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Archives for August 2018
Is Jesus too hard to accept, or is Jesus offering abundant life like nothing you’ve ever known?
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 21 B
Text: John 6:56-69
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Two questions rise above the Gospel today as turning points for all who hear.
Each is paired with a statement. The first begins with a statement of fact: “This teaching is difficult.” Then the question: “Who can accept it?”
The second begins with the question: “Lord, to whom can we go?” Then the statement of fact: “You have the words of eternal life.”
From these two points Jesus’ disciples divide. Those who ask the first question leave. Those who ask the second stay. And they’re all disciples, John says. We’re not hearing the hungry crowds anymore.
We face both these signposts. It’s important we realize this, since when we answer as the first group we don’t do their honest thing and leave. We stick around, acting as if we’re on board with Christ’s path. While inwardly, there are places we won’t let the Spirit lead.
And it isn’t just Jesus’ teachings on flesh and blood that are difficult.
In our path of discipleship, we resist or reject Jesus more than we realize.
Maybe it is this incarnational teaching we’ve focused on for over a month. It isn’t easy to accept that you take in your body the body and blood of God’s Son, and are changed. You can spiritualize Holy Communion all you want, but Jesus will insist on saying it will completely transform you from within.
Maybe Jesus’ insistence on losing your attachment to your possessions is your sticking point. St. Francis may have given away everything and followed, but you’re not so sure. Financial security, protecting your house, voting for things that keep your stock accounts growing, not thinking of those who suffer as a result, maybe this is Jesus’ hard teaching.
It could be sacrificial love. The cross-shaped path Jesus invites you to follow is a challenging path. To let go of your pride in service to another, to genuinely forgive for no reason other than love, to offer yourself, no matter how inconvenient, to help someone, these are hard to accept. We’re conditioned to look out for ourselves.
And what of Jesus’ teaching that all are loved and welcomed in God, all are valuable and precious? Can you look at your innate racism and prejudice (because most of us have it), and let the Spirit really clear that out? Are you ready for Jesus to challenge your inmost assumptions?
This teaching is hard; who can accept it?
Pay attention to this crisis point for so many of Jesus’ disciples, and ask if you feel the same. It doesn’t mean that you don’t find hope and joy somewhere in all of Jesus’ teaching. Those who left had loved Jesus’ teaching enough to become disciples. But when Jesus insists on following completely, as he always does, do you hesitate?
Yes, I’ll give some of my wealth to charity, to my church. But Jesus says, can you lose all your attachment to material things? Yes, I’ll try to be kinder to those who aren’t like me. But Jesus says, can you be honest about your participation in unjust systems that perpetuate racism or sexism, your complicity that makes kindness not seem nearly enough?
Jesus is a hard teacher, no question. It’s all or nothing: all your heart, soul, strength, and mind in love of God. All your life in love to neighbor. All of yourself on Christ’s path. Don’t start to plow, Jesus says, and quit part way.
But wait before despairing. Before you walk, hear Peter today.
He asks the question you need to ask: “Master, where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
This is the other corner in this Gospel. You follow Jesus, you come here to worship the Triune God whose face Jesus reveals in person. You seek life in Christ because something in you knows you’ve never heard anything like what Christ offers anywhere else.
“Eternal life” is in your words, Jesus, Peter says. Remember, this is before Jesus’ death and resurrection. They aren’t following Jesus so they’ll live in heaven after they die. They have no idea what’s coming. Easter is a surprise and a joyful one.
But eternal life – this they sense in Jesus right now. “Life of the ages” it could translate. Abundant life, Jesus calls it. A life of meaning and purpose. Filled with hope and trust. Where peace fills one’s heart in the midst of the worst chaos. A life shaped by knowing you are forgiven and loved forever. A life, as Jesus keeps saying, lived in the heart of God’s life.
That’s what Peter is starting to sense. Hard as Jesus is to understand and harder yet as he is to follow, something Peter can witness to firsthand, Jesus is life. To hear him, to be with him, is to hear God, to be with God. To follow him is to learn a way of living that is unlike anything you’ve ever known.
These are the points of turning.
Many of Jesus’ disciples leave. They haven’t even seen the cross, faced the worst of doubt and fear. But they know they can’t do this teaching, or be shaped by it.
