Bread of Life

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Job 2:1-13; Acts 9:1-9; John 6:27-40

The gospel of John is one big book of metaphors.  Today highlights one of the central ones: I am the Bread of Life.  It was not Moses who gave the people bread from heaven, but God.  “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” Jesus said.

“Give us this bread!” the disciples respond.

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.”  These series of “I AM” statements in John explore the identity of a Messiah that we are only beginning to know in the 6th chapter of John.  The richness of his identity is confounding and complex.  It is mysterious and deep.  Almost exclusively though, it emphasized Jesus’ role as the true giver of life.

We discover in this gospel that Jesus is more than just a nice guy – more than a great rabbi – more than a prophet.  Jesus is someone very special – the Messiah – but more so, a Messiah we did not expect.  Here in John’s gospel, he is both expanding and turning on its head the expected role many thought the Messiah would take.

Wrapped in this idea of being the bread of life, there are three verbs which seem to interconnect.  Coming to Jesus, seeing and believing seem to be essential keys.  This too expands the metaphor.  It is not enough to just “eat” the Bread of Life (such as at Communion), but that we must see and believe this Bread.

This open the imagination.  Believe how?  Believe what he says?  Believe what he does?  Believe in the signs?  The works?  This is what makes the metaphor good.  We are left to ponder it in our own hearts – play with the possibilities of how God is at work in our imaginations, indeed in our very lives.

May the richness of John’s Gospel wash over you.  May you find depth to the love that Christ has for you, and may it radiate forth into your day, that through Christ you may be life and bread and hope for others.

-Matt

Can You Pass the Test?

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Job 1:1-22; Acts 8:26-40; John 6:16-27

I’m sure you know someone who is going through a time of testing.  Family life, the stress of relationships, or the end of one – life can be almost too much to bear sometimes.  Many these days have dire employment or financial stresses looming over them.  Sometimes life feels like a test.  We thought we were done with tests after school ended, but alas….

Today’s readings include the beginning of the book of Job.  The drama of Job’s extreme suffering has perplexed and amazed for centuries.  Here is a blameless man, upright and respected, a God-fearing man who has turned from evil.  And the sufferings he goes through are unbelievable.  Living life is a test for Job.

We get to know a little about him today: He has seven sons and three daughters.  He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and VERY many servants.  OK, we get the point.  He is very rich.

In a traditional motif, Satan is presented as God’s right hand man.  (Instead, in the Bible, Satan is often presented as an instrument for God.  Satan’s job from God is to test and tempt and to discover true intentions of people.  He is the Accuser, and it indicates an office of some sort, as if Satan is in the imperial service of the Lord.  (This stands in the face of the cartoon version many have as Satan with a pitchfork, and fire, and in charge of all things evil.  It’s a fun little image – it’s just not biblical.  If you are one who sees God in charge of Heaven and Satan is in charge of Hell, you may want to read your Bible a bit more and stop believing in the boogieman!)

It is obvious the Lord has blessed Job, and God wonders if he has been tested.  “The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job?  There is no one like him…. Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing?”

The stage is set, and Satan goes out to test Job.  The test is to see if he will curse the Almighty.  In today’s story he loses his property, namely all the animals, and his children are killed.

If, at this point you are like me, you are wondering why God seems so mean.  Job doesn’t even fall into that trap.  “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”  But really, doesn’t this seem a bit harsh?  Just to play a game with someone’s life because you want to test him?

One must always remember this is Wisdom Literature.  Its purpose is to instruct and help us in daily living.  It is not meant to be a theological treatise on God’s fairness.  It is when we are meant to wrestle with our own frailty, limits, and finitude.

Just as this passage alternates between scenes in heaven and scenes on earth, so we are called to meditate on the whole universe in its order.  The questions it raises are much larger than just “What a bummer deal…is God a twerp?”

And so, as we travel through Job, I encourage us to focus on the larger questions the book raises.  Does virtue depend on a universe that operates on principles of reward and punishment?  Can “religious faith” survive in our world?  Do we believe in God because of “reward and punishment”?  Or for the right reasons?

