August 03, 2015
John 6:35, 41-51
Author: Scott Hoezee
“Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert yet they died.”
That’s what Jesus said and it’s a pretty easy verse to cruise past and not much ponder. I mean, of course those people died—in fact, they had died about 1,000 years ago!! And since no one even a millennium earlier had ever said manna would keep you alive forever if you kept eating the stuff, noting the fact that those ancestors ate and died seems about as profound a thing to say as “Your great-great-grandfather ate his fruits and vegetables his whole life and then he died.” Well, I didn’t really expect fruit and veggies to mean Grandpa would still be with us at the age of 187 so . . . what’s the point?
Did Jesus here in John 6 mean “death” more metaphorically or in a spiritual sense? Well, here’s hoping he did not mean that the Israelites died to eternal perdition on account of their having been born prior to the advent of the Messiah. Although Jesus does go on to use death in this spiritual sense—claiming that if we eat Jesus’ flesh we will never die—he cannot have meant it in that sense when applied to ancient Israel.
There appears to be more than a little fluidity in terminology here. Perhaps one way to get through this apparently confusing tangle is to recognize that over time, “manna” became a symbol for far more than the flaky, bread-like stuff the Israelites received in the desert. Manna became a symbol for the presence of God and the Word of God and the gifts of God generally—for all things that contribute to our salvation, in short. And even as a physical substance, the original manna was a true source of wonder and delight, a key sign that God was with his people, sustaining life in a place that was otherwise shot through with death.
But now in John 6 Jesus seems to be saying that for all its wonder—and despite all the metaphorical significance that accrued to manna over time—it pales in comparison to the true spiritual sustenance God is ultimately providing for his people through the Christ of God, whose sacrificed flesh will well up inside God’s people as a source of Eternal Life that not even physical death can snuff out.
Jesus will say something very similar to Martha on the occasion of Lazarus’ death a bit later in this gospel in John 11. So perhaps the reason Jesus brings up manna in this context is along the lines of “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” The original manna was great. It was a true life saver. It signaled the presence of God among his people in a place of death. But it was, in the end, a temporary fix. It was part of the story of salvation, not the whole story and not the climax of that story. If anything, it could only point toward the greater Bread from heaven that was yet to come.
The original manna didn’t cost the Israelites anything and, presumably, was an easy thing for an Almighty God to provide as well. Receiving the ultimate Manna will finally be a cost-free gift for also us. But the power of that Manna will be revealed in the fact that it ended up costing God a very great deal indeed. God so loved the world (as Jesus told Nicodemus three chapters earlier in John) that he sent his only Son. He sent him to die.
As bread goes, that’s pretty costly fare. Small wonder that in the hands of God, it provides sustenance for nothing short of life eternal.
As noted in last week’s sermon starter—which was actually just a whole sample sermon—the Year B Lectionary keeps treading water here in John 6 for five whole Sundays. Few preachers have enough illustrations on “Bread” to keep things going that long!! So maybe this lection and this mention of manna can give us preachers a fresh angle to compare—as I just did above—the old with the new, the sneak preview in the Pentateuch with the main attraction as it arrived in Jesus. Maybe it’s a chance to remind everyone of the Grand Story of which we are all privileged to be a part.
In an age of soundbites in which people often seem to have no sense for the big picture or for history or for anything like a meta-narrative that can bind life together, perhaps the reminder we get in this part of John 6 of a very sovereign God who is patiently working out a plan across the whole span of history can be a properly bracing thing to point the congregation toward.
It reminds me of Terrence Malick’s (usually misunderstood) film, The Tree of Life in which Malick so deftly located the trials and tribulations of one small Texas family from the 1950s inside a cosmic (and God-driven) drama that went back to the Big Bang and whose forward trajectory was nothing short of glorious, ending in a New Creation.
That’s the location of all our living before the face of God. That’s why God’s been feeding his people in various ways for so long now. And that is why it is more than a blessing of divine grace to be in touch with the Manna come down from heaven that will sustain us both this day and even forevermore!