The others, more than just twelve, stay. They will be traumatized by what is to come, and astounded by what comes after that trauma. They will experience being filled by the very Spirit of God and changed dramatically. They will witness with their lives, some with their deaths, to the eternal love of God that is life right now. And because of Easter, they will also proclaim that bonus joy, that there is life after we die, too.
But right now, all they can say is, “We have nowhere else we’ve ever found such life.” They stay, because in Jesus’ difficult words they hear truth and forgiveness and hope and love and life.
So how will you answer?
Before you do, though, remember one more question and answer from God’s Word. The flawed King David, whose family story we’ve followed all summer, once sang a question and answer you need to sing now: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139)
And his answer was, I can’t. If I turn away because your teaching is too hard, and lie down in death’s darkness, you’re still there. If I turn to you in hope because I find life in your words, ascend to heaven, you are also there.
Whichever disciple in this Gospel reading you imitate, there is One who will never turn away from you. Those who walked away from Jesus, well, Jesus never walked away from them. If you turn away, God will still be there, will still surround you, watch over you, and never take away the love that is yours.
Jesus’ teachings are hard. So hard that Jesus let himself be executed to live them out. But that unimaginable love, God poured out in death to draw all people, all people, even those who turn away, back into God’s life, that’s the answer to the only question that matters.
And if you realize you’ve never found any life like the life you’ve found in God through Christ, then rejoice. Because that life of the ages, the abundant life God dreams for all God’s children, will fill you until you, too, understand and follow even the most difficult of God’s teachings. Until you are in God and God in you, and all together with the whole creation in eternal love and life.
In the name of Jesus. Amen
God-in-the-flesh is God in the messiness of our animal bodies and lives, and in this Incarnation God will save and restore all things.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 20 B
Text: John 6:51-58
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.”
There’s something shocking about hearing Jesus say this. Not because it’s a new idea. Every week at Eucharist I retell the story of the meal. Jesus said, “Take and eat, this is my body.” “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” But maybe we’ve heard that formula so often it doesn’t strike us as strongly as Jesus’ words here.
Because Jesus here isn’t just shocking. He’s almost disgusting. It’s even more so in Greek. Instead of using one of two very common, very frequently used words for eating, three times here John uses a third word, a word that’s only found once in the New Testament outside of John. Instead of “eat,” a better translation is “gnaw, chew, devour.” It usually describes how animals eat. So Jesus really says, “Those who gnaw my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.”
What kind of decent God talks about faith and life like that?
Well, in Scripture, God gets into far greater indecency.
On Christmas Eve in the late 1970s a friend of mine read the Christmas Gospel from Today’s English Version, a new translation speaking in everyday language. He read aloud that Mary was “pregnant.” After the service, a furious parishioner made it clear that sort of language didn’t ever belong in church.
Hold back from laughing too quickly. When did you last consider that the manger scene was full of blood and water, sweat and smells? That’s what happens when a baby is born. God-with-us in the middle of lots of things decent people don’t talk about publicly.
And what of the crucifixion? Do you ever envision what it really was like? The smell of bodies transfixed in fear, covered in sweat. People who are executed often soil themselves as they die. Blood is everywhere. This is where you see the Son of God.
Incarnation isn’t a polite theology. God-in-the-flesh means God in the mess, bodily fluids, smells, human life. Flesh and blood for real. Jesus evacuated his bowels and bladder every day. There wasn’t a portable shower following him around. This is what God Incarnate means.
What kind of decent God would permit this? What kind of decent pastor would preach about this?
It’s not just God. Our culture is squeamish about the reality and mess of our own animal bodies.
Funerals have changed from families carefully washing and preparing their loved ones to professionals sweeping them out of our sight. Anything that happens behind the bathroom door with the fan on is off limits to talk about. We won’t admit that we age, embarrassed to say we need hearing aids, or to be seen with a cane. What would people think?
Polite conversation is fine. Talking about our smells and fluids and dying bodies isn’t conducive to a dinner conversation. But if we’re so squeamish about the very real bodies we have, we’re separated from the gift of God our lives can be, the gift to us of God’s Incarnation. And our lives are deeply diminished.
That’s because intimacy and love live in the reality and mess of our bodies.
The one who has to deal with flesh and blood, with bodily fluids and smells of another, is the one most intimate to them. You like holding someone else’s baby because someone else has to change the diaper.
