Speaking Of Life 3036 | Having Only A Natural Relationship With A Supernatural God
Speaking Of Life 3036 | Having Only A Natural Relationship With A Supernatural God Michelle Fleming Imagine the greatest chef of all time was cooking for you, and all you asked for was a bowl of cereal. Or that the most profound singer of the ages was performing a concert just for you, and you only wanted to hear them sing “happy birthday.” Sounds ridiculous right? You would never settle for so little from someone who could offer you so much. So why do we often seek only temporary comforts from a God that offers us eternal life? In John 6, a group of people made the mistake of asking Jesus for too little. So they asked him, "What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" Jesus said to them, "Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." "Sir," they said, "always give us this bread." Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. John 6:30-35 (NIV) In this passage, Jesus engaged the group of people he amazingly fed with a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread — a miracle we often refer to as the feeding of the 5,000. The crowd was now following Jesus, not because they believed he was the Son of God or the Messiah, but because they wanted more bread. Imagine having the Creator God standing before you, with all of his power and glory, and asking him for bread! It seems absurd, yet we do it all the time. We do it every time we limit ourselves to only a natural relationship with a supernatural God. It is easy to focus on our perceived physical needs like healing, financial intervention, and safety. God cares about our physical needs and often blesses us in tangible ways. However, many of his greatest blessings are not physical but spiritual — things like: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are true treasures that await us as children of a supernatural God; gifts that are eternal. Yet far too often, we ask for earthly trinkets that will fade and not be remembered. Jesus told the crowd that he was the bread of life and the source of gifts that will never fade. He mercifully met them where they were and tried to help them understand that he could do so much more than satisfy their physical hunger. We should strive to avoid the mistake of trying to have only a natural relationship with a supernatural God. In his infinite mercy, God offers us more than we even know for which to ask. Therefore, we should not ask for too little, but seek God for his treasures which are ours in Jesus Christ. I am Michelle Fleming, Speaking of Life.
Psalm 51:1-12 • 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a • Ephesians 4:1-16 • John 6:24-35
Receiving mercy from the Bread of Life is this week’s theme. Our call to worship Psalm focuses on David’s repentance after the 2 Samuel story of taking another man’s wife, then murdering her husband. While David received consequences for his sinful actions, God showed him mercy and David sought restoration from the Lord. In Ephesians 4, Paul explains how believers should respond to the mercy and grace we have received in Christ by living in unity. Paul also details the systems Jesus has put in place to spiritually develop his followers and keep them united. John 6 points out that Jesus fed the 5,000 even though many followed him for superficial reasons. In this passage, Jesus reminds them that he is the bread of life and the one who sustains us.
Making Every Effort
Recently, a major news outlet featured an article about the significant political divisions in America. The journalist spotlighted a mother who was told by her son that he would never speak to her again because of the presidential candidate for whom she voted. It seems wrong that an ideology would interrupt such an important relationship, but this story is not uncommon. This is one example of the fractured relationships we see in the news, read on social media, and hear in diners and barbershops across the U.S.
You may want to use a local story to make this point in your area of the world.
Some of you may have experienced this directly and can testify of the pain that comes when the ties that bind us together are severed. This is not the most divisive period America has faced, although to some it could feel that way. It could feel like the political, racial, socioeconomic, and other divisions are so deep that they cannot be healed. Unfortunately, this condition is not only an American problem. It seems that many countries are struggling to heal divisions across various lines. Are we falling apart? Are the divisions in our society insurmountable? Where is God in the midst of our divided world? What is our role?
In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul addressed a divided church. Among other challenges, Jewish and non-Jewish (Gentile) Christians were having a hard time figuring out how to live together. One of Paul’s goals for writing the book was to exhort the church to be united. Notice what he writes:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:1-16)
We should first note that living worthy of our calling in Christ does not have anything to do with some kind of individual standard of worth. Rather, to live worthy of our calling—our personal invitation to participate in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ—has everything to do with how we live in community.
In order to address the divisions in the church in Ephesus, Paul first needed them to understand that when God calls us, he calls us into something. He calls us into the body—the church. Our response to the mercy and grace of Jesus’ saving work is to be lived out in the community of faith and the world. As hard as it may be, we must resist the temptation to think of our relationship with God as something separate from our relationships with other people. In fact, our relationship with God is demonstrated, tested, and proven by how we care for our fellow humans.
An individualized view of our relationship with God can fuel divisions because we act outside of the truth that we belong to each other. The truth is, we depend on each other. We cannot become who we are supposed to be without each other. Because of Christ, I cannot make a decision that is good for me if it harms you. Because of Christ, I cannot be unaffected by your suffering just because it does not affect me directly.
Let’s be honest. What I am describing makes a lot of sense when we are talking about people around whom we feel comfortable. It is not hard to care for those who think and act in ways that are familiar. But what about people who rub us the wrong way? What about people who are different from us? What about those with different beliefs? Without the leading of the Spirit, I would not love people I do not like! Thankfully, God does not leave room for me to decide whom I will love.
