Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
There are certain seasons I dread in our house. It’s not the weather, it’s what’s on TV. We just entered football season, which means I got a frantic text from my husband at 5:50, right before he had a church meeting, pleading me to drop everything and make sure the DVR was set for the Packers’ preseason game. And then when he came home… instead of my shows, there was football on the tv.
The next season will be “The Walking Dead.” It’s a zombie show. With the half-dead munching on people. Pretty gross. Kinda weird.
That revulsion is what the Jews are expressing in the Gospel. Because what Jesus is talking about sounds pretty gross.
After feeding 5000 hungry people with five loaves and two fish, Jesus has told the people not to spend their lives working for food that fills for a meal, but bread that gives life. Then Jesus calls himself the bread of life. And then, he gets pretty graphic. Jesus talks about drinking blood and eating flesh as the means through which people will live forever.
If we were to do a Late Night Show Style Pedestrian Question, and read this quote, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” I’d bet more people would place it in a monster genre than identify it as Jesus’ words from the Bible.
In the Gospel, the characters called, “the Jews” represent the opposition to the early Christian movement. Just as happens today, those outside the early church, skeptical and suspicious of this new religious group, mischaracterized their beliefs. With language like this, Jesus made it easy. What could be more revolting than eating a person as your central ritual? Think of the rhetoric that is spread regarding Muslims today, and you can imagine how rumors spread about Christians, building hatred.
So why does Jesus use such graphic language? In English, we even miss some of the graphic nature – eat is a gentler word than the Greek which implies crunching and chewing.
What so easily lends itself to misinterpretation and revulsion is what is most radical about Jesus’ words- and most radical about our faith. Our God became human. Our God suffered and died- for real. Not in some distant sense, as a floating spirit looking down on a useless body dying on the cross. Jesus suffered and died, experienced humiliation and pain, in a very real way- the only way any of us would have experienced the cross.
The only difference we might argue for is that Jesus had a choice. Our God could have been like any other god who stays in glory and splendor, the object of all worship and devotion. Our God could have chosen power over us. But our God chose to come among us, and to stay among us, even into suffering and death. Jesus chooses identification with us- with creation.
In dying as one of us, he makes death an experience that is no longer a separation from God- God is there- the life-giving one is in death. The dying of Jesus’ flesh, the outpouring of Jesus’ blood, is all part of Jesus’ work to bring life to the world. To sanitize this event, or to so spiritualize it as to remove it from a real body, with real pain, and real blood, would be to blot out what is radically life-embracing and life-giving.
Jesus’ real life and real death is all for us. But that’s not going to make much of a real difference in our lives if it’s distant or forgotten. Jesus creates a meal for us to participate in his gift of life. This meal, in which we receive the Bread of Life, is Holy Communion. Ordinary bread and wine carry Jesus’ promise and Jesus’ presence into us. In this way, we participate in Jesus’ sacrifice: death and life, for us. We take Jesus’ sacrifice into ourselves. Just as God breathed the Spirit of life into us at creation, God serves God’s own life force to us at communion.
Jesus’ giving of his flesh and blood doesn’t become meaningful until we participate in it. The promise of being given life and forgiveness through Jesus is ephemeral, just words, until it becomes tangible in real bread and real wine. Luther’s Large Catechism explains that we claim this gift by hearing the promises and trusting in them: “for they are not spoken or proclaimed to stone and wood, but to those who hear them.” (ln 33). Jesus makes his promises true: Jesus has created forgiveness and life for us, and he comes among us and within us at communion. These gifts are not dependent on us, but their effect in our lives has a relationship with our desire to receive them.
We participate in communion because Jesus tells us to do it, Jesus comes to us in it, and we are there given the strength we need to live another day. Luther writes, “What is the Sacrament of the Altar?… it is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in and under the bread and wine which we Christians are commanded by the Word of Christ to eat and to drink.” (ln 8). Communion renews us and keeps us going. Baptism begins our journey with God, as we are united with Jesus for life. Communion is the energy bar that feeds us the life we need to make it through each day. A promise might be disbelieved: how can I really be someone Jesus forgives, how do I know I really receive life from Jesus? But bread and wine, held, smelled, and tasted, are so real that we might just believe that the promise that is carried in them is real also.
God, not us, makes communion what it is: the body and blood of Christ. Neither our own holiness, nor our own sin will destroy Jesus’ promise. Jesus gives himself to us, and invites us to receive the life he offers. The Sacrament is a necessary part of the life of faith.