But when a child is sick in the night, has found a way to vomit between the mattresses and in other impossible places, the one who loves that child, who has already smelled and wiped that child countless times, is the one who washes sheets at two a.m., finds clean pajamas, wipes the walls, tucks the child in.
Near the end of my beloved uncle’s life, several times I needed to help him with some very intimate issues, something neither he nor I ever imagined would happen. Most of us dread the time when someone has to do this for us in our aging. But in those moments I realized the holiness of our broken, messy, fluid-producing bodies, how in these moments of truth we really understand what love can be.
Flesh and blood, all those things decent people don’t talk about: they’re where we experience true love. And where the Holy and Triune God enters into our bodies.
God’s Word took on our human flesh, not a sanitized version of humanity.
The Word became flesh and lived among us. Mary, a real woman, experienced the Son of God sitting on her bladder during her ninth month and making her very uncomfortable. God’s Word had all our aches and pains and smells and fluids and embarrassing noises. Was truly human.
Becoming one of us, God says, “Did you not believe me in Genesis 1 when I declared all this – everything about your fleshliness – good? Did you not believe that I still thought it good when in John 1 you learned that I took this flesh on myself, for your life? Did you not hear what Peter was told in Acts, that you may not call something unclean that I have called clean?”
God takes on every aspect of our humanity, and redeems it all as decent, good. Even the parts we call ugly. And now we can hear what Jesus says that means for the whole creation.
Jesus says that if God can enter our human reality, God can enter the very stuff of creation.
Flesh and blood are no different from bread and wine. Gnaw on that bread. Guzzle that wine. Take it in you and understand, but don’t try too hard to reason this out, Jesus says. Just chew. Drink. Feel how this is God’s life for you.
Saying that the eternal and Triune God can be present in such basic things as bread and wine is just as shocking as the rest of what Jesus says today. We try to deflect that shock with doctrine. We mumble things like “transubstantiation; consubstantiation; real presence; in, with, and under.” As if we can explain this.
But if we simply trust Jesus’ word while we gnaw on the bread, and drink the wine, trust that God is not only in Jesus’ messy body but in these lovely, tasty things, a new truth begins to emerge.
That God can also be in you, and me.
If God can be present in Jesus’ human, unsanitary body, and if Jesus says God is also present in simple bread and wine, then God can be in you.
Not a sanitized version of you. You after a shower, with your favorite clothes on and your hair the way you like it. As if you don’t own a toilet, don’t ever soil your clothes. As if you’ve never had a bad thought, or guilt and shame in your heart.
No. You are Christ, God is incarnate in you as you are, messy, smelly, broken, foolish inside and out.
No decent God would ever want to be embodied in you or in me. But who said God was decent?
And now God sends you out as witness in your body.
You go out with God in you, messy and flawed, and witness by your very body, your vulnerability, that God is in all things and in you. That love is incarnate. So that those who meet you might also find this wonder for themselves.
You have gifts, too. Blessings. Strengths you are uniquely prepared to offer the world as Christ. But today remember that all the things you’re not thrilled about seeing in yourself are holy gift, too. I give you my flesh and blood, messy as that is, for your eternal life, Jesus says. I give you as my flesh and blood, messy as you are, for the life of the world.
Do you see why you are so needed? God’s love can only be known in the flesh. Not through books or institutions. Through the flesh and blood and life of a child of God witnessing by their messy presence to the love of the eternal God for the whole creation.
Do you understand how this can change the world?
It’s indecent, really, how joyfully God enters into the depths of creation, into you and me. But this is a holy indecency that will save all things.
In the name of Jesus. Amen
In the midst of oppression, Mary proclaims that God’s reign will transform the world through the way of Love.
Vicar Matta Ghaly, CSJC.
The feast of Mary, Mother of Our Lord
Text: Luke 1:46-55
My beloved friends in Christ, Grace and peace to you on this blessed feast day of Mary, mother of our Lord, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
In today’s gospel reading, we listen to a canticle sung by Mary, a poor, vulnerable and young Galilean woman living in first-century occupied Palestine, living under the brutal and humiliating tyranny of Roman rule. Mary lived in a divided nation, a nation in crisis with quarreling political parties and unholy allegiances, violent revolts and bloody massacres. The majority of her people lived in unbearable poverty; most resources were plundered by the rich, funding palaces and military expeditions while they lived in destitution. A whole people condemned to oppression, they were waiting and waiting for that one their ancestors spoke of, to come and snatch them from the grip of a death-dealing world.
