Proper 13, Year B
August 1, 2021 10th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 16:2-4,9-15; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
In today’s Gospel reading, we read about events that took place the day after the “Feeding of the 5,000,” the only miracle (other than the Resurrection) that is recorded in all four Gospels. In the evening after the miracle, the disciples and Jesus had gone to Capernaum, so on the next day the people go to Capernaum to look for Him. Jesus gives them a rebuke: they weren’t looking for Him because they were impressed by signs, by the miracle He did — they were motivated by the desire to fill their stomachs again. Jesus shifts their focus to look not at material things but at what is really important. He says, “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.” The people miss the point He was making, that they should seek “the food that endures for eternal life.” Instead, they focus on the word “work” and ask “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Well, the gospel message we preach is that salvation is by faith alone, not by works or by anything we do to try to earn salvation. So, when the people here ask about performing “the works of God,” Jesus replies in their own terminology in order to get them refocused. He says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” This is the “work” of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent. Believe … believe in the One whom God has sent. That is the fundamental thing He wants us to do.
Then, the people ask for a sign, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?” They want to see a sign from Jesus and then, they say, they will believe Him. Then they offer an example of a sign — they say, “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” The sign they mention is the manna in the wilderness, the daily food that the people of Israel were given after they had been released from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. The story of the bread from heaven was our Old Testament reading for today, in Exodus 16.
Let’s look at the reading in Exodus. The first thing I notice here is that the people complained against Moses. They are regretting having left Egypt because they are now hungry in the desert. Sometimes we do complain to God about our situation. And, I am relieved to see, God does listen to our complaints. He chose to provide miraculously for His people. But there is more to the story than the provision of food. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not’.” God provides for their need, but it is also part of a test: to see whether the people will follow God’s instruction or not. God is often testing us, desiring to see if we will obey Him or not.
God sent bread from heaven in the form of “a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’” This question “What is it?” in Hebrew is pronounced “man hu” and it is from this phrase that we get the word “manna,” which is the flaky substance that they found on the ground. Moses tells them that “it is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”
Let’s return to John 6. Jesus corrects the people’s thinking about who it was who gave them this bread from heaven. “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’.” Jesus reminds them that it was not Moses who gave them bread, it is “my Father.” But Jesus speaks in the present tense: “It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” This is the true bread, which comes down from heaven and which gives life to the world. When the people ask for this bread, Jesus tells them directly: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” This is the first of several “I am” statements by Jesus. He says, “I am the bread of life.” He is the bread from God that came down from heaven and gives life to the world. He is talking about spiritual life. And He is saying that He satisfies spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst. He came down from heaven — He is the Second Person of the Trinity, who came into this world in the Incarnation, taking on human flesh in order to redeem humanity, as we read in Philippians chapter 2. He satisfies our spiritual hunger and our spiritual thirst.
I would like to turn to the Epistle reading for today. This comes from the Epistle to the Ephesians, which gives us instruction in the life of the church. And in that epistle, the Apostle Paul frequently refers to the church as “the Body of Christ.” You and me, each of us, make up the church, the Body of Christ. The church is the witness to the world that Christ has come … people should be able to look at us and see that Jesus is manifest in the church.
Our reading is in Ephesians chapter 4. It begins with this sentence: “I [Paul] therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love…” Once again look at verse 1: “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” What is this “calling to which we have been called”?
Let’s take a look at Ephesians chapter 1, which is on page 300 of the lectionary. The first thing we learn about our calling is this: God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ…” He chose us to be holy and blameless before him. And He destined us to be adopted as His children. Of course, in the Old Testament, God chose Israel to be His special chosen people, but now in the New Testament we read that we who are in the church have now been adopted as His children. To be holy and blameless is the fundamental characteristic of the church, the Body of Christ.
In Ephesians 4, the Apostle Paul is exhorting us to live a life worthy of our calling to be holy and blameless, as God’s adopted children. And we do this “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” Humility, gentleness, patience, love. And with “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In peace we should strive for “the unity of the Spirit.” Well, we see many denominations in the Christian world — that doesn’t look very united. But despite our differing labels, I look at the situation optimistically. Paul says, “There is one body and one Spirit.” I like to say that the Body of Christ is one worldwide body manifested in local congregations, with one Holy Spirit empowering each of us to play our part in that body. Despite our different labels, each local church has its identity in Christ. Paul says we have “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”
When I read this word “one faith,” I note that despite the doctrinal differences that exist between denominations, there are nevertheless certain foundational doctrines that all true churches adhere to. These foundational doctrines are outlined, for example, in the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed, which we recite in our services to remind us of these key beliefs. This “one faith” is the message of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnated Son of God, second person of the Trinity.
And how about this “one baptism”? Well, the different denominations have widely differing views on how baptism is to be done and who should undergo baptism. But all the true churches have a ceremony of baptism that signals entrance into the community of believers.
Here in Ephesians 4, we read a list of spiritual gifts. You can find longer lists of spiritual gifts in Romans 12 and 1st Corinthians 12. In 1st Corinthians, we read that the gifts are distributed by the Holy Spirit to each individual Christian for the common good of the entire church. We each are given a gift which we use for the building up of the Body of Christ. We each have a part to play in building up the church. In Ephesians 4, we read a list of what are called the “proclamation gifts,” those gifts that involve the proclamation of the gospel message in one way or another. We read this: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 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.” What these apostles and pastors and teachers do is to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. The “saints” are you and me, and we are equipped by our teachers for what we need to know in order for US to do the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ. … “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity.” We must learn from our teachers and be united in our faith, in our understanding of the foundational doctrines of Christianity. And let me say this again: we are the ones who do the work of the ministry, we each have a part to play in building up the church.
In addition, we are “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” We are to grow up. To “grow up in every way.” To grow: doctrinally, behaviorally, and ministerially. We must know our basic doctrine. We must live up to our calling to be holy and blameless, living a God-honoring life. And we must play our part in ministry in the Body of Christ. I want to leave you with this thought: God desires that we be united in faith and grow to maturity in Christ: doctrinally, behaviorally, and ministerially.