Sunday, August 2, 2009

Lectionary 18
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

Jesus said unto them. I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall not hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.

Love generated the call. Love sustains the call. And love determines all that we do for the sake of our neighbors. Though love is from God and is given to us, it still takes hard work on our part to make it happen. Even as our lessons for this week remind us that everything good comes from God, let us never forget that God calls us into an active life of faithful living.

I donít know what it is about me, but Iím often mistaken for an employee in retail shops. Now, I have worked in retail, but I donít think I act like I work at the stores where it happens to me. Sure, I occasionally fold shirts on a table as Iím looking through them, but I do that because it is easier to find a particular size when the shirts are neatly stacked. Besides, thatís now when I get asked for help. I can be walking down an aisle with a shopping cart filled with groceries and my purse tucked into the child seat and someone will ask, ďDo you work here?Ē I donít know whether they are desperate for help or if they are really confused.

Has someone ever thought you were someone or something that you arenít? Have they looked to you for advice you arenít qualified to give or asked you to do something that you donít think you can do? There might be good reason for them thinking as they do. It might appear that I work in the store when I begin folding clothes on the tables and we all might do things that make others think we are an expert. But all too often weíre asked for things that are well beyond our ability or that we simply should not do.

Thatís what happened to Jesus. Todayís passage comes shortly after the feeding of the five thousand which we read last week. This was a miraculous event, one that people identified with the coming of the Messiah. They saw Jesus as the anointed one, not as He was sent to be but as they expected Him to be. John tells us that Jesus knew they intended to come to make Him king, so He disappeared onto the mountain and spent time in prayer.

He couldnít get away from the crowds forever, though. The next day they realized that Jesus and the disciples had slipped away, so they got into boats and traveled to the other side of the lake in search of Him.

It must have been very frustrating for Jesus. Yes, He was caring and compassionate on the people, but they were so dense. They saw Jesus as they wanted to see Him. They understood Godís promises as they fulfilled their own expectations. No matter how many times Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God in ways that clearly stand opposed to the kingdoms of the world, they still wanted to fit Him into the box they had imagined for the Messiah.

They were chasing after Him for all the wrong reasons. They saw His miraculous feeding of the five thousand as proof that they were right: He was the one to meet their needs. Jesus answered that they were seeking Him because He satisfied their flesh, but that He was there to give them something much better. He wanted them to hear the words of hope and grace He was giving to them on that hillside, but all they saw was that they were filled to satisfaction. It might have been His fault; after all He did meet their physical needs along with sharing Godís Kingdom. The sign itself did testify to something beyond what He intended. He stopped them in their tracks by telling them to stop working for the food that perishes, but to work for the food that endures to eternal life.

They had their fill. Jesus fed five thousand people with bread and fish until they were satisfied, and then there were baskets full of leftovers. It sounds like the bread that Jesus provided to the crowd on the mountainside might just have been lasting, but it would never endure to eternal life. Jesus had something greater to tell them about Godís provision. It isnít just about the body. Jesus came to deal with life beyond this world.

Perhaps this is too morbid to think about, but how would you prefer to die? The reality is that we will all die one day. None of us know how we will die, but Iím sure most of us have at some point considered this question. I think most people would prefer to die peacefully in their sleep in old age after a long and fruitful life. But what if you could make the choice? Would you like to be at home or in a strange place? Would you want it to be quick so that you wonít suffer or would you like to have the chance to say good-bye to your family and friends? These arenít choices we can make, but I donít think any one of us would deny wanting to control the circumstances of our lives in ways that arenít ours to control.

The Israelites wanted control. They thought they knew better than Moses. And they thought they knew better than God. They were wandering in the wilderness, unsure about tomorrow and they didnít know where they would find their next meal. They had been oppressed by the Egyptians, held captive as slaves. Slavery was never a pleasant life. Slaves died at the hands of their masters. They suffered horrific accidents. Who knows how many slaves died under the rolling stones that built the cities of the ancient world? The mortar of too many buildings was mixed with the blood of people unable to stand against greater powers. It appears, however, that those Hebrew slaves at least had food, shelter and the certainty of tomorrow.

Moses took them away from the burden of slavery, but they went into a wilderness that was frightening and uncertain. There was no where to get food or water. There were no buildings to shelter the people. They didnít know where they were going or what would be at the end of the journey. They didnít even know how long it would take to get there. They were tired and hungry. They were losing hope. As a matter of fact, they had more hope that theyíd be saved when they were living as slaves under the whips of the Egyptians than they did as they wandered in the wilderness. They didnít trust that God would provide. They didnít know how they would survive. They wanted to return to the life of certainty even though it meant that they would suffer rather than suffering in a wilderness that led only to uncertainty.