Mary too was witnessing, with an eye of mercy, the pain of her nation, waiting and praying for the promised savior of Israel. From among all her people, God chose her to birth the Messiah, the Son of God, whose coming in the flesh commenced the long-awaited kingdom of God.
In Mary, God defies so much of our “impossible” to make a new world possible through Christ.
Earlier in the chapter from which we read, Mary visits Elizabeth who is pregnant with John, the forerunner of Christ. We can perhaps see the image of two pregnant women filled with the Holy Spirit, in love with God, full of awe and gratitude for God’s grace, standing together, rubbing each other’s hands, blessing one another, and remembering the kind of love that transformed their life through the impossible.
So in this moment of awe and intimacy, Mary sings this canticle to set the stage for the entire gospel of Luke, testifying to God’s love and redemptive work in the world. In the midst of so much turmoil and injustice, this young woman – a 14 year old single mother – stands with a full belly and prophetically sings that the world is about to turn – not with the rise of a new political party, or a violent uprising or a coup d’état, no – she sings of the world turning with the power of God’s love, a love that looks favorably on the lowly rather than the mighty, a love that admires humility rather than pride, a love that overthrows the powerful of this world to lift up the oppressed, a love that fills the hungry and thirsty, and sends away empty the secure, self-relying and wealthy, a love not dependent on transactions or an exchange of favors but that gives abundantly of one’s self and one’s possessions, a love that from generation to generation, pours loving-kindness and overflowing mercy, a love that turns the world upside down and makes a way out of no-way for those who have no other way but love, a co-suffering and healing love that is incarnate in the child Mary gives birth to, our beloved savior Jesus Christ.
God has seen our humiliation, God has heard our sighs, God is present in our tears, and God now reigns – Mary sings – and God’s reign reaches with love into our reality, into our very hearts, to till the soil of our being with grace, and transform the world with the call of a living and working faith, a call to return to God’s heart with our bodies, with our minds and with our souls.
What might be the impact of such a love, one might ask?
Friends, the author of Luke understands that the socio-economic, political and cultural realities of a people are inseparable from their spiritual reality and the condition of their heart. As Jesus himself says in the gospel of Luke “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And so through love, God deeply enters with a transformative grace into the heart of our blessed mother Mary to transform who she is, how she walks and what she does in the world. And her faithful love in response to God – her love for her own child – makes known the Way of a divine kingdom; a kingdom in which the last will be first, and the first will be last; a kingdom in which the undesired find home and belonging, and the powerful are displaced; a kingdom that is good news to the poor, release for the captives, freedom for the oppressed and healing for those whose backs were bent by despair and despondency.
God’s reign does not perpetuate the violence and might of Rome to establish yet another brutal but fragile kingdom. It does not use force or shame as a way out of complicity. Instead, God reigns through love; God reigns in the resiliency of forgiveness, patience and long-suffering. God reigns when we love our neighbors and enemies alike, when we name and confess our sin and prejudice, and ask for absolution and forgiveness, when we seek to be in right relationship, when aggression and violence are met with an offer of peace, when our anxieties are surrendered and like children, we trust that we are loved enough to be fed, to be dressed better than the lilies of the field.
God reigns when an Israelite and a gentile are both equally heard and healed, God reigns when a chief tax-collector like Zacchaeus gives away half of his possession to the poor and is saved, God reigns when more than five thousand are fed with just five loaves of bread and two fish.
In all of these instances throughout the gospel of Luke, God enters the heart with a love so genuine; an invitation to belong so potent, that it transforms an individual’s whole being and drives them to act out of faith according to grace. It’s a love so contagious; it magnifies, multiples, and causes the world to turn with justice, mercy and loving-kindness.
And in as much as this canticle reveals to us the immensity of God’s love, it testifies to Mary’s profound love for God, an intimate and vast love that says yes when the Word is proclaimed, that trusts the holy Spirit is at work, that responds with “Here I am… let it be with me according to your word,” especially in the face of the impossible.
