the requirement of leaving the yeast out of Passover bread, I can’t find any other passages that regulate baking. Oddly enough though, Saint Paul tells us that “if your enemy is hungry, feed him…” Romans 12:20. So it seems to me that, even if you do regard a same sex couple as the enemy, baking a cake for them is precisely what you should be doing. Amazing what you learn when you actually read the Bible instead of letting politicians tell you what it says!
The sad truth is that Christians are just as guilty (perhaps more so) of reading the Bible through the lens of their preconceived, culturally conditioned notions of “clean” and “unclean” as were the Pharisees. We have allowed our economic interests, professional ambitions, racial prejudices, cultural biases and national loyalties to distort the commandments into instruments of hatred and exclusion. We are allowing the good news of Jesus Christ to be drowned out by the self-righteous, preachy-screechy moralism of an angry minority imagining that its own self-made “values” embody God’s commands. Jesus is speaking directly to us in this week’s gospel: “you have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” Mark 7:9.
I don’t believe the Pharisees were entirely off base. They recognized that, for followers of a God who frees the slave, cares for the oppressed and seeks the good of the least, some things truly are unclean and must be avoided. They were simply confused, as are we, about what those things are. So perhaps we ought to ask, what is truly unclean for us? The automobiles we drive that contribute to global warming and ecological imbalance? The food we consume that is produced at bargain prices by undervalued and underpaid labor? The television programs and movies that flood our living rooms with violence, exploitive sex and stimulate our endless appetite for unsustainable consumption? Firearms designed for no other purpose than to kill people?
In the final analysis, the critical question is not so much about what is to be avoided as what is to be pursued. Jesus has told us that the two greatest commandments (which in reality are one command) are to love God and to love our neighbor. Nowhere is God’s holiness better seen than in the face of another created in God’s image. There is no other way to love God than loving God’s creatures. These love commands determine the shape of any and all tradition-not the other way around.
The Book of Deuteronomy is the fifth and last of the five making up the “Books of Moses” or the “Pentateuch.” Literally translated, the word “Deuteronomy” means “second law-giving.” In fact, however, the orations given by Moses reflect not so much a different law as an application of the same law given at Sinai to Israel’s new circumstances. More than a recitation of the statutes given in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, the orations of Moses in Deuteronomy articulate a unique polity under which Israel is to live and by which she is to be distinguished from the rest of the world’s nations. Like other books in the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy is a work that was completed in several stages. Though sources incorporated into the final product are likely much older, the book itself was likely completed at some point between the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 721 B.C.E. and the return of the Exiles from Babylon around 535 B.C.E. Scholars generally agree that parts of Deuteronomy are related to the book discovered in the Temple archives during the reign of King Josiah beginning in 621 B.C.E. See II Kings 22:3-13. The book as a whole, however, appears to have been addressed specifically to the returning Babylonian exiles as they set about reconstituting and rebuilding their communal existence.
Deuteronomy’s literary setting is the conclusion of Moses’ life and ministry. Israel stands poised to cross the Jordan River and enter into Canaan. The years of living as wandering nomads have come to an end. Israel’s settled future as a nation in its own right is about to begin. The critical question is: what sort of nation will Israel be? At the dawn of history, Cain asked God rhetorically, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9. That cold indifference characterized humanity’s efforts to unite the world through empire. All such human endeavors ultimately crumble under the weight of human pride leaving the world divided by language, tribe and nation. Genesis 11:1-9. Israel got a taste of imperial life at the bottom of the societal food chain during her years of slavery in the land of Egypt.
Moses makes clear to Israel that God did not liberate her from Egypt and bring her safely through the wilderness only to create another Egypt, another oppressive empire living off the forced labor of its oppressed subjects. Israel is not to be distinguished by its commercial success or its military might. When the nations of the world look to Israel they are not to be terrified of its power or dazzled by its wealth. Instead, they will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” vs. 6. “For what great nation is there,” asks Moses, “that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us; whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?” Vss. 7-8. Israel’s greatness lies in her recognition that the earth is the Lord’s. Her possession of the land is a gift given not in perpetuity, but as a sacred trust to be used for the greater glory of her God. Israel is not to replicate Egypt by enslaving the resident aliens within her borders (or booting them out and building a fence against them for that matter). Instead, she is instructed to “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:19. Furthermore, Israel is to be a nation without poverty. Disparity in wealth there may be, but Israel’s statutes and ordinances governing commerce and agriculture ensure that no one must ever go without the necessities of life: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 23:22. Moreover, “If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” Deuteronomy 15:7-8.
Jesus also made it clear to his disciples that they were to be an alternative community modeling a different way of living together. “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45. The community of disciples is subject to a kingdom without borders. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, straight nor gay, legal nor illegal, criminal nor law abiding citizen. See Galatians 3:28. All of these are called to be one body of which Jesus Christ is the head.
Archeologists have recovered a number of religious inscriptions instructing worshippers in the ancient world concerning the preparations to be made and conditions to be fulfilled before entering a shrine or temple. These texts usually set forth a list of cultic requirements for cleansing, proper ritual attire and acceptable offerings. Our psalm focuses instead on traits of character and ethical conduct as critical for determining worthiness to approach the Lord in worship. See Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 65. The requirements for approaching the Temple have less to do with placating the desires of a ritualistically finicky deity than they do with conduct of the worshiper toward his or her neighbor. There is much that could be said about the importance of truthful speech, faithful friendship, speaking well of one’s neighbor and honoring one’s promises. But I want to focus on just one characteristic of the righteous worshiper that caught my eye this week.
The one worthy to approach the Lord in worship does not put out his money at interest. Vs. 5. This injunction sounds a little archaic to generations raised in an economy that runs on credit. Unless we are one of the fabled 1%, most of us buy houses, cars and education for our children with money we have not yet earned. If there were no credit, I would not own a home and my children would likely not have had a college education. Hopefully, I would be able to find a rental unit within walking distance of the church. Otherwise, I would have to rely on public transportation or the kindness of my wealthier neighbors. There is no question that credit has allowed me to enjoy a lifestyle to which I could hardly aspire without it.
On the face of it, there is nothing unfair about reasonable interest. If I receive money from the bank that I have not yet earned, it is only fair that the bank be compensated for losing the use of its money for a period of time and for taking the risk that I might not be able to pay it back. But there is more than fairness at stake here. There is something fundamentally troubling about the fact that the middle class lifestyle many of us enjoy; the business opportunities that many entrepreneurs are able to seize; and the chances for making quick and easy fortunes on equities and commodities markets all are based on money which has yet to be made or on the future value of goods or business ventures that is speculative. If everything from my car to Facebook is being paid for with phony money, there is good reason not only for financial concern but for deep moral reflection. There is an element of profound self-deception here that hides the true cost of what we are purchasing and conceals the risks of the transactions we enter into. The projected cost as well as the anticipated profits from fracking for natural gas, exploiting offshore oil and building nuclear energy plants cannot possibly reflect the potential economic, environmental and geopolitical forces that might very well erase all profit and inflict losses now unimaginable. The value of the fruits and vegetables we purchase does not reflect damage inflicted on the soil and ground water by pesticides, agro fertilizers or the destabilizing effect of holding prices down through use of low cost foreign labor both here and abroad. What we should have learned in the 2008 debacle applies not only to mortgages, but to everything we purchase in a credit driven society: an economy that grows by encouraging people to spend money they don’t have to buy things they cannot afford is bound to crash sooner or later.
I am not suggesting a return to barter economy. Nor am I suggesting that you all go out and cut up your credit cards (though in some extreme cases, that is actually good advice). I do believe, though, that in this time and place when everyone is fixated on “the economy,” people of faith need to go beyond the sterile debate over how best to revive it and begin questioning the fundamental assumptions that underlie our economic relationships and whether those assumptions ring true. A righteous economy is one that values all things genuinely and elevates the well-being of creation and human community over profit.
First, a word or two about the Book of James: Though styled as a letter, the book reads more like a string of sermonetts on different topics. There is no lack of debate among scholars as to whether James, the putative author of the letter, was actually the brother of Jesus we meet in Acts addressing the earliest disciples of Jesus, or a disciple of James writing in his name to a second or third generation Christian community, or some other Christian leader named James. Though many of the teachings in the book are close and even identical to sayings of Jesus, Jesus is mentioned only twice.