Some might think their faith is strong enough, that they do not need to participate in communion. To them Luther writes, “If you wish such liberty (to be free from the sacrament), you may just as well have the liberty to be no Christians, and neither have to believe nor pray; for the one is just as much the command of Christ as the other” (ln 49). We cannot do faith on our own, without a regular infusion of God’s grace. There are many today who think they don’t need anyone else- even God- to live a life of faith. To them, Luther has a harsh judgement, declaring that “such people as deprive themselves of, and withdraw from, the Sacrament so long a time are not to be considered Christians” (ln 42).
Others may be led to fear that prevents them from receiving communion. Certainly there are churches around us who encourage such a deep examination before taking a place at the table that it prevents participation. They do so because they do not want a sinner receiving such holiness unaware of his or her need for repentance and forgiveness. But there are none among us who can say they have led a perfectly sinless life or are completely prepared in faith. Quoting St. Hilary, Luther writes, “he ought not stay away from the Sacrament, lest he may deprive himself of life. (ln 51)” God invites sinners and doubters to the table, because we are the most hungry. With bread and wine, promise and presence, Jesus feeds our faith. In his sacrifice and death, Jesus opens the gift of life to all. “Our Sacrament does not depend upon our worthiness (ln 61).”
In Communion, we take real bread and wine and Jesus comes by his promise, so that we are fed real hope, real forgiveness, real life. This is real communion, a becoming one with Jesus, the life-gifting God, and with all who share this life-giving meal.
The Spirit turns our confused revulsion into eager attraction. Talk of blood and bodies might make stomachs turn, but we are all searching for something more real than words. That is what Jesus provides. Not empty pious words, meme worthy, but easily liked and forgotten. Jesus gives himself, fully and truly, to bring life to you and the whole creation. That life is something we long for. That kind of sacrifice, with our regular remembrance of it at communion, has the power to give us life now and always.
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
This week, we continue to explore the Gospel of John, which centers around Jesus’ sign and proclamation: “I am the bread of life.” As we opened chapter six, we discovered Jesus is not just another prophet. As we got deeper in, we found that he fills not only our immediate hunger, but our central need for life. The bread that was shared on the hillside is a sign that points to Jesus, the Bread of Life, who nourishes us not only for a meal, but into eternity.
We spend so much time in this chapter because people don’t get it. They don’t get Jesus. There’s so much here that we can get lost, too. What Jesus says is not always what we think we’re going to hear.
The crowd who ate their fill of the loaves didn’t understand what the sign was about. The Jews who complain about Jesus don’t understand who he is. The early church wasn’t quite sure what life they were supposed to be living in to. And we can wonder how we come to Jesus.
The sign of the multiplied loaves points to who Jesus is. But some among the crowd think they know perfectly well who Jesus is. They know his mother and his father. Maybe some are thinking- not too long ago I was helping your mother change your diapers and now you’ve gotten too big for your britches- calling yourself the Bread of Life coming down from heaven.
The one who lives in the heavenly realm is God- the one God- and who is this Jesus we knew with skinned knees and snotty nose to call himself God?
As readers, we can find some sympathy for their confusion. It takes work to see someone in a new way. Some of you who have grown up in this community might know what that’s like. You might try to lead in the congregation and feel pushback from your Sunday School teacher. You might want to change, grow out of old habits, but people keep assuming you are who you once were.
The complainers’ expectations about who Jesus is gets in the way of their ability to accept that he gives life. They may have experienced a miraculous meal, but they’re not ready to believe there might be a fuller course ahead.
Jesus’ response to the crowd’s objection is simply to say that their ability to see him for who he is all up to the Father. Faith in him will come as a gift from God, not as a result of more impressive shows.
Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” Today, we don’t stumble over knowing Jesus in his childhood. We can wonder what it takes to have faith and how we are “saved.”
When it comes to knowing how we get to God, we find our expectations about achieving get in the way of celebrating Jesus as the source of life.
Coming to faith is the work of God. It’s not up to us. Luther writes, in the Small Catechism, for us to confess “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church.”
God works within us to create faith. Faith itself is God’s gift. It’s God’s work within individuals and among communities, to establish a life-giving relationship that is wholly dependent on God’s own action.
The idea that God gifts can terrify us. That faith, eternal life, and God’s love are all beyond our control and beyond our ability to achieve – we just don’t get it. It doesn’t make sense. Our reaction can be anger and questioning.