Truly, as Elizabeth proclaims; “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And blessed are we when we follow in her path and believe God’s promise.
Given Mary’s weakness and powerlessness before the grandiose power of an empire, this canticle of liberating love would be deemed foolishness to a culture of dominance, greed and power, for in the eyes of such a culture, this kind of love is meaningless and produces no change in our reality. It’s a culture that expects a Mary to choose between violence and despair.
Yet here we are friends, the Church of God, one generation after another, boldly singing with Mary a canticle of faith and hope in God’s reign, unashamedly proclaiming the foolishness of the Way of Love, trusting that God will overthrow whatever power of this world that deceives, consumes, destroys and leaves us unfulfilled, without real meaning or purpose. Through the wisdom of our Mother Mary, in the model of her co-suffering love with the world, we are being called as accomplices for the kingdom of God – with our hearts, with our hands and feet, with our all for the sake of Love.
If you wish to dream into reality a different world, remember first that you been made a child of the most high, and you belong to God’s family by which this Way of Love – the gospel – is made known and put into practice. Find in your heart a tender closeness and intimacy with God, water it and nurture it with your siblings in Christ. If you can’t find it, then fervently ask Christ to show you the way, for he passionately desires you as his own beloved.
Trust that God is constantly reaching out to you, calling you to enter deeper into the mystery of Love with unceasing prayer, through the means of grace – the sacraments, in watchfulness over what enters your heart and resides in it, and by pure love and service towards neighbor and enemy alike. Like Mother Mary, your sacred love affair with God will become contagious; it will change you, transform those around you, and surely send you as good news for many who are hungry for love and for bread – to God be the glory forever and ever. Amen
God is drawing us into each other and into Christ, and joined together, all our hunger and thirst is truly satisfied.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 19 B
Texts: Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Is Jesus really telling hungry and poor people that they should stop worrying about where their next meal is coming from?
It sounds like it. These four weeks we’re focused on just one day, the day after thousands were fed. Last week the crowds wanted another meal. That’s not out of line. Jesus showed he can do it, and yesterday’s meal was gone.
But last week Jesus told them not to worry about perishable food, or hope for daily food from God like the Israelites’ manna. Basically, Jesus told a bunch of hungry folks that looking for more food was misguided. Instead, we hear today, he said “believe in me – I’m the true bread from heaven. Those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty.”
Little wonder lots of people left. Many of the thousands who followed Jesus around the Sea of Galilee after the miraculous picnic were poor, working long hours to provide food for their families. If God could take away just that one worry, what a blessing that would be.
This is hard. Jesus uses hunger and thirst, real problems in our world, to imagine a new life of faith. So we need to know if Jesus isn’t really being uncaring. And then, what truth is he trying to get us to see? And that’s not easy, even for people like us who don’t live with food insecurity or water shortages.
To start with, we’re never going to understand Jesus if we don’t better understand our real hunger and thirst.
Our old assumptions about what we need and want need to be transformed. Our world has taught us to long for things that aren’t good for us – wealth, possessions, things that we think benefit us, and actually cost someone else. We need to change from that.
Think of actual food tastes. When you were a child, there were foods you’d have loved to eat all the time, but wouldn’t have given you good nutrition, would be damaging to eat all the time. As a child, I dreamed of getting myself secretly locked into Woolworth’s overnight and having free reign of the lunch counter and the soda fountain. How many milkshakes, burgers, and fries could I go through? But we grow up, and mostly learn to eat food that really is good for us.
And now Jesus invites us to grow into another new way. He uses the idea of hunger and thirst to help us change because we understand those realities. Jesus says we have deep needs that only God can fill. Not for food or money or possessions. Things we really hunger for but often don’t realize it.
This is the heart of Jesus’ words to the crowds after the meal: God wants to draw you into God, where you’ll find all you really need.
Today Jesus says, “No one comes to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” So if faith is being drawn into God by God, Christ the Son then draws us into each other in the same way. Paul’s beautiful description today of our new life comes from being transformed into one new reality together. We become, Paul says today, members of each other.
This is amazingly radical. We’re culturally conditioned to think of ourselves as individuals. Your life is your own, mine is mine. So we hunger and thirst to help ourselves most times. Yes, we have community, friends, family. But for centuries we have taught and lived that ultimately you only have yourself.
