Proper 9 (B)
July 6, 1997
The Promise About The Thorn
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Can you tell a cross from a thorn? “Taking up our cross” means voluntary identification of our life with Jesus, the commitment of ourself to whatever hardships which may come as a result of ministry in His name: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” On the other hand, to endure a “thorn” refers to some circumstance for which we didn’t ask, which we pray to have removed, and in which we are given the grace to keep going and behave in such a way that the Father will be glorified. “There was given to me a thorn in the flesh …” Let us look at the thorn’s promise.
In verses 7-10 we see that (1) Paul will not boast in his spiritual experience — though he would like to — because there is such a contrast between his visions and his appearance; (2) Paul will boast in this weakness; and (3) whatever this weakness is, it is a thorn in the flesh. Mark that the Greek here means more than a thorn you might get while picking roses; it is a stake on which a man is tortured. This text is full of questions. Just what is the “thorn” in his life of which Paul speaks? He says it was “given” to him — by whom? Why would Paul boast of such a thing? Can we find the promise and the power that Paul found in the thorn?
The Thorn and Its Source
What was Paul’s thorn? We simply don’t know. The early church fathers (Jerome and company) seemed to think it was headaches. Others since then have suggested epilepsy, eye problems, malarial fever, an opponent, and Martin Luther was convinced the thorn was carnal thoughts. I suspect most of the guesses reflect the scholars’ own problems and struggles; which is a good application of the scripture! For just as Paul had to deal with his special thorn, so we must deal with ours. In any event it was some physical or emotional infirmity affecting Paul’s dignity and appearance, and was evident to all who saw him.
Is there some thorn in your life? More than the usual annoyances — more than what John Wesley put up with when his wife sat in the front pew and stuck out her tongue at him while he preached; more than when he said he knew she must be a rose, for he felt the thorns! Is there some circumstance, a tragedy, a broken dream, a sickness, an unshakeable fear, some disability that dogs you?
Who “gave” this thorn to Paul? Was it God, because Paul had a tendency to feel superior, to boast of his experiences? Or did Satan, seeing the power of the experiences, send a dark angel to “rough” Paul up every now and then, hoping the old nature would come to the front? Luke 13 tells of a woman bound by Satan for 18 years, and finally freed by Jesus. Paul prayed for its removal — suppose his prayer to remove the thorn had been granted; he would have been sure the thorn was put there by the devil and removed by God. As it stands, it isn’t clear. This we know: the thorn, a messenger of Satan, was “given” to Paul. Both God and Satan are deeply concerned with Paul, and with you and me.
Pain of the Thorn
If the source of the thorn is unclear, Paul’s desire is very clear (8). He prays for its removal. This scripture says he prayed three times. Here we have an echo of our Lord praying in the garden. As in the garden the cup was not taken away, so here the thorn is not removed. But angels came to minister to Jesus, and God gives Paul a beautiful promise. Have you ever prayed over and over for something you felt was a worthy prayer, yet it did not come to pass? I have. But it was not granted because the Father would be glorified, His will more nearly done, and my spiritual growth aided, by His not granting that plea. How do I know? By faith. I know God would withhold no good thing from His child, nothing that was truly best for His child. Just so, Paul did not get the answer he wanted, but the one God knew was best. And the answer is plainly put in verse 9: “My grace is sufficient for thee.” It is interesting and beautiful that these are the only words of the risen Christ found in Paul’s letters.
Promise of the Thorn
What a magnificent lesson is to be found here in verse 9: the sufficiency of God’s grace in our lives! When the deepest prayer of our heart is not answered, we face not a barred door, unyielding against all our pounding and tears — but rather the love of a father whose heart is toward us, and whose wisdom, goodness, power, and presence is able to meet our need. “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee …” I should mention that “He said” is in the perfect tense: He said … and what He said stays true from that day on! “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. For I am the Lord thy God.” (Isa 43:2; See Heb 4:16 and 1 Pet 5:10).
There is yet another deep spiritual lesson in this verse; perhaps a spiritual law: God’s power is most fully revealed in the experience of trials, and in those who endure them in simple trust. What a strange truth! God’s immeasurable power (literally, dynamite) is made perfect and complete in our weakness! For those of faith, here is the why of the thorn. Not why this happens, but why it is not removed — that through our weakness the loving, shaping, forgiving, transforming power of God may be seen as in no other way. So Paul, and you and me, and all with the thorn can be
the happy warrior
Who, doomed to go in company with pain,
And fear, and bloodshed, miserable train!
