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Sermon for August 4, 2024 – Proper 13

Welcome to this week’s episode, a special rerun from our Speaking of Life archive. We hope you find its timeless message as meaningful today as it was when it was first shared.

Program Transcript

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

We continue in Ordinary Time in our liturgical calendar, and this week’s theme is growing in Christ. Today’s readings explore what happens when we are brought face-to-face with our sins, why humility is essential for repentance, and how our interactions should reflect the unified mind of Christ. Psalm 51 is David’s lament over his using his power and position to impregnate Bathsheba and subsequent arranged murder of Uriah, and 2 Samuel recounts the prophet Nathan’s confrontation with David about these events, resulting in his repentance. In John 6, Jesus tells the disciples that he is the “bread of life,” the one who will sustain them and enable them to live a life of love toward themselves and others despite the shortcomings, hurts, and disappointments that are part of living in the world. The sermon text comes from Ephesians 4:1-16 where Paul continues to explore how we are unified in Christ and how that unity impacts the way we live our lives.

When You Know That You Don’t Know

Ephesians 4:1-16 (NRSVUE)

If anyone here has ever had a dog, have you noticed how your dog wants to smell every tree trunk, fire hydrant, and bush? [wait for responses] Dogs are known for their keen sense of smell. You’ve also probably read that while dogs have better night vision and motion detection than us, they can’t see color like humans because of the lack of cones in their retinas. However, dogs have lungs, hearts, livers, and intestines that work like ours do, and both dogs and humans care for their offspring and possess survival instincts.

This is connected to the concept called “umwelt” [pronounced oom-velt]. The term was coined in 1909 by the zoologist Jakob von Uexkull, and animal behavior scientists use it to talk about the way every animal has its own “highly specific kind of ‘sensory bubble.’” Even though we understand the similarities between humans and dogs, none of us can argue that we perceive the world the same way our dog sees the world because we do not have the same “highly specific sensory bubble.” We have different umwelt.

This is also true of individuals. In our case, we have different personalities, experiences, education, and families of origin that affect the way we perceive the world. While we might think that we have a firm grasp on reality (sometimes called “absolute truth”), our experience of reality is limited based on our individual umwelt. Our limitations are revealed each time we learn something new about the world because our new understanding shows that reality is bigger than what we once knew. We come face-to-face with knowing that we don’t know everything.

This can be problematic for Christians who have sometimes made absolute truth (or reality) the cornerstone of our salvation rather than Christ. And as we’ve seen in the first three chapters of Ephesians, Jesus Christ has removed the barriers between Jew and Gentile, offering a new identity and covenant to all people and establishing himself, the Living Word, as the cornerstone of our salvation and the unifier of all people.

Our sermon text for today provides ideas for expressing our unified identity in Christ. Let’s read Ephesians 4:1-16 together.

The Context of Ephesians 4:1-16

Some commentaries refer to this passage as the beginning of the “moral” section of Ephesians. Chapters 1-3 discuss the theological doctrine regarding unity in Christ while chapters 4-6 talk about how the lives of Christians should express this unity. Our sermon text shares in broad strokes how the lives of believers convey the reality of our inclusion in the life of the Trinity and the divine dance of love.

Because Ephesus was home to the great temple of Artemis, Paul made a critical point in Ephesians 2:21-22 about the status of believers as a new, holy temple:

In [Christ] the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2:21-22, NRSVUE)

As a new temple, Paul is saying that both Jewish and Gentile believers must jettison the old mindset and practices and live into the new relationship of love: receiving love from the Divine and expressing love to the Divine by our conduct in all areas of life. The unified life in Christ requires concrete action; after all, we live in bodies that need care. Paul identifies essential traits of a unified life in Christ in v. 1-3:

I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3, NRSVUE)

When human beings express their relationship in the unity of Christ, their lives will reflect humility, patience, and a broader perspective. Paul also explains where humility, patience, and a broader perspective come from in v. 4-7:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (Ephesians 4:4-7, NRSVUE)

The oneness emphasized in v. 4-7 comes from the grace gifted to us by our inclusion in Christ Jesus as part of the triune relationship. Let’s look at some of today’s practical expressions of our identity in the unified Christ in terms of our interaction with others.

