John 5:39-47 – Against Vainglory

Christ and Pharisee by Russian artist Ivan Filichev, 1993

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.

“I’m not interested in crowd approval. And do you know why? Because I know you and your crowds. I know that love, especially God’s love, is not on your working agenda. I came with the authority of my Father, and you either dismiss me or avoid me. If another came, acting self-important, you would welcome him with open arms. How do you expect to get anywhere with God when you spend all your time jockeying for position with each other, ranking your rivals and ignoring God?

“But don’t think I’m going to accuse you before my Father. Moses, in whom you put so much stock, is your accuser. If you believed, really believed, what Moses said, you would believe me. He wrote of me. If you won’t take seriously what he wrote, how can I expect you to take seriously what I speak?” (MSG)

I like kids, even Junior High kids. They have not yet learned how to mask their honesty (like Senior High kids). Have a conversation with any early adolescent (other than your own kid) and you will likely get an unfiltered and unvarnished take on whatever topic you are discussing together. If the subject of celebrities comes up, they can quickly rattle off their favorites. There is a reason for that; they are very much in touch with wanting to be impressive, to stand out, even to be famous someday.

I have long contended that if you want to gauge a society’s true values, talk to a young adolescent. They just happen to have an emerging awareness of the world but not yet the sophistication to hide their true thoughts from others. Junior High age kids pretty much reflect what most adults are thinking but would never dare say out loud. After all, why lose prestige in the eyes of others who think I am wonderful? Better not to rock the boat, we reason.

“Vainglory” is an old out-of-style word which few people use anymore, yet perfectly captures exactly what Jesus was talking about when it came to people being unable to discern his divinity. Wherever and whenever you find an inordinate focus on wanting attention, seeking to impress others, and desiring celebrity status, there you will see vainglory digging its talons into a society.

Vainglory is just what it sounds like: an almost narcissistic self-absorption into one’s need for importance and attention so that the personal vanity blocks being able to see others right in front of them. In placing so much energy into becoming a celebrity among peers, the vainglorious person’s vanity fogs them from reality and the truth of another.

Conversely, we are to seek the glory which comes from God. Since so many are programmed to seek honor from others, it can be quite the undertaking to turn the hunt into finding our identity and fame as persons in the image of God. Our Gospel lesson today says our reorientation program begins with faith in Jesus Christ. It is the first step toward the unmasking of egomania and soliciting God’s favor.

The sixteenth-century Reformer, John Calvin, said that “a person is only prepared to obey the heavenly teaching when he is convinced that the chief thing to be sought in all of life is God’s approval.”

Thus, the appropriate response to vainglory is to fly like a bat of hell to the heavenly mercy of God. There is no shame in wanting honor; its just a matter of where we go looking for it. Faith is crippled when we keep trying to discern which way the wind is blowing. Both our identity and our sanity will eventually blow away. However, if we cease prioritizing worldly recognition and cancel our membership in the mutual admiration club, then our conscience clears enough to let divine grace fill our souls with the love of God in Christ.

Give me Jesus and that will be enough, thank you very much. As for recognition and attention, to be adored by the Savior is all I really need. Because at the end of the day, after the hurt of being ignored, overlooked, and forgotten, Jesus is standing at the door knocking, eager to come into the house and grace me with the gift of acceptance, approval, and admiration.

O Lord, in the name of Jesus Christ your Son our God, give me the love which never ceases, that will light my soul with divine grace so that I might be satisfied in you and lessen the darkness of the world. Lord Jesus, I seek your presence and glory. May I see you, desire you, look on you in love, and long after you, for your sake. Amen.

John 6:25-35 – The Bread of Life

The Breaking of the Bread by Sr. Mary Stephen

When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

So, they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (NIV)

Christians everywhere hold to Jesus as the Son of God, Lord of the universe, and Savior of all. However, for most people who were following Jesus around in the first century, this was not their understanding of Christ.  In his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke in ways that introduced people to who he really was and sought to bring them to a point of following him based on his identity. 

Jesus wanted the crowds to him for who he really is – themselves for what they really needed – and follow him based on the deepest needs of their lives. I believe Jesus is the hope of all nations and all people, and in him humanity’s most basic and profound needs are met for forgiveness, love, and purpose in life. To address this, I ask three basic philosophical and theological questions of life:

What should human beings seek the most and work the hardest for in life?

The responses in history are legion. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle thought a proper appreciation for an ethical and virtuous life found in practical wisdom was where people’s most concerted efforts should be.  Karl Marx, the father of communism and socialism believed the proletariat should use their heads and their hands to rise above their economic conditions and oppression. In the late 1960’s, Bobby Kennedy said we ought to be working the hardest to achieve justice and not advance ourselves on the misfortunes of others. In more recent times, the Harvard Business Review is continually on the lookout for the best ways of being efficient, productive, and making the most of time because work itself is paramount.

Jesus said people are not to work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life.