Turns his necessity to glorious gain. (Earl Davis)
Proper 10 (B)
Sunday, July 13, 1997
Begin With A Starry Night
The letter to the Ephesians could scarcely have had a more commonplace start! Written by a prisoner, addressed to nobody in particular since it was a circular letter, and apparently first sent to a small group of believers in the shadow of the great temple to Diana, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It may have been sent by messenger to this group, along with two other pieces of correspondence; a letter to an outlying mission with the problem of heresy — Colossae, and a note to a slave owner, Philemon, about his slave. The prisoner who wrote this letter we call Ephesians is now dead and the temple to Diana is in ruins, but this letter lives on, like “a fallen leaf that kept its green.”
A Soaring Prayer
Imagine the scene as this letter is first read in a house-church. There is a profound silence in the room; the listeners know the writer, and know his situation. The swinging cadence of voice of the man leaning close to the oil lamp to see to read goes on, column after column. Verses 3-14 is a prayer, one long sentence in Greek; a collection of spiritual pearls on an inspired string. It is the kind of prayer that is breathtaking; it calls for unending rounds of applause in its magnitude. One thinks of a field of geese taking wing or the soaring V of a flight of ducks or the bursting fireworks on the 4th of July. To get the perspective on this prayer, perhaps we should do as it is said Teddy Roosevelt would often do with guests. He would take important — or important feeling — guests outside after a an evening meal and stare up at the stars. After a few moments he would say, “Now that we know how small we are, let’s go back inside.”
As one scholar put it, Paul in this prayer is “contemplating the purpose of the ages, divinely decreed and incapable of frustration, a plan formed in eternity by omniscience, erected in time like a great pyramid, presided over by a builder who cannot err.” The climax of the ages is the gathering of all creation under the Lordship of Jesus Christ; this is the fulfillment toward which the universe moves. It is an immense theme, yet filled with intimacy; as when we stand under the stars and feel so insignificant until we remember that our Lord calls both the stars and each of us by name. In this passage we see the origin of the Plan of the Ages in the sovereign grace of God (4); we see the means of carrying out the plan in the sacrificial death of Jesus (7); and we see the goal and effect of the plan in the saintly living of God’s people (4b).
Origin in Sovereign Grace
Eleven times Paul speaks in this passage of “being in Him.” In Him, that is in Jesus Christ, we are chosen before the foundation of the world, chosen to be holy and blameless, predestined for sonship toward God, graced with God’s grace, redeemed through his blood, and forgiven. In Him God’s good pleasure is set forth and all things are headed up. In Him we were called, and believing, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit. In Him refers to the link formed by Jesus between God and His people, who are in the stream of grace.
Carried Out Through Jesus’ Sacrificial Death
This all-encompassing Plan of the Ages is carried out through the sacrificial death of Jesus. In Him we have redemption through His blood; in Him we have the forgiveness of sins (7). Paul does not try to explain how this is so; he just rejoices in the reality of the cross and the resurrection. Even such a spiritual giant as Paul cannot fathom the depth of the divine mind; we can only stand in awe at the love that would send Jesus, the love that would walk among us and die on the cross for us. It is enough to know that the death of Jesus cleanses us, frees us, empowers us sinners. Only by the washing in the blood can the sinner be “in Christ” and thus a part of the Plan of the Ages.
Resulting In Saintly Living Of God’s People
In this prayer Paul also rejoices in the goal and the effect of the Plan of the Ages. The result of the Plan is the saintly living of God’s people: “that we might be holy and blameless (4).” The saints are those who are set apart by the Lord, to the Lord. If we as Christians experience no change in our lives in conversion; no zeal in witnessing, no desire to serve and give, no love for His church, no worthy walk in the world — then we need to read — and pray — this prayer. Saintly living reflects the seal of the Holy Spirit (13), the indwelling of the invisible Jesus. This indwelling is the “earnest,” the down payment, the guarantee of the glories to come.