Scholars have argued for centuries about the theme and structure of the Book of James. Some commentators insist that there is no structure and that the Book is simply an anthology of loosely connected admonitions. Julcher, A., An Introduction to the New Testament, c. 1904 by Putnam, translated by J.P. Ward) pp. 356-358. Most commentators, however, believe that the book is held together by a structure of some sort, though they disagree over whether the structure is thematic, grammatical/syntactical (sections linked by key words or rhetorical refrains) or determined by liturgical usage. For a very thorough discussion of these formal/structural issues, see Johnson, Timothy Luke, The Letter of James, The Anchor Yale Bible, Vol. 37A (c. 1995 by Yale University Press) pp. 11-15. For a brief but thorough review of the Letter of James, its origins and content, I urge you to read the Summary Article written by James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek of Luther Seminary at enterthebible.org.
The one theme that strikes me particularly this week begins at verse 19. “Let every man be quick to hear and slow to speak.” This is at variance with the encouragement I have always been given to “speak up.” As a shy introvert, I suppose that encouragement was a salutary influence. Yet as introverted as I might be by nature, I am just as prone as anyone to let anger take the wheel of my heart. Frequently, I take issue with people before trying to understand what the issue is. Often, I am more interested in refuting people I believe to be in error than in listening carefully for whatever truth may lie at the heart of what they are saying. Even when I remain characteristically silent, that does not mean that I am listening with care. Often my silence is spent in crafting my response to an argument I have not thoroughly considered. So shy people, no less than extroverts, must take James’ warning to heart.
I have often been tempted to publicize a special event at our church inviting everyone in the community who has left the church, who is not interested in the church or who is angry at the church to come and tell us why. For our part, we would promise not to argue or even answer their charges. Our role would be simply to listen. The only thing that gives me pause is doubt about my ability to keep my mouth shut. I am sure that I would hear many criticisms of the church that seem unfair, inaccurate or misplaced. I would be tempted to jump to the church’s defense with some well-reasoned response. But that would defeat the whole purpose. The ministry of listening is just that: remaining silent; making space for people to express their hurt without having to fear retaliation; showing hospitality to strangers; and creating an environment in which reconciliation is possible. So what do you think? Are we up for this?
Finally, I am struck by the phrase, “the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.” Vs. 20. There is a lot of righteous anger out in the Christian community these days. Websites like those of the Christian Coalition, Women Concerned, Family Research Council are emitting virtual tidal waves of anger against the government, higher education, certain politicians, civic organizations, scientists, gays, lesbians and transgendered folk for reasons they can probably explain better than me. But what interests me and what is not at all evident in their propaganda is what these folks are all for. Even when they mention Jesus (which is rarely), the picture I get is a guy who is against all the things they are against. But what does he stand for besides defunding Planned Parenthood, kicking undocumented people out of the United States, shaming single mothers, driving sexual minorities back into the closet and voting liberals out of congress? The message coming out is entirely negative. This is a religion of unmitigated anger.
I don’t mean to suggest that all of this is emanating solely from the right wing of the right wing. Though I think white so called “evangelicals” have mastered institutionalized anger better than most of us, we of the mainline are not immune from the disease. I note that a good many of my own church’s social statements often spend a tad too much ink on moral outrage against racism, pollution, genocide and whatever else and a bit too little on leading us to vision of the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, the very fact that these are denoted “statements” says volumes. As James points out to us, we must be “doers of the word, not hearers only, deceiving ourselves.” Vs. 22. Speaking out against racism is likely to earn us the deserved label of hypocrite as long as we remain one of the most racially exclusive churches in the United States. Naming the sin does little for a church that does not model righteousness.
Once again, the lectionary people have so thoroughly butchered this text that I hardly know what to do with it. Generally speaking, chapter 7 of Mark begins with a dispute as to what constitutes uncleanness. The disciples’ eating with “hands defiled” sparks an argument between Jesus and the Pharisees. Vss. 1-2. Mark tells us by way of a parenthetical remark that the Pharisees do not eat without washing. Vss. 3-4. Some scholars have argued that this passage is anachronistic pointing out that, in the time of Jesus, the practice of washing utensils could only have pertained to the priests whose sustenance was the meat and fruits of ritual sacrifice. See Numbers 18: 8-13. Though not specifically commanded, the necessity of washing utensils used for the priests’ meals and the requirement of cleansing their hands was readily inferred. The ritual of hand washing for the laity is not documented anywhere in the early First Century. The most ancient Jewish writings indicating that some Jews imposed this requirement date from about 100 C.E. As pointed out by more recent commentators, however, these sources describing practices of the Second Century C.E. do not negate the possibility that the same or similar practices existed in the First Century. Mark’s gospel is competent evidence that the rule concerning washing before meals may have been advocated by some Pharisees during the time of Jesus, even if not universally accepted by all. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Henderson Publishers, Inc.) pp. 174-175; see also Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (2d Add.), Thornapple Commentaries, (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) pp. 338-339; Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) pp. 192-193.
The question of whether this story is an actual remembrance of an encounter between Jesus and some Pharisees early in the First Century or whether it reflects a dispute between the Synagogue and the church at some later time is mildly interesting, but finally misses the point. Whenever it arose, this tradition was of human origin. It should be noted that the practice of washing had nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with ritual holiness. To treat something as holy is to recognize it as having been set aside for a sacred purpose. Meals are understood in Jewish tradition as holy in just that sense. They are the medium of covenant renewal and community solidarity. You are defined by what you eat and who eats with you. That should not be at all hard to understand and appreciate for disciples of Jesus whose most significant worship activity is the Eucharist.
Jesus had no objection to ritual per se. Ritual can serve as a helpful reminder that all aspects of life are occasions for glorifying and thanking God. But ritual is distorted and burdensome when it becomes master rather than servant. When sickness or hunger prevent a child of God from enjoying the Sabbath rest God intends for all God’s creatures, it is sinful to prevent healing or preparation of food that would open the door to Sabbath rest for such excluded persons. So also common people, having only limited access to water for drinking and none for the luxury of washing (frequently the case in semi-arid climates), must still eat in order to be whole. A tradition that bars a hungry person from enjoying meal fellowship and God-given nutrition does precisely the opposite of what ritual is supposed to do.
Jesus cites the prophet Isaiah: “Because this people draws near to me with their mouth and honors me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid.” Isaiah 29:13-14. Actually, Jesus quotes only verse 13, but his hearers would have been well aware of what follows. So also would they have been aware of the verses immediately before: “And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying ‘Read this,’ he says, ‘I cannot, for it is sealed.’ And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying ‘Read this,’ he says, ‘I cannot read.’” Isaiah 29:11-12. Their rituals have sealed off the meaning of the scriptures for Jesus’ opponents rendering them unintelligible.
Excluded from the Sunday reading is Jesus’ condemnation of the use of “corban” to deny aging parents the support owed by their children under the Ten Commandments. Mark 7: 9-13. The term, “corban” means simply “dedicated to God” and, as such, holy. Just as holy food must not be handled with unwashed “common” or “unclean” hands, so property declared corban may not be used for the mundane purpose of providing for the needs of an aging parent. While the precise legal consequences and the manner of declaring something corban remain obscure, the point Jesus makes is clear. Here, too, tradition is intended to serve God’s people in honoring the great commandment to love God and love the neighbor as one’s self. When tradition is used to circumvent the requirement of the divine command, it is abused. So, too, a literal application of the law that violates its spirit is just as evil as outright disobedience.
Jesus goes on to discuss what makes a person unclean. Clearly, it is not what goes into a person, but what comes out. This theme will be repeated in the story of the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter Jesus heals in next week’s gospel lesson.
THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, your word feeds your people with life that is eternal. Direct our choices and preserve us in your truth, that, renouncing what is false and evil, we may live in you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
I have never spent more than a few days on a farm and then only as a small child. But in recent years I have gotten to know a few farmers. My conversations with them have given me a glimpse or two into what farming is like. One thing I know is that, for farmers, death is not an abstraction. Turkeys are butchered. Hogs are slaughtered. The sight, sound and smell of death permeates life on the farm. Farmers come in from work with death on their clothing, death on their hands and death under their fingernails. They cannot escape being conscious all the time of what urban folk like me conveniently forget: that the pound of hamburger, the package of drumsticks, the strip steaks and the pork chops we buy at Shop Rite were once living, breathing animals that somebody had to kill. Even those of us who are vegetarians cut down, uproot and devour what was once alive. In order for us to live, something else has to die.
So maybe it should not surprise us overly much to hear Jesus telling his disciples that their lives depend on eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Eternal life is costly. Making it available to the likes of you and me required the death of God’s Son. Having it requires internalizing Jesus which, in turn, puts us in the path of martyrdom. Paul urged the disciples in Rome to present their bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Romans 12:1. For a people whose Lord’s body was nailed to a cross, these words could not have been understood metaphorically. Rome knew well how to disfigure, torture, violate and kill human bodies. The disciples knew that imitating their Lord might well lead them into the gaping jaws of that empire. Yet such is the cost (and the privilege) of living eternally in a culture of death.