He said this coming off one of his most famous miracles of all, the feeding of the five thousand.  Afterward, Jesus withdrew overnight to a place of solitude and prayer. He did another miraculous event by walking on water out to his disciples in a boat. In the morning, he and they were on the other side of the lake. The crowd did not know where he was and went looking for him.

Jesus knew the crowd of people wanted more. What they got was perhaps unexpected. Jesus told them to put their efforts into getting the bread that keeps on feeding. Jesus wanted the people to pursue and follow him not only for the things he could do for them, but to seek him for who he is. 

Jesus had further aspirations for the people beyond providing a supper – he desired the people to feast on himself – to ingest him, to take him into their lives in a deep and profound way as the fulfillment of all the hope and promises of the Old Testament. 

Jesus Feeds the Crowd by American artist Eric Feather

Jesus is the bread, the basic staple of life, that meets the cravings and needs of all people everywhere. Starving people, both in body and spirit, find in Jesus a meal which keeps on giving, a feast of grace that is both delectable and unending.

The answer to my own question is that, for me, one’s highest pursuit and greatest quest is Jesus. Apart from Christ, I will starve. Furthermore, Jesus is not some cheap fast food off a value menu; he is real soul food to be ingested and enjoyed with others.

I believe people need Jesus. A passionate seeking of Jesus, to follow him, live for him, center life around him, is my most ardent desire. I do not simply desire Jesus for what he can do for me; I vigorously chase after him because if I do not have Jesus, I will die, I will starve to death. 

For me, Jesus is so much more than a nice addition to my life, like a new puppy; Jesus is Lord and Savior. I must consume him, or I will be completely undone, and I will not survive! Jesus is my bread, my food, my life!  I cannot survive on a daily crumb, but I feast on every word that comes from the mouth of Jesus because in Christ there is the life that is truly life.

What should human beings be doing to do the works of God?

The short answer: believe. To have and keep faith in the One God has sent, Jesus, is the primary “work” that pleases God. Jesus communicated to the crowd that they can do so much more than follow him for another earthly meal – they can place their faith and hope in him for food that will last, food that will transcend the three-dimensional world.

Faith is more than an intellectual recognition to some facts about Christianity. And belief is not about always having clarity and certainty to every facet and loci of Christian doctrine. No, Christian faith is complete trust in Jesus as our hope and our life. Education, economic uplift, political stability, and institutional peace and justice are important activities for this world. For the Christian, the accomplishment of these and so much more comes from the grace of God in Christ. As people come to the end of themselves with their homebrewed and half-baked attempts at being satisfied, Jesus stands at the door and knocks, the Living Bread who offers himself for humanity’s deepest needs.

Giving kudos to Jesus might be nice, yet Christ himself cares about folks placing their trust in him for grace, forgiveness, and hope in their world. Jesus longs to reconnect people with God through giving himself as the means of making that happen. All the works we do in this life, every good deed we accomplish, and each positive action we do are all helpful and necessary… and they all pale in comparison to the greatest work of all, to believe in Jesus Christ as the hope of this world, the hope of your family, the hope of the church, and the hope of your life and mine. And it is all accessed by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.

Who really does the will of God?

Answer: Those who come to God through Christ. The person who comes to Jesus will never go hungry, and the one who believes in Christ will never be thirsty. Such persons do the will of God. They do not settle for signs of Jesus but desire him and find their ultimate satisfaction in him.

Yet far too many people settle for signs of Jesus rather than Jesus himself. It would be silly if I drove to a sign on Interstate 94 that said, “Milwaukee” and sat there under it, believing I was really in the city of Milwaukee. And it would be weird if I looked around for the art museum or other places underneath the sign.

Church buildings and furniture, stained-glass windows, pews, and even the Bible are not Jesus – they are simply and hopefully signs which point to him. They are all designed to lead us to Christ so that we may come to him. And coming to Christ is what the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and any other description you want to give about ingesting Jesus is about. The elements of bread and cup bring us to Christ so that we can experience Jesus and be joined to him by faith in a mystical union of human and divine in the unseen heaven.

Conclusion

Where will you find true satisfaction and hope? Probably not in the clearance aisle at Wal-Mart. Likely not in conforming to cultural Christianity or embracing generic forms of Jesus as merely good teacher and moral example. Furthermore, life’s ultimate satisfaction and hope are not to be found in a spotless house and perfect kids; in working more hours and making more money. Nor will we find contentment and peace in the radical independence of doing things my way.

Jesus is the Bread of Life. Through ingesting him, passionately pursuing him, believing in him, and coming to him in everything, we find the life that is truly life. Do not settle for any substitutes to Jesus. Come to the real person.

Lord God, you said that when we seek you with all our hearts, you will be found.  As the deer pants for streams of water, so we, your people, long for you in a dry and weary land.  We hunger and thirst for your righteousness.  We deeply desire your presence in all things. So, we die to ourselves and surrender to your will and way for us, by faith trusting you will come into our lives and completely take over. May your blessing rest upon us as we seek Jesus. Amen.

By Forever Be Sure

John 11:45-57 – Against Fear and Worry

Therefore, many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So, from that day on they plotted to take his life.