A study of this great prayer should begin with a starry night, and under the stars we should reflect on the power and love of God. For He who created this far-flung universe and flung the stars into space also calls each of us by name and binds up the broken-hearted. We should reflect on the coming to earth of God in human form as Jesus of Nazareth, living among us and dying for us in order that we might become like Him. This prayer forces us to probe our own conversion experience, asking ourselves if we are “in Christ.” It is a glorious vision of what is to come, and we must remind ourselves that the scaffolding is still up on this old world and on each of us as individuals — God is not through with us yet. (Earl Davis)
Proper 11 (B)
July 20, 1997
Dividing Walls of Hostility
“He has broken down the dividing walls of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14 RSV). These words, having to do with the change God brought about through Christ in the relationships between Jews and Gentiles, remind us of the unfinished work that is before the Church with regard to race relations. Integration became the law of the land for Americans in 1968. But the dividing walls between races seem to be growing rather than falling, and the hostility on both sides of those walls is growing to a dangerous intensity.
I. Review the history of relationships between races in the Bible.
God chose one people through which to work to bless all peoples. (Genesis 12:1-3)
The law was given to that people as a sign of their chosenness and as a guide to help them remain faithful to their special covenant with God.
The temple was built to enable the people to maintain and renew their relationship with God through worship.
In time, chosenness developed into a proud — or fearful — exclusivity. The people forgot that they had been chosen to be a blessing. The law was used as a means for measuring and rejecting those who would be regarded as outsiders. The temple, which should have been a place of prayer for all nations, (Mark 11:17), institutionalized alienation through a wall that separated the place where all could go from the place where only the Jews could go.
Centuries of bitter history built up hostilities and evoked hostilities.
By New Testament times, the people to whom the letter to the Ephesians was addressed experienced a kind of rejection from the Jews that suggested that they were beyond the reach of the saving grace of God.
But God had never been limited by the religious structures of his people.
Jesus refused to be limited by the structures of Israel’s hostility. He reached out in love to a Roman officer’s daughter, (Matthew 8:5-13), to a Samaritan Leper, (Luke 17:11-19), to a Syrophoenician woman, (Mark 7:24-30), and to a village of the Gerasenes, (Mark 5:1-20).
The Holy Spirit drove the early Church out into mission to share the faith with the Gentiles so the covenant was allowed to bless all nations.
The writer of Ephesians saw clearly that God offers love and life to all people on the same basis, to both Jews and to Gentiles, as a gift of grace. In doing that, God removed the barriers that separated peoples as the dividing wall in the temple had. God has drawn all peoples together into one new humanity and opened the way by which we can get past hostility and live in peace.
II. But the dividing walls are growing among us.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. shared with the nation a dream that reflected the vision of the writer of Ephesians. For a time, it seemed that the nation and the world would adopt that dream as a cherished hope.
But disappointment and disillusionment have moved in. People of all races seem to be abandoning the dream in favor of self interest disguised as ethnic pride. Identity is defined in terms of againstness.
Groups develop hostile mythologies that give them excuses to look down on others and to abuse or exploit them. “Anyone who will work can prosper. If you are in need, it is because you are lazy. You are a burden to society.” “Those who are rich are the oppressors. They get what they have by exploiting and stealing.” The mythologies are not true, but they are shared and believed and reinforced within ethnic groups. And they are never challenged because members of different ethnic groups never talk to each other about their real feelings.
Having defined each other as “the enemy”, racial groups explain all of their frustrations and failures by blaming them on each other. The dividing walls are growing. Hostilities are building. The possibilities are there for disastrous conflicts. In Bosnia and in Rwanda, history has shown us what ethnic conflict can do.
III. Jesus calls His followers to break down dividing walls of hostility.
People who are committed to being obedient to the God who breaks down walls have an important work to do in the world today. The need is urgent. It must not be neglected. The church is called to be the agent of the saving work of God. (Jim Killen)
Proper 12 (B)
July 27, 1997
A Prayer For You
“Do you know what I want for you more than anything else in the world? I want for you a life shaping experience of your relationship with God. That is what the Christian Faith is all about. That is what I ask God for when I pray for you.” The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians said that to the people to whom his letter would be read.
This brief passage is pivotal in the Letter to the Ephesians and it is pivotal in the Christian Faith too. The first part of the letter was spent in explaining basic Christian beliefs, probably in response to Christian converts who wanted some “wisdom” with which to respond to the philosophies of their friends. The last half of the letter is spent explaining the practicalities of the Christian life. What is it that translates Christian life. What is it that translates Christian beliefs into a Christian life? It is an experience of life lived in interaction with the living God. The writer says, “I want all of these things we have been talking about to be more than just ideas. I want them to become real to you.”
I. You can have a relationship with God.
A relationship with God is based on three ways in which God’s active presence can be known.