To be a disciple of Jesus is to know that you have the blood of the Lord on our hands. It is to know that you must answer “yes” to the question propounded in the old spiritual: “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?” To believe in Jesus is to understand that he died because he entrusted himself to us-and we murdered him. Yet, as it turns out, Jesus was not just another victim of injustice. Rather, he is God’s way of exposing injustice and God’s means of overcoming that injustice with God’s more infinitely powerful capacity to forgive. In the cross, we are shown to be the true victims-victims of or our own distrustful, vindictive and violent ways. We are finally saved from the whirlpool of our hate by a love that outlasts it.
This is a hard word for all who would like to believe that there really is nothing wrong with us; that the answers lie in enacting the right legislation, electing the right candidates to office or funding the right programs. It is a hard word for all who imagine that a tepid “spirituality” promising tranquility, lower blood pressure and a happier existence is a suitable substitute for living among recovering sinners seeking freedom from the addictive bondage of selfishness. Jesus’ words are hard for rugged individuals who imagine that they can truly pull themselves up by their own boot straps to a life that is eternal. Today’s gospel is bad news for mega-church leaders who fill auditoriums by preaching a happy clappy religion and imagine that they are fulfilling Jesus’ commission to make disciples. But as Peter rightly recognized, these words of Jesus, hard as they are, are the words of eternal life.
The Book of Joshua tells the story of the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land after forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Joshua, the successor to Moses, led the Israelites into Canaan where they conquered the Canaanites and redistributed the land among their own twelve tribes. The book ends with a covenant ceremony in which the people of Israel vow in the presence of Joshua and their God to forsake all other gods and “serve the Lord.” Vs. 18 That is where our reading for this Sunday fits in.
A cursory reading of the Book of Joshua could lead one to believe that Israel had, under Joshua’s leadership, thoroughly exterminated the Canaanite population from the Promised Land. A closer reading reveals, however, that the Canaanite influence remained after Israel’s entry into the land. Vs. 15. Though no longer a military threat, the Canaanite agricultural society and its underlying religion posed an even greater danger to Israel’s existence. As Israel began its transition from a tribal nomadic society to a settled farming community, a significant theological question arose: could this God who successfully led Israel out of Egypt, across the desert and into Canaan now also provide rain, protection from insect pests and other favorable conditions required for growing staple crops? Or should Israel turn to the various gods and goddesses of the Canaanites who specialize in agriculture? The choice was not as clear cut as might appear to us moderns. For ancient peoples, there was no distinguishing between the role of religion and practice when it came to planting, cultivating and harvesting. It was nearly impossible for Israel to absorb Canaanite farming methods apart from Canaanite religion. Participation in the cultic worship of the fertility goddess, Ashroth, was no less critical than fertilizing your field with manure.
We read in verse 1 that the people “took their stand before God.” The phrase recalls the seminal moment when Israel first stood before Sinai where she made her covenant with God. Exodus 19:17. The story thereby emphasizes that this covenant is not a “new” commandment, but the renewal of the covenant made before Moses at Sinai.
Shechem, the site of this covenant ceremony, is located about forty miles north of Jerusalem. It later became the first capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Some commentators see in this location the author’s/editor’s hope that this city and other territories of the Northern Kingdom destroyed by Assyria in 722 B.C.E. might be recovered by the Southern Kingdom of Judah. This hope may, in part, have inspired Hezekiah’s failed revolt against Assyria in 701 B.C.E. The northern territories were, in fact, successfully (albeit briefly) recovered by King Josiah who reigned over Judah between 640 B.C.E.-609 B.C.E. It is also possible that this text reflects a post-exilic context given Joshua’s near certainty that Israel will fail to fulfill her vow to serve the Lord only. See Fox, Everett, The Early Prophets, The Schocken Bible: Volume II (c. 2014 by Everett Fox) p. 118.
“Beyond the River” (Vs. 14) is a reference to the Euphrates and could denote either Mesopotamia or Harran, both points along Abram’s journey to Canaan. Genesis 11:31-32; Genesis 12:1-6. The point here is that the demand to abandon worship of gods other than Israel’s God is grounded in the call to the patriarchs and matriarchs. It is evident that idol worship was as much a temptation for them as for Israel. They, too, needed to be reminded to abandon their false gods. See, e.g. Genesis 35:1-4.
If you read one verse further, you will discover that Joshua is well aware of the new danger facing Israel. He is skeptical of his fellow countrymen’s ability to meet the challenge of living as God’s covenant people in the land which God has given them. Vs. 19. He can see all too well how easily the lessons learned in the wilderness, where God fed Israel each day her daily bread, could be lost now that Israel had inherited a good land capable of sustaining her. He understood how persuasive would be the appeal of Canaanite religion to a people desperate to ensure a good harvest. In time, the saving acts of God, so fresh in the minds of Joshua’s generation, might seem “irrelevant” to the generations yet to come.
Memory seems to be a key factor here. Still fresh in Israel’s memory are the saving acts of God that liberated her from slavery in Egypt and God’s provision for all of her needs as she traveled through the wilderness. Vss. 16-17. Perhaps that explains why “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua; and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work which the Lord did for Israel.” Joshua 24:31. But when memory fades, so does faithfulness. Something is lost when events pass out of living memory. It takes deliberate effort for subsequent generations to own and appropriate the lived experiences of the past. That is why Israel built into her planting, cultivating and harvesting celebrations recitals of God’s saving acts toward the patriarchs and matriarchs, toward their enslaved descendants and toward the wandering clans as they made their way to the Promised Land. It was critical that Israel’s heart be shaped by memories of God’s faithfulness to her if she was to resist the allure of Canaanite religion and culture.
Times of transition often wreak havoc upon one’s faith. Statistics demonstrate that, of those persons who leave the church, a significant number is made up of people who have moved from one community to another. Moving is a stressful and demanding process. So is the process of finding a new church home. Many reasons are given by people who have moved for neglecting worship. Lack of time and energy is one factor. Getting settled into a new home is a chore in itself. Finding a good pediatrician for the kids and getting them registered for school takes time. Changing your driver’s license, auto registration, voting registration and opening bank accounts all take their toll. Looking for a job in a new community is a full time job in itself. All of this is taxing on the psyche. For those who have made an effort to find a church, many are disappointed because the churches they visit seem less than friendly, or don’t have the programs they are looking for or “just aren’t the same as our old church.” Whatever the reasons, often the first thing people shed when they settle into a new community is their faith. So Joshua was justified in his concern that, with all the demands of settling the land of Canaan, worship of the faithful God Israel had come to know in the wilderness might fall to the bottom of the priority list.
In some respects, each new day is another entry into the Promised Land. One never knows what any given day will bring, but we believe that “it is the day the Lord has made.” Psalm 118:24. There are always the routine and anticipated aspects of the day. Sometimes it seems as though that is all there is. Yet even in the most ordinary humdrum day there usually is some element of the unexpected: the card from that friend you have not heard from in years; the call from your child’s teacher suggesting a conference; the guy in the smelly sweatshirt that approaches you asking for money as you are coming out of the grocery store. These circumstances often present us with the same choice Joshua presented to the children of Israel as they prepared to settle into Canaan: will you serve the Lord your God or some other “god”? If we are attentive, we can hear Joshua’s voice throughout our day asking us, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Vs. 15.
The psalm for Sunday is the third and last section of Psalm 34, which we have been reading for the last two weeks. My comments on the content, style and form of this psalm are found in my post for Sunday, August 9, 2015 and my post for Sunday, August 16, 2015. I would only add as a point of interest that verse 20 is prominently cited in the Gospel of John.
“Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’ And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’”
John 19:31-37. For further perspective on this psalm, you might want to read the commentary of Henry Langknecht, Professor of Homiletics at Trinity Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. This can be found at Workingpreacher.org.
In this remarkable passage Paul encourages us to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” Vs. 10. He then proceeds to turn everything we think we know about strength on its head. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood” says Paul. Vs. 12. But there are many forces in our culture telling us that our struggle is against flesh and blood. It is against liberals and socialists; against conservatives and right wingers; it is against illegal immigrants; it is against terrorists and criminals. The devil is constantly trying to convince us through a huge array of ideologies that the world can neatly be divided into good people and evil people. As long as you are on the side of good, it is acceptable to employ violence to achieve justice and defend “our” way of life whoever “we” may be. The devil would have us believe that “God is on our side” and that he, the devil, is on the side of our enemies. Of course, the devil does not take sides in human conflict. He has no stake in who controls the world or which nation triumphs over all others. As long as people are hating and killing each other, it matters not who “wins.” As far as the devil is concerned, wherever there is war he is the winner.
