A sermon for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 5, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
“What sign are you going to give us then?”
The Gospel story from last week continues. It looks like some of the same people who wanted to make Jesus a king chased him across the lake. It’s this odd thing, they know he’s special and they want a piece of him. He can do something for them, and they want it. And Jesus is having none of it. They want to talk scripture with him, but they want to argue for their own ends. They have an idea of Moses and of miracles, and they want that from Jesus. They say, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness …” Basically, Jesus’ response is, “Wait a minute. You’re making both me and Moses into magic bread vending machines … you just want the bread, and you are ignoring the whole point: God is the source of life, not just getting that bread.”
In our Epistle lesson from Ephesians today, it says: “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.” We see that in these people in the Gospel lesson who are arguing with Jesus. The problem is not so much about false assertions, or big heresies. What is going on is that they are defending their prerogatives and asserting their selfish rights. “Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, what work are you performing for us?” These people contesting with Jesus were Jewish, but in Ephesians Paul is talking about gentiles, who are also more preoccupied with manipulating the good news (“craftiness and deceitful scheming”) than with listening to Jesus. So there is equal opportunity selfishness being displayed throughout the Bible. It is people who are stuck on their selfish schemes and their narrow view of their own importance—like children. But what is expected in children, is no longer acceptable once we are ready to take up our adult place in a Christian community.
Which is why Paul exhorts the church: “Being truthful in love we must grow up.” Grow up into Christ who is the head of the body, the Bread of Life. The version of the Bible we are reading translates that phrase differently—it reads “speaking the truth in love.” That’s not inaccurate, but the word “speak” isn’t in the Greek original. What the word in Greek means, literally, is “doing truth.” Which means the emphasis is not on the talking part. Paul is encouraging the Ephesians to be living as truthful and honest people—that means far more than just saying things that are accurate, it means embodying the openness and love that we know in Jesus, or rather, growing into it.
That honesty in love is a good definition of Christian humility, and that is what this entire Epistle lesson is about. It starts, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility…” Humility, especially Christian humility, is not about thinking of yourself as unworthy or not good enough—it’s not about that at all. It is about that honesty in love.
Here’s the problem with being honestly who we are, however. Sometimes, our personality traits can have their positive sides and their negative. Another way of saying this is that our virtues are often closely linked with our besetting sins. For example, intelligence and arrogance—those often come in pairs, we might notice. Kindness may be linked with fear of confronting others over wrongdoing. Passion and impatience is another duo I have noticed—I’m sure there are many others you can name in yourself and others. So how do we, as Christians, have that honesty in love that lets us balance out our strengths and our weaknesses?
I want to suggest the way can be found in the opening line of today’s epistle: “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility…” Humility is about being honest about both sides, recognizing strengths while acknowledging shortcomings. It takes courage to be humble. A person who recognizes her real strengths may be called upon to use them generously. The result of that is not always being admired or thanked, to say the least. And a person who honestly sees his shortcomings is vulnerable in that moment—others might remark on them as well—but that clarity gives surprising freedom and strength, and the person’s real strengths emerge from that humility. I would go so far as to say that those who say, “I am not much good, I just have weaknesses and sinfulness” are not humble at all, but avoiding seeing their real shortcomings along with their strength and God’s calling.
Our Epistle lesson today is one of the most extraordinary chapters in the Bible. “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” The life to which you have been called is to recognize the Bread of Life in Jesus and to follow him.
This chapter outlines the Christian life; it is worth taking the text of this lesson home and meditating on it for a long time. We don’t stop being the difficult people that we are by being baptized or by attending church. We don’t have a magic solution; we have a calling. It starts by encouraging us all to humility and gentleness, bearing with one another in love. Because Paul knew that we would have a lot to bear. There is plenty of non-gentleness and non-humility among Christians, and each of us needs to go a little further in patience than we think we should have to, in order to get along. We don’t get along by being small factions of like-minded people, because, “There is one body and one Spirit”—our calling has one and only one hope, that is: One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. We have one hope, which brings us all together, and that is Jesus, the Bread of Life. We are brought together, not by agreement, but in Jesus, the head of the body.
We are called to live lives worthy of our calling—worthy of our best selves and worthy of Christ.
We are called to partake of the Bread of Life, humbly, honestly knowing Jesus.
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.