Grace and peace to you from our Lord, Jesus Christ, who is our bread of life
In today’s gospel we encounter Jesus trying to explain to the Jews who he is. He is not just a neighbor kid grown up. No, Jesus is “from God.” He has “seen the Father,” and no other human has seen the Father. In other words Jesus is telling his people that he is the Son of God. That unique relationship is intended to save the world by putting people back into a right relationship with God. Convincing his fellow Jews, however, is not an easy task, even for Jesus.
In today’s reading we hear that Jesus gets less respect and much disbelief from people who have known him as a child. They have watched Jesus grow up, and they knew his parents. They expected Jesus to be as common as they were.
Imagine how you would react if one of your childhood friends were to tell you that he has come from heaven, so that you will not die but have eternal life? In the least I would be skeptical. At worst, I would find him a bed in a psychiatric hospital.
Jesus used metaphors to teach. As he did with longer parables, Jesus talked about something concrete that his audience was familiar with, such as bread. However, what he wanted to teach was about an abstract concept. Jesus said he is the “bread of life.” People knew about bread. They could relate to bread. Bread was a staple in their diet. It was something that could be carried around in a pocket and would last for days. Every family table had bread on it all the time as a sign of hospitality.
However, Jesus went on to explain that he was not ordinary, like the bread that came out of their oven. The Jesus “bread of life” came from heaven, so it was very special, as it was from God. The Jews were familiar with another so-called “bread from heaven,” that was reported in Exodus (16:35). God had sent that bread as “manna” down from heaven to Moses and his people, after they had escaped from Egypt. They really needed that nourishment, as they wandered in the desert for 40 years on their way to the promised land of Canaan. However, Jesus pointed out that in the long run those people died like all people do. By contrast, the Jesus “bread from heaven” would nourish them forever and would give them eternal life.
Better yet, Jesus explained, to receive spiritual nourishment and eternal life, one just had to believe in Him. Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life (6:47).” Earlier he had explained, “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in Him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up at the last day (6:40)”
What a gift! No work necessary. There was no “earning” such a gift. This was completely against the Jewish religious traditions of fasting and sacrifice to earn God’s favor. Even today, we are more accustomed to earning our paycheck, and we look askance at people who are so-called “trust fund babies,” and have inherited their wealth and not earned it.
So, we come into our relationship with God with the bias that we must earn what we get from God. We think that we have to do something to earn God’s favor or earn our way into heaven. If we could just do enough good deeds, pray enough, meditate enough, earn enough money, or donate enough money to charity, then God would look favorably upon us. After all, don’t we have a classic image of Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates asking the deceased what have they done to earn admission to heaven?
But that is not what Jesus is telling us. No, Jesus tells us to set aside this notion. Jesus is the gift from God. You just have to believe in Him.
That means that you can gain access to God through Jesus, since only Jesus came to us from God. You and I do not come from God. Only Jesus came from God. And only Jesus went back to God through his death and resurrection.
Just believe in Jesus. That sounds easy, and God makes it even easier. Jesus says, “no one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me (6:44).” To be “drawn by the Father” means that God wants us to be in right relationship with Him, and God will draw us to Jesus. In other words, you can be the worst sinner, and God will still be waiting for you to let Him into your heart. God, in all His mercy, will not reject you or leave you alone, even if you do not believe in Jesus. Even if you are disobedient of God.
The story of the prophet Elijah as told in today’s reading from1Kings (19:4-8) is an example. Elijah had felt like a failure as a prophet and laid down. He asked God to let him die. But God had other plans for Elijah. God sent an angel to feed Elijah; not just once but twice. Then and only then was Elijah strong enough to journey 40 days and 40 nights to Mount Horeb. On Mount Horeb God came to Elijah again and gave him authority and instructed him to anoint the kings of Aram and Israel. Historically, Elijah anointing those kings proved to be a turning point in the history of Israel. The point here is that God kept pursuing Elijah and nourished him to do God’s work with God’s people.
Jesus brings us into a right relationship with God, and this God is a God of abundance, who wants us to be well-nourished and strong. In this way we can do God’s work by ministering to people in need.
If I were a painter, I would create an image of me with God standing behind me through all the years of my life; through all my selfishness and through all my sinful ways. God is just standing there, perhaps whispering in my ear from time to time. God is just waiting for me to turn around and embrace Him. At my age now, I have to ask myself, “why did I wait so long to embrace God?” The better choice would have been to embrace God and Jesus as soon as I could! I must thank God for my parents, who took me to a church that taught me the basic Lutheran faith in Jesus. However, during college I thought I knew better and could do my life without the help of God or Jesus. Although I strayed far during those middle years, God waited for me. And here I am today.