When in verse 35 Jesus says that he is ho artos tes zoes, “the bread of life,” he’s saying more than that he’s just bread that’s alive. He’s also claiming that he’s the bread that gives life. Raymond Brown notes that verse 41 is the first example of John referring to the people of Galilee as “the Jews,” a term he typically uses to describe those who are hostile to Jesus in Jerusalem.
While the Lord of the Rings is not strictly speaking a Christian allegory (Tolkien was always careful to point that out), it certainly has theological images and allusions. Perhaps preachers can help those who listen hear how Lembas summons up echoes of Jesus as the “bread of life.”
Lembas is bread used for long journeys by elves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It has amazing powers to both sustain travelers and even bring healing to the wounded or sick. One piece of Lembas was enough to last a traveler a full day. Its delicious honey-flavor evokes images of the manna God provided Israel in the wilderness.
However, a quote from The Return of the King suggests Lembas has even more striking powers: “The Lembas had a virtue without which they would have long ago lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of elves had a potency that increased as travelers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind” (italics added).
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Author: Scott Hoezee
I have this theory that although the actors who win the Academy Award earn the award for the entirety of their performances in the movies in question, there is often (maybe always) one or at most two key moments in those films that really cinch things. So in Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks is impressive throughout but it’s that moment when he finds out he has a son—and then with choked emotion asks if the boy has any developmental challenges like his father—that did viewers in emotionally and earned Hanks another golden statue.
The moment that very likely won Marlon Brando the Oscar for Best Actor in the movie The Godfather occurred in a funeral parlor. The mafia king’s son, Sonny, had been mowed down in a fierce machine gun ambush at a highway toll booth. The scene is gruesome as Sonny is riddled with scores of bullets. (The actor, James Caan, who played Sonny once said that the special effects crew told him they had never before put so many “pips”—the little explosive charges that can make it look like clothing had been pierced by a bullet—onto a single actor!) Later, in the funeral parlor, Don Corleone (Brando) tells the funeral director to do what he can to make the man presentable so his mother would not have to see him in his dreadful shot-up condition. Then with emotion straining through every muscle in the Don’s face, he mournfully says “Look how they messed with my boy.”
It is a terribly sad scene.
It is also a scene fraught with the history of a violent man who had raised a violent, ill-tempered son in a mafia world where murder is considered “just business.” The sorrow the old mafia kingpin felt for his son was something his own actions had made highly probable if not inevitable.
Kind of like King David with his boy Absalom.
The history-fraught backstory here is pretty well known but would have to be reviewed if one were to preach on this text. Ultimately the sadness of it all goes back to David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba and his shameful set of arrangements that led to her husband’s death. The prophet Nathan nailed David for his sins, and although David abjectly confessed and repented, Nathan predicted that a sin like that may well boomerang and ricochet through his family for quite a while to come. Actions have consequences, and when the head of the family behaves with such wanton abandon and lack of regard for others, that may bear bitter fruit in children who go and do likewise.
Whether one can draw solid lines between David’s bad example and what happened next, the fact is that it was not long before one of David’s sons (Amnon) took an incestuous shine to one of David’s daughters (Tamar, a full sister of Absalom). Ultimately Amnon was driven so insane by his lustful obsession with possessing Tamar sexually that he raped her and then, filled with the self-loathing that often comes after an irrational lust is sated, Amnon tossed Tamar aside like an old shoe. What comes next is enough murderous mayhem as to require an R-rating if it were a movie today. (Following my having preached a sermon on 2 Samuel 13, I was told by my Elders that there are some texts in the Bible on which a preacher should NEVER base a sermon, and 2 Samuel 13 was one of them! I am pretty sure that’s not true but the sex and violence of that part of the Bible is properly arresting and even off-putting.) Absalom takes his revenge on Amnon. Then David, for reasons that were strategic, political, and personal, in turn rejects Absalom and banishes him from the better precincts of the kingdom. Absalom stews, leads a rebellion, and is finally killed.