Already I am impressed with Job.  He is in great grief – shaves his head, tears his robe – his children are dead!  And yet he still finds opportunity to bless the name of the Lord.  I tell the confirmation kids this when we are talking about how to pray.  I tell them if they are finding themselves without words to simply thank God for something, ask God for something, and say why. (That actually is a pretty simple but effective prayer right there!)

Sometimes I wish the same could be true for all of us.  When we get in a rut, get stressed at work, struggle to balance and juggle our home life – how would things transform themselves if we all regularly took a step back and thanked God for something.  And not just any old thing – but thanked God for some aspect of the current situation.  “Lord, my children are testing my patience today and I want to kill them right about now, but I am thankful they have their health, and that we have each other.”

I wonder what would happen.

-Matt

God’s New Thing

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Judges 18:16-31; Acts 8:14-25; John 6:1-15

With every day of ministry, I am reminded of one powerful fact: God is doing a new thing.  There is not a day that goes by that I am not in awe of God’s power and majesty.  I am humbled to be part of the church’s powerful transformation. Today’s reading in Acts witnesses to this new thing.

Our story is a continuation of yesterday’s story of Philip and Simon, the magician of Samaria who believes Philip.  By the end, we see the power of the Spirit of God in a whole new light!  Peter and John come to back up Philip.  Something amazing is happening – the text implies something “magical” – but this is God’s “magic” standing in antithesis to the secular magic of Simon whose profession has the goal of money.  New feats of God’s power, much like the amazing new world records we are seeing from our Olympic athletes – what is happening is extraordinary and unseen before.

There is an elevating of the Holy Spirit.  First, Peter and John come to this place knowing “that Samaria had accepted the word of God.”  In the same vein, they went down to pray for them “that they might receive the Holy Spirit” for they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  Spirit becomes the key ingredient.

As Peter and John lay hands on him and the others, they receive the Holy Spirit.  In what ensues, we learn a good bit about God’s power.  What set off this whole chapter of Acts was Simon declaring Philip as “This man is the power of God that is called Great.”  Now, through money, he is attempting to gain the same power, asking Peter and John, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”  Peter rebukes him, tells him to repent, give away his money, pray, and get his heart in the right place.

Time and time again we see Simon’s conversion incomplete.  Accepting God’s word wasn’t enough.  Being baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus wasn’t enough.  Having the Apostles baptize him also in the name of the Holy Spirit seemed to be enough, but then this whole exchange about money and needing to repent.  We see God’s power breaking forth in the context of apostolic power, and yet we see this Samaritan Simon struggling for that which is right.

How often do we feel we have the answers, only to realize God has more for us to work out?  When in our lives have we been seduced into thinking Jesus would fix it all, and we failed to see God at work all around us?  Have you ever dismissed repentance as part of the equation?  Where is God’s power at work in your life?

These are deep questions, and ones that seem to bubble to the surface in the book of Acts, for in it we see God at work in different and strange ways, and we are asked to re-evaluate our lives and challenge ourselves to live into God’s excellence all the more.

I see the Holy Spirit alive today in our churches.  Sometimes this brings discomfort, because along with the Holy Spirit comes change.  This is welcome to some, but others in the Church revolt against any change.  God’s “growing edge” for us is never easy.  Those who want things to return to the way things were in the 1960s this can seem very threatening.  Unpredictablility.  Ambiguity about what God wants.

The Church is not going to be like it was.  God is doing a new thing.  This is what Scripture teaches – that with each new generation God is doing new things, and he simply requires our allegiance.  Perhaps there is another Beatitude in here somewhere: Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be broken.  We best be ready for it.

-Matt

When Losing Becomes Winning

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Judges 17:1-13; Acts 7:44-8:1a; John 5:19-29

Change is hard.  Embracing that change is even more difficult.  When people threaten the status quo, that threatens those in power, it upsets the comfortable, and it derails a predictable path, creating confusion.  The flip side is true too: it can also be a signal that the Holy Spirit is moving among us.