Saint Paul recognizes, however, that our real fight is “against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Vs. 12. In truth, the line between good and evil does not run along national, racial, religious or ethnic lines. The line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart and that is where we need to begin engaging it. We are urged to put on “the whole armor of God.” Vs. 11. Paul then uses a host of extremely militaristic images of armor and weaponry to describe the spiritual resources given to the church for its struggle against evil. Vss. 14-17. This remarkable contrast is designed to emphasize the gentle means by which God overcomes the powers of wickedness that know only violence and coercion. The only body armor the disciple of Jesus has is truth, righteousness and peace. The only shield a disciple has to withstand the violent forces of evil is faith in God’s promises. The only protection from a mortal head wound is the salvation wrought in Jesus Christ. This is the armor with which disciples of Jesus were called upon to meet the brutality of a hostile empire with armies, weapons and torture implements at its disposal. The only offensive weapons disciples of Jesus have are prayer and the Holy Spirit. Vs. 18.
So where are the principalities and powers, the hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places today? I suggest that many of them are found in the same places they were dwelling in the days of the New Testament church. They are found in the machinery of empire, the jealous sovereignty of nation states insisting that their own national interests trump global concerns for the wellbeing of all. When the “world rulers of this present age” insist that we must kill our neighbors in direct contradiction to Jesus’ call to love even our enemies and to resist not one who is evil, then we should be hearing the voice of Joshua from our Old Testament lesson crying out, “Choose this day who you will serve.” For too long, I believe, the church has sided with the principalities and powers in exchange for public support and respectability. For too long churches have confused the interests of the Kingdom of God with the interests of whichever nation they happen to reside in. The cry of “God and country” has too often muffled Joshua’s cry of either/or.
I also believe that the principalities and powers often worm their way into the life of the church. A church that values doing worship “right” over worshiping Jesus well has succumbed to the powers. A church that values maintaining its traditions over welcoming its community and allowing the Spirit to transform it has come under the influence of the principalities. A church that values survival over mission is a church that is run by the rulers of this present age. A church that values its reputation over faithful witness to the scandalous and controversial good news about Jesus Christ is a church that has lost its armor and has become fearful of taking a stand for its Lord.
Thanks be to God that in Jesus Christ we are well armed. The power of truthful speech unmasks the powers of evil urging us toward violence and hate. The good news of God’s reconciliation in Christ gives us all the ammunition we need to wage peace. Righteousness and integrity guard us from temptation, threats and intimidation. Faith, the conviction that God has already accomplished all things needful for the salvation of the world in Jesus Christ, gives us courage to endure the seeming failure of our own faithful efforts. We know that Christ promises to complete what we can only begin. Finally, through prayer and the work of God’s Spirit within us we exercise the very power that raised Jesus from death. No more potent weapon exists or is needed for the advance of God’s Kingdom.
Last week it was the crowd and Jesus’ critics who mumbled and complained because Jesus said in very graphic terms that he was the bread of life and that having life meant eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This week it is Jesus’ own disciples who are doing the complaining. Many of them, after hearing these words from Jesus, no longer followed him. vs. 66. But I have to ask, were they ever really following him to begin with? These disciples may have cheered as Jesus cleansed the Temple and rid it of corruption and commercialism. They were thrilled to receive their fill of bread in the wilderness. If this is what Jesus is doing, what’s not to like? Now, however, Jesus offers them more. He offers them his very self. But these disciples do not want anything more. They do not want Jesus. They want all the good things they think Jesus can give them. They want to be disciples of Jesus, but on their own terms. To internalize Jesus, to be sustained by him alone and to be transformed by Jesus is more than what they bargained for. They wanted Jesus to transform their unhappy circumstances, but they had no intention of letting him change them. These disciples were prepared to be admirers of Jesus, supporters of Jesus and even followers of Jesus-up to a point. But when Jesus makes it clear to them that salvation lies precisely in going beyond that point, they want nothing further to do with him.
Let’s be clear. It is not that Jesus is demanding a higher morality, a higher level of devotion or a higher level of spiritual awareness from his disciples. Jesus has already said that the only work God requires is that we trust in him. Trusting Jesus means believing Jesus when he tells us that what he has to give us is what we truly need. Jesus offers to abide in us. Abiding in Jesus means being absorbed into Jesus, transformed into the likeness of Jesus and drawn into the mission of Jesus. We don’t accomplish that on our own. Jesus offers it to us as a gift. But therein is the rub: too often we just don’t want this gift. We don’t want to internalize Jesus. We want Jesus at a distance. We want him to be there as a shoulder to cry on, a gentle presence to give us peace, a savior who is there in times of trouble, but decent enough to stay out of our way when times are good. We want a Jesus who will defend our homes and protect our soldiers, but not the Jesus who prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies and then calls upon us to invite those enemies to the feast. We want a Jesus who will change our unpleasant circumstances, but not a Jesus who wants to change our hearts and minds. As the Gospel of John has already indicated: “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19.
Jesus lost some disciples that day and he seems not to have been too worried about it. There are some kinds of followers Jesus does not need. Among them are those who are tagging along only for what they can get out of discipleship. There is a great deal of concern expressed these days about the decline in church membership among protestant denominations such my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Some folks are blaming the national church for its stances on controversial subjects. Others blame the synods for their lack of leadership. Many blame pastors for failing to speak effectively to the younger generations. We pastors, for our part, point the finger at our congregations for their lack of commitment and support. That is all counterproductive. Fixing blame for the sinking of the Titanic would not have kept it from going down and certainly will not bring it back up from the bottom of the sea. Moreover, I am beginning to wonder whether anyone is to blame or whether anything blameworthy is being done. Maybe the membership of the church is shrinking because its capacity for true discipleship is growing. Maybe we are driving people out of the church precisely because more of us are internalizing Jesus. When a church takes seriously its duty to show hospitality to the stranger regardless of the stranger’s legal status; when the church opens its doors to people who dirty its carpets, disrupt the flow of its worship and tarnish its reputation, very often long time members respond as did many of Jesus disciples in our Gospel lesson: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” Vs. vs. 60.
These days I am hearing an ever more urgent call for some strategy, some new change of direction, some marketing ploy that will “turn the church around.” If by that we mean turning away from sin and turning toward Jesus and the new life he offers, then I am all for it. But if “turning the church around,” means only that we grow our membership by whatever means available and increase our income so that we can preserve our denominational institutions, I am not sure I want in on that. Maybe Jesus does not need a church that owns real estate in every town. Maybe Jesus does not need a guild of professional clergy represented in every congregation. Maybe Jesus does not need bishops who travel the world to address heads of state and numerous programs addressing every conceivable human need. Maybe all Jesus needs is a little band of sheep that hear his call and follow him. Perhaps a poor, small, broken church living faithfully at the margins with no social influence or political power is a more faithful witness to the resurrected Christ than a large, thriving corporate church. It may be that we are not dying, but only getting pruned. (See John 15:1-2). I don’t pretend to know God’s grand plan for the church in the twenty-first century. I do not even know what God’s plans are for the ELCA of which I am a part. I am convinced, however, that we need to be open to the possibility that our view of what our church needs might be vastly different from what God is doing with us. We may fear that we are getting too small, but from God’s perspective we may still be too big.
In sum, following Jesus is no sure way to success, institutional or otherwise. But then again, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Vs. 68. That alone is why we follow Jesus. Jesus knows what matters eternally and tells us in no uncertain terms that we matter eternally to him. Jesus loves us too much to let us waste our lives pursuing bread that cannot feed us, chasing success in projects that don’t matter and satisfaction in pleasures that do not last.
TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Ever-loving God, your Son gives himself as living bread for the life of the world. Fill us with such a knowledge of his presence that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life to serve you continually, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
I have never been a fan of “home schooling.” That is partly because I believe one important objective of education is training children to live in and take responsibility for the larger society. Public schools are and should be places where children are confronted with people expressing ideas, holding opinions and practicing beliefs that are different from their own precisely because ours is a nation founded on the belief that such differing folk can nevertheless work together for the common good. I must also confess that my skepticism toward home schooling has been reinforced by many of its proponents whose fear, loathing and distrust of the larger society, often supported by outlandish conspiracy theories, sometimes borders on paranoia. The belief that our public schools are the agents of some nefarious plot to undermine religion, family values and promote moral anarchy strikes me as, well, a little crazy. What sort of child emerges from an isolated family unit where s/he is taught to fear and distrust the civil institutions that make our common life as a people possible?