After explaining the necessity of community, Paul makes it clear that unity and peace require us to “make every effort.” In other words, it takes work and sacrifice to connect and stay connected. More accurately, it takes proactive work and sacrifice to connect and stay connected. Our natural tendency is to focus on ourselves, so we cannot sit back and just hope to form genuine relationships with other humans—we have to make the effort. It cannot be done within our comfort zone at a time convenient for us. The status quo will not bring unity or peace, especially in a fractured community. Being a Christ follower means that we are willing to sacrifice ourselves in order to be united to our brothers and sisters.
While working for unity is a challenge, there is good news. Paul poetically states that there is one gospel, and to believe and follow that good news means that we enter into a unique type of unity with other believers—a unity that is forged and maintained by Christ himself. Not unity from a human perspective, but unity “in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God.” Unity does not depend on our own strength or knowledge. Rather, unity begins when we seek to see others as Christ sees them. We work for unity when we try to participate in the relationship Christ has with our fellow humans. We maintain peace by standing with Christ against the things that divide us or dehumanize those made in the image of God. And, because of Christ, we can have faith that all divisions can be healed. Jesus’ resurrection means that he has triumphed over every enemy of humanity, even death itself. In him there is healing for all that ails us, including the things that divide us.
God, in his mercy and grace, invites the church to be the mechanism he uses to spread his unique brand of unity. Verses 7-16 list some of the roles in God’s new society that Christians can assume to bring about “unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God.” (For a different perspective on these verses, see Jeff Broadnax’s article, “Fitly Framed Together”.) It is also in these verses that Paul begins to explain the texture of Christian unity. Although God facilitates our unity, Paul is saying that unity is our responsibility as the church. It is something we must actively pursue and bring about by using our God-given gifts. Christ catalyzes spiritual growth, diversity in gifting, and the unity of the church. He is the standard by which the church measures its progress towards its goal, as well as the goal itself. Every believer has a part to play in the church, and we can only achieve unity when every body part does its job. Here, Paul balances the collaborative goal of the church with individual responsibility.
Now that we understand the role of the church in bringing unity to the world, we have to ask an uncomfortable question: If the church is empowered and equipped by Christ to bring unity to the world, why do we see so much division in our society? Perhaps we have allowed things like politics, race, and economics to convince us that we are more different than similar. Perhaps it is easier to be divided than do the hard work of making “every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit.”
In a recent interview where he was asked to comment on the racial reckoning taking place in America, theologian N. T. Wright stated the following:
The real problem here is that the church has forgotten its vocation. The church’s vocation is to be a place where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, no male nor female because all are one in Christ Jesus…The church has forgotten that that’s what church life was supposed to be like. And, we thought that as long as we are preaching the gospel and taking people to heaven, we don’t need to worry too much about what happens down here, because that is just social work or table manners or something. And I want to say, “Absolutely not!”…Who you sit down and have fellowship with is a sign of whether you really believe that on the cross Jesus won the victory over all the powers of darkness or not.*
We should note that unity does not mean uniformity. Like the Triune God, the church is meant to experience diversity in unity. Our churches should be places where everyone belongs, and every story is valued. Like Jesus, we should actively resist prejudice and systems that promote injustice because these things disrupt unity. At the same time, we must be humble enough to admit that we have a lot to learn about those with different backgrounds. We may have to educate ourselves on the stories of others and how to have challenging conversations. It will not be easy, but isn’t that what we have been called to do? As followers of Christ, we should ask ourselves, “Am I making every effort to promote unity? Is my congregation?” Realizing we cannot perfectly promote unity, are we dedicated to trying to do our part with the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit? Are we seeking relationships with others so we can be changed by their story? Do we value the mutual humanity in those with whom we disagree?
There are no easy answers to these questions, and I cannot tell you in a single sermon how we heal our society’s divisions. However, what I can do is remind you that Jesus is Lord, and he is still on his throne. I can tell you that he has been given a name that is above every name, including racism, sexism, and every other ism you could imagine. I know enough to say that Christ has taken the responsibility to unite humanity upon himself, and he cannot fail. I can let you know that Christ can heal all wounds. He sacrificed all, even his very life, to make us well. And I am a witness that he is not blind to our problems and even now is working to bring an end to all suffering.
When faced with a fractured church, Paul reminded them of their unity in Christ. He reminded them that Christ has empowered and equipped the church to participate in his work to bring unity to all humanity. Paul’s message to the church in Ephesus is still relevant for us today. I pray we do not lose hope. I pray our hearts do not grow cold. I pray that we roll up our sleeves and join Jesus in making peace and unity.
*Dr. N. T. Wright in an interview with Way Nation on June 27, 2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBShzeTy_Xg
Gospel Reverb is a podcast devoted to bringing you insights from Scripture found in the Revised Common Lectionary and sharing commentary from a Christ-centered and Trinitarian view. Listen to our host, Anthony Mullins and Geordie Ziegler unpack this week’s pericope.
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August 1 – Proper 13
Ephesians 4:1-16 (NRSV) “Unity”
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Small Group Discussion Questions
- Jesus is the “Bread of Life.” What does this mean to you?
- Why do you think we are tempted to have a natural relationship with a supernatural God?
- Why do you think we are tempted to think of our relationship with God as something separate from our relationships with other people?
- How does Jesus unite us?
- What are some things we can do individually and as a church to join Christ in promoting unity?