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.