The Holy Spirit is the active presence of the living God in our lives and in our world. The writer prays that the Holy Spirit may reach into our innermost being to invest in our lives the resources of God’s glory, to liberate, to affirm, to inspire, to enable, to build up our essential personhood so that we will have the power to live fully and effectively in the world. (Verse 16)
Christ too is a living presence. The risen Christ is still present and at work. When, through faith, through our believing and trusting, we open ourselves to the risen Christ, he will come into our lives and live within us and through us. (Verse 17)
And, God is present among us in love. God’s love surrounds us all of the time. God is the source of all real love and God reaches out to us through every love that touches our lives. The writer prays that we may be planted in the love of God as a tree is planted in good soil so that we can draw from it the resources we need to live fruitful and loving lives. (Verse 17)
II. You can have understanding beyond your knowledge.
The study of theology can seem to become more and more complex as we move further into it. But we can know that we are approaching the goal when all of the parts begin to come together and to show us something profoundly simple and all encompassing. It is like traveling through a torturous mountain pass until it finally brings us to a place where we see spread out before us a magnificent panorama of mountain ranges and prairies and forests and farmlands. Just so, the writer prays that we may have power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth. He wants us to get the big picture. (Verse 18)
And he prays that we may experience the love of Christ. That is what the Christian Faith is finally all about. It is about the discovery that life is a good gift to you from the God who has shown you his love for you through Jesus Christ. It is about knowing that every moment of life is an interaction with someone who loves you. It is a new way of experiencing life. Live life on the basis of that kind of an understanding of life and you will experience fullness of life. (Verse 19)
III. Your life can be a testimony of praise.
When we live our lives in an open, ongoing interaction with God, we approach each day with awe and expectancy. We can not know what the day will bring. But we can know that, in the long run, God is able to do more with our lives than we can even know how to ask. Such a life will become a living doxology. (Verse 20-21)
People who treat Christian doctrines as ends in themselves rather than allowing them to lead them into a new relationship with God are like people who took the bread that Jesus distributed and treated it as just a free meal when Jesus was offering them fullness of life.
Proper 13 (B)
August 3, 1997
What Do You Want front Jesus?
A wise person once speculated that we sin more by asking Jesus for too little than by asking Him for too much. That statement could be modified by saying that we ask Him for the wrong things. When the disciples were in the boat and Jesus was asleep on the cushion and the storm threatened to swamp them, I wonder what they wanted from Jesus as they tried to rouse Him from His slumber. Did they expect him to bail out the boat? Did they want a perfunctory prayer or did they have some inkling that He had the power to still the waves. They responded at the level of their understanding out of a desire for survival. For whatever reason, we look back and wonder, with the benefit of hindsight, if in that moment, they asked Him for the wrong thing.
The disciples were beginning to catch on to who Jesus was. Jesus had miracle working power. As the multitudes came to Him, He delighted to teach them about the Kingdom of God. Jesus was also eager to build His disciples’ faith. When it appeared that the multitude would not have time to get home and fix themselves something to eat, Jesus took it upon Himself to have His disciples gather what they could so He could feed them. When the people realized what an awesome miracle had taken place, they thought, “This Jesus is too big and too great merely to be an itinerant rabbi. We need to make Him a king.”
Jesus would have none of that. He did what He always does when someone tries to make Him something He is not — He withdraws. As so often happens, though, in the ministry of Jesus, even when He withdraws, people find Him anyway and press their claims upon Him. Of course, there is a sense in which the Christ longs to meet the needs of His children. That presupposes that there is a desire on the part of the children to serve Him out of a love relationship with Him. The crowds that were coming to Jesus were coming primarily because their needs had been met. That was offensive to Jesus and it ought to be to you and me as well. What would your reaction have been if you had been among the multitude that had miraculously been fed by Jesus? How do you react to the ordinary serendipities of God’s grace that surround us day by day? What do we want from Jesus? Do we want some divine errand boy or do we want a relationship with the Bread of Heaven who can satisfy our deepest longings?
Jesus came to satisfy our deepest hunger — not the hunger of the belly — but the quest for belonging and significance; for peace with God and forgiveness of sins.
Jesus rebuked the desire of the crowds only to have their bellies filled. It ought to be obviously true but Jesus reminds them that there is more to life than those fleeting things. The focus of their search shouldn’t be on finding food for their belly that doesn’t last but the food that endures to eternal life.
