Tag Archives: bread of heaven

Sunday, August 9th

ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25—5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

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.”

1 Kings 19:4-8

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.

Psalm 34:1-8

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.

Ephesians 4:25—5:2

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.

John 6:35, 41-51

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.

Sunday, August 2nd

TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, eternal goodness, immeasurable love, you place your gifts before us; we eat and are satisfied. Fill us and this world in all its need with the life that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

John’s gospel doesn’t spoon feed us the good news. Instead, we are given signs, metaphors, images and symbols that don’t always fit neatly together into a coherent whole. Reading this gospel is hard work. This week’s lesson tells us that Jesus is the “bread come down from heaven.” Unlike ordinary bread, it is not obtained by human labor. It is a free gift. The “work” God requires of us is to believe in Jesus. But is that really “work”? The language Jesus is using here does not set well with my Lutheran upbringing. From Sunday School through seminary I have been taught never to mention “faith” and “works” in the same breath. Yet Jesus seems to be doing just that. He is telling us that the bread which comes down from heaven is more than a simple handout. Receiving it gratefully is the work God requires of us.

Perhaps it is best to think of the bread from heaven as a precious gift that nevertheless demands much. It is not simply a cash gift that can be spent in any way the recipient pleases. Receiving the bread from heaven is more like being given a very fine violin. As a gift, it is obviously free. Yet such a gift clearly demands much of the recipient. If a violin is going to be of any use to me, I must learn to play it. Unless I happen to be one of those rare musical prodigies capable of picking up an instrument cold and making music, I will probably need years of instruction and hours upon hours of practice before I am merely proficient. If I want to become more than proficient, if I want to become a performance level violinist, I am looking at a lifetime commitment that will require much sacrifice and dedication to the instrument.

It is not surprising to me that relatively few people become accomplished musicians. Though I am not a musician myself, I have them in my family and among my friends. They know how much time goes into learning scales, practicing arpeggios and learning to read music-all of which comes before you can begin making music. They know the frustration of being stuck at a plateau in development beyond which it seems impossible to advance. They also know that every advance must be maintained by relentless practice. There is no such thing as a vacation from the instrument. Nevertheless, they tell me that making music is their greatest joy.

I believe the gift that is Jesus is a little like that. God offers us through him a restored relationship, friendship with God’s self. Friendship is not built over night. It takes time. Friendship requires a lot of energy, forgiveness, growth and patience. Friendship changes you in ways you cannot predict. Friendship is risky. You can never know the price you might have to pay for loyalty, faithfulness and love for your friend. Jesus called his disciples friends. John 15:14-15. That is a marvelous gift that demands much of us. Perhaps that is what Paul means when he urges us to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Ephesians 4:1. Maybe that is just another way of telling us to live fully and completely out of our friendship with Jesus. There is no other way to receive such a free, precious and wildly extravagant gift.

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

Less than two months into their new found freedom brought about by God’s marvelous, liberating miracle at the Red Sea, Israel is in a deep funk. The people are learning that freedom is in many respects more difficult than slavery. The slave knows that the master will feed him/her for no other reason than that a slave must eat to live and live to work. A slave has few weighty decisions to make. The master makes all the decisions. A slave does not have to wonder about what tomorrow will bring. The following day brings more of the same. Cruel, burdensome and oppressive, to be sure, but at least it is predictable. By contrast, the wilderness (and freedom) is highly unpredictable. You can’t assume that you are going to find enough water to sustain your community ten miles down the road. No master will be there to give you your rations. In the wilderness, you have no choice but to place your trust in the God who brought you there.

The people of Israel were hungry. As we all know, hunger can bring out the worst in us. Such was the case for Israel. It seems the people caught a bad case of “good old days” disease. They began reminiscing about the days back in Egypt where at least they had food. “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full,” they complain. Vs. 3. I doubt that, as slaves, they really were that well fed. But that is how it is when you look back at the past through rose colored glasses. Everything was better back then. The church was so full we had to set up chairs in the aisles to accommodate everyone. The Sunday School was filled with kids-and they behaved themselves better and had more respect than kids these days. Neighborhoods were friendlier. City streets were safer. Food tasted better. On and on it goes. Was the past really all that wonderful? Of course not! The Israelites were slaves. Had they forgotten so soon what it was like to be treated like cattle? Evidently, they had forgotten and that should not surprise us overly much. Good old days disease is as much a part of our age as it was in Biblical times. As Barbra Streisand sang in the movie, The Way We Were,

Memories, may be beautiful and yet
What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget

That is the problem with the “good old days.” Our selective memories make the past seem a lot rosier than it really was. We fall into the trap of measuring the present against a past that is no more real than the Emerald City of Oz.