In my early days of my call in North Dakota, I was invited to the neighboring church’s Bible study. It was informal, just the women, meeting and talking. They were beginning the book of Ephesians, with its wonderful verses about God’s adopting us as children before the foundation of the world. It speaks of us being included in the great plan of salvation that Jesus has accomplished. It declares that our place among God’s beloved is secured by God’s grace- a freely given gift of love that has claimed us through Jesus.
I was so excited by these verses of love- and began talking about how beautiful it is that we are so loved- even before we do anything- even before we are born. God so loves us that we were made to be God’s blessed children forever- and we are secured in that place by Jesus’ death and life for us.
I was so excited that I wasn’t paying enough attention to the faces of those around me. Instead of nodding heads and smiles of grace-filled joy- eyes were starting to squint, eyebrows were raising- and finally someone shouted out- “you’re scaring me!”
What?! God completely loves you- no matter what- and has shown the depth of that love by entering creation and dying for you- and that scares you?
It took me a long time to understand what would scare someone about that grace. It’s the question of agency- who is in control of my future, whose action matters.
The people of North Dakota, salt of the earth farmers, are used to hard work. Hard work leads to a good harvest, a smartly run business. Nothing good will be earned by those who are lazy. Investment leads to success.
That we have the ability to create a desired outcome by our will and hard work is a narrative of our culture of control. Control is a central part of who we are. We believe we have a certain amount of control over our future, and center our lives around that belief. To leave our future- even our eternal future- all up to God is a huge act of faith. Wouldn’t we feel better if we could just do something that would make us sure we got in?
As we enter the back-to-school season, and parents send their children off to college, many wonder if students might get more out of their education if they had to pay for it themselves. Might there be more of an investment if it really cost them? Does getting something for free spoil a person?
Salvation comes freely. My hope is that the giftedness of life that Jesus gives you is the central part of what forms your faith life. It can be hard to let go of wanting control, needing to earn. I like to be in control- I want to be sure things happen- and if I give up control, even to Jesus, that means I have to trust him to get the work done.
Jesus’ gift, eternal life, begins right now. It’s the quality of life that grows out of a relationship with the life-giving God. The life-gifting God. That faith and life are all gift, all work that Jesus alone has done, is what makes eternal life a reality today. Eternal life begins today as a quality of life that is created by living in the certainty of God’s grace. It is the freedom to accept your own doubts, your own failures, your own sin, knowing that God holds you through them all. It is the freedom of letting go of all the rules and supposed tos that you, your friends, society, and even the church has forced on to you, trusting that Jesus’ faithfulness is enough. It is the freedom to serve and love others without expecting anything about them to change or to receive anything in return, because you’ve experienced that same grace from God. Eternal life begins today as a life of faith- a connection with the source of life- and looks forward to the promise of resurrection, new life with Jesus.
The Jews looked at Jesus, asking, who are you to give us life? When we try to work our own salvation, we do much the same. Who are you, Jesus, to gift me life?
Jesus is not just another prophet. He is God. But he’s not just another god. Remember back to John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him… what has come into being in him was life… And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” This Word is the Bread of Life, the source and creator of life who chose to enter into the life he created, and even to die, so that in giving up his life he would bring all creation into life forever. Jesus brings us to God. The way to life is through the Creator, who comes in Jesus to bring us life through his own death.
Maybe all this will always be a little confusing. We see plenty of examples in scripture of faithful people not quite understanding what God is doing. When it comes to faith, life, and salvation, you don’t have to get everything. Jesus has gotten you.
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
Last Sunday, we heard, in the beginning of John 6, that Jesus took fives loaves of bread and two fish and gave them to 5000 hungry people. All were fed and satisfied, and there were 12 baskets of leftovers.
The crowd must have thought they were set. They’d found their golden goose. Sticking with Jesus, they’d never had to worry about finding the money to buy bread again. They wouldn’t have to wonder how to stretch their meal to make sure the children had enough to eat. Finally, God had sent someone to take care of them.
But just as they went to make their allegiance to Jesus as their new king, their new caretaker, he disappeared.
They knew his disciples had left in a boat, so they hopped in their own, and rowed back and forth across the sea, searching for Jesus. You can imagine how frantic they were- they found the solution to their problem, and then just as quickly, lost it.