The crowd wants to know how to get this food. As with Naaman, they balk at the simple and ask the question, “What great thing must I do?”
Jesus introduces the most radical statement of the gospel. The work that I require is to believe. Salvation is by grace through faith. True faith doesn’t require miracles; True faith doesn’t always look at ‘what’s in it for me?’ The crowd wanted one miracle after another.
“Moses gave us manna. What can you do?” they asked.
Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Come to Me and find the deepest longings of your soul satisfied.”
Jesus took the crowd where they were and presented the claims about Himself. He still holds out the promise to a bullheaded, rebellious, what’s-in-it-for-me world the promise of the satisfaction of life’s deepest longings. (Mark A. Johnson)
Proper 14 (B)
August 10, 1997
Grumble, Grumble, Grumble
Have you ever tried to argue with Jesus? If you are confident in your own piety, you may say, “Why I would never argue with Jesus! Jesus is God the Son. Jesus is perfect. Jesus knows all. Jesus died to save me, how dare I argue with Him?” If you are more honest, you will recall moments of wrestling with God over some issue in your life — how desperately you hoped for one course of action only to surrender to God’s perfect will after a draining ordeal. You may recall an intellectual barrier that you had to cross before turning to faith in Christ. Maybe the barrier is intellectual. Maybe by tradition or upbringing or temperament, you found one reason after another to resist coming to Christ.
John shows us the reluctance of Jesus’ own people to come to Him. Jesus has fed the 5000. That caused the multitude to realize there was something special about Him. So much so that they wanted to make Him a king. What’s interesting is that the crowd seems to want to deal with Jesus on their own terms. In Jesus’ effort to withdraw from the misdirected ambition of the crowd, the multitudes pursue him anyway. It’s interesting that Jesus makes a comparison between the rejection of Moses’ leadership with the rejection of His true role.
I. The children of Israel grumbled about the manna.
Jesus has just asserted that He is indeed the Bread of Life. He, and He alone can give what truly satisfies. John underscores His recurrent theme of Jesus as the Divine Word that “came down” from Heaven. Jesus isn’t the first thing to come down from Heaven though. In the children of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, manna “came down” from Heaven. Rather than rejoicing in God’s provision and sensing His love, the Israelites grew tired of it and grumbled, and murmured and complained.
II. Jesus’ own people grumbled about Him.
Jesus has just performed a great miracle. When He asserts the claim which ought to flow logically from that miracle, the people say, “Oh, yeah! We know who your parents are. How can Joseph and Mary’s kid (or we think Joseph and Mary’s kid) claim to be so great. Where does he come by this chutzpa all of a sudden?” It’s as if they are inventing diversions to get around having to take Jesus seriously.
III. Only Jesus can satisfy
How wearisome it must be for God to have to listen to his children grumbling continually. If they weren’t grumbling over manna in the wilderness, they were grumbling over His final revelation of Himself. Jesus told them, “Quit it! You can’t come to me unless the Father draws you.” If you come to Me and listen to Me, which will happen as a result of God’s drawing power, your eyes will be opened and you will understand. If you listen to God, you will come to Jesus. You will come to Jesus and you will have eternal life. The forefathers in the wilderness grumbled about God’s gracious provision. That provision though could not give eternal life. Only Jesus can do that.
Jesus shows that He is God’s final revelation of Himself. Those who ate of the manna in the wilderness died. The writer to the Hebrews even tells us that the bodies of many of those people even lie strewn across the desert — they didn’t even make it into the promised land. Jesus says, “I am Bread which you may eat and not die.” Jesus promise eternal life to those whom the Father gives to Him.
Jesus says, “If you eat of the Living Bread, you will have eternal life.” Here we have something scandalous to Jesus’ Jewish hearers. Flesh was something vulgar and coarse. Yet Jesus says, “God came to you in the coarseness of life. Believe and accept without grumbling, and you will have eternal life.” (Mark A. Johnson)
Proper 15 (B)
August 17, 1997
Is This How to Be Saved?
“What must I do to be saved?” is a question as old as humanity itself. It is as important now as it has ever been. Theologians and Christians of different faith traditions may have different understandings of what salvation means and the theological nuances of salvation. We all agree with Paul’s words, “For by grace are you saved, through faith.” What is interesting though is that different aspects of coming to salvation are highlighted in different ways in the pages of Scripture.