Interaction with those from other faiths

Theologian and author Brian McClaren tells the story of how he learned about Islam through getting acquainted with a Muslim family in his apartment building when he was a newlywed. His brother-in-law decided to fill their bathroom with balloons while McClaren and his wife Grace were on their honeymoon. When they arrived at their new apartment for the first time around midnight, they could barely get the bathroom door open because of the balloons. Because it was so late, they didn’t want to pop all the balloons and wake up their neighbors, so they managed to pull them out, one by one, creating an ankle-deep layer of balloons throughout their apartment, just so they could use the bathroom and then deal with the balloons in the morning. The next day, McClaren met one of his upstairs neighbors – an eight-year-old boy named Aatif whose family was originally from Iran. “Hey, Aatif, do you like balloons?” he asked the boy. “Sure,” the boy said. “Come with me,” McClaren told him. And when he opened the door to reveal the balloons covering the apartment floor, Aatif took one look and then raced off. He returned a few minutes later with a stream of siblings, each one taking as many balloons as they could hold and then coming back for a second and third load.

McClaren got to know Aatif’s mother, Liza, who was probably less excited about the balloons than the kids were. McClaren calls Aatif his first Muslim friend, and he writes about it this way: “My brain was filled with the same ignorant stereotypes about Islam and Muslims that many Americans share today. Liza and Aatif reeducated me. They helped me know Muslims as my neighbors, my friends, human beings who struggled with the same mice and cockroaches that Grace and I did in that grimy little apartment building.” Later, McClaren’s thoughts about how to interact with those of other faiths were further challenged by one of his mentors: “Remember, Brian, in a pluralistic world, a religion is judged by the benefits it brings to its nonmembers” (p. 40).

McClaren began asking important questions of himself and his faith:

Why is deep commitment to Christian faith so deeply linked with aversion to all other faiths? When Christians claim that Jesus is the only way, what do they mean, and does that mean that other religions must be opposed as frauds, mistakes, delusions, or distractions? Can one wholeheartedly love and trust Jesus as Lord and Savior without hating – or at least opposing – the Buddha, Mohammed, Lao Tzu, or Confucius? Does sincere faith in the uniqueness and universality of Jesus Christ require one to see other faiths as false, dangerous, or even demonic? …Shouldn’t it be possible to have a strong Christian identity that is strongly benevolent toward people of other faiths, accepting them, not in spite of the religion they love, but with the religion they love? (p. 32)

In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes about being “in Christ” as being identified with all creation, a new creation:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being! (2 Corinthians 5:17, NRSVUE)

So, if we are unified with Christ, we are one in a way that “transcends and…includes all the smaller ‘us’ and ‘other’ groups” (McClaren p. 48). We no longer feel responsible to change others because we understand, as theologian and author Jerad Byas points out in his book, Love Matters More: How Fighting to Be Right Keeps Us From Loving Like Jesus, that love does matter more. By understanding the existence of our biases toward other faiths and what our responsibility is as Christ followers, we can respond from a unified and loving mindset.

This in no way takes away from Jesus’ words that he is the way, the truth, and the light; this is trusting that God, in his mercy and grace, can reach through any religion and belief. This is trusting that God has a plan, knows what he is doing, and is not willing that any should perish. This is acknowledging that it is our job to reach out to others in love, to accept them where they are, to love them where they are and then to trust Father, Son, and Spirit to work in people’s lives as they will.

Interaction with other believers

Despite having a common faith in Jesus Christ and a connection to the Christian narrative, believers can experience conflict within the church. Sometimes this involves power (e.g., church hierarchy and leadership), and sometimes it is simply conflict arising from having a different umwelt. However, Paul points out that leadership is needed to build up the body of Christ (v. 11-13) with the overall purpose of maturing in Christ. Until we mature, we can be subject to having our “pet” theological doctrines and concerns, making them the emphasis of our lives rather than the unified loving mindset of Jesus Christ. Paul compares this to behaving like children, who aren’t wrong in their immaturity, but who often suffer needlessly or create suffering for others because of it. Instead, Paul offers this remedy:

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16, NRSVUE)

Some have interpreted this phrase “speaking the truth in love” from v. 15 as the green light to offer our opinions on how others might improve their lives. We might think this is loving, but it isn’t. It shows that we don’t understand how love and truth are related through wisdom (Byas p. 48), that truth brings freedom (Byas p. 94), and again, how our individual umwelt affects our ability to understand others’ perspectives. Jared Byas writes this:

While the impulse to tell the truth in love often springs from a desire to help people avoid mistakes that may hurt them in the long run, our telling often adds control, discomfort, and fear into the mix, and the impulse gets turned upside down. The intention may be good, but it can easily become a sneaky way to tell people why they’re wrong about their lives so we can feel more certain in our own positions and feel good about our own moral standing before God…If you’re not in love with the person standing in front of you – acting in loving ways toward them – then you’re not telling the truth, no matter what comes out of your mouth. (p. 6, 48)

Byas goes on to point out that despite our failed attempts, we still think that telling people they are wrong will make them change.

By actually “speaking the truth in love,” we communicate our complete acceptance of the other person, no strings attached, just love. It’s only then that people feel safe enough to consider changing. The unified mind of Christ is the only source of this loving acceptance, and it is a gift of grace to us and through us to others.