So it was for Stephen and our Acts story today.  If you know the story, he pays the price for this heralding of change.  Stephen finishes his speech and then is stoned.  I can’t say I am surprised that the crowd becomes enraged at him.  He slings quite a bit of mud.  “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do…. now you have become his betrayers and murderers.”

This also sets the stage for the ministry of Paul, here named Saul.  Saul is part of the stoning.

Stephen becomes the lynchpin.  The entire narrative is an exercise in dramatic contrasts.  Stephen is contrasted with his attackers: his innocence, their rage.  Saul adds to this contrast.

Of course those of us who know the rest of the story (i.e. any Christian who has known who Paul is), we see the theological world of the Jews being transformed through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

What we discover is that nothing – I mean NOTHING – can stop the purposes of God being worked out.

The last few weeks many kids and teachers have gone back to school.  As Edmond, Norman, Moore, and Oklahoma City get back in the swing of things, I think back fondly to my time as a full-time educator, and also my days as a student.  What a nerve-wracking time of year this can be!  The first day was always the worst.  New routines.  New places.  Unfamiliar schedules.  Long lines.  Traffic.  You name it; I hate it.

Perhaps part of my anxiety is that as a young child, I was the runt of the class, and the first day of school always seemed to begin a new chapter in being picked on.  I wasn’t picked on to the extend Stephen was – heck, being stoned, wow.  But as a child I certainly saw the bad guys winning.

Ultimately Stephen won.  Oh they killed him, but his purpose lived on.  He got his two cents in, and the transformation began.  His death gave rise to newness of life – in this case, Saul.

As you recall the story of Stephen today, I beg you not to look at it simply – and focus on the stoning.  But focus on the grand sweep of the story – and God’s purpose working out, despite this horrendous violence.  I ask you to look at your life as a transformation and the places that you feel beaten down.  How can they be sources of strength and fortitude for you?  When can the losing become winning?

-Matt

All In

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Judges 14:1-19; Acts 6:15-7:16; John 4:27-42

I am thankful to be part of a church and a denomination that doesn’t spend much time fretting over “who’s going to hell.”  These are not things that Presbyterians worry about, leaving these things for God to sort out.  It is not my place to judge or worry about such things.

In many ways, John’s gospel today deals who is in and who is out.

Remember the story of Jesus and the Woman at Samaria?  The disciples discover Jesus has been speaking to a WOMAN, and they are HORRIFIED.  They urge him to eat something, and he speaks esoterically about having food they do not know about.  He talks about gathering fruit for eternal life, the sower and reaper rejoicing together, and those who have labored entering into their labor.  It is a strange response to say the least.   Then the Samaritans show up and declare to the woman that they no longer believe because of what she said, but because they have heard for themselves.

Jesus understands his work to include the harvest of all people.  “Sowers” and “reapers” usually work months apart, with one planting grain, the other reaping the benefits of its growth.  Here it appears here that the harvest has already come.

But this still doesn’t answer things.  Is Jesus the living water and the Bread of Life to the point that we don’t need a crucifixion?  Paul exalts the self-sacrifice at the cross.  John seems to be exalting the Christ as a living, breathing entity.

These miracles in John do more than stir controversy about “who’s in and who’s out” or breaking rules on the Sabbath.  They focus on the person and power of Jesus.  They illuminate a savior who is utterly unconcerned with the way things “used to be” or even the way things “should be.”  He is concerned only with showing God’s glory in the world, and helping people to see a harvest that goes beyond the walls, beyond the rules, and beyond their imagination.

Could it be he is alluding to a day where all are drawn to the love of God?  Where no one is left out?  Where all are wrapped so tightly in the love of God that no one can escape?  Some might say, “Say it ain’t so!”  Others of us say, “Yes!  Exactly!  This is the Good News we have been talking about!”  I’m not a universalist.  But maybe God is.  That’s just not for me to fool with.

