“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.