Eventually, they find Jesus. But Jesus tells them they’ve been searching for the wrong thing. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
Jesus sounds harshly disappointed, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
Doesn’t Jesus get it? Of course they’ve come because they were fed! These hungry peasants have spent the majority of their lives worried about food and feeding their families- their need for nourishment consumes their days.
Where’s Jesus’ compassion? Why isn’t he giving them what they’re looking for?
I think Jesus is setting a bad example for all of us Christians who follow. Jesus says he’s got something better than the bread they say they need. So he withholds the bread he first gave. I’ve seen this played out in Christian missions, and it makes me sick.
Thankfully, in the ELCA, we’ve tried to move away from a paradigm of mission, especially foreign mission, in which the white missionaries go somewhere more exotic, peddling their medicine and food, for the price of adopting European culture along with Christianity. We didn’t always listen first to what people said they needed, or how they worshipped. This mission ends with organs rotting in Africa rather than embracing the music to which the peoples’ heart beat.
But still today, too often us Christians make other people jump through our hoops to prove themselves worthy of the “gifts” we’d give. We who say Jesus welcomed all, and that all are sinners, sometimes force people to live up to our standards before we dole out our charity. We celebrate grace, God’s freely given, underserved love for us, but don’t live that out in our abundant sharing with those in need.
While I was serving my internship, I toured a ministry that served the homeless, providing a hot dinner and a safe place to sleep. I started to feel quesy when the hosts proudly spoke of how every client had to sit through worship before they were allowed in to eat. It was as if the gospel was the price these people had to pay before they could receive what they really needed.
Relationship with Jesus shouldn’t be the forced cost to those who would receive the bread they need; relationship with Jesus is what should inspire freely giving to those in need. Bellies need to be filled before hearts and heads can be open to hearing the gospel.
So, I’ve got a problem with Jesus being angry with the people’s focus on bread. He knows they’re hungry. He’s got what they need. And he’s telling them he’s got something better, even if it won’t fill their bellies tonight.
One of the unsettling things about all the stories of Jesus’ signs and miracles is the ever-present, desperately needy crowd. Crowds come to Jesus and many are healed, many are fed. But what about the ones who made it there a day too late? Or the kid who breaks his leg the day after Jesus leaves? Or that time the disciples go find Jesus praying, telling him there is a needy crowd waiting to be healed, and Jesus says they have to move along?
As we prepared for our prayers last Sunday, we spoke the struggles of our world. People we love are sick, we are afraid of the violence in our world, and the future is uncertain.
Why doesn’t Jesus fix everything?
That doesn’t seem to be the work he is about.
Jesus’ work isn’t about fixing everything wrong in our lives the instant we ask. Not by waving his arms and making all the hurt disappear. Not by receiving our wishlist and checking if we’ve been naughty or nice. Not even in response to our strong faith, or good enough prayer. Jesus isn’t our good luck charm, or our quick fix.
Jesus won’t be the crowd’s sandwich of the day: the meal that sustains them for a few hours. Jesus is the bread of life. He goes to the root of their need, their hunger. People who come to him with bellies empty and bodies broken rejoice when Jesus feeds them and heals them. They think they know what they needed, and they think they know what they got. But their hunger and their sickness are symptoms of a greater need. They need life. They need a constant inflow of the breath of life that was breathed in to them at creation. Their encounter with Jesus was the beginning of the relationship with the giver of life, and it is that connection that they- and we- need.
Jesus gives life to the world, not be waving his arms, but by stretching them out. On the cross, Jesus enters our suffering. Through his death and resurrection, he opens the way to a new life. He prepares the portal into the new creation, where hunger, sickness, and death are no more.
Jesus’ work is for the sake of healing us, and healing all of creation. Jesus gives us this healing through his own brokenness. We enter this healing through relationship with him.
Today, we gather around the communion table. This is the meal in which we eat the Bread of Life. We come away hungry from this feast. Where the crowd was fill, and so abundantly fed that there were leftovers, we leave the table longing for more.
We are meant to be hungry, and not satisfied. If you had everything you wanted, there would be no more seeking, no more hoping for a new future. This small experience of wanting even as we are fed opens us to longing for a time when all will be fed. Even us Christians don’t yet possess the Bread of Life completely, so we can’t hide away from the world, smug that we’ve been taken care of. We are made aware of all the others who also long for fullness, who wait to be satisfied by the giver of life, whose brokenness and sickness point to their need for relationship with the Bread of Life.