And there’s even more to God’s gift!
Let me introduce my brother in Christ, Ray. He has given me permission to tell you his story today. We became acquainted when I was teaching in Kentucky about 40 years ago, and we fell out of touch until just recently. For the past several years we have corresponded about our lives and about how God and Jesus have played a role in our lives. Ray’s life has also been influenced by his Bipolar Disorder and, now, his advanced Parkinson’s disease. Nevertheless, Ray knows Jesus and tries to imitate Jesus in his daily life. Ray is also an accomplished poet and has published several books of his poetry. Ray is close to my age, and Ray’s Parkinson’s disease has brought him to the place he describes in the following poem, titled:
The secret times.
Walking and riding a cart
through the store.
to make the last CD and book
Celebrating very good
the best wife
and dearest friends
When we are born
we could fly
almost like Superman
life is never really ending
it is like a flight
but now it is stopping
is the Landing
As I read this I hear Ray saying his flying through life is ending; he is coming in for a landing. As he describes his physical condition to me, that appears to be very real.
Ray and I often talk about how God is working in his life. Ray is OK seeing God working in the life he has lived. He has tried to live a Christ-like life. He has mentored people. With love he has looked for and built upon the strengths of his students and friends. He relishes in recounting the many accomplishments of the people he has mentored. And he thanks God for the blessings he has had in the time he has had with his wife, students and friends. He does not curse what he does not have due to his illness.
However, God is also working in Ray’s “landing.” I have not talked to Ray about this, so I am left to wonder about whether Ray believes what Jesus tells us in today’s scripture. Does Ray know about Jesus’ promise that, ”whoever believes has eternal life” and “whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
Would that give Ray a perspective beyond his pain, his limitations, and his inevitable “landing”? Would this give Ray the hope that his “landing” is actually a “launching” into a next stage of his life? And that this new life would be with Jesus in heaven. Do you think that this could give Ray something to ease into and look forward to? That is the promise that Jesus makes to those who accept Him as their Lord and savior.
Jesus tells us that He is from God and promises us, if we just believe in Him as our Lord and savior, we will have eternal life. During our life on earth, we will be spiritually nourished by Jesus and not want or need for any other. Only Jesus promises this and provides evidence for this truth through his death and resurrection.
With such a great gift from God what are we to do?
If we cannot earn this gift or pay God back for it, then how are we to respond to such generosity? In today’s reading in Ephesians the Apostle Paul wrote his answer to this question. “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us… (5:1).” In the previous chapter Paul offered detailed instructions about how to live in the Body of Christ. All of these instructions are derived from the basic commandment of relating to one another in love.
According to the Apostle Paul, one of the ways we relate to others in love is to “put away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors…(4:25).” And “let no evil come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear (4:29).”
The Oxford Dictionary named 2016 as the year of “post-truth.” And 2017 was even more so. In this post-truth political climate, I wonder what has happened to this very basic instruction from God. The way we Christians are to demonstrate our gratitude for God’s great, free gift is to be “imitators of God.” We are to put on a new self, created to be like God in righteousness and holiness.
The Apostle Paul in Ephesians marks this holy life by taking off falsehood, letting go of lying and speaking truthfully. Lying speech is a selfish, possessive act that rejects the Holy Spirit and has dire consequences. Not least of these consequences are mistrust and mutual deceit and conflict. By contrast, speaking the truth is an act of love, and love is returned to us as a gift. Truth leads to trusting relationships and interactions that are mutually beneficial. Of course, speaking the truth also leaves us vulnerable. Lying would have created defenses for our weakness, and by speaking the truth those defenses are down. However, our strength in truth comes from knowing the unconditional love of God and the promises of God through Jesus for everlasting love, forgiveness for our sins, and eternal life. That should give us the courage to speak the truth to power and to stand up for the needy; those people who are oppressed, persecuted, impoverished, ill, and, yes, even those who do not know Jesus yet.
As Christians we cannot be silent.
Silence is the enemy of truth, and our truth is Jesus Christ. AMEN
Submitted by Paul Stratton – Lay Preacher
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – August 11-12, 2018
1 Kings 19:4-8, Psalm 34:1-8, Ephesians 4:25-5:2, John 6:35, 41-51-31