Furthermore, “good old days” disease represents more than just delusional thinking. It constitutes rebellion against our God. “This is the day which the Lord has made,” says the Psalm. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118:24. Who are we to throw the gift of today back in God’s face and tell God it isn’t good enough? Who are we to reject the time and place where God now places us and sit pouting because our memories of some other time and place seem better? God calls us to a new day. Our stubborn insistence on remaining in the old one needs to be named for what it is: sin.

That said, the journey from slavery into freedom is long and difficult. The people of Israel spent forty years in the wilderness on the way to Canaan. The way was slow and fraught with dangers. Sometimes it seemed as though they were not making any progress. Sometimes they appeared to be going nowhere. Often it seemed that they were losing ground. The life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us is no different. Perhaps that is why Paul and other New Testament writers employed the stories of Israel’s wilderness wandering as metaphors for that life. It is hard to believe that Jesus is leading us into a new creation when our bodies increasingly show their age, our energy level isn’t what it used to be and it seems as though the best years of our lives are behind us. It is hard to believe that Jesus is leading his church for the sake of the world when that church looks increasingly fractured, divided and marginalized. It is precisely when the going gets rough, when we see no evidence of progress and there seems to be no end in sight that the temptation to look back is strongest. But the scriptures warn repeatedly that there is nothing for us in the past and that the only way given to us is forward.

Of course, the good news here is that God can be trusted to provide for our needs along the way. Our needs may not be the same as our wants. Perhaps quail is not what Israel would have chosen from a more varied menu. The manna may have been sweet as honey, but even the bread of angels can become tiresome after forty years. Yet it was enough to sustain Israel throughout her journey and that is what Jesus promises as well. As the gospel for this Sunday points out, Jesus is our “bread from heaven” that sustains us.

Psalm 78:23-29

Our psalm for this Sunday is but a snippet from a much longer saga reciting Israel’s history from the Exodus to the rise of King David. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 78 in its entirety.

This is one of the historical psalms in the psalter. It is similar in form and structure to Psalm 105 and Psalm 106 of the same genre. Historical psalms were employed by Israel chiefly in her commemorative celebrations, i.e., Passover, Day of Atonement, Feast of Booths, etc. They celebrate the acts pivotal to Israel’s self-understanding. Accordingly, the historical psalms also serve a didactic (teaching) purpose. In learning these psalms, each new generation internalized the great acts through which God displayed salvation to Israel and made her the unique nation she was.

The faith of Israel was unique in the ancient near east. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians and Israel’s Canaanite neighbors saw the power of the divine chiefly in the realm of nature. Thus, their religion was built around the natural cycles of birth and death, seedtime and harvest, summer and winter. Their worship revolved around mythical themes of creation, the interaction of the gods behind the cosmic forces of death and life at work in the change of seasons. By contrast, Israel experienced the salvation of her God through God’s mighty acts in her history. Though Israel also recognized the cyclical processes of nature critical to agricultural existence, her worship gave meaning to these cycles through recitation of historical events taking place not in some distant mythical past, but in the realm of human events. Israel celebrated her deliverance from Egypt, the conquest of the land of Canaan, the establishment of the royal house of David and the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Her worship and world view were anchored in these historical watersheds rather than in cosmic battles between the gods at the dawn of time.

The section of this lengthy psalm constituting our reading echoes in poetic form the lesson from Exodus. The story is not all sweetness and light as one might suppose from reading only the verses given us by the lectionary. Verses 17-22 point out that the gracious outpouring of mana and quail comes in spite of some serious provocation:

Yet they sinned still more against him,
rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
They tested God in their heart
by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God, saying,
‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
Even though he struck the rock so that water gushed out
and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread,
or provide meat for his people?’

Furthermore, God’s carrot is accompanied by a stick:

But before they had satisfied their craving,
while the food was still in their mouths,
the anger of God rose against them
and he killed the strongest of them,
and laid low the flower of Israel.