Paul’s exhortation to reflect the unity of our identity in Christ gives us an opportunity to think about how humility, patience, and a broader perspective help us love others the way Jesus would. As we mature in our spiritual journey, our interactions with other faiths and other believers will be filled with the love and unity of Jesus Christ.

Call to Action: Consider this week how you might reflect the unified mindset and identity you have in Christ. This might require some brainstorming about how you interact with those who think differently than you. Contemplate how curiosity can replace judgmental problem-solving in your interactions with others. Ask God to help you see others as he sees them, and then to love as he loves. What would that look like?

For Reference:
Byas, Jared. Love Matters More: How Fighting to Be Right Keeps Us From Loving Like Jesus. Zondervan, 2020.
McClaren, Brian. Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Jericho Book, 2012.

John MacMurray—Year B Proper 13

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Ephesians 4:1-16

August 3, 2024
Proper 13 in Ordinary Time

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Program Transcript

John MacMurray—Year B Propers 13

Anthony: Let’s transition to the lectionary passages that we have in front of us for this month. Our first one is Ephesians 4:1-16. I’m going to be reading from the New Revised Standard Version, the updated edition. It’s the Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 13 in Ordinary Time, August 4.

I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace: there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high, he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11 He himself granted that some are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

John, what should we know? First, let me backtrack. We know that Scripture is pointing us into truth. And the fullness of truth, as Jesus himself said, is him. So how is the scripture teaching us about this one God and Father of all revealed in this section of scripture?

John: Oh, man, can you say “loaded question” with me?

Yes, but a great question because this is such a great text. there’s so much here for me. There’s a couple things that I think popped out just on initial, casual reading. And then there’s more that pops out as I actually start thinking about what is being said.

So, for me, Anthony, what it reveals about the one God and Father, the first thing — and this may be like oversimplification, but I think it’s something that we shouldn’t take for granted because there’s a lot of people that don’t.

And that’s this. If what this is saying is true, which we both believe it is, God is for us. God is on our side. All of this stuff, he’s done for us. And I know, again, I grew up with the idea that God was — the vote was out on whether he was on your side or not. He was only on your side if you did what he wanted you to do, if you lived up to your end of the bargain, so to speak. And if you didn’t, if you disobeyed him, he wasn’t on your side. And I don’t see that here. He’s the one God and Father of all, of everyone, and he’s on our side. What he’s done is for everyone. I know there’s people who disagree with that kind of thinking, but that’s one of the things that I see in this text.

The other thing is what for me, it says there’s a — again, I’m trying to think of a good word here. The word that popped in my head was strategy, but God has an intention. This God has — I hesitate to say plan because I don’t know if an infinite being that’s always existed planned anything, if they’ve always known everything. But you know what I mean by using the word plan? He’s set things in motion.

For example, this phrase “the whole body joined and knit together by every ligament,” which is his equip as each part works properly, promotes the body’s growth, building itself up and low. Okay. Who designed that to work that way? God did.

And so, what we were talking about earlier, this is one of the passages that I think helped shape my thinking about when we do these discussions. Do we want an individual teacher, or do we want a panel of people? This passage is talking about the way it works is we’re like ligaments and we’re joined together.

And when we work together, this is what happens. We’re not in isolation. So, I wanted to try and see if we could do this. And for me, it’s just better than the way that I tried to learn and grow in my life as an individual. We were never meant to do it alone and that’s because this God is not alone.

He’s not an isolated individual, right? I hesitate to say he, but I don’t want to say it. God is Father, Son, and Spirit. He’s three persons. He’s a tri personal being. Relationship is at the core, not only of what God is, but of the way in which we live and grow and learn. And that tells me that he has something in mind, and it’s for our good because he’s good and this is the way it works.

And so those are a couple things that popped out to me right off the bat. But can I say something else real quick that’s not necessarily about the one God? It’s more about the way in which he does things. Because the whole text starts with an exhortation, almost a plea. I think there’s some translations, like the one we read actually says, beg. “I beg you to walk in a manner worthy of your calling to which you’ve been called.”

So, this whole text is about how we’re supposed to live in response to this God. And what I love about it is the way we’re supposed to live are the characteristics of this God, the way this God lives. He’s humble, he’s loving, he’s gentle, he’s patient. That’s him and he wants us to live like he does.

And I find that something that for much of my life was elusive because I was trying to get there as an individual. I wasn’t trying to get there through relationship. Does that make sense? It was me and God doing my own personal thing, my own spirituality. Thank you.

Whereas this whole text is going, no, that’s no, that just doesn’t work that way.