God did provide. He sent manna from heaven in the morning and quails in the evening. The people were required to follow very specific instructions. They were given the opportunity to learn how to trust in Godís provision. Those who did not trust Godís Word, who tried to hoard the manna, found only disappointment. Imagine what it must have been like for these people. They had to rely on an unseen God and accept an unidentifiable thing as food to fill their grumbling bellies. Even still, would it be worth returning to a country where the oppressor waits to make life even more difficult for them?

Even though they knew the manna came from God, we human beings tend to attach the credit for our circumstances on the things we can see. Moses was the hero in the wilderness. He was the hero in the stories they told about the exodus. He became the example. He was the prophet against whom all prophets were compared. Jesus gave them bread in the wilderness, and while that feast was miraculous, it wasnít manna from heaven. It wasnít enough to convince the people that Jesus was sent by God to bring a salvation that was even greater than that given to them by Moses.

It didnít help that Jesusí teachings seemed to contradict that which was given to the people by Moses. When Jesus told the crowd not to work for food that perishes but to work for food that endures, they asked, ďWhat must we do to do the works God requires?Ē They, of course, were expecting Jesus to repeat the Law which was given to them by Moses. They expected to hear a list of rules to obey and things to do. They wanted to receive Godís blessings based on their own actions. Thatís the way it has always been. Moses gave them the Law. Moses gave them the manna. If Jesus contradicted Moses, then Heíd have to prove Himself.

Jesus told them that the work of God is to believe in the one He has sent. This was a new teaching. It was different than what they had received from Moses. So, it wasnít enough that Heíd just fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, they needed more. Jesus needed to do something even greater than Moses in the wilderness. Jesus needed to provide them with something better than the bread from heaven.

This is where they were wrong: the bread from heaven did not come from Moses. It came from God. Theyíd lost sight of the real provider of all things good, which is the very reason why Jesus came. He answered their demand for proof with this statement: ďVerily, verily, I say unto you, it was not Moses that gave you the bread out of heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread out of heaven.Ē They were so focused on the physical realities they knew, they lost sight of the true reality of God.

They wanted what Jesus had to offer. They heard the message that Jesus gave them, that God sends the bread, and the people seem to want the bread about which Jesus is speaking. They want to go through life without hunger or thirst. But in todayís passage we are left with some questions. Will they believe? Will they receive Jesus as the bread of life and believe in Him? Or will they continue to try to make Him fit into their expectations and understandings of Godís promises?

The psalmist writes, ďSo they did eat, and were well filled; and he gave them their own desire.Ē This was written long before Jesus sat on that hillside. It was written about a different miracle. It was written about the manna in the desert. God gave the people their own desire. He provided for them everything they needed as they were wandering that wilderness. They asked and they received. It might not have been the answer they expected, but God responded to their whining and complaining with the gracious provision of both bread and meat.

Psalm 78 is a story telling the history of Godís people from the exodus to the appointment of David as king. These are the stories that meant the most to the writer of the psalm. You canít fit the entire history of Israel into seventy-two verses, but you can share the things that matter most and that will bring the reader into a better understanding of who they were and what was the purpose of their lives. And so we, as todayís readers, look at these stories and we are reminded of Godís grace to His people throughout time. We also look at the stories of what Jesus did and we see how much He looks like the God we see in the Old Testament stories. We see how He has fulfilled the promises, how He has presented Godís grace in a new way, a way that is lasting. The manna was a great miracle at a time when the people needed help. But even the manna was not enduring.

It is no coincidence that the word manna literally means, "what is it?" They did not know. Many scholars have tried to discover a natural explanation for this miraculous event, and there are natural occurrences that might explain some of this substance. However, the plants that produce a sticky, granular honeydew for a short period of time each year could not possibly produce enough to feed a million or so Hebrews wandering in the desert for forty years. Also, the fact that the manna doubled on the day before the Sabbath and non existent on the Sabbath is miraculous.

The psalmist said, ďSo they did eat, and were well filled; and he gave them their own desire.Ē God indeed gave them what they desiredóHe fed them bread and they were full. Yet, the gift came with a test. It was a lesson; God wanted to see their obedience. Would they believe Him? Would they trust Him?

They were only to take enough for a day. God would provide enough as long as it was needed. They did not need to hoard the manna because there would be enough. They did not need to keep some for tomorrow because there would be enough. And on the sixth day there would be enough for two days so that they could take the Sabbath for rest. But some hoarded manna; they gathered enough for a second day, only to discover that the next day the jar was smelly and full of maggots. Some people did not keep enough for the Sabbath and when they went to gather it there was none. They were not obedient, but they learned. They learned to trust that God would provide them their daily bread, every day. Unfortunately, their trust in God eventually became trust in Moses and their interpretation of the record left behind by their forefathers. They needed to learn to trust in God again, to look to Him for their life. They needed to rebuild their relationship with the God who provided them with bread to eat and the bread that gives trust life.