Vss. 30-31. Once again, the lectionary folks are doing their best to spare our left leaning, mainline protestant, upper middle class, ever white and ever polite sensibilities by excising all references suggesting that God might be something other than the gray-bearded slightly senile, over-indulgent grandfather that can be inoffensively slipped into our cultural landscape without disrupting the architectural skyline. Obviously, there is a serious disconnect between the God of the scriptures and the inoffensive god we would like to believe in who, like elevator music, fills in the uncomfortable silences but otherwise remains in the background. No wonder church attendance in mainline denominations is in decline. In fact, it is a wonder that anyone still comes! Just as nobody would waste time and money for a concert performance of background music pipped in over a third rate sound system, it is hard to imagine how anyone could become the least bit interested in such a boring god.

The psalm makes the point that God’s love for Israel (and the church, too, for that matter) is not a philosophical disposition shorn of all passion and feeling. The God of Israel’s love is passionate, jealous and intense. Anyone who has ever been in love knows how close anger lies at hand. Nobody can hurt us as deeply as those we love. God’s anger against us is the measure of God’s love for us. The sad reality is that God’s acts of mercy and kindness are too quickly forgotten. Too often we approach God with a sense of entitlement rather than gratitude and trust. Our demands take precedence over God’s commands. Our prayers resemble letters to Santa Clause, filled with our own self-centered demands. Yet God’s passionate love for us never grows cold. Even God’s judgment is designed to melt our cold hearts and re-ignite our trust. This psalm “makes evident how closely God’s grace and his judgment are related to each other.” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Commentary (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 541.

The historical recitation in Psalm 78 culminates with God’s selection of David as Israel’s king.

[God] chose his servant David,
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from tending the nursing ewes
he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel, his inheritance.
With upright heart he tended them,
and guided them with skillful hand.

The rise of the monarchy in Israel was surrounded by controversy. The prophet and judge, Samuel, was appalled when the people demanded appointment of a king to rule over them so that they might “be like the other nations.” I Samuel 8:4-5. After all, God called Israel to be unlike the other nations. In a culture that regarded kings as equal to gods, only the Lord was worthy of the title “king.” Much of the prophetic tradition in Israel remained critical of the monarchy and saw it as a betrayal of all that Israel was called to be. Nevertheless, there is also in the Hebrew Scriptures an express belief that God’s covenant with David and the rise of his Kingdom was a saving event to be celebrated with thanksgiving. Psalm 78 is an example of this pro-monarchy sentiment.

We saw an echo of this pro-monarchy enthusiasm in last Sunday’s gospel when the crowd of five thousand, having eaten their fill of the loaves and fishes Jesus blessed, sought to take him and make him king by force. Clearly, Jesus must be the one sent by God to shepherd his people Israel. Had he not, as the psalm says, “rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven”? Vs. 24. Yet Jesus seems intent on not becoming a king like David-or at least the kind of king the people were seeking. That becomes clear as Jesus speaks in this Sunday’s gospel about the true bread from heaven he has come to offer.

Ephesians 4:1-16

For my general comments on the Letter to the Ephesians, see my post of Sunday, July 12, 2015. At this point in the letter, Paul turns to a description of what life in Christ looks like. The remarkable thing about this text describing life in the church is the total lack of hierarchy. In virtually every other organization, be it social, political or religious, the key question always comes down to “Who is in charge?” In the Body of Christ, however, the key issue is “What is your gift?” “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one God and Father of us all.” Vs. 5. Though the church is made up of individual members, each has his or her own “gift.” The gifts, however they may differ from one another, have one purpose: “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Vs. 3.

Much scholarly debate has swirled around the enumeration of these gifts in verse 11. Some interpreters maintain that the apostles, evangelists, teachers and pastors represent offices in the church. Others maintain that these reflect natural gifts recognized by the community and exercised by individuals in non-structured communities. Lincoln, Andrew T., Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary (c. 1990 by Word Incorporated) p. 233; Fischer, K.M., Tendenz und Absicht des Ephersbriefs, (c. 1973 by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) pp. 21-39. Whichever the case may be, it is clear that the gifts are not intended to enhance the recipient, but to strengthen the unity of the church. Vss. 15-16. So what matters is not who has which gift, but how the gift is used. A pastor that pushes through an educational program that interests him or her, but does not meet the needs of the church is not rightly exercising the gift of ministry. A council officer that manages to get a new addition to the church building erected, but in doing so causes dissent and division throughout the congregation might be improving upon the structure of a building, but he or she is not “building up the Body of Christ.” Vs. 12. That does not mean, of course, that we all walk on egg shells and do nothing for fear of offending anyone. Sometimes uncomfortable truths need to be spoken. Often the mission of the church must take precedent over deeply valued traditions in the congregation. Correction and reproof is part and parcel of living together in love. The church will necessarily deal with divisive and controversial topics. But unlike the rest of the world where the most powerful personality prevails and issues are often settled by a simple up or down vote, we are a community determined to take whatever time is needed to arrive at a resolution and course of action that everyone can live with-even if it means sacrificing “progress.” Getting together is more important than getting ahead. For that sort of living, we need a lot of lowliness, forbearance, patience and meekness. Vs. 2.