But everything Jesus taught, everything Paul proclaimed, assumes the exact opposite. In Christ there is no life of the individual. You are not you apart from me. You belong to me. I belong to you. And we all belong to Christ, and are made into Christ.
Christ’s teachings of faith and life make no sense if we think we’re individuals. They only make sense if we’re all connected. Joined together we then find our deepest hungers and thirsts that can be filled forever in Christ.
When God transforms us into a shared body, our hunger and thirst become for the good of all.
If my knee is damaged, it hurts my whole body, how I walk, sleep, sit. I can’t ignore it as if it’s not my problem. If we could imagine the body of Christ that way – and Paul certainly has tried to help us do this – our lives would never be the same.
That’s why Jesus redirects the crowds away from their very real hunger and thirst. Not because he doesn’t care about their bellies. But because if they see each other as one body in Christ, no one will ever go hungry again. That’s what he taught with the miraculous feeding: all belong, all matter. If one hurts, all hurt.
So knowing in faith we are all part of each other, we find our deepest hunger and thirst is for justice. If any of God’s children are in pain – from hunger, oppression, disease, racism, sexism, violence – so are we. We are as affected as if our own bodies were in that pain. And because God’s abundance of resources, community, and love are meant for all, our hunger for justice will be satisfied when we live into our new reality of being one body with each other in Christ where all are cared for.
The surprise of belonging to each other in God is that our own personal hungers are also filled forever.
At our core, we hunger to belong. None of us wants to think we’re alone, that we don’t matter to someone. Well, you’re part of me, and I of you, and all of us with all God’s children on earth. Your hunger for belonging is forever satisfied.
At our core, we hunger for love. Love that can overlook our flaws, love that brings light and joy to our hearts. Well, you’re part of me, and I of you, and we are joined to Christ whose love for the world and for you broke death’s power forever. If we are members of each other, if we are joined in that love to all God’s children on earth, your hunger for love is forever satisfied.
At our core, we hunger for a purpose. We deeply hope to make a difference, to matter. Well, you’re part of me, and I of you, and we are joined to all God’s children on earth. Each of us is vital to each of us. At every moment you matter to the body of Christ, you have something to offer. And your hunger for purpose is forever satisfied.
So this is Jesus’ invitation: let God draw you into God – God’s life, God’s love.
You’ll be changed. You’ll stop seeing yourself as an individual, and begin to feel your connection to all people, all creatures, the whole creation. You’ll hunger and thirst for new things. Not selfish, material things like the world teaches you to want. Real things. Things that matter. You’ll finally experience what it is to really be filled, the joy of being so connected that no one can tell who’s doing all the feeding and loving of God’s creation, but joyously it turns out all have all they want.
This is hard stuff to grasp. Next week you’ll hear more challenging things from Jesus. You’ll see more people walk away, some angry, some confused. You might be tempted, too.
But stick around. Take the chance of letting God draw you in anyway. Because if there really is a hunger and thirst inside you that God can fill forever, isn’t it worth sticking around to see how that will happen for you, and for this world?
In the name of Jesus. Amen
“What must we do to perform the works of God?” It’s the question that the crowd asks Jesus, and the question that we still ask ourselves today. Jesus gives them a simple answer: believe. But in believing, we become ever more like Christ.
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, year B
Texts: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51:1-12; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:16-35
“What must we do to perform the works of God?”
That’s the question, isn’t it? At least, it is for me. I’ve been asking myself that for months: what does God want me to do, and how do I know? I’m sure I’m not the only one who wonders that. It’s one of the reasons that we gather together every week: to listen for what God is asking of us now. Yes, we gather to praise and to pray, to celebrate the sacraments, and to remind ourselves of the promises of God’s grace – but there’s no question about those things. There’s no question about God’s freely given love for us, and there’s no question that it is good for us to rejoice in that gift through our worship.
The question is what the crowd asks Jesus on the other side of the sea: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” What does God want from us? How are we supposed to live in this hurting world? What does it look like for us to go in peace and serve the LORD?
We search for those answers because we want to serve, to live well with each other, to carry God’s love out into the world. I have seen that time and time again here. This is a place that is so eager to respond to God’s grace – not only within these walls, but throughout our lives. We dearly want to act justly and walk humbly with our God.
