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August 6, 2000
Eight Sunday after Pentecost

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LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and
Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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Discipleship
I. Encountering Christ

Hunger hurts.

One estimate is that 12 million children and 19 million adults in the U.S. can not afford the food they need.  If you have ever encountered hungry child "up close and personal", you have never forgotten it.

Some years ago, I was riding with a sheriff's deputy who was a member of our church.  He was called to an apartment building to investigate possible domestic violence. When we arrived at the apartment, there was a young woman and a small child about 18 months. The woman (actually just a girl about 17 or 18 years old) said her boyfriend had been yelling at her during an argument and the neighbors had called the police. The place was filthy and smelled. The little girl wore diapers which had obviously been soiled for some time. She followed us around the apartment crying and clutching empty,  dirty bottle. The apartment was almost empty.  There was an old couch in the living room, a mattress on the floor in the tiny bedroom. Cushions on the floor were likely the girl's bed.

My friend went to the refrigerator and there was a single small jar of mustard and a plastic bread bag with two or three moldy pieces of bread.  That was it. There was no other food or drink in the place.  The deputy called human services and the child was taken to a foster home that night.

My friend said to me the next day, "The poor thing was starved. The child welfare worker told me she ate for half the night!" 

Hunger hurts.

The children of Israel in our reading from Exodus found themselves out in a wilderness without food. They went so far as to tell Moses they wished they had died, "...by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt."  They turned on Moses. "You've gotten us into this!  You're the one who brought us out here to kill us with hunger!"

Hunger hurts.

The hunger they experienced wiped out their ability to even think rationally.  It is as though they had forgotten the God who had broken their bonds of slavery and astonishingly rescued them from the Egyptian army.  At that point scripture says, "Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses." [Ex.14:31]

Now, in their physical hunger they lose heart, faith diminishes and reality is distorted. Now they recall Egypt as a place of plenty where we, "...ate our fill of bread," they said.

***

Here's where the story turns.

"Then the Lord said to Moses, 'I am going to rain bread from heaven for you..."   When that bread from heaven came, they did not recognize it. "When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ' What is it?' For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, 'It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.' " [16:15]

God's provision of bread from heaven is where the physical and spiritual meet. When God provides the bread, the people respond, "What is it?"  Interestingly, the word for this substance that kept the children of Israel alive in their wilderness wandering was called "Manna." The root meaning of the word is - get this - "Whatness?"  It has to do with the question the people asked.

Moses answered the question, "It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat!"

Just as the children of Israel did not recognize the physical bread God had given them to eat, so also people would not recognize the spiritual bread that God would provide through the coming of Jesus Christ.

The people who followed Moses into the wilderness would encounter the provision of God as they were fed by Manna from heaven which sustained their physical lives. Generations later, their descendants would once again come looking for physical bread and encounter bread from heaven which sustains spiritual life.

"Work for the bread that will result in eternal life," Jesus said.

Hunger hurts.

And if physical hunger hurts, spiritual hunger hurts even more.  If spiritual hunger were worn on the outside as physical hunger is, we would be horrified.  Imagine being able to see, hatred, violent hearts or murderous intent.  What if the aimlessness and restlessness of a generation without spiritual foundations could be seen with our physical eyes?

Although we do not see this physical hunger with our physical eyes, the consequences are all around us.  They show up as headlines in the newspaper and the "top story" on the evening news.

When the children of Israel journeyed in the wilderness, their physical hunger was a doorway through which they could discover satisfaction of their spiritual hunger.  It was in trusting in God as "Sole Provider" that they were to learn the meaning of satisfaction and contentment.

When Jesus came and called followers to himself, he raised the issue of the meaning of bread once again.

***

The very first step in Christian discipleship is an encounter with Jesus Christ.  In the gospel lesson, the crowds come to Jesus out of their desire for physical bread. Jesus points them to something deeper which they have a hard time understanding.

"You have come because you ate your fill of the loaves," he said to them.  Then Jesus says in effect, "Don't spend all your time and energy on physical food that keeps you alive for now. You need to spend some energy on spiritual food which will keep you spiritually alive forever."

Now the crowd wants to know how they can go about doing what God wants so they can get the kind of food Jesus is talking about.  They can not quite get away from the physical dimension.

"You have to trust God and believe in the one God has sent," Jesus replies. Then they want Jesus to perform a miracle -- they want to be convinced.  Their understanding of the ancient story is that Moses gave the people bread from heaven." Now they want a sign.  Jesus does not give a sign, but makes a statement.

"...the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."

The people still don't understand as the next few weeks will make very clear.  However, whatever this bread from heaven is, they want it!  "Sir, give us this bread always."

Now they encounter Christ.

"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

They came for bread.

They were challenged to believe.

They came for temporary relief from physical hunger.