Yet some recent reflections shared by home schooler Paisley Hillegeist in a recent issue of Plough Quarterly have given me pause. Ms. Hillegeist is no conspiracy theorist, nor does she view the public school system as the dark side of the force. She is, however, concerned about the carnivorous environment existing in middle and high schools. Bullying, drug abuse, sexual exploitation are recurring problems within the student population that she feels the schools are finding difficult to address effectively. These concerns, however, are not the primary reasons for Ms. Hillegeist’s decision to home school her children. She points out that she is able to shape her curriculum to the needs of her children in a way that would be nearly impossible in a class of thirty students. She is able to integrate the disciplines of prayer, worship and service into the children’s daily routine. Moreover, academic learning can be integrated with daily life. “We learn life skills together. How do you balance a checkbook? Mail a package? Do the laundry? Shop for the best deals? Build a chicken coop? Butcher turkeys? All this is part of our classroom.” “Why I Homeschool,” Plough Quarterly, Winter 2015, No. 3 (c. 2014 by Plough Publishing House) p. 35. Most impressive, however, is Ms. Hillegeist’s insistence that “character comes first.” Ibid. More important than what her children may end up doing in life is who they become. “I believe with all my heart,” she says, “that the most powerful good I can bring to my community is to raise my own kids in the way that will best help them to become the men and women that God has created them to be.” Ibid. Education is not all about knowledge. It is chiefly about wisdom.
That, I believe, is what our modern approaches to education so often lack. Our assumption seems to be that education serves the needs of the labor market which, in turn, serves the profit generating, corporate interests of Wall Street. Nothing illustrates this trend better than the so called “Common Core Initiative.” According to its website:
“State education chiefs and governors in 48 states came together to develop the Common Core, a set of clear college- and career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics. Today, 43 states have voluntarily adopted and are working to implement the standards, which are designed to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to take credit bearing introductory courses in two- or four-year college programs or enter the workforce.”
It is important to add that, despite any flowery policy language to the contrary, the two or four year college programs are likewise designed to integrate their graduates into the workforce, albeit at a higher level. Education is all market driven. It consists in cramming the heads of young people full of knowledge that will make them profitable. That is why programs like music and art are always the first to hit the cutting room floor when public school revenue drops. Multinational corporations can hardly expect to turn a profit through county libraries, municipal orchestras or community theater. Unless you are a child prodigy, you might as well not bother pursuing an education in the fine arts. There is no market for that sort of thing. Is it any wonder, then, that kids fail to empathize with each other when they are treated like machine parts? Is it any wonder that they deaden the pain of suppressing their humanity with illicit drugs? Can you blame them for making self-destructive decisions when they are supplied with knowledge, but left unschooled in wisdom?
The scripture lessons for this week have much to say about wisdom. Our lesson from the Book of Proverbs invites us to feed ourselves with wisdom. The psalmist encourages us to pursue the wise practices of truthfulness and peacemaking. Paul urges us to walk wisely through a world in bondage to folly on the strength of prayer and song. Jesus is the very embodiment of wisdom calling us to internalize him by “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood.”
Wisdom should never be confused with mere knowledge. Knowledge gives us power over things. Wisdom gives us power over ourselves. The same body of knowledge can enable us to make either vaccines or biological weapons. Wisdom teaches us to place knowledge in the service of life. Wisdom concerns not so much what we learn as how we are shaped by our learning. The mere acquisition of knowledge is not genuine education. Our children are not machines for programming to meet the needs of the labor market. They are unique children of God whose lives unfold like blossoms. Education seeks to nourish and strengthen them as they seek the mystery that is God’s purpose for them. I applaud Ms. Hillegeist for having the courage to say “no” to the dehumanizing and abusive values of late stage capitalism and having the courage to educate her children into character so that they might become wise as well as knowledgeable. That’s a gutsy choice that I admire-even if I cannot follow it in good conscience.
I am still not a supporter of home schooling. Though Ms. Hillegeist’s words and example have raised important questions and illuminated much that is wrong with our educational institutions in this country, I am not convinced that home schooling is the answer. My responsibility for education does not end with my own children and I cannot properly educate my children on my own. Love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton got it right on this point: it takes a village to raise a child. Together, we must all learn to educate our children to live wisely and well as they pursue the common good. To that end, can we as parents and teachers take back the education of our children? Can we make education serve our children rather than the needs of the market? Can we create space for interaction between the classroom, the family and the faith community? Can we educate children to become wise and compassionate as well as knowledgeable?
The Book of Proverbs, along with Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and several of the Psalms constitutes a collection of works biblical scholars often refer to as “wisdom literature.” “Wisdom,” loosely defined, is insight gained through life experience often expressed in short proverbial sayings. One such example is Proverbs 10:2, “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.” This is true as far as it goes. How many wealthy and powerful people have been brought down by an insatiable desire for wealth that knows no moral or ethical boundaries! But is it always the case that ill-gotten gain leads to ruin? Is righteousness always rewarded? It didn’t turn out that way for Job. Furthermore, the “preacher” in Ecclesiastes has this to say: “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy upon men: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them; this is vanity; it is a sore affliction.” Ecclesiastes 6:1-2. So which is true? Is it the proverb or the observation of the preacher?
The answer is that both utterances are true as far as they go, and they only go as far as the experiences of the people who make them. Human wisdom, though valuable and worth pursuing, is nevertheless incomplete, partial and subject to modification. It is true that righteousness and integrity can bring you respect and a good name in the community. But sometimes the cost of doing the right thing is the loss of friendship, respect and social standing. Wickedness often is its own punishment, but we also know of people who inflict all manner of pain on others and are never brought to justice. That is why it is best to take these utterances of human wisdom not as moral laws governing the universe, but as the experiences of individuals who have lived their lives in pursuit of understanding. Wisdom literature invites us to step into the shoes of people who have lived life under numerous circumstances and have each come to view it from their own perspectives. Think of wisdom sayings as portholes into reality. Because they are unique and different from our own perspectives, they enrich our understanding. Yet we dare not forget that, like all human perspectives, these sayings are limited to the experience of one individual. They do not take in all of reality. So it should not surprise us to find different and even conflicting expressions of learned wisdom. Biblical wisdom does not fit neatly into a unified system because, as the product of human experience, it is necessarily incomplete.
The Book of Proverbs is made up of four distinct collections of sayings. Book I (Proverbs 1:1-9:18) consists of extended discourses of warning and admonition that encourage the hearer to live piously, ethically and prudently. In two of these poems, wisdom is personified as a wise and beautiful woman. Proverbs 1:20-33 and Proverbs 8:1-36. Wisdom is similarly personified in today’s reading taken from this first book. Our lessson is part of a larger poem contrasting wisdom with folly. Proverbs 9:1-18.
Books II (Proverbs 10:1-22:16) and IV (Proverbs 25:1-29:7) are both attributed to King Solomon. They contain collections of maxims dealing mostly with virtues, vices and their consequences. Attribution to Solomon does not necessarily imply authorship. The identification might simply reflect the author’s/editor’s tribute to Solomon’s legendary wisdom. That said, I am not ready to dismiss the potential contribution of Solomon to either of these two books. Wisdom literature reaches “back into the earliest stages of Israel’s existence.” Crenshaw, J.L., Wisdom in the Old Testament, Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, (c.1976, Abingdon). It was during the reign of Solomon that the Israelite monarchy reached the height of its international prominence. Solomon made treaties with Egypt and the Phoenician kingdoms, transacting commerce and forming military compacts. Cultural exchanges would have followed naturally and thus exposure to wisdom literature from these sources. The authors/editors of Proverbs may well have had access to collections of sayings from this ancient and illustrious period.
Book III (Proverbs 22:17-24:34; Proverbs 24:23-34; Proverbs 30:1-31:31) is a series of exhortations of Egyptian sages probably modeled on an ancient book of Egyptian wisdom entitled “The Instruction of Amen-em-ope.” These sayings may date back to the time of David and Solomon and so could have come into the hands of royal scribes through the cultural exchanges with Egypt previously discussed. The final editor fused all four of these books into one, attributing them all to Solomon. Proverbs 1:1. For more on this marvelous book of the Bible, see Summary Article by James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N.
In our lesson we read that wisdom has “slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed wine, she has sent out her maids to call from the highest places, ‘Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!’ To him who is without sense, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.’” Vss. 4-5. Perhaps Jesus had this saying in mind when he told his parable of the unresponsive guests invited to the wedding feast. Matthew 22:1-10; Luke 14:15-24. To turn away from wisdom’s feast of learning is foolish. How much more so to snub an invitation to the messianic banquet! The reading also underscores the importance of eating that is far from simply metaphorical. Most people in the ancient near east were always just a bad harvest away from starvation. Eating well is a mark of wellbeing as Jesus’ discourse throughout chapter 6 has been demonstrating.
