12th Sunday After Pentecost
TEXTS: John 6:51-58 and Ephesians 4:25-5:2
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 16:51)
In our gospel lesson today, Jesus finds himself surrounded by angry people. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” How dare he call himself “the bread of life”? What arrogance! What blasphemy! Isn’t this the kid that grew up down the street? Isn’t this that carpenter Joseph’s son? Who does he think he is, anyway?
And yet, a few verses earlier in the chapter, their opinion had been quite different. You remember the story. Jesus took five barley loaves and two fish, and used them to feed 5,000 people. And afterwards, there were enough leftovers to fill 12 baskets. After they witnessed that, the crowd was ready to make him their king!
However, Jesus knew that—while they were impressed by the miracle—they failed to understand the good news. So he spoke of himself as being “the bread of life”—bread not just for their bodies, but food for their souls. Unfortunately, they just could not see it. This talk of having come down from heaven not only confused them, it offended them. After all, they had seen Jesus grow up like any other kid from their neighbourhood. They knew the mother who had given him birth. They knew the father who had taught him his trade. They knew him—or so they thought.
You know, the way we view the world can either limit our horizons, or expand them to eternity. If they had been able to see more than just the carpenter’s son, they might have understood the depth of the good news; but they could not. When we limit our world to what we know—or what we have experienced—we can easily miss the vastness of God’s power and God’s grace.
The great theologian Karl Barth once wrote: “Were we to hear only of a god who measures up to our rule and is able to do what we can also do for ourselves without him, what need have we of such a god? Whenever the church has told man of such a tiresome little god, it has grown empty. That radical daring, our yearning for the living God, will not be denied.”
How can we find the bread that will satisfy? In his Letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul points us in the right direction when he says: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph. 5:1-2)
Paul’s point is simply this: we become what we habitually imitate. We become what we make our own. Just as the bread that fills our bellies becomes part of us, so it is with the thoughts that fill our minds, and the loves that fill our hearts; they become part of who we are. If we fill our hearts and minds with the trivial, the faddish, and the profane, we make ourselves trivial, faddish, and profane.
That’s why the role models we choose are so important. That’s why the example we set for our children is so important: “children learn what they live.” And so do we. If we fill our hearts and minds with God’s Word and attempt to love as God loves and to care as God cares, then we shall become more and more like Christ; we shall become “imitators of God.”
A few years ago, it was popular in some circles to wear bracelets or pieces of clothing with the letters “WWJD” on them. This stood for: “What Would Jesus Do?” That’s always a question worth asking. But answering it … Now, there’s a challenge!
John Wesley once wrote: “First, let us agree what religion is. I take religion to be, not the mere saying over of so many prayers, morning and evening, in public or private, but a constant ruling habit of the soul, a renewal of our beings in the image of God, a recovery of the Divine likeness, a self-increasing conformity of heart and life to the pattern of our most holy redeemer.”
If you’ve ever struggled to stay on a diet (or if you are struggling with it), then you know the importance of developing a taste for the right foods. What you don’t eat on a diet can be far more important than what you do eat! That’s exactly what Paul is saying in his Letter to the Ephesians. We have to make some hard choices about feeding our hearts and minds. We have to be selective about what kind of bread we shall feast upon. We have to ask, “What has to move out of our lives in order for the Spirit of God to move in? What do we need to remove from our spiritual diet?”
To refer again to chapter four of Ephesians, Paul gives us some vital instruction there. Listen to what he says.
In verse 25 we read: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors …” We are challenged to deal honestly. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Truth is the bond that makes community possible.
In verse 26, we read: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger …” In other words, deal now with what makes you angry. Don’t let it fester, and become malignant. As Martin Luther said, “You cannot keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”
In verses 27 and 28 we read: “do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing …” When the devil comes ringing your doorbell, are you in the habit of inviting him in? If so, change that habit! If Satan has made the pizza, you better not sink your teeth into it! Because what you are filled with will become what you are. Paul is telling us we need to change. When he writes that thieves must give up stealing, he’s urging us not to return to our old, sinful patterns of behaviour.
In verse 29, the challenge is to realize the power of our words. Our words have the power to either tear down or build up. Jesus used his words to build people up—like when he saw Mary Magdalene as a disciple, Zacchaeus as a friend, Simon and Andrew as “fishers of men.”
The power of words to encourage, to show appreciation, to express care—these same words can be twisted to tear down, to hurt, even to destroy. And the way to control the words we speak is to make sure that our hearts are filled with the right things. We need to feast on the bread of life.
In verse 30, Paul tells us to remember whose we are—to remember who we belong to. We are cautioned not to break God’s heart. The quality of what we are filled with will show in our lives.
And then, as we come to the last two verses of chapter four, we are warned to put away “all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” You cannot move on until you unload. Bitterness and wrath and wrangling leave scarce room for God in your heart. Anger and slander and malice leave even less.
Some of you, I’m sure, will recognize the name of Corrie ten Boom. She was a Dutch Christian Holocaust survivor who helped many Jews escape from the Nazis during World War Two. In her book, The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom tells this story:
It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former SS man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing centre at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there—the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, [my sister’s] pain-blanched face. He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing.
“How grateful I am for your message, Fräulein,” he said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!”
His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side. Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not.
I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your Forgiveness.
As I took [the man’s] hand, the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.*
Just like Corrie ten Boom, we all are challenged to be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving—to eat, if you will, the living bread that comes from heaven. If we will eat of such bread, my friends, we will live forever. This is the promise of God. Amen.