He offered them everlasting fulfillment for their spiritual emptiness.

***

All of us who call ourselves Christian are involved in a lifelong process of discipleship. Somewhere along the line, we publicly declared ourselves to be followers of Jesus Christ. It may have been years ago during our confirmation when we claimed for ourselves the baptismal commitment made by our parents. Others of us may have been adults converts to the Christian faith.

Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, we may find our courage dissipating sometimes in the midst of a difficult trial.  Like the crowd in the gospel story, we may have trouble understanding spiritual things or get a bit lost in the lure of this world of physical things.

And yet, no matter how it took place, we stood in the place of the people in the crowd who said to Jesus, "Sir, give us this bread always."  Our lifelong journey of discipleship will be renewed whenever we stop and reflect on our own encounter with Christ.

What is it God wants from us?  Jesus says God wants us to trust him - to place our hopes and dreams and desires for fulfillment in his care.  Jesus is the one who came to offer bread that can satisfy forever. It is important to our lifelong journey to remember our beginnings - to reconnect and renew our commitment to be a follower of Jesus Christ in a world that does not understand spiritual things.

Each time we participate in holy communion, witness a baptism or join with the congregation in celebrating with a confirmation class, we call ourselves back to basics.  We encounter the call of Christ to trust in him once again.

Every time we hear of someone standing firm in their faith in the face of trial or witness a declaration of commitment to Christ, we are once again standing with the crowd -- seeking Christ - -seeking fulfillment -- and once again we find ourselves answering the invitation to come to him that we might never be hungry.

Something like that happened for me when I first hears the story of Cassie Bernall, a 17 year old student at Columbine Highs School who was killed when the worst disaster in U.S. high school history occurred. The Denver Rocky Mountain News wrote, "People around the world know Cassie as the Columbine student who died confessing her faith. Her killer asked her if she believed in God. She told him she did, then died at 17."

Hearing this story spoke to me once again about my own encounter with Christ and my commitment to being a genuine follower of Jesus Christ.  Cassie no longer requires physical bread.  We trust that she continues feeding on that bread which "gives life to the world" and that she will never be hungry."

May God give us grace to embrace anew our own encounter with Christ.

Amen.


  From the website of Bread for the World.  This ecumenical organization has given attention to the issue of hunger for just over 25 years. As you explore the meaning of spiritual bread in John six, this site is a good resource for the juxtaposition of the physical and spiritual in the meaning of bread and hunger.  >>> click here

Your can read the story of Cassie's faith and her memorial service >>> click here


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Text

During these weeks in August, we will be working through John chapter six and the meaning of physical and spiritual hunger.  John six takes us through a progression where the meaning of Jesus' life and ministry is fully developed. The movement goes from the initial searching of the crowd to a division of the ranks where some who finally understand what Jesus is talking about turn away from him while others deepen their commitment to following him.  Thus there is an opportunity to look at four dimensions of discipleship in this chapter. Consider putting a copy of John six in your worship bulletin this week and ask the congregation to reflect on the words throughout the month of August.

For today's texts, the gospel is a reflection and kind of parallel to the Exodus story of Israel's encounter with "bread from heaven" in the wilderness. The Ephesians text does not directly relate to the "bread from heaven theme," but the emphasis on spiritual maturity and growing up in Christ bears on the disciple's progress.  John six takes the reader through an understanding of Jesus' claim to be the bread of life. Those who "grow up in every way into him who is the head..." are the ones who finally affirm,  "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." [John 6:68]

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

The "ups and downs" of the children of Israel in their wilderness wanderings sound like a kind of community bipolar disorder.  Every difficult event brings a new round of complaining and discouragement. When God delivers them from disaster, they immediately forget and begin complaining when the next problem arises.

In today's text, the people are complaining because they are hungry. "You have brought us into the desert to die!" they accuse Moses.  Yet, it is against God that they complain. Verse 7 (which is not included in the reading) reads, "...in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord; for he hears your murmurings against the Lord."  The translation of the Hebrew root "luwn" is "complain" in the NRSV, "murmur" in the KJV, and "grumble" in both the NASB and NIV.

The sense of the root word is "to abide" or here in a bad sense to "be obstinate".  Complaining or grumbling is a "place" people get to and stay in.  Sound familiar?  There is strong reaction throughout the journeys of Israel to this "obstinate grumbling" because it discourages the community and is destructive of leadership. Most of all, it is the antithesis of faith and faithful living.  Instead of moving on in trust, the people dwell in their complaining attitude. That bad "place" finally destroyed the generation that had escaped the slavery of Egypt. It can bring a thriving church to a screeching halt.  There is a sermon in this text which might speak to a community where "grumbling" is a problem.  It is important to point out that Moses pointed out to the people that their murmuring against he and Aaron was actually complaining against the Lord.

