Jesus Gives the Gift of Life
August 8, 2021
Ephesians 4: 1-16
When I was thinking about the Scriptures you just heard today, I noticed that they are very aligned in their observation of human nature — which hasn’t much changed, it seems, over the past 2,000 years. We humans tend to get demanding, jealous and ungrateful, especially when stressed! Even when offered gifts, whether from God or our fellow human beings! (As a 4 on the Enneagram, for those of you who have studied it, I think I understand the jealousy or envy that comes when someone is exercising their gift and I’m not “as good as” or as gifted at that person. I may even understand the perfectionism that always notices what’s not there – or not good enough – and leads me to be ungrateful for what is).
The Israelites complain to Moses and Aaron, "if only we had died at the Lord’s hand in Egypt, where we sat around the fleshpots and had plenty of bread to eat! But you have brought us out into this wilderness to let this whole assembly starve to death!"
Instead of being grateful for Moses and Aaron’s leadership out of the oppression they suffered in Egypt, they complain they have no meat! Psalm 78 is a retelling of the story of Israel’s rebellion and complaints against God – told repeatedly, over and over again ad nauseum! It says God was filled with fury and his “anger blazed up against Israel because they put no trust in God…” In the psalm (if you read further than today’s reading), God is repeatedly angered by the people who are in rebellion against him. But God turns around again and again, and, like a human father with his complaining children, then acts with benevolence toward his spoiled offspring, granting them what they are demanding — “meat and sweets,” all for free. They said the manna was like a honey wafer. I probably would have told the people, “Eat prickly cacti – there’s plenty of that where you are there in the wilderness.” I guess God really wanted the children of Israel to survive — so the compassionate side of God, the merciful, forgiving side won out.
Unfortunately, these repeated, benevolent acts on God’s part, didn’t make the people any more obedient or trusting in God’s providence. At least some of the congregation tried to hoard some of the manna until the next day, contrary to instructions, and of course it rotted and got maggots in it. And some didn’t believe in the way the Lord provided for two days on the 6th day, so they could keep the Sabbath on the 7th.
They went out anyway to see if they could find more manna. How often do we fail to trust God’s providence and try to hoard our treasure, or keep more than we need “just in case”? Scripture says that each head of household was to gather just the right amount for each member of the family to have enough to eat, and, amazingly, they did this.
But we wonder, “how much is enough?” Do we actually know how much we should gather and how much we should give — especially in hard times like this past year and a half? There are always so many overwhelming needs — a bottomless pit of them. What is enough? may be a harder question for those of us who are well-off like David and me. I am aware that in our society, people with fewer resources on average give a higher proportion of their wealth to charitable causes than those who are well off. This is a sobering fact, and something that we Christians need to ponder deeply.
So, now I’d like to look at our Gospel story for today. After feeding a large crowd, walking on water, and calming a storm so the disciples could get back to shore, Jesus is met by a crowd waiting for him to come back from the other side of the lake. He challenges them saying, “I know you are looking for me, because you ate the bread and your hunger was satisfied. But you must work, not for perishable food, but for the food of eternal life!” They question him as to how to get this food. Jesus says, “Believe in me.” In other words, “trust me!” The crowd noted how the Israelites were given “food from heaven” in the wilderness. Jesus responds, “The truth is not that Moses gave manna from heaven, but that God gives the true bread that brings life to the world.” A little later on in verse 42 (not part of our lectionary Scriptures for today), the people question Jesus’ authority, saying, “Surely this is Jesus, son of Joseph: we know his father and mother. How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?’”
The people listening to Jesus fail to recognize his gift. They focused on what he appeared to produce (bread and fish) but couldn’t see the spiritual gift he was offering. Jesus was trying to point to a greater gift than miracles of healing and satisfying hunger, a gift that “brings life to the world.” Perhaps they thought he was “too good to be true” for them to trust him. Perhaps he outshined them, and they were jealous, or thought he was too sure of himself, so they had to reject his word, question his heritage, wonder why he acted better than they.
Perhaps they were intimidated by his prophetic stance: his way of life, his challenges to their way of life.
For whatever the reason, whether jealousy or fear or scorn, just as the Israelites challenged God and God’s messengers Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, so the people in Jesus’ day challenged him and his message.
So now we finally turn to the Ephesians 4 passage. It starts out, “Be forbearing with one another and charitable.” In other words, give each other room to be imperfect, to risk, to fail and still be accepted. This gives space for the working of the Spirit. Paul continues: “Spare no effort to make fast with bonds of peace the unity which the Spirit gives.” I read this as, “If you really work to understand each other, you will grow in the Spirit and find a unity that transcends differences.”
And then Paul goes on: “But each of us has been given our gift, our due portion of Christ’s bounty.” He names some of the gifts, which are “to equip God’s people for work in God’s service, to the building up of the body of Christ.” By faithfully exercising these gifts of God to build up the body of Christ, we will grow into “the full stature of Christ….no longer to be children, tossed by the waves and whirled about by every fresh gust of teaching…” He says we should “speak the truth in love” to "fully grow up in Christ…. Bonded and knit together by every constituent joint, the whole frame grows through the due activity of each part, and builds itself up in love."
I think Paul is saying that every person is needed to make the Body whole. I think he is also saying that we must speak the truth, our truth, honestly to one another in order for us to grow into the full stature of Christ. Part of loving each other is to be truthful and that builds unity. When each of us contributes our unique gift, that creates mature human beings, as well as a united, Spirit-filled community, a smooth-functioning Body. Conversely, if each of us does not contribute our gift to the whole, we are not growing into the “full stature of Christ” as individuals or as a community.
You may remember the story of the feeding of the 5,000, when Jesus challenged the disciples to feed the people themselves rather than sending them home. They find a young boy with 5 loaves and 2 fishes, and because that young boy was willing to share, the whole community was fed. Even a small gift goes a long way in community!
In the story today, Jesus challenges the people to “go higher,” so to speak, and not just focus on the miracles and food he somehow made happen, but to seek out the gifts of the Spirit. He is challenging them to exercise their gifts of compassion and grow into mature spirit-filled human beings. They couldn’t hear that message at that point, but chose to dismiss it by questioning his background, rather than digging deeper to hear the real message Jesus was giving them. Will we hear this message?
Jesus is our standard. In the story today, Jesus understands that his mission is not just to feed the people bread and miracles, but to help them learn a) that in community there will be enough for all; b) if you give your gift, that “feeds” everyone; and c) the gift of Jesus is “life for the world.” Our gifts are not just to feed ourselves individually, nor even just to build our community Body, but to “feed the world, be life to the world.” Yes, this is a tall order, as Paul says, to measure ourselves “by nothing less that the full stature of Christ.” Only by “the due activity of each part,” can we build each other up in love. Only if every person is exercising their gift will the Community be available to bring life into the world. This is our call and our task.
My questions for each of you and for our community are,
- What is the gift you are bringing to the body of Christ now?
- Where might you be holding back from bringing your gift? Fear, envy, not being good enough? Lack of trust?
- What would help you evoke your gift to be exercised in community?
- How can we as a community become more inclusive of everyone’s gift and strengths, and therefore stronger as the Body of Christ?