-Matt

Knowing the Way

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Judges 13:15-24; Acts 6:1-15; John 4:1-26

God’s ways are not our ways. We discover this as a theme throughout the whole trajectory of the Bible. From Joseph and his brothers, to King David, from Mary and Joseph, to stories all the way back to Jacob and Esau, often God’s choices are not humans’ choices. Abraham and Sarah. The list goes on!

Where we see God’s ways not being our ways in the Bible is often in the context of fertility and progeny stories.  Today’s story in the Old Testament is another one.  Manoah and his barren wife speak to the angel of the Lord not once, but twice.  The outcome of these visits is their child, Samson.

In almost every book of the Bible we see God working in mysterious or radically different ways than we thought possible, all to show that nothing can stop God’s will.  God’s handiwork is that which rails against the system, breaks the rules, or beats the odds.

In Acts, which also picks up on this theme and runs with it, we see the Church spilling out into corners of the world few thought possible.  In today’s passage in Acts 6, we see the armies of the word rallying and organizing.  It is the ordination of the first deacons.

In order to clear their schedules some, the apostles gathered “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” to help with the daily distribution of food.  That will allow them to focus more on “prayer and to serving the word.”

Summer is winding down and the school year is upon us.  Programs are gearing up at church.  It is a busy time and a good time for me to delegate.  The apostles had the good sense about when to draw a line and say “No.”  Sometimes I wish I was better at empowering others and delegating.

Some extraordinary things happen in Acts when one held on to all the power.  When power is shared, and it is truly God’s spirit who is in charge, extraordinary things happen.  Amazing growth happens too.  What would happen in our churches if we became better at letting go?  Maybe letting go of the past.  Letting go of power.  Letting God truly be in charge.  Recognize that it was God in charge all along.

-Matt

Step Up

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Judges 13:1-15; Acts 5:27-42; John 3:22-36

Peter is one of the most popular characters in the New Testament, probably because so many of us can relate to his struggles…his human nature…his faults.  He is fascinating.  I relate to his ups and downs, his highs and lows.

Just in the course of a few short chapters, we can see the highs and lows of ministry for Peter.  He drops his nets “no questions asked” to follow Jesus, and yet struggles to understand his role.  He denies his Lord three times, and yet inherits the keys of the kingdom, becoming in essence the first leader of the Church after Christ ascends to heaven.  One minute he is sinking under the waves, the next minute he is speaking like a champ.

Today we see Peter is all his glory.  He has really grown into himself.  In an event that almost seems like déjà vu, some of the Apostles now stand before the high priest being questioned.  Their accusations are similar to the ones Jesus had to deal with: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

Peter ramps it up, claiming his authority in Christ Jesus: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”  This, of course, is a violation of Jewish law, as the Sanhedrin is seen not as human authority, but an extension of God’s.

Peter has now come full circle.  Here is the one who questioned Paul and felt there needed to be a Jewish litmus test to enter into Christianity.  You can see his struggle, his testing, his fighting for the truth to come to full terms in his own life.

And it is a struggle.  Christianity is not an easy road.  Sometimes it means standing up for what is right when everyone else thinks it crazy.  Sometimes it means enduring hardship.  Sometimes it means speaking truth to power and sticking one’s neck out.  It is not an easy road.

But Jesus didn’t promise ease.  He said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”  He asks for none less.  He expects us to follow, even if that flies in the face of what is popular or cool.

He asks for – you guessed it – the truth.  And these days, the truth is not popular.  It requires things like finally admitting that our health care system in this country is broken.  It requires admitting we have a problem with poverty and human rights and sexual ethics.  It means, in short, that we are sinful creatures and that we have problems here.

It also means we need some help on this journey, and that we are called to speak like Peter, claim our own authority, and speak truth to power.   But we are not alone!  We stand with the One who came and died on a cross – the Savior of the World.  Now let’s do him proud.

Where in your life are you needing to claim your own authority and speak truth to power?  How can you be like Peter and STEP UP in faith?

-Matt