“Leave simpleness and live and walk in the way of insight.” Vs. 6. Simplicity is often portrayed as a virtue: “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free…” says the old Shaker hymn. But there is a dangerous simplicity that seeks to eliminate all nuance and ambiguity. There is a simplicity that prefers clearly drawn lines between good and evil, right and wrong, friend and enemy, insider and outsider. The dangerous polarization we are witnessing in our civil discourse these days is a good example of where such simplicity leads us. Insight recognizes the shades of gray inhabiting the vast no-man’s land between the lines of combat. Insight makes us mindful of our limitations, blind spots and inherited prejudices that distort our thinking. Insight understands that every event, every conflict and every spoken word is seen, heard and processed differently by each individual person. Insight knows that listening is the most important communication skill we will ever develop.
These verses constitute the second half of the psalm from last Sunday. For my observations on the psalmist’s style and the psalm’s literary characteristics, see the post for Sunday, August 9, 2015.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” says the psalmist in Psalm 111:10. Not surprisingly, then, the psalmist in our psalm for this Sunday calls us to learn the fear of the Lord. Vs. 11. “What man is there who desires life, and covets many days, that he may enjoy good?…Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” Vss. 12-13. Does good conduct lead to a long and satisfying life? Often, but not always. Again, this is the experience of the psalmist. It is also my own experience. Let me be clear about this. I have not always been so very successful in departing from evil and doing good or seeking peace. But when I am, I discover that life is better. I am much happier when I am not pursuing a zero sum game, win at all costs strategy, but looking instead beyond the immediate conflicts I have with people to the people themselves and working toward building relationships of trust. That makes it possible to find win/wins solutions.
Still, in all honesty, that has not always been my experience. Sometimes people take advantage of my trust and return my offer of friendship with hostility. The psalmist appears to have had similar experiences. He or she goes on to say in verses not included in our reading, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous…” Vs. 19. Clearly, righteousness does not immunize one against the slings and arrows of living in a world filled with cruelty and injustice. Indeed, righteous conduct sometimes invites hostility. The righteous are sometimes “brokenhearted” and “crushed in spirit.” Vs. 18. Nevertheless, the psalmist reminds us that even at these times “the Lord is near.” Vs. 18.
How is it possible to keep one’s tongue from evil and one’s lips from speaking deceit? Vss. 13. This warning echoes Paul’s admonition from Ephesians last week to put aside all falsehood and speak the truth. Ephesians 4:25. There is much deceit taking place, not the least of it within ourselves. We have an enormous capacity for self-justification, blaming, scapegoating and excuse making that colors the way we understand everything and everyone around us. This is why we need to be in a community dedicated to speaking truthfully. We need each other to overcome our own self-deception. Unless that is happening, we cannot hope to speak convincingly to the world around us.
Once again, I refer you to my post of Sunday, July 12, 2015 for general comments about the Letter to the Ephesians. In our lesson for this Sunday, Paul admonishes us to “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” Vs. 15. This usage of “walk” is found throughout Ephesians. In Ephesians 2:2 Paul reminds his readers that, prior to their baptism into Christ, they “walked” in sin following the course of this world (N.B. NRSV translates “walked” as “lived”). But now, as Christ’s workmanship, they “walk” in the “good works” for which they were created. Ephesians 2:10. In chapter 5 we find the admonition to walk at three points. First Paul urges us to “walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Ephesians 5:2. (Again, NRSV uses “live” instead of “walk”). Next, Paul tells his readers that, having been brought out of darkness into the light, they must walk as “children of the light.” Ephesians 5:8. (Again, NRSV renders “walk” as “live”). So in today’s lesson we are urged to walk as “wise” people. Vs. 15. (Ever consistently if not aptly, NRSV employs “live”).
I am not ordinarily disposed to quibble with the NRSV. It is by far one of the most accurate and readable translations of the Scriptures available in the English language. But in rendering the Greek word “walk” or “peripdateo” as simply to “live,” the translators have done us a disservice. The Greek carries with it the sense of “walking after” taken from the ancient practice of instruction under which young persons studying with a particular teacher followed after that teacher. Paul intersperses this expression with “sit” (Ephesians 1:20; Ephesians 2:6) which in Hebrew usage is also a posture of learning. E.g., Luke 10:39; Acts 8:31. For Paul in Ephesians (in the Scriptures as a whole, for that matter), wisdom is not understood as knowledge to be obtained, but as a habit of the heart to be learned, practiced and grown into. It is not merely absorbed into memory from the written page, but taught through the example of a mentor whose living relationship to his/her disciple gives shape to his/her teaching.
So too, Paul urges us to “understand what the will of the Lord is.” Vs. 17. That is a tall order. It isn’t that I don’t know generally what God requires. The problem arises when I try to understand what God requires of me in the minutia of my day to day life. If God is not active there, then God’s will is largely irrelevant. Oddly enough, we are not given much guidance here. We are warned against drunkenness-that clearly will not get us to an understanding of God’s will for us. Vs. 18. But when it comes specifically to figuring out God’s will, we are told simply to be filled with the Holy Spirit-and to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Vss. 18-19. Yet maybe the apostle is on to something here. There is nothing like singing to create a sense of community and shared vision. Other than the national anthem sung at sports events, I cannot think of any situation in our culture except worship where people still sing together. There is something about singing that opens a person’s imagination to a broader view of things. A hymn is sort of like a snowball. The more you sing it at different times and places in your life, the more meaning it accumulates. I suspect that for all of us there is a hymn that makes us tear up, a song that helps us visualize the mysteries of faith that escape conceptualization. I think that the practice of singing our faith together helps us to internalize that faith and so also create space for the Spirit of God to begin working out God’s intent for us. We don’t begin by trying to figure out God’s will and then trying to do it. Rather, we begin with worship. Gradually, we begin to recognize God’s will unfolding in our lives after it has seeped into our bones through the practices of worship, singing, prayer, generosity and hospitality.
I have to confess that my initial reaction to this section of John is, “Yuck!” The image of someone eating flesh and drinking blood, even when understood metaphorically, is distasteful to put it mildly. And clearly, Jesus is not speaking metaphorically. This conversation started out with Jesus providing bread to five thousand people who proceeded to eat, chew and swallow it. Jesus then identifies himself as the bread of life, that which sustains human existence. But lest we get too comfortable with this assertion as a benign figure of speech, Jesus drives it home with some very graphic language: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…” Vs. 53. The bread of life Jesus offers comes at the cost of his own death at the very hands of those he came to feed. Moreover, the way to eternal life is through sharing in Jesus’ suffering and death. The crowd which initially sought Jesus with enthusiasm thinking that they had found an ATM with a limitless supply of bread, now begins to turn on Jesus. How can Jesus’ flesh satisfy their hunger? How can his blood satisfy their thirst? Vs. 52. They want desperately to turn the conversation back to plain old bread. But Jesus will not let them off the hook. “The bread you are seeking,” says Jesus, “won’t satisfy your hunger.” Even the manna God provided for Israel in the wilderness could not satisfy the peoples’ deepest need. John 6:49. What the people needed and what we need is a restored relationship with our Heavenly Father. Reconciliation requires risk, sacrifice and even loss of life. Not surprisingly, Jesus paid with his life for the reconciliation he offers our troubled and warring world. The early Christian martyrs knew that witnessing to the reconciliation achieved in Jesus leads to persecution. The price of pursuing peace and reconciliation was death for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This living bread, so freely and generously shared with us, comes at a terrible cost.
It is also worth noting that, for John, eternal life is more than just living forever and it does not begin sometime in the distant future. Living eternally means doing the things that matter eternally. That is what Jesus’ “signs” are all about. Jesus shares his bread with a hungry crowd; Jesus provides wine in abundance for a peasant wedding; Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman-a bitter enemy of his people; Jesus heals a cripple who is living on the fringe of the fringe; Jesus opens the eyes of a man born blind and deemed under the curse of God. These are signs not because they are miracles, but because they show the miraculous power of God turning toward the poor, the outcast and the rejected. What matters eternally is how we treat those deemed the least of all people.
These verses resonate, I believe, with our Lutheran insistence that the Eucharistic bread and wine are not figuratively, metaphorically or symbolically Christ’s Body, but truly and actually the Body and Blood of Christ. This is so because unless the resurrected Christ is present, there is no Church. But because the bread and wine on our altar is the Body and Blood of Christ and because we are what we eat, the congregation eating this food is likewise the Body of the Resurrected Christ in the world today. I have always found it interesting that John’s gospel does not end with Jesus sending his disciples out to proclaim the gospel or with Jesus ascending to the right hand of God. John’s gospel ends the way the other gospels begin: with the disciples leaving their nets and their boat to follow after Jesus. The last words spoken by Jesus to his disciples in the Gospel of John are “follow me.” John 21:19. It is as though John simply cannot conceive of the church without the presence of its resurrected Lord.
ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious God, your blessed Son came down from heaven to be the true bread that gives life to the world. Give us this bread always, that he may live in us and we in him, and that, strengthened by this food, we may live as his body in the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
I heard a sermon not too long ago in which the preacher relayed an illustrative anecdote I can still recall-a rarity in preaching. He told us about how he was seated next to a fellow on a flight out of Chicago who immediately noticed his clerical collar, pegged him accurately as a minister and began ragging on the church. The church is full of hypocrites, the church is judgmental, the church only cares about its members, etc., etc. The preacher replied, “Yes, and you don’t know the half of it. As an insider, I can tell you it is worse than what you think. But let me tell you about the wonderful God who loves these judgmental, hypocritical and selfish people!”
Though clever, I think that response was a bit disingenuous. This week our psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” According to the Letter to the Ephesians, the church exists solely to make that appeal to the world through its existence as a counter-cultural community. It is within the Body of Christ that God’s good gifts and God’s good intent for all creation are revealed. It is within the church that the Bread of Heaven is made available and life grounded in what is eternal can be glimpsed. If Jesus isn’t making a difference in the lives of people who follow him, then why should anyone else bother with him? If the church merely reflects the same secular values as everyone else, the same racial segregation found in our schools and neighborhoods, the same preoccupation with meeting budgets, maintaining property and raising money as any other civic organization, why even waste time visiting?
Let’s be clear about one thing. The church is a holy people, but holiness is not to be equated with moral superiority. To be holy literally means to be “set apart” for a unique purpose. A saint is rather like a recovering alcoholic and the church is in many respects similar to an AA meeting. We are people who recognize our addiction to an unsustainable consumer lifestyle supported by a ruthlessly destructive and inequitable economy. We are a people struggling against an ingrained belief in the necessity of violence to preserve peace. We are a people striving to be honest about our mortality, our limitations, our prejudices and the destructive consequences of our sins, all within a society that is constantly lying to us about these things. By the grace of God, we have been set free to pursue life within a culture of death. We have received the gift of sobriety and we need support from one another to hang on to it. When Paul tells us “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3:10), he means to say that the church exists to let the world know that “it doesn’t have to be this way.” There is another way to be human.
Too often, the church offers tranquilizers instead of transformation. Your “vocation” is your job, however demeaning, ethically dubious or brutally exploitive it may be. The church peddles a therapeutic gospel helping you to deal with your circumstances in an inhumane world rather than delivering a bold proclamation causing you to long for the kingdom of heaven. As one worshiper put it recently, “church helps me get through the week.” Valium does the same thing, more or less. But is a spiritual coping mechanism the best we have to offer? Is that worth sacrificing a leisurely Sunday morning with a fresh bagel, cream cheese and the New York Times? Our lessons for this week seem to be saying, “Come on, people of God. We are better than this.”
Once again, the lectionary in its wisdom has given us an indecipherable fragment of a much larger story. The time was the ninth century B.C.E. The place was the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Unlike the Southern Kingdom of Judah where the Davidic dynasty reigned over a more or less stable monarchy, Israel was governed by a series of dynasties succeeding each other through coups and violent revolutions. The King in Elijah’s day was Ahab, but the power behind the throne was his Phoenician wife, Jezebel. Jezebel was determined to uproot the worship of Israel’s God and replace it with the worship of her own god, Baal. Under the queen’s orders, the altars of the Lord were being destroyed and the priests of the Lord were being executed. Elijah was sent with a word for the King: “As the God of Israel lives before whom I stand, there will be neither rain nor dew for three years except by my word.” I Kings 17:1. When the drought came as Elijah warned, the King was determined to kill Elijah. Elijah spent the next three years of his life as a fugitive, hiding in the wilderness and living in exile. When the three years had ended, Elijah appeared to Ahab once again with a proposition. “Tell you what, your highness: you and your prophets of Baal build an altar to your god with an offering on it. I will build and altar to the Lord. The God who answers by consuming his offering with fire is God indeed.” Ahab accepted the offer. The story of the dueling gods is a gripping tale that you need to read in its entirety. (I Kings 18:1-40). For our purposes, it is enough to note that the Lord answered Elijah’s call with fire. Baal was a no show. After this demonstration, Ahab appears to have been convinced that the Lord was indeed Israel’s God. Jezebel, not so much. When the queen learned of the outcome of the contest, her determination to kill Elijah hardened into a campaign against him. Poor Elijah was on the run once again. That is where we find him in our lesson for Sunday.
Elijah “went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree; and he asked that he might die.” Vs. 4. Can you blame him? Three years living as a fugitive until finally he can get a hearing before the king. After such a spectacular demonstration of God’s lordship over Baal, you would think the issue had been settled once and for all. Instead, this remarkable sign only hardens the opposition to Elijah and the God he proclaims. Everything he has done seems to have been for naught. His whole life seems to have been wasted. This is midlife crisis on steroids! We are then told that Elijah was “touched by an angel.” But the angel has no message of hope, no promise of better things to come and no clear direction for him. The angel, however, does provide what Elijah needs most at the moment: food to continue his journey-wherever that might lead. The bread does not change Elijah’s desperate situation, but it gives him strength to go another forty miles. Vss. 6-8. And that is the end of the story.
OK. That is not the end of the story, but it does constitute the end of our reading. I encourage you to read on to find out what else happened. I Kings 19:9-21. Initially, I was somewhat miffed that the lectionary did not give us that story here or in the weeks to come. Yet I am beginning to think that maybe the lectionary folks actually got it right this time. I have to say that the angels that have appeared in my life seldom came with solutions to all of my problems. Most of the time, they have given me just enough of what I needed to take the next step. I think of my brother-in-law Bill, who spent three days with me at University of Washington Medical Center when my wife was gravely ill. Or I recall the court officer who once clapped me on the shoulder as I stood in the Union County Courthouse rotunda during a break in a difficult trial and said to me, “You look like you got the weight of the world on your shoulders. You ought to know your shoulders ain’t big enough for that. You got to let the Lord Jesus take that load off you.” These angels did not take away the challenges I faced or remove the obstacles in front of me. But they gave me just enough encouragement to take a few steps more. I think that is very often how God’s assistance comes to us. We don’t get what we pray for. We don’t get what we want. We get what we need and sometimes just barely that.
This is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from unspecified distress. The psalmist recognizes in his or her deliverance from harm and danger the saving work of God. This is one of the “acrostic” psalms, meaning that each new verse begins with the next letter in order of the Hebrew Alphabet. See my post for Sunday, July 26, 2015 for more on this poetic technique. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 34 in its entirety.
Use of the acrostic form suggests to me that the psalm is more likely a mature reflection upon events in the past than a spontaneous expression of praise for something that just occurred. Perhaps I take this view because most of the saving acts of God I have experienced I see only in the rear view mirror. That is to say, looking back on my life I can recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing me to the place where I stand today. But I am not one of those persons who experience the guidance of the Spirit in the present tense. I have never made a choice in my life that I felt certain was inspired, willed or directed by God. Instead, I have stumbled blindly along through the darkness only to discover much later that Jesus has been with me in the darkness and has somehow gotten me to where I needed to be. And this despite my having taken the wrong course, made the wrong decisions and pursued the wrong dreams.
As I noted last week, prayer is a fluid sort of thing in Hebrew worship. This psalm is an individual confession and testimony of faith addressed to the worshiping congregation. Though not spoken directly to God, it is nevertheless a prayer in the sense that it gives glory to God and expresses the psalmist’s heartfelt thanks for God’s deliverance. At the same time, it is offered to strengthen the confidence of the worshiping community in God’s willingness and ability to save. The psalmist invites the congregation to join him/her in magnifying the Lord and exalting the Lord’s name. vs. 3.
The psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Vs. 8. This invitation ties in well with the gospel lessons for both this week and last in which Jesus tells the crowds who came seeking him that he, himself, is the bread of life. This offer to “taste” makes clear that faith is neither an intellectual exercise nor an emotional attachment. Faith takes the shape of “eating” and sustaining oneself on the promises of the Lord. It is life lived out of a relationship of trust and confidence in God’s promises to provide all things necessary.