It doesn’t get much more tawdry than this. But at the end of the day, neither does it get much sadder than this. David had played his hand as best he could and according to his best lights (though most of us might say that David went too far and took a wrong turn at several key bends in the road) but when he discovers his strapping boy Absalom is really and truly dead, David heaves forth sobs of grief sufficient to engulf the entire city of Jerusalem. Indeed, the wrenching cries of “Absalom, Absalom, my son, Absalom” echo along the corridors of Scripture. No parent who ever lost a child could so much as glance at the end of 2 Samuel 18 without dissolving into tears him- or herself.
If it’s the Gospel of hope and joy you try in some way, shape, or form to preach each week as a pastor, this chapter presents its challenges! Just not a lot of Good News here, it seems. But the story is at least a reminder of how much we need the grace of God in our world, starting altogether too often in our own family circles. Yes, we could point out that this ruin in his own family may have been either a divine punishment (as the prophet Nathan seemed to predict) or the unhappy natural consequences of David’s sin—and maybe those two options are not at odds with one another after all—but since few of us would dare to claim we are without sin in our lives (and vis-à-vis the other members of our families), merely connecting this tragedy to something David had “coming to him” hardly mitigates the genuine tragedy and sorrow of all this. (It reminds me of the scene from the Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven in which a young gunslinger is trying to justify his having just killed a man. “Well, I guess he had it comin’ to him,” the young man says, to which the grizzled character played by Eastwood replies, “We all got it comin’ to us, kid.” Indeed.
We live in a broken world and in this world, brokenness seems to have a habit of begetting more brokenness. The abused tend to grow up to abuse others. Those who had once been victimized and oppressed too often use their pain as a license to turn right around and oppress some other group. On and on it goes until you wonder what can ever deliver us from this grim cycle, this apparent bondage to calamity.
Maybe the answer really is in the one who—in the corresponding gospel lection for Proper 14—said that he was the bread of life whose flesh alone can bring a new day into all eternity. He is the One who finally absorbed evil without passing it on, who took the worst the world could dish out—and who most certainly did NOT deserve it, did not get what he had coming to him—but then as good as declared, “There now, this ends with me.”
From Frederick Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979, pp. 5-6):
“All Israel found [Absalom’s] derring-do irresistible, of course, and when he finally led a revolt against his father, a lot of them joined him. On the eve of the crucial battle, David was a wreck. If he was afraid he might lose his throne, he was even more afraid he might lose Absalom. The boy was a thorn in his flesh, but he was also the apple of his eye, and before the fighting started, he told the chiefs of staff till they were sick of hearing it that if Absalom fell into their clutches, they must promise to go easy on him for his father’s sake. Remembering what had happened to his hay field [which Absalom had torched], old Joab kept his fingers crossed, and when he found Absalom caught in the branches of an oak tree by his beautiful hair, he ran him through without blinking an eye. When they broke the news to David, it broke his heart, just as simple as that, and he cried out in words that have echoed down the centuries ever since. ‘O my son, Absalom, my son, my son. Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son.’ He meant it, of course, If he could have done the boy’s dying for him, he would have done it. If he could have paid the price for the boy’s betrayal of him, he would have paid it. If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it. But even a king can’t do things like that As later history was to prove, it takes a God.”
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 34 combines thanksgiving to God for answering prayer with teaching about the kind of godliness that’s the most appropriate response to such salvation. Yet as the NIV Study Bible points out, that combination makes this psalm somewhat unique. After all, most psalms’ praise leads into calls to others to join in that praise. And while there’s certainly an element of that, particularly in verse 3’s, “Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together,” Psalm 34’s poet’s thanksgiving largely leads her to instruct her fellow worshipers in godly living.
This psalm is realistic about the plight of even those who love the Lord. There is no prosperity gospel in it. It speaks, after all, of the righteous person’s “many troubles” (19). Those troubles may come in the form of “fears” (4) or simply “troubles.” The psalmist even alludes to such troubles by referring to the need for angels to surround the righteous (7), as well as speaking of the need for “refuge” (8). Such troubles may leave people “afflicted,” (2) “brokenhearted” and “crushed in spirit” (18).