When we are in relationship with the Bread of Life, we experience the abundance of life he gives, so that we can be those overflowing baskets of leftovers for the world. Jesus doesn’t give us just enough strength for the day, just enough love for the moment, he fills us to overflowing so that we can freely give to the world, especially to those in need. Filled, and yet hungering, we become enactors of Jesus’ compassion.
We experience both the longing that belongs to all creation- the longing for a renewal of life and wholeness- and the first tastes of God’s answer- the transforming nourishment of Jesus. We have one foot in the current sufferings and another in the new creation, so that we can help others move into an experience of God’s life-giving love. Our faith, our relationship with Jesus, gives us the confidence to freely feed and work for the healing of those in need around us. Instead of Jesus the quick fix, God offers us as workers in the kingdom, who walk with those wondering how to feed their families, those struggling to find a place to live. We embody Jesus’ compassionate action and become ourselves a sign to the one who gives life that lasts.
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: abundance, bread of life, discipleship, food, scarcity
Grace and peace to you, Sisters and Brothers in Christ.
We’re beginning the first of five weeks exploring chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. In this chapter, we’ll witness the feeding of the five thousand, and hear Jesus declare, “I am the bread of life.” The lectionary planners thought this chapter says something important enough about Jesus that we should spend more than a month exploring it every three years. I encourage you to study it, not only when you’re here in worship. John’s words can sometimes be deeper than they first appear, so it’s worth letting them soak in by dwelling in this chapter.
As we enter the beginning of chapter six, I’m going to back us up just a bit into chapter 5. Chapter five included Jesus healing on the Sabbath, talking about his own authority, and reflecting on the work he has done. It ends with Jesus talking about Moses. Moses is the great leader who met God in the burning bush and followed God’s call to return to Egypt and free the Israelites from slavery. Moses is the major teacher in Jewish tradition, traditionally referred to as the author of the first books of the Bible. He’s one of the people who has been closest to God.
I think John places this chapter six, with its feeding and “I am the bread,” right after commentary about Moses because, especially in the part we’ve read today, John has a point to make about Moses and Jesus.
John is comparing the two to help us know Jesus better. Moses was a great teacher, and in many ways was a representative of God to the people, but Jesus is something different, something more.
We don’t all make it to Bible study, so today we’re going to look closely at the text in a way we don’t always in the sermon. Please follow along with me in your bulletin or Bible.
In verse three, “Jesus went up the mountain.” Anyone know anything important about Moses and mountains?
Moses first meets God on a mountain, Mt. Horeb, when he sees a burning bush that isn’t consumed. There God tells Moses to go to Egypt and free God’s people from slavery. God tells Moses God’s name: “I am.” After the people are freed, Moses will go up Mt Sinai, to meet with God. God is there on the mountain, declaring a covenant with the people, and giving the law.
So mountains are those places where the human realm can sometimes break into the heavenly realm, and God might reveal Godself there. This mountain talk gets us ready to look for God showing Godself.
As we read on, we get a setting detail- it’s almost the Passover. What’s the Passover? Verse 4, with a reference to the Passover reminds us of the final plague God sent to convince the Egyptians to release the Israelites. All the first born in Egypt died, except those whom the angel of death “passed over” – those who celebrated a quick meal and painted their doorpost with blood, as Moses instructed the Israelites to do. With this sign of blood, the Israelites were saved from death and from bondage.
It won’t be until much later in this chapter, in verse 53 and following, that Jesus talks about blood. When he does it will be about his blood. Then, it will not be the blood of a sacrificed animal, but Jesus’ blood that will be what saves from death, and gives life.
In verses 5 and 6, we get Jesus asking, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” while knowing full well how they would be fed.
This recalls Moses’ troubled time as leader of the whining Israelites, who come complaining because they are hungry as they wander the wilderness. You can read this story in Exodus 16 and Numbers 11. God provides manna, bread raining down every morning, and then the people complain that bread is boring, so then God provides quail for fresh meat as well. When Moses comes to God, he comes as a leader at the end of his ability- without a clue as to how all those people might be fed.
Jesus takes a little boy’s offering, five coarse loaves of bread and two fish, gives thanks, and gives some to each of the 5000 people sitting on the mountainside. They each get as much as they want, and when they are full, the leftovers are collected. What was once too little to satisfy even the twelve leading disciples has now been given out by Jesus to feed 5000 with 12 baskets of leftovers.
