Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." (John 6:35)
A few years ago, I sat in a worship service where the pastor was out, and a retired pastor and member of the congregation was filling in. The service proceeded as normal with prayers and songs and the reading of scripture – and then came the sermon. The pastor stepped up and began to preach and his preaching was all about substance abuse and addictions; a good topic by any means, but one that seemed strange for our small community of 12 where we all knew each other and where addiction to worldly things looked differently. Both Peg and I left that service scratching our heads and wondering “what was he trying to tell us? Why this sermon? Who was this addressed to?”
When I prepared for today and read the scriptures for today, especially the Ephesians scripture, I wondered how I would preach that scripture. I had a feeling that preaching about “putting away falsehood” (Ephesians 4:25), bitterness and wrath and anger and slander (Ephesians 4:31) and stealing (Ephesians 4:28) within our community of believers might just have you leaving here scratching your heads, wondering whom this sermon was addressed to and why it was preached here and now – in this time and place. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t blame you at all for wondering. However, as with every scripture, there is something in it for us – either in our private lives or for us as a community and skipping over it and deeming it irrelevant may make us miss something that is useful to us. I find the same is true for personal study of scripture – there are times that I pick up my Bible and the scripture I am reading that day doesn’t seem relevant – and yet by the end of the day it was relevant and I did need it for that day. So, let us look at our reading from Ephesians a bit closer.
The Letter to the Ephesians is named for its recipients, a Christian community in the Ephesus, a city on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. Many of the early fragments or documents that have been found of the text of this letter do not include the opening reference ‘in Ephesus “ in verse 1 of the letter – reading “To the saints who are faithful in Christ Jesus” instead of “to the saints in Ephesus”; therefore, it is possible that this was a round letter or circular– a letter not intended to one specific church but one that was sent to several churches and addressing a rift between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Chapters 1 – 3 include theological teachings and chapters 4 – 6, in which today’s reading is located, “is an appeal for the church to maintain…unity…and rejecting former lifestyles by displaying Christian values of truth, love, forgiveness...”. There are no details about what caused this letter to be circulated, but it seems that reminding Christians about their new life in Christ was important.[i] And so, Paul’s letter to the Church at Ephesus may simply show us that the church is made up of individuals who are flawed and that things can and do happen that tear at the fabric of a community. However, instead of allowing things to be broken down and torn up, the author of Ephesians reminds us that all we say and do should be “useful for building up” (Ephesians 5:29). Verse 25 tells us to “speak truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another”. Verse 28 lifts up the value of honest work and labor, so we may share with those in need rather than meeting only our own needs by stealing from others. And verse 29 prohibits evil talk because it neither builds up the community nor gives grace to those who hear. Therefore, the letter to the Ephesians prompts us to become more aware of our words and our actions; to be aware of how what we do, how we are, and what we say may impact those around us, how our words and actions reflect upon Christ and our lives in Christ, and how they shape us and our community.[ii]
One pastor asked, “Did you ever think about how much of our culture is created by our speech? We listen to words that describe our world and we slowly become that world. For example, if we listen every day to language about hate and prejudice and angry descriptions of our neighbors, we will become like that language both angry and prejudiced. That’s what happens when we talk about the people around us. Our language begins to build a world. That world might only be as small as our immediate community but if our speech only tears people down, then the place we inhabit will be one of torn down people.”[iii] What that pastor was trying to say is that our language and our speech convey emotions and that they are contagious. And he is right. Research has found that “one family members' depression can bring down an entire family system. Other emotions, such as anxiety and fear, can have the same effect” and that is not limited to our closest relationships. Likewise, happiness can also spread from one person to another and “just being around positive people can be energizing, motivating, and inspiring.”[iv] How we are affects those around us and our moods and behaviors and even language have en effect on those that we come in contact with.
So how are we supposed to do this? How will we create a world and shape our community in the likeness of Christ with our behaviors and our speech?
For the author of Ephesians, the message seems simple: Love. In all we say, and do we ought to “live in love, as Christ loved us” (Ephesians 5:2). And living in love means to think before we speak and to speak words of love and of kindness, tender hearted words that build up others and that proclaim the new life that we have been given in Christ. The new life given to us through the Bread of Life that we are to feed on, constantly.
As I sat in my office and pondered this, my eyes came to the Psalm assigned for today. Allow me to read it to you in a paraphrased version from the Message Bible.
I bless God every chance I get;
my lungs expand with his praise.
I live and breathe God;
if things aren’t going well,
hear this and be happy: Join me in spreading the news;
together let’s get the word out.
God met me more than halfway,
he freed me from my anxious fears.
Look at him; give him your warmest smile.
Never hide your feelings from him.
When I was desperate, I called out,
and God got me out of a tight spot.
God’s angel sets up a circle
of protection around us while we pray.
Open your mouth and taste, open your eyes and see--
how good God is.
Blessed are you who run to him.
Psalm 34 is a Psalm of thanksgiving but to me it is also a Psalm of testimony and a Psalm of invitation. The Psalmist testifies to all that God has done and how God has changed their life. We are likewise asked to become aware of and to testify about the many ways that God has been with us in our lives. The Psalmist invites us to live more fully into our life in God by praising God, by living and breathing God, by calling out to God, and by living a prayerful life in all we say and do. This includes top be aware of at each moment, how our words may impact those around us. Do they build up or tear down? Likewise, our actions, do they harm or help? We can do so by starting and ending each day in prayer and by approaching each task prayerfully; by asking God to be with us and to guide us throughout the day. And, like the Psalmist, we are to extend God’s extravagant welcome to others, so they too may see their lives changed by no longer walking in fear or anger but in love. Our lives and our words become they invitation they may need to hear.
Sharing our faith with others and centering it around God - It is hard work and difficult work, as Paul; reminds us, and yet it is also happy and joyful work. As one website writes, “it is [tough] to be angry but not to sin, to work honestly but also to share the proceeds of our work, to speak to each other only in ways that build each other up, and to forgive. In fact, I’d go so far as to say each one of us likely knows how difficult it is to do Paul’s words in a divided world like ours. So, no wonder we need God’s own food, Jesus’ very self, in order to proceed. When Jesus proclaims that he is the Bread of Life, he means to be food for the journey.”[v] We can only be nourished if we accept the bread that is offered, Let us take Jesus up on his offer and let us make him our daily bread and the center of our lives – in word and in deed – and every day again. May this not only shape us and our lives, but also our communities.
[i] The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version
[ii] The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version.