Relationships take work. Our neighborhood encourages good relationships between neighbors. We watch out for one another. We share with each other. We are available for one another when there is a need. We take care of each otherís pets when we go out of town. We try to welcome all the new neighbors into this fellowship. We canít build relationships if we donít take the time to get to know others.

We need those relationships. I donít know how weíd survive in this neighborhood if we didnít know our neighbors. We rely on them just as they rely on us. We enjoy sharing what we have with them and look to them for the things they have to share. What would I do about that cup of sugar if I didnít know my neighbor? Jesus came to reintroduce Godís people to the truth of His character and purpose. We see in these stories that God does provide for our bellies, but that isnít all He has to give. He gives us the promise of eternal life.

What would we do in the Church if we tried to live apart from the relationships with which God has blessed us? It is easy for us to think we can live on our own, to worship God on the mountain apart from others and to do whatever it is we see needs to be done apart from the fellowship of believers. Yet, no one has every gift necessary to do the work of God in this world. Even if we apply Jesusí words and think about the work of God as belief in Jesus, we still need others. We need others to share the message with us. We need the resources others can share. We each have certain gifts and resources which God joins together with other believersí gifts and resources. As each person adds something to the mix, the benefits are multiplied. How much more can we do for those who need Godís grace if we join with others who have unique and necessary gifts?

Shouldnít it be easy to live in those relationships? After all, we are bound together by the power of the Holy Spirit. Why should we have to work at something that God has established? Yet, we all know that it isnít easy to get along with everyone. We have different opinions and we see the world from our own unique perspectives. We have different purposes, different gifts and different goals. We are bound by the Holy Spirit, but that doesnít mean it will be easy. A good look at todayís churches and the Church as a whole around the world and everyone will know that we donít always agree. We still see Jesus through our own understanding. We still want to control the way God meets our needs. We still grumble when things arenít going the way we want to go and we still receive Godís grace according to our own expectations.

We are bound together by the Holy Spirit, called as one body in one hope through one Lord, one faith and one Baptism. But even this relationship takes work. It is up to us to live a life worthy of the calling to which weíve been called. It is a life of humility. It is a life of gentleness. It is a life of love. But love doesnít just happen. Sometimes we have to set aside our own understanding to see Jesus as He really is, and to receive the bread that God has to give rather than the bread we desire. God fulfills our desires, but the work of God is to believe that God provides everything we truly need. It isnít always what we expect. It isnít always what we want.

Paul certainly didnít want to spend time in prison, but thatís where the work of belief took him. He wanted to be able to travel to the churches he established, but he didnít have the freedom to do so. He did know that it wasnít about the work he could do, but about the work God did through him. He did not wallow in his suffering or try to change his circumstances. He continued to believe and share his resources with others, building those relationships which God had given.

Paul continued to write to the churches even as he sat in prison. He wrote to encourage them in their faith and to guide them in their Christian vocation. He trained leaders, settled disputes, rebuked sin and shared God's grace. He lived his vocation even when it was inconvenient. He lived his faith even when there was no reason for hope.

He was in prison when he wrote this message to the Ephesians. Paul asks the reader to ďwalk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called.Ē Here, once again, we see encouragement to work. Yet, what is the calling to which we are called? Jesus told usóto believe. This is not a passive faith. It is an active faith that naturally works the work that pleases God. It is the faith that leads to maturity, and that maturity leads to love. In love we live in unity and in peace in the body of Christ.

This passage is very specifically addressed to a certain group of peopleóleaders in the church. These are the people that are called to encourage and equip the saints. They establish the churches, speak to the church both about the things to come and the things that have already been, they guide the church in growth toward the maturity which Paul describes. Paul writes, ďÖwith all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.Ē

The first relationship we need to deal with is our relationship with God. The Israelites learned how to trust in God by eating manna in the wilderness. The crowd learned that Jesus wasnít who they thought He was by chasing after the wrong sort of bread in their wilderness. Paul learned to live in his vocation even when it took him into places that he didnít want to go. We learn through these lessons that our work is simply to believe. As we believe in God, we are given opportunities to share Godís grace with others. The love of God calls us to share the bread of heaven with all those who are hungry. We tell our stories, just like the psalmist, so that others will see the great things God has done and also come to believe in Him and receive eternal life.

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