More than any other epistle in the Pauline corpus, Ephesians highlights the cosmic purpose of the church as a sign of God’s intent to unite not merely Jews and Gentiles, but “to fill all things” with Christ. Vs. 10. “God gives Christ as head over all to the Church and it becomes his instrument in carrying out his purpose for the cosmos. The readers are to see themselves as part of this Church which has a universal role and which is to be a pledge of the universe’s ultimate unity in Christ.” Lincoln, supra at 248. In a religious landscape increasingly dominated by “personal salvation,” individual pseudo-psychological “self-help” and individual “spirituality,” Ephesians sounds a countercultural call to lose the self in a corporate life of discipleship that isn’t all about “me.” The church’s calling is to continue corporately the life Jesus lives in the world, embracing all of the hostility such life invariably provokes.

John 6:24-35

As you may recall from last week’s gospel, Jesus had to withdraw from the crowd of five thousand he had just fed as they were seeking to take him by force and make him king. The disciples set out for the other side of the Sea of Galilee that same evening. Jesus later rejoined them in their boat on the Sea and they arrived in Capernaum. Some of the five thousand pursued Jesus and found him there on the other side of the Sea. Now they are curious as to how Jesus was able to get himself across the sea without a boat, but Jesus cuts right to the chase. “You are here because you ate your fill. Not because you saw signs.” Vs. 26. Of course, the people had, in fact, seen a remarkable sign. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they witnessed a miracle only. They do not understand that the feeding was a sign; that the drama unfolding in the wilderness of Galilee was intended to reflect the wilderness of Sinai where the children of Israel wandered for forty years depending on the Lord for each day’s sustenance. The fact that they demand from Jesus a sign as proof of his claims demonstrates how thoroughly they have missed the meaning of what they experienced in the wilderness. They were looking for a way out of the wilderness to restored national power and prosperity. Jesus offers them a restored relationship with the Lord who promises to give them abundant life in the midst of the wilderness. That is the true bread that comes down from heaven.

It is obvious that the crowed has misunderstood the story related in our first lesson from the Book of Exodus. The people credit Moses with providing their ancestors with bread in the wilderness and they hope that Jesus will do the same. But Jesus points out that it was not Moses, but the Lord who provided for the children of Israel. Faith in Moses or any other human leader is misplaced. Furthermore, fixation on things like bread that ensure mere survival is insufficient. One does not live by bread alone. Life that is abundant and eternal flows from a vital relationship of trust in the God who alone can give us such life.

So what is this “bread” that comes down from heaven? It is Jesus, plain and simple. There is no “work” demanded by God as a price for this bread. It has already been freely given and now stands in the questioners’ very presence. The “work,” such that it is, amounts simply to “believing in the one God sent.” Vs. 29. Belief, of course, is not mere ascent to a theological proposition. To believe in Jesus is to trust Jesus; to live out of a relationship of faith in his promises. But this is God’s work, not our own. God wins our trust and strengthens our faith by consistently demonstrating his own faithfulness to us.

This is one of many instances throughout John’s gospel in which Jesus uses the “I am” construction (in Greek, “Ego eimie”). This “I am” of Jesus echoes the “I am” spoken to Moses in response to his inquiry about God’s name. God replies “I am that I am” or, as some translators put it, “I will be who I will be.” Exodus 3:13-15. This statement is less an ontological assertion about God than it is a declaration that God demonstrates who God is by God’s acts of faithfulness to the covenant with Israel as shown by what follows immediately thereafter. God instructs Moses: “Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying: I have given heed to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.’” Exodus 3:16-17. So too, the full significance of the “I am” Jesus pronounces will become clear only when he completes the work his Father has sent him to do. Not until he is “lifted up” will Jesus’ glory as the only Son of the Father be made known. John 12:27-36.