Does anyone remember what would happen to leftover manna? In Moses’ time, people received just enough for their meal, and anything leftover would spoil.
What are you hearing as we compare Jesus and Moses? —
There’s something more about Jesus- more powerful, more direct.
When we get to the final paragraph in our periscope, starting at verse 16, John makes his point even clearer.
The disciples are out on the sea, in their boat, and they see Jesus walking on the sea.
Do we know anything about Moses and the sea? —-
Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea, on dry ground. They were able to cross on dry ground because God held back the water, only letting the sea come together again when it would trap and destroy the Egyptian army.
Moses needed God to make it possible for him to across the sea. But Jesus? It’s just him.
Jesus is not only more than Moses. When Jesus declares, “It is I” he says, “Ego Eimi” = “I am.” Who is the “I am?” This is Yahweh, God, creator of heaven and earth, who of course has power over wind and waves. Jesus is God, who has power over bread and fish. Jesus is God, who has power over death and life.
God reveals Godself on this mountain. God reveals Godself in Jesus. This will be difficult for the disciples and the crowd to accept and understand. It can also be difficult for us to grasp. Jesus is more than a teacher, he is God incarnate, God made known and revealed among us.
What does it mean for us to center our lives and found our church on Jesus, who is God?
In this sign of the feeding, the bread multiplied and thousands fed point to Jesus’ identity as God. It also shows the power of God to transform what seem insignificant and not enough into something powerful and more than enough.
Here at Cross, we like calling ourselves a small church. I think small church means to us that we know each other, care for each other, and are invested in this church. We aren’t passive observers or unknown masses.
But sometimes, calling ourselves a small church can be an excuse for not taking on big mission. It can mean that we shy away from truly following Jesus in ministering. Small church can become a mindset of scarcity. We don’t have enough to take care of ourselves, we can’t possibly take care of those outside us. We don’t have the numbers, or the finances, or the energy.
Scarcity is the mindset of the disciples, whom Jesus was testing. Jesus knew he had the power to transform what little there was into something great. He was just waiting to see if the disciples were ready to trust that Jesus was powerful enough to make that transformation happen. They weren’t ready, they don’t totally understand that Jesus is God. Not at this point in the story.
We know the whole story. We know this God incarnate, this Jesus, will die and rise to life, showing his power even over death. Today, Jesus is right here with us, ready to use his power to take whatever effort we have to offer, and transform it into life-giving work in our community and around the world.
We may be small, and only human, but the Jesus we follow is anything but.
Jesus, encourage us to trust in your transforming power and your will to bring life to the world. Open our eyes to the signs of your work among us. You are our God. Amen.
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: community, early church, Ephesians, gentile, jewish, welcome
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
Have you ever heard a news report that cites some poll or another and wondered who on earth these people are who are supposedly representative of the nation?
I know I have. But this week, I got to be one of those people! It took the polling company at least six times to actually get in touch with me, but then I patiently answered their questions while trying to get the baby dressed for bed. Or maybe the caller was the one who was really being patient, as I asked for the question again, or tried to remember if 5 or 1 was supposed to be mean strongly agree.
I came away from the experience with a clearer sense of what I actually felt. There’s a commitment that comes with saying aloud what you’re thinking that brought me some clarity.
We could use that clarity as we enter our exploration of Ephesians this morning. So, I have a little poll for you. You’re welcome to write down your answers, or just think of them in your head.
On a scale of 1 to 5, in which 1 is strongly disagree and 5 is strongly agree, what is your reaction to these statements:
-I am comfortable in this congregation.
-I belong in this community.
-I am a good person who tries to do what is right.
-My life experience and expectations about the world are similar to those of others in this congregation.
-The way I live my life has an impact on my place in this congregation.
-If people knew everything about me, I might not be welcome here anymore.
Our reading from Ephesians calls listeners to remember who they are and how they got into the community. What are you discovering about your place in this community? On what is your security here founded?
When we read the Bible it’s really important to remember the context of what we’re reading. The context is like the backdrop, the stuff everyone who’s writing assumes we know and experience- stuff about the way the world works, how people interact, and the struggles we face. Context is everything taken for granted as the way things are. The context of all of the New Testament is the struggle within the community of God’s people. There is tension between Jewish people and the Jewish people who worship Jesus as the messiah. There is tension between the Jewish people who worship Jesus as the messiah and the Gentile, or non-Jewish people who worship Jesus as the messiah. There is tension between the first disciples of Jesus, and their followers, who are Jewish and think people who worship Jesus should also be Jewish, and the later disciples of Jesus, like Paul and his followers, some of whom, like Paul, are Jewish, and others of whom are not Jewish, and think people who worship Jesus don’t have to be Jewish.