This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 34 an opportunity to reflect on the many troubles God’s children sometimes experience. It offers a kind of stimulus for worshipers to open their ears and eyes to evidence of such trouble in the lives of their Christian brothers and sisters, as well as others. So often the trouble that is grief, fear, doubt or loneliness goes unnoticed by busy citizens of the 21st century. While God hears the cries of “poor” people (6), those cries all too often go unheard by even their Christian neighbors, family members or friends.
That human neglect and deafness is part of the reason why Psalm 34 offers such great news for those who experience many troubles. The psalmist, after all, celebrates how God responded to his cries by answering him and delivering him from the troubles that caused him to cry out in the first place. The God of Psalm 34 is a God who graciously both hears and answers righteous peoples’ prayers in ways that bring them deliverance. This God is no blind and deaf deity like so many of Israel’s neighbors. The psalmist’s God is very personal and looks at as well as carefully listens to God’s adopted sons and daughters.
This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 34 an opportunity to reflect on the ways they’ve experienced God’s watching and hearing. After all, particularly in and immediately after the “heat of the moment,” it’s easy to forget God’s loving answers to prayers. Sometimes it requires a conscious effort to reflect on God’s goodness. Those who preach and teach Psalm 34 can help rectify such forgetfulness by helping hearers to more carefully reflect on God’s care for those they love and them.
The poet’s response to such care is very appropriate. She begins the psalm with a commitment to ongoing praise. The psalmist’s even invites those who are afflicted the way she’s been to both hear and join her in praise to the living God.
Yet the psalmist’s response to God’s mercy isn’t limited to praise. He alternates remembrance of God’s mercy with teaching about the shape of that mercy. So, for example, in verse 4 he remembers how God “delivered” him from all his “fears.” Then in verse 5 the poet immediately adds, in language that’s reminiscent of the results of Moses’ encounter with the Lord on Mount Sinai, “Those who look to him are radiant.”
In verse 6 the poet recalls, “This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.” Then in verse 7 he immediately teaches, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him,” suggesting that God sometimes answers prayers by erecting a kind of protective hedge around God’s sons and daughters. Because of that protection, God’s children are blessed.
In the verses 9-22 which the Lectionary omits the psalmist describes the appropriate response to God’s “hearing” that is the “fear of the Lord.” Patrick Miller calls such fear an “all encompassing term for worship and obedience” that make up “the proper relationship to God.” Such fear is something that can be both taught and learned. It’s comprised both of relying on God for every good thing and showing that dependence by loving our neighbors in very concrete ways.
The Lectionary pairs Psalm 34 with I Kings 19:4-8’s account of God’s rescue of the fleeing Elijah. When the “poor man” Elijah seeks the Lord, God answers him. God provides the prophet with something to eat and drink so that he may carry on his ministry even in the face of intense opposition.
The Lectionary also pairs Psalm 34 with John 6:41-51’s account of Jesus’ description of himself as the “bread of life.” This gives an interesting perspective on the psalmist’s call to “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” As we “taste” Jesus as the bread of life, we indeed see that God is good.
A number of years ago Alka Seltzer ran a television advertisement featuring a diner in a busy restaurant recalling a conversation with a somewhat aggressive waiter. He recalls the waiter insisting that he try something to treat his indigestion. The waiter’s words, “Try it, you’ll like it!” became a kind of catch phrase used by people all across North America.
Verse 8’s heart of Psalm 34 contains a similar kind of message. James Limburg notes that it’s as if the poet says about serving the Lord, “Give it a try! Look at it. Taste it. Try living it for thirty days. Try prayer and try praise. See for yourself that this religion that we practice is good!”