Jesus answered Nicodemus’ question by saying, “You must be born again.” To the rich, young ruler, Jesus said, “Sell all you have and follow me.” Paul told the Philippian jailer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved.” With all of these different answers, what’s a seeker to do?
There’s one path to salvation coming from Jesus Himself that sounds repugnant to us at first hearing. That’s Jesus’ declaration that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have life in us. I’d rather be “born again.” “Believing on the Lord Jesus” sounds much less objectionable. I’d almost rather sell all my possessions than eat someone’s flesh or drink their blood. Could it be that Jesus is telling us salvation is not the easy-believism some of us would like to make it out to be?
Jesus has just told the crowd that He and He alone, is the bread of life. He is living bread. Like manna in the wilderness, He has come down from Heaven. The manna was a wonderful demonstration of God’s provision for His people in their wanderings. Yet, it couldn’t really give life. It couldn’t give the abundant life that Jesus promises. It couldn’t give eternal life. All who ate the manna died and many didn’t even make it into the promised land.
On the other hand, Jesus, as the Living Bread — the Bread of Life — can ultimately satisfy the deepest longings of our being. There’s only one problem with the analogy of bread. Is bread of any use if you don’t eat it? Who doesn’t love the smell of freshly baked bread? But can the aroma of bread nourish us? I’ve even seen bread which has been shellacqued and fancied up to use as a centerpiece. That’s nice but can it really serve its true purpose?
It logically follows then, that if Jesus is the bread of life, we must eat of Him in order to have His life-giving force effective in us. Eating the flesh is one thing. It seems quite another to drink someone’s blood. No wonder the early Christians were so misunderstood! Some say that this is merely an allusion to partaking in the Lord’s Supper. Those who are less sacramental say Jesus’ speech here is merely metaphorical. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
I like the way Roger Fredrikson puts it. He compares eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking Jesus’ blood with being partakers in Jesus life and death — the bread signifying His life and the blood signifying His death. He writes:
It was through His flesh that Jesus lived out a life of holy obedience. In eating His flesh we partake of this life of surrender and begin to manifest His life in all those fleshly places into which we are thrown or called — at sales conventions, on used car lots, laundering our clothes, making love and bearing childen, watching TV and going to church.1 Of the blood, Fredrikson states: But we are also to drink His blood. How abhorrent this was to the Jews who had been forbidden by law to partake of blood. But in this act we appropriate, or take into ourselves, His life sacrificed, His expiation, and His atonement. In accepting His life poured out we are reconciled to God and live in grace as forgiven sinners. The Son of Man, the One who has identified Himself with us, offers us
Jesus’ life is available to us. We have to eat of it and drink of it to appropriate it. (Mark A. Johnson)
1Roger L. Fredrikson, “John” vol. 4 in The Communicator’s Commentary; Lloyd J. Ogilvie, ed. (Waco, Texas: Word Books), 1985, p. 137.
Proper 16 (B)
Sunday, August 24, 1997
A Hard Teaching From a Hard Savior
Sam looked down. “I just can’t accept that. If that is what Jesus wants then I can’t accept it… or Him.” So Sam turned his back on Jesus and “walked.” As Sam got into his car and drove away, the minister knew the truth. It wasn’t that Sam couldn’t accept what Jesus had expected from his life, it went much deeper. Sam did not really believe that Jesus was God’s Son. Faith was the real issue. So it is with our text. On the surface, the disciples desert Jesus because they understand His teaching of flesh and blood literally. Yet that was really only an excuse. The real issue was not one of cannibalism but of faith.
From the beginning of John 6, Jesus had challenged the crowd and His own disciples to the necessity of faith in Him as the One God sent. After the crowds asked what they must do to do the works God requires, Jesus replied, “The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent” (6:29, NIV). Jesus then compared himself with the bread (manna) that Moses gave the Israelites, only he asserted that He was “the bread from heaven.” Verses 41 and 42 reveal to us, tellingly, that the Jews grumbled because Jesus said He was the bread from Heaven.
The controversy then, was not over eating flesh and drinking blood but whether Jesus was truly the bread of Heaven. The flesh and blood section is only an extension of the “bread from Heaven” discussion. Jesus claimed that while the people ate the manna from Moses they still died but if people ate the bread from Heaven they would never die. In other words, Jesus supplanted Moses as the ultimate giver of manna.