The last verse of the Exodus text contains the words that are central to the relationship with the gospel.  "It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat."

John 6:24-35

John 6 is a pivotal chapter in the gospel.  The people come looking for Jesus because they had experience the miracle of the feeding of the multitude. But, they missed the point.  It wasn't even the "sign" that brought them searching for Jesus this time.  It was because, "...you ate your fill of the loaves."  As the chapter moves on, Jesus will take the people on a journey from physical bread to spiritual bread and reveal himself as the One who feeds the people of God.  There will be division and the choice is to follow Jesus or leave.

In today's reading those who come to Jesus looking for food find themselves in an encounter with the "bread of life."  Jesus does not tell them that searching for physical food is wrong - but, they should give attention to food that does not perish.  Physical food nourishes physical life - but they also need spiritual food which gives eternal life.

As this discourse on bread begins, there is little understanding with the crowd for what Jesus is talking about. The basis for the whole discussion is the Exodus account of God's provision of manna for the children of Israel in their wilderness wandering. The people in the crowd are aware of the story from Exodus, but they do not grasp the heart of the story. Just as the first generation which fled Egypt did not "get it" and perished in the wilderness, so the crowd now does not "get it"  - and Jesus enjoins them to work for the bread that leads to eternal life.

The text here begins to point to the grace of God in redemption. "What must we do to perform the works of God?" the crowd asks.  They must "believe" or "trust" the one God has sent.  The manna in the wilderness was a gift of grace.  The children of Israel did not "work" for the manna - it was given - it rained down from heaven. Now the "true" bread from heaven will give life to the world.  Then the invitation of grace comes: "...whoever comes to me will never by hungry..."

 

Ephesians 4:1-16

From jail, the apostle appeals to the church at Ephesus to be unified in their faith.  There is "one Lord, one faith and one baptism." Each one has been given grace through which "gifts of Christ" (here "doma" and not "charism") are provided to build up the church. The gifts here are not the gifts of 1 Corinthians, but he gifts of offices which call together and build up the body of Christ.

The purpose of the building up of the people of Christ is to bring them to full maturity - to everything God has designed the church to be.

Although this theme does not address the Exodus and John texts in an immediate way, it is not such a stretch to note that the maturity of God's people in every age has impacted their relationship to God and their future. The experience of the children of Israel in the wilderness was one of disappointment and failure through immaturity. The church is not different.  God may provide the manna, Jesus Christ offers his life for the sake of the world and gifts are given that the Body of Christ might be strengthened.  However -- responsibility for growing in the faith, as individuals and as a community is never taken out of the hands of the believing community.

God is gracious and gives grace for our redemption.  God does not revoke our will and implant a fully matured spirit. A mature church requires the participation of every person in the church. Only then do we have hope of reaching the intent of Ephesians 4:15 & 16:

"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."


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship (Adapted from Ps. 78:23-29)

Leader:   O come worship the Lord our God,
People:  The One who feeds us with bread from heaven.

Leader:   The Lord renews us and gives us strength,

People:  And bestows upon us every good gift.

Leader:   The Lord is great and greatly to be praised,
People:  For by the mighty power of God we are redeemed!

A Prayer of Confession

O merciful and gracious God, we come to you today with a keen
awareness that we have not lived according to your desires.  Your
gifts surround us and we have not seen the source.  Your voice
calls to us and we have been dull of hearing. O may we open our
hearts up fully to you today and so receive forgiveness for our sins
on account of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.   Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Friends in Christ, the Lord is gracious and will grant mercy to all
who truly come in repentance and faith. Receive the good news
that in Jesus Christ you are forgiven.  Amen.
 

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

Gracious Lord, we give thanks to you today for you have made all things
and have given so much to us.  You feed us day by day by the abilities
you have given to us that we might share in the bounty of life.  Your
presence nourishes us moment by moment that we might stand
faithful even in troubled times.

We admit that too often we are like the ancient children of Israel, who in
their journeys did not recognize the gifts you gave to them.  O give us
the vision to see how blessed we have been and how rich we are in
things that no money can buy or earthly power bestow.

We praise you that you have created us with the ability to have grateful
hearts, for only in gratitude can we truly discover all you can be to us. You
have sent the very best that could be offered for those who could least
deserve it.  Your Son Jesus Christ left all the riches of heaven for the
spiritual poverty of this world, that we might share in the riches of your
kingdom.

O glorious God, we worship you today as the offering of our hearts. May
the grace of goodness of our Lord Jesus Christ fill our hearts this hour,
our homes this week and accompany our steps as we move about your
world. 

Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

There is no gift, O God, that can ever express the depths of our
gratitude for the gift of salvation which you have given to us
through Christ. And yet, we rejoice because you receive our gifts
and bless our given.  Through Jesus Christ,  Amen.