Author: Stan Mast
At last the rubber hits the road. For three long complicated chapters, Paul has been explaining God’s plan of salvation in breathtaking terms: “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” (1:10) That plan begins with God saving individuals “by grace… through faith.” (2:8) But God was not content with uniting individual people to himself. He also intends to unite Jew and Gentile in Christ, to “create in himself one new man out of the two….” (2:15, 16) All of that uniting is ultimately designed to make “the manifold wisdom of God… known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (3:10,11) Paul has soared into outer space as he gives his most complete account of what God is up to in Jesus Christ.
Now it’s time to come down to earth and tell us exactly what God’s cosmic plan means for us as we walk the mean streets of our cities and towns. Last week in our study of Ephesians 4:1-16, we heard Paul tell us what God’s plan for reunification means for the church. By all means possible, we must “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (4:3) If the church’s unity is crucial to God’s plan, then we absolutely must be united as the Body of Christ.
But what about outside the church? How are we to live in the world? Paul has begun to explain that in 4:17-19, where he says bluntly that we “must no longer live as the Gentiles do” and gives a devastating critique of pagan living. He gets more positive when he says in 4:20-24 that we must put off the old self and put on the new self. But what, exactly, does that mean? In our reading for today, Paul begins to tell us, exactly.
In fact, Paul is so exact that we may struggle with how to preach this long list of moral instructions. How can we keep from preaching a check list morality that can drive us either to despair because we cannot live by the list or to self-righteousness because we think we have checked off each item on the list? And how can we preach about Christian living in a world where one poll after another says that Christians don’t live any differently than non-Christians, except that Christians are judgmental, narrow minded, and bigoted? Well, in fact, if we pay careful attention to Paul’s words, we should be able to call each other to a Christian lifestyle that will be a witness to the effectiveness of God’s grace as he unites all things in Christ. There are four things to which we should draw our congregants’ attention.
First, notice what areas of living Paul points to as he begins to describe street level living: speech, anger, and stealing. The church of my youth described distinctively Christian living in narrower terms: you don’t go to movies, you don’t dance, and you don’t play cards. That’s how you avoid living “as the Gentiles do.” Now, there were good reasons for that checklist morality; it was designed to keep us separate from the world. But it led us to think that if we just didn’t do those things, we were being good Christians. Paul says that we have to be more basic than that. Where you go and what you do for entertainment aren’t as important as the way you talk, how you handle your anger, and how you deal with material things.
In fact, Paul’s instructions for those three areas of human life are so basic that many scholars think Paul has simply borrowed from classic Greco-Roman ethics. There are undoubtedly similarities, but notice how Paul puts a distinctively Christian spin on each area. The reason we must speak the truth is that “we are all members of one body.” (verse 25) Not speaking truthfully will destroy the trust that is so important to the unity of the Body of Christ and, by extension, to the unifying mission of God in the world. Again, in verse 29, Paul urges edifying speech so “that it may benefit (literally, “give grace”) to those who listen.” The way we speak is part of God’s work of grace in the world.
The reasons we must manage our anger properly are also distinctively Christian. If we don’t manage our anger, if we let it simmer and fester day after day, we “give the devil a foothold” in our lives, so that he can use us in his divisive campaign. Or to put it more positively, if we deal with anger properly, if we get rid of all forms of anger and instead forgive, we are modeling the work of God in Christ (“just as in Christ God forgave you”). (verse 32)
Further, the reason we must stop stealing and do honest work with our hands is not just so that we can support ourselves and, thus, not be a drag on society and the church (as Paul put it in II Thessalonians 3:6-10). Here Paul ups the ante by explaining that Christians should work hard so “that [we] might have something to share with those in need.” Let the former thief become a benefactor of society. What would the world think of the church if we were known for our benevolent efforts on behalf of the poor? Working for that reason, says Paul, is part of God’s uniting mission in the world.
Second, as we move through this list of moral instructions, it is very important to show our listeners that a uniquely Christian life is not primarily negative. In each command, Paul moves from a negative to a positive. We must replace falsehood with truth, anger with forgiveness, stealing with generosity, unwholesome talk with edifying speech. Too often Christians are known for what we are against, so we come across as censorious and life-negating. Our text calls us to qualities and behaviors that are life enhancing and liberating. There are, of course, sins that we must avoid; Paul is withering in his critique of pagan society in 4:17-19. And his words about sexual impurity in 5:3-7 are scathing. But the bottom line is that God calls us to a counter-cultural lifestyle that focuses not first of all on law, but on love. “Be imitators of God, therefore, and live a life of love….”