It is at this point that many of the disciples desert Jesus, pointing to His claim of being the bread from Heaven as a hard teaching. Jesus, however, put His finger on the true situation. The Jews and many of the disciples “walked” because they didn’t believe in Him. In fact, John tells us that Jesus knew from the beginning who didn’t believe.
As the whole episode came to a head, Jesus turned to the twelve disciples and asked them if they wanted to leave too. Peter, speaking for the group, replied “Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”.
There are at least three truths that stand out from this text. First, Jesus is the “bread from Heaven!” He is the One sent from Heaven. Jesus clearly stated it and there is no room for any other “ones” from God. Jesus surpassed Moses and is our only Savior, for as Peter confessed, “to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Second, faith is necessary not optional. There is no such thing as an unbelieving disciple. You will either believe in Jesus or at some point, when the going gets tough, you will turn back and no longer follow him. Let me hasten to add that I am not speaking to those disciples who experience times of doubt. Some of the most faithful disciples have had times of doubt. What I am saying, though, is that a real disciple will follow Jesus out of a deep faith in who He is and not for some other, less honorable motives such as, to impress others or to be a part of a group, or to enhance one’s social or economic status.
Third, no one will fool Jesus. You may be able to deceive your family, friends and those at church but you won’t fool Jesus. He demands and expects His disciples to believe that he is the Holy One from God. Jesus knows the status of your heart and your soul. (Michael M. Jones)
Proper 17 (B)
Sunday, August 31, 1997
Which Would God Prefer: Clean Hands or Clean Hearts?
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 22-23
A young couple decided to visit a certain church one Sunday morning. They dressed the same way they always dressed, in blue jeans and t-shirts. One of them decided to wear a t-shirt that had a beer logo on the front. As they made their way up the church sidewalk, the greeter immediately noticed their attire and went into action. After getting the attention of two church leaders, the three of them met the visiting couple. The members were friendly but inquisitive. Yes, the couple answered, they were visitors from the town. No, they had not been to this church before. No, they did not really attend church very often. Finally, the decision was made and the couple was, in essence, pronounced “unclean.” They would not be allowed to worship God in blue jeans and t-shirts (especially a beer t-shirt) and were asked to leave, change clothes, and return.
One day Jesus and His disciples were eating and some Pharisees came along to watch Jesus. They were astonished when they saw His disciples eating without first having washed their hands. They were, according to the traditions of the elders, religiously “unclean” and Jesus did not even seem to notice! For the Pharisees, becoming ceremonially unclean could take place by not washing hands before eating or after having contact with “unclean” people or by eating and drinking from unwashed dishes.
Later, Jesus explained to the crowd that nothing outside a person could make them unclean. Instead, it was what came out of a person that made them unclean. His disciples later asked Him to explain what He meant and He explained that it was not the food or other external things that made a person unclean but the things that came from within a person, from their heart. “All of these evils,” Jesus said, “come from inside and make a man ‘unclean'” (7:23 NIV). In other words, Jesus vehemently argued that the source of one’s uncleanness did not come from something external but from an internal source — one’s heart.
Our heart is the source of the vilest of sins, too. The list includes evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed and the like (21-23, NIV). Also, notice that the list does not include diseases, unwashed hands, non-kosher foods, gentiles (i.e., Romans, Samaritans), undesirable people such as tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, foreigners, and anybody who is not like us.
So, what does it all mean for Christians today? First, we religious folks can often fall into the trap of thinking that God cares more for outward appearances and external practices than he does about our inward thoughts and the condition of our hearts. We deceive ourselves into thinking that as long as we “go through the motions,” do all the right things, follow all the right rules, and have little or no contact with real “sinners” God will be pleased with us. We seldom realize that we can sin just as easily as the one who never attends church because we have one thing in common, a corrupted heart? We can have clean hands and still have unclean hearts.
Second, we cannot blame our being “unclean” on some external something-or-other. We are unclean before God because of the sin in our lives and that sin has its genesis in our inner being, our very own hearts!
Third, Jesus is the only cure for our corrupted hearts. His blood can make our unclean hearts clean and pure. Not that we will never sin again, but by His blood we will be eventually transformed into his image. (Michael M. Jones)
Sermon briefs for this issue are provided by Earl Davis, Pastor, Trinity Baptist Church, Cordova, TN; Mark Johnson, Managing Editor Preaching, Jackson, TN; Michael Jones; Adjunct Professor, David Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN; and Jim Killen, Pastor, Williams Memorial United Methodist Church, Texarkana, Texas.
Proper 9 (B)