But today’s scripture reminds us of just how difficult that is. Here, we see King David at his lowest. He was supposed to be the chosen one, God’s beloved – but now, not only has he committed a terrible series of sins, but he tops them off with self-righteous hypocrisy. He has gone completely astray from what God asked of him. If someone who called by God and guided by prophets could commit such crimes, then what does that mean for the rest of us? And then there’s the crowd questioning Jesus in the Gospel. They are so eager to follow him that they literally just chased him across a lake – but Jesus tells them that they’re seeking him for the wrong reasons. They try to understand, but it’s like Jesus and the crowd are talking past each other, and they only become more confused. And if they can’t hear what he’s saying when they’re standing at his side, then what hope do we have of doing any better? Is our best option to declare with the Psalmist that we’ve been sinners from our mothers’ wombs, and just leave it at that?
What must we do to perform the works of God? Is such a thing even possible?
Jesus gives the crowd a response to the question, although it’s a strange one. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” It seems like such a non-answer. They want to know what God requires of them, and he says: just believe. If we wanted, we could leave it there. We could say that our lives are so tainted by sin, our actions so doomed to fail, that God has despaired of our ability to do good in the world, and so asks for nothing more than our belief. Plenty of Christians have claimed that. But if we stopped there, we’d be missing the richness of what the Bible means when it talks about belief.
In the modern world, we think of belief as something that happens in our heads – we believe that something is true or false. But in scripture, that’s only part of the picture. Belief is not just agreeing to some abstract claim. It is not signing off on a series of theological statements and then going about our lives. Believing in Christ is about trusting that his way is the true way. It’s about committing our lives to the way of the Cross. Belief doesn’t demand that we always get things right. We’re sinful human beings; that’s not going to change. But it is about letting ourselves be transformed. Belief isn’t a thing apart from us. It is what we do. It is who we are. Believing is about becoming.
And we see that nowhere more clearly than in the letter to the church in Ephesus. Ephesians boldly proclaims God’s grace, but it also challenges us to be worthy of our calling as God’s children. In today’s reading, Paul begs us – begs us! – to live together in humility and gentleness, with patience, holding each other in love. At a time when the church was growing and struggling with internal divisions, he cried out no, this is not who we are called to be. We are not called to be captives to sin. We are called to be Christ. That might sound extreme, but that’s what the letter says: that we “must grow up in every way into Christ.” The purpose of our life together is nothing less than to shape us into Christ’s image. In faith, we unveil that spark of God that rests in each of our souls. Now, we get scared sometimes when we hear of the Gospel transforming us, because it sounds like a requirement – but it’s really a promise. Paul isn’t talking about salvation here. He is not saying that we need to be Christ-like to earn God’s love. He’s talking about how God’s gift of grace has the power to change us, and through us, to change everything. Our faith in Christ brings us closer to Christ and makes us more like Christ in a world that so desperately needs us to be Christ’s presence.
When Jesus teaches about that presence, he teaches about bread. He calls himself the bread of life, and next week, he will tell the baffled crowd that they need to eat him if he is to bring them life. He will say that those who eat this bread of life abide in him and he in them. This sounds absolutely crazy to his listeners – but it’s how food works. It nourishes us because it becomes part of our bodies. We take it into our muscles and bones, use it to power all the processes that give us life. And that’s how our faith in Christ works as well. When we believe in Jesus, Jesus becomes a part of us. We take Christ into ourselves in the sacraments. We take Christ into ourselves in worship and the word. We take Christ into ourselves in prayer and confession, in fellowship and faithful service. And the more we eat of this bread, the more we find Christ’s life in us, “for the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” This nourishes us. This changes us. This becomes us. It has been a joy to eat this bread with you, and to let it transform me these past twelve months. I know that I am forever changed because of how God is at work in this place – just as I know that you are being changed as well.
So what must we do to perform the works of God? Believe, Jesus says – and in believing, become. Eat the bread of life, and know that Christ is abiding in you. Eat the bread of life, and bring that life to the world. Your calling is to be Christ. Whoever you are, whatever you are, wherever you are, God is calling forth Christ in you. God who is above all and through all and in all is at work within you to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. Believe this, and become it. It is already here. It is already true. Christ is taking shape in you, and the world cannot wait to see what Christ will do.