That brings us to the third remarkable feature of uniquely Christian living; it is centered on forgiveness. The “life of love” to which we are called is a particular kind of love—not the eros of the bedroom or the philos of the kitchen table, but the agape of the cross. We are called not merely to be nice to people who like us or to take care of those with whom we feel a bond of kinship, but to give ourselves up for those who have treated us shamefully. How can we possibly make such a sacrifice? Only be keeping our focus on the One who made such a sacrifice for us on the cross. Paul uses the Greek word kathos (“just as, in the same way as, to the same measure as”) two times in the later verses. We must “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as (kathos) in Christ God forgave” us. (verse 32) And we must imitate God by living “a life of love just as (kathos) Christ loved us and gave himself up for us….” (5:2) Christian living that is worthy of that name is primarily characterized by a love that forgives and sacrifices for those who do not deserve such grace.
Fourth, as the previous paragraph suggests, genuinely Christian living depends on and centers on the work of the Triune God. To keep our sermons on this text from becoming moralizing lectures, we must keep in mind the overall theme of Ephesians, as explained in such soaring terms in chapters 1-3. Paul’s words about the Trinity in this text will help us do that. We must do all these things “as dearly loved children,” who want to imitate their Father. We must do these things in the same way as the Son of God did. And we can do all these things because of the work of the Spirit in us. If we don’t live this way, we “grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” (verse 30) We must live this way and we can, because of the vast investment the Triune God has made in us. Because of that work, we are dearly loved children. When we don’t live this way, God won’t terminate our adoption. Rather, the Spirit will weep just as human parents weep when their children stray from the path of holiness and happiness.
When we see this list of commands in this Trinitarian light, we can’t possibly preach it as a list of requirements for salvation. This is simply the way God’s children live—in a positive, life affirming, liberating way that advances the unifying purpose of God. If we live that way, our lives will be a “fragrant offering” that will attract people to the One who gave his life as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
There are some hard words in this passage. What, for example, does Paul mean by the cryptic quote from Psalm 4:4? “In your anger do not sin.” I found at least 4 very different interpretations. Is that a command to be angry, or permission to be angry, or a concession about anger (“even though”), or a condition (“if”). You will have to decide how much to focus on these details. Just be sure that your sermon is grounded in grace, so that it calls people not only to distinctively Christian living but even more to the Triune God whose work makes us Christians in the first place.
When South Africa finally moved away from the poisonous policies of apartheid, a key part of the healing process was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Black South Africans were invited to come before the Commission to tell the truth about what they had suffered under apartheid. Only when the lie of apartheid was publicly exposed by the truth of its disastrous effects could the healing begin. As Paul puts it in our text, we “must speak truthfully to our neighbor, [so that] we [can be] members of one body.” Truth is the basis for trust.
Rather than limiting life, this list of commands will in fact liberate us from the ongoing presence of sin in life. Flannery O’Connor put it well. “The Catholic novelist believes that you destroy your freedom with sin; the modern reader believes, I think, that you gain it that way.”
Paul’s call to “live a life of love” uses an interesting word for “live.” It is peripateo in the Greek, “to walk around.” So when he calls to imitate our Father, he is calling us to walk as our Father walks. That brought to mind a picture I saw as a child every Sunday in my home church. There was a family of six—father, mother, and four children. The father had a strange walk. He bent forward from the waist at a 20-degree angle, his head thrust even further forward. His arms hung straight down, not moving at all when he walked. His legs were stiff, a bit like a giant blue heron picking its way across a pond. When he walked into church that way every Sunday, his four children marched in behind him with exactly the same ungainly gait. Without even intending to, they walked in imitation of their father. We will have to be intentional if we are to walk with the graceful strides of our heavenly Father.