The code word for Jewishness in the New Testament letters is circumcision. Talking about circumcision gets a few giggles from confirmation youth and confused eyebrow raising from adults. When you read or hear about circumcision in the New Testament, treat it as a code, or symbol, for all the laws and rituals that are part of Jewish people being Jewish. For the Jewish people of this time, and for generations upon generations before, Jewish identity- being the chosen people of God- was lived out by following God’s laws, rituals, and regulations. Circumcision, rituals of cleanliness, and even things like the Ten Commandments, are all part of what makes a Jewish person a Jewish person, part of God’s chosen community.
Jesus comes into the world, fulfilling the Jewish hope of a messiah from God. For the people who recognize Jesus as savior, especially as more and more people who were never a part of the Jewish group, the chosen people of God, come to recognize Jesus as being sent from God, the big debate becomes who belongs in Jesus’ community. For whom did Jesus come to save? Just the Jewish people who had been waiting for him? Or for everyone? Or for everyone who decided to join the Jewish community so they could be a part of Jesus’ community?
Ephesians is written by Paul’s followers, to these people who are trying to figure out what it means to follow Christ. Paul’s on the side of Jesus being for everyone. Paul’s Jewish, he’s part of the in-group of God’s chosen people, but he doesn’t think that’s important anymore. Paul’s a Pharisee, he’s been really good at following God’s law, but he doesn’t think that’s important anymore.
Now that Jesus has come, the only thing that matters, your only entrance into the community is Jesus himself. Now, everyone is welcome.
It doesn’t matter who you are, what group you’re a part of, or what you’ve done, nothing about the individual matters, it is Jesus alone who makes you a part of the community.
Ephesians opens by talking to the new Christians- remember who you are and how you got into the community. It was Jesus! Not you!
You had no claim on God, no right to a place in the kingdom of God- but Jesus came and found you and brought you in and found you a home.
The image we get in Ephesians is that of a building. You might imagine a school, a big building that is divided into littler rooms, keeping groups separated. In the past, one group was loved and favored and known, and the other was not. But now, Jesus has come in. He’s carrying a big sledge hammer and he goes after those walls. Plaster is flying, walls are crumbling, and finally, there is no more division. All are together, everyone is united.
Those walls are the law. Jesus destroys God’s law. Circumcision, ritual, ten commandments- all of it is destroyed, ended, abolished. The law was put in place so that people would know who they were. The Jewish people lived a different kind of life so that they would remember they belonged to God, and so that their neighbors would know the Jewish people were the chosen ones of God. The law was about showing you were a part of the right group.
Jesus makes you a part of his group, whether or not there’s anything right about you at all.
In Jesus, no one can say, “I belong more than you because I live in this right way” or “you don’t have a place because you haven’t followed this rule.” Where the law leads to pride and self-righteousness, Jesus leads us to humility.
“Remember.” Ephesians calls us to remember our place. Remember your place. Jesus has given you a place among the beloved and claimed saints. Jesus has made you his for life. It’s not something you did. You didn’t earn it, and you can’t lose it. Only Jesus’ faithfulness to you matters, and he has already proven that in his death on the cross and resurrection to life.
Remember that your place is secure. You don’t have to live in fear.
Remember that your place is dependent on Jesus. Live in humility rather than self-righteousness.
Jesus breaks down the dividing walls. Think of all the barriers and divisions in our world today. From crossing the aisle to crossing the tracks, bridging the gap- how is Jesus calling you to be a part of pulling those walls down?
Jesus is at work here at Cross, to build us together spiritually, so that we might be part of the great household of God. Jesus is breaking down walls in order to fit more people. Jesus is the reason there is room here for you. It’s not what you’ve done or haven’t done, it’s not whether or not you have the right opinion or stand on the right side of an issue, it’s not your family history or your current status.
As Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross, he pushed away any power you have in making yourself welcome or unwelcome in God’s community. Jesus went down into hell to destroy death’s power to separate us. Jesus rose so that our identity as the people of God would last from now through eternity.
This is a place of welcome for all of God’s people?