Anthony: He’s the only God, but he’s not a lonely God. And that should be reflective in the way that we live. And as you alluded to, none of us can do it alone. None of us, and we need each other. And I think, theologically, it’s important for us to acknowledge that we belong to each other. There is just a togetherness.

And even listening to you testify about the goodness of God, that he is for us, it strengthens me, John. This is the way it works. Which brings me to the next question I want to ask you.

Paul talks about unity quite a bit —not unitarian, not one — unity amongst the many. Talk to us about that because in verse 3, we see that we already have the unity of the Spirit. We don’t have to somehow make that happen. It already is ours, but we work to maintain it. Why is it such an important topic to Paul and for us, do you think?

John: I want to go back to what you just said, and I’m just going to tweak it a bit if that’s okay. And then you can tweak back.

We do have this unity. But unless we do what he says, we don’t experience this unity.

Anthony: Sure.

John: That’s the difference. Instead, again, I think in my life, I was trying to do things to somehow get this unity. When Paul says, it seems to me what Paul’s saying here is no, you already have it.

This is the truth of your being. This is the nature of who you are. But you need to live in right relationship with it, in harmony with it. And as you do, you’ll actually experience the truth of this, that it’s really true.

And I can’t tell you how much I’ve thought about, worked with, been beat up with, the very first word that comes off his pen, so to speak, or quill, whatever, is humility. I, that is not anybody in my tribe would have said.

If you would ask someone in the culture that I grew up, “Okay. What would be the most important thing you’d want to know about how I should live my life in a way that’s worthy of the calling that God has called me, invited me, and brought me into this relationship with Him? What would you say is the most important thing?” I would have said something like, I don’t know, tell other people, know God, obey him.

And the first thing Paul says is live with humility. And I was stunned by that as a young man because I think humility was elusive to me as a young man.

I got to tell you this story too really quick. I’m sitting in Bible college. I’m a senior. I’m almost done. It’s last semester. I don’t remember the class. I remember the teacher; I remember where I was sitting. And we were sitting in a little desk, one of those things where the arm folds down so you flip it up and you can put your notes or whatever so you can write. And I had it flipped up, and I don’t even know what the guy was talking about, but I remember in my mind, sitting in the class — there’s probably 60, 70 students in this class — and I think, silent prayer, God, I want to be a humble man.

And as soon as I said it, this question popped in my head, and it was: why? And in a moment of unguarded honesty, like I didn’t have my guard up, I went, so that other people will know that I’m humble. And when I realized what I had just thought in this little kind of mini conversation, my head. I literally just crumpled over and put my head on my desk.

And I said, I am so screwed up. You have no concept of what humility is. I want to be humble so other people think I’m humble. That was me at 22 after four years of Bible college.

So, I’ve worked with this a lot or God’s been working in it, in me a lot, and I feel like one of the things that draws me to Jesus is his humility.

I think of Matthew 11, “Come to me all you who labor are heavy laden, I’ll give you rest, take my yoke upon, learn of me, because I am meek, I’m humble, I’m lowly of heart.” It’s not, I’m great, I’m powerful, I’m super intelligent. No, I’m humble, I’m gentle.

And that’s a complete upside down way of looking at life for me. And the thing that’s great about it, Anthony, is that it’s true. It’s beautiful. And it works.

Anthony: It does. And it does.

John: Even though it’s upside down.

Anthony: Yeah. And it brings about unity. I think of John 13, Jesus walks into the room. Scripture tells us that all authority is his heaven on earth. Not to put it in the modern-day vernacular, but that’s what I’m doing. He’s large and in charge and he knows it.

And so, every eye in the room is on him when he walks in. So, what does he do? He quietly and with great humility gets up from his reclining place and washes his disciples’ feet. This is what Jesus does because this is who he is. God can only do what he is. And therefore, unity is brought about with great humility. And I’m just so grateful that our Lord.

So, whenever we talk about humility, bringing about you unity, we don’t have to work something up. That is just an example for Jesus isn’t just an example. He abides in us. So, by the power of the Spirit, humility can actually flourish —hallelujah, praise God — and bring about this unity we desire.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • The sermon argues that “when human beings express their relationship in the unity of Christ, their lives will reflect humility, patience, and a broader perspective.” Why do you think this is possible and maybe even necessary?
  • Have you felt similar inner conflicts as Brian McClaren described in his questions about how Christians are to respond to other faiths? If so, how has this conflict influenced your interaction with those from other faiths?
  • Considering the phrase “speaking the truth in love,” have you ever felt as if God expected you to point out to others what might be labeled as “sin?” If so, did this come from a sense of mistaken responsibility as if God expected you to help someone change? How successful was your attempt?
  • How do you think that redefining “speaking the truth in love” as communicating loving acceptance and grace to others will affect relationships? Where do you think that sincere curiosity fits in this concept?

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