For my general comments about the Letter to the Ephesians, see my post of Sunday, July 12, 2015. This letter has much to say about the centrality of the church in God’s redemptive intent for the world. Having discussed the church’s role in the earlier chapters, Paul now turns to life as it must be lived within the church.
“Therefore put away falsehood, let everyone speak the truth with his neighbor.” Vs. 25. I believe it was Dr. Stanley Hauerwas who commented that this verse just about sums up the whole of Christian ethics. Clearly, truthfulness is at the center of life in Christ. There is no better testimony to the importance of truthfulness than the New Testament. The gospels do not tell the story of a strong church led by heroic personalities. They are unsparing in their portrayal of Jesus’ disciples as flawed and broken people who, each in their own way, failed their Master in his greatest hour of need. The epistles reveal a church divided by bickering, power struggles and disputes over doctrine, practice and morals. We tell these stories on ourselves not because they make us look good (they don’t) or because we are trying to conceal the skeletons in our closets (the skeletons are on full display in the living room), but because they tell the truth about us who follow Jesus. We are broken people in need of judgment, forgiveness and healing. Like recovering alcoholics, we need each other to help us remain sober. Nothing threatens our sobriety more than lies, secrecy and self-deception.
Sometimes I think the church fails to speak truth to the world in a straightforward and convincing way because we have failed to speak it effectively among ourselves. Though nearly every Christian denomination has issued numerous statements condemning racism, Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour in the United States. Sad to say, my own Lutheran denomination ranks disgracefully low when it comes to racial and cultural diversity. See The Most and Least Racially Diverse U.S. Religious Groups. This reality has taken on renewed urgency in light of the recent string of killings by police officers of black men and the racially motivated murder of African American worshipers at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. We cannot continue pretending that the systemic racism permeating our culture does not also penetrate our church. Racism is a grievous wound to the Body of Christ desperately in need of healing. Healing cannot happen without a frank diagnosis delivered through truthful speech.
“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor doing honest work with his hands, that he may be able to give to those in need.” Vs. 28. That might seem a tad obvious. Should a disciple of Jesus even need to be told not to steal? Perhaps, though, the issue is more subtle. The thief is enjoined to labor at “honest work” and to do so “with his hands.” Thievery is hardly limited to pick-pockets and check kiters. The greatest degree of theft in our culture is entirely legal. The Wall Street barons whose wantonly reckless and willfully deceptive practices drove our nation into recession went largely unprosecuted. It is standard practice for disability insurers to employ harassment, threats and endless paperwork against claimants they know are often too sick to persevere in the process. As an attorney, I often wondered whether assisting property and liability insurance carriers in avoiding payment of claims was “honest” and productive work. I wonder, too, whether the production of inherently lethal products, such as hand guns, constitutes work that can be done by a follower of Jesus. Though Christian faith of some sort seems like a prerequisite for election to the nation’s highest office, I wonder how one can claim Jesus as Lord while carrying on his/her person the codes for activating thermonuclear weapons capable of destroying entire cities.
Maybe it is time for disciples of Jesus to consider whether there are not professions or jobs with particular commercial interests that are incompatible with faith in Jesus. Perhaps we should reflect on what constitutes “honest” work. In my own Lutheran tradition, we seek to help people see their work as “vocation.” But does Jesus call us to produce or maintain weapons of mass destruction? Does Jesus call us to labor for firms whose sole purpose is to maximize profit, even at the expense of human welfare, the environment and global peace? Too often, I think, there is a vast disconnect between what we say about the sanctity of work and the way it is experienced by far too many people. Perhaps Paul is challenging us to ensure that our work is, in fact, honest, productive and contributory to human well-being.
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying.” Vs. 29. Edifying speech is pretty much my job as a parish pastor. Over the years I have gotten pretty good at it-when I am on duty. When I am home with my family, among friends or with fellow clergy, not so much. Of course, we all need to “vent” once in a while. But I tend to think that we do that entirely too much in our culture and more than we should in the church. Edifying speech aims at building up the Body of Christ. As noted in the previous paragraphs, edification requires truthfulness and the truth is often painful. Yet the end game for all speech is to “import grace to those who hear.” Vs. 29. To that end, “bitterness,” “wrath,” “anger,” “slander” and “malice” are to be excluded. Vs. 31. Moreover, the truth is never merely the sum of the facts. It is always to be spoken with kindness. Vs. 32. Within the Body of Christ, the posture toward a fellow believer is that of Christ himself-infinite forgiveness.
All of this should give us some insight into what Paul means when he challenges us to be “imitators of God”? Vs. 5:1. Usually, when we accuse someone of “playing God,” we mean that this person is exercising authority he or she does not have. Or perhaps we mean that such a person is overreaching his or her limits and making decisions that affect the lives of people who have no input or say in those decisions. That figure of speech betrays a profound misunderstanding of the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. The God and Father of Jesus Christ does not exercise overbearing power, but walks among us as the man who gave his life for the sake of others, suffering death rather than defending himself with violence. If we would truly “play God,” the proper model is not the CEO, but Jesus.
The most remarkable aspect of this letter to the Ephesians is its refusal to distinguish between the church’s inner life and its cosmic mission. According to Paul’s thought as expounded in this treatise, they are one and the same:
“Ephesians is supremely concerned about the unity of the Church. The writer exhorts the Church to maintain the unity it already possesses and stresses that the essential ingredient for achieving the harmony of unity in diversity is love (4:1-16). For him, the quality of the Church’s corporate life has everything to do with fulfilling its role in the world. As it embodies the unity it already possesses, the Church fulfills its calling to be the paradigm of the cosmic unity which is the goal of the salvation God provides in Christ (cf. 1:10). This role of the Church is outlined in 3:9, 10, where its existence is seen as God’s announcement to the principalities and authorities in the heavenly realms that he is going to make good on his multifaceted and wise plan for cosmic unity. Because the Church is the one new humanity in place of two (2:15), the one body (2:16; 4:4), it can be depicted as providing the powers with a tangible reminder that their authority has been decisively broken and that everything is going to be united in Christ.” Lincoln, Andrew T., Ephesians, World Biblical Commentary (c. 1990 by Word, Incorporated) p. xciv.
The gospel lesson continues the dialogues set in motion by Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand at the beginning of chapter 6. Last week Jesus explained to the crowd that came seeking him after the feeding that he, himself, is the bread of life; the bread which comes down from heaven. Now the crowd begins to murmur. No doubt John would have us recall the murmuring of the children of Israel in the wilderness when they were hungry. For reasons that escape my simple mind, the makers of the lectionary have chosen to exclude verses 36-40. That is a shame because simple-minded people like me need those verses to get the full impact of what follows. So, for my fellow simpletons, here are the missing verses:
“But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” John 6:36-40.
Now you can see why the crowd was murmuring. What is this mad man talking about? He didn’t come down from heaven! He came up from Nazareth. We know his family. We know the neighborhood where he grew up; the school he went to and the girls he dated. Where does he get off telling us that he came down from heaven? This is actually a very important question. Jesus’ answer is about to turn everything we think we know about God, heaven and eternal life on its head. In the first place, asking how Jesus could possibly be the Son of God is altogether the wrong question. It is wrongheaded because it assumes we know who God is apart from Jesus, his Son. It assumes that we can somehow find our own way to the Father. It assumes that we come to know God by being taught about God rather than being taught by God. It is through trusting in Jesus that God is made known. It is through fellowship with Jesus that the Father draws us to himself. You don’t start with your understanding of who God is to figure out what to think about Jesus. You begin with Jesus who draws you into knowledge of the Father.
John is also unapologetic about Jesus’ obvious human origins. Yes, Jesus is a flesh and blood person that can be touched. He is the living bread that can be “eaten.” That will be the topic of next week’s gospel. That is the way in which the Father draws us to himself. Whoever believes in Jesus both knows the Father and has eternal life. Note well the present tense, “has.” This is not the promise of some future blessed state. Life that is eternal begins now for all who believe. To live eternally is to live out of trust in Jesus doing those things that matter eternally. Unfortunately, we in the church have not always fully appreciated this present sense meaning of eternal life. We have tended to think of eternal life as synonymous with “after life,” or some notion of “heaven” as a strictly future reality. But Jesus would have us know that discipleship is not about passively waiting for eternal life as we sweat our way through this vale of tears. Discipleship is acknowledging that new life is ours today; the kingdom of God is now; and life that is eternal is life lived in fellowship with Jesus.
The humanity of Jesus was a barrier to the crowds’ acceptance of his claim to be the bread from heaven. But if the idea of God in the midst of dirty diapers, adolescent crushes, soil and the sweat of hard labor is difficult to swallow, that only demonstrates how much we have to learn from Jesus about God, about heaven and about eternal life.