Therefore, Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts, they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the festival at all?” But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him. (NIV)

Effective ministry and service is risky business. Just ask Jesus. The Jewish ruling council (Sanhedrin) was deeply disturbed by all the hubbub Jesus was stirring. Rather than celebrating the healing of many people in both body and soul, the rulers were anxious, worried, and afraid. They feared the worst: The Romans will obliterate both temple and nation.

Wherever you find a group of folks living in continual fear that something awful is going to happen, there you will find a strict code of conformity and no allowances for difference. After all, rocking the boat only draws attention. If anything, or anyone, deviates from established protocol, the voice of fear says, the entire religious system and even its people will be destroyed.

Well, my goodness, Jesus was anything but a conformist to the status quo. He frequently operated outside of established religious norms. Thus, Christ was viewed by many religious leaders as a loose cannon that was making too much noise and needed to be silenced before something terrible happened.

One of the problems with living in the fearful worry of what horrible thing may occur is that we play an ignorant game of prognostication. We simply do not know the future. We can predict. We can become full-time pundits. Yet, when all is said and done, the future is not ours to see. Only God is privy to standing above time and space.

Churches, Christian organizations, and really any institution whose chief focus is keeping everyone in line out of a fear of losing influence, power, privilege, money, devotion, buildings, or people will likely experience a self-fulfilled prophecy of doom. It is necessary we define our ministries, services, and actions by who we are and not by what we don’t do.

Today’s Gospel lesson chronicles the forward progress to the ultimate suffering and death of Jesus. Within the Apostle John’s account, two streams run parallel with one another. There is a group of Jews who observed Jesus, listened to his teaching, saw his miraculous works, and believed in him.  Alongside them is another group of Jews who experienced all the same events and heard all the same words of Jesus – yet responded in a quite different manner by plotting how Jesus might be arrested and killed.

Fear can take such a tight hold on some that premeditated murder is planned and executed without any moral misgivings. Worry can worm its way so deeply into a group that verbal assassinations seem both justified and necessary. Anxiety can overwhelm an institution to such a degree that rationalizations for unethical behavior are rife. People cease to be looked at as people. They are referred to as threats, demonized as monsters who are trying to take away a way of life.

Christ before Caiaphas by Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst, c.1617

Caiaphas, the high priest, spoke to his fellow religious leaders, perhaps without even knowing the truth and deep import of his prophetic words: “You know nothing at all.  Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” Indeed, not only did Jesus die for the nation of Israel, but on behalf of all nations, and all people. 

The implications of Christ’s death are magnanimous. The extent of his atonement for the people includes redemption from the bondage of sin; reconciliation between us and God; satisfaction of God’s wrath against the sin of the world; and, victory over the demonic realm, death, and hell. With all this incredible work of restoration and renewal, fear and worry take a back seat. Courage and confidence take the wheel.

Merciful Jesus, you are my guide, the joy of my heart, the author of my hope, and the object of my love. I come seeking refreshment and peace. Show me your mercy, relieve my fears and anxieties, and grant me a quiet mind and an expectant heart, that by the assurance of your presence I may learn to abide in you, who is my Lord and my God. Amen.

John 12:44-50 – Christ’s Philosophy of Ministry

Jesus teaching
“Sermon on the Mount” by Laura James

In a loud voice Jesus said:

Everyone who has faith in me also has faith in the one who sent me. And everyone who has seen me has seen the one who sent me. I am the light that has come into the world. No one who has faith in me will stay in the dark.

I am not the one who will judge those who refuse to obey my teachings. I came to save the people of this world, not to be their judge. But everyone who rejects me, and my teachings will be judged on the last day by what I have said. I do not speak on my own. I say only what the Father who sent me has told me to say. I know that his commands will bring eternal life. That is why I tell you exactly what the Father has told me. (CEV)

Everybody has a philosophy of ministry of how to proceed with the actual doing of Christian works and service to others. We might think of philosophy as a theory about how to gain knowledge and what we are supposed to do with the knowledge we possess. We all have philosophies, even if they are not written down for others to see.

Ponder the thought that Jesus had a philosophy of ministry… which he did.  If Christ’s words carry a lot of weight for us, then perhaps he articulated what he believes about the nature of knowledge; what to do with that knowledge; and, how to handle humanity. Contained within today’s Gospel lesson is the heart of Christ’s philosophical (and thus practical) approach.

Here are several observations about Christ’s philosophy of ministry:

  1. True faith is Trinitarian faith.
  2. Jesus came to dispel darkness by deposing its ruler.
  3. Jesus did not come to nit-pick, harangue, or reject people.
  4. Jesus came to save the world.
  5. Jesus has the authority to save the world.
  6. Belief in Jesus brings deliverance from sin, death, and hell.

Yes, there is a Day of Judgment coming – but that day is not today. Today is the day of salvation, of availing oneself of the opportunity to discover the life, teaching, claims, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Jesus has declared (in a loud voice so we can hear him) that he is the light of the world, the path to God, the Savior of humanity. Those are some very audacious assertions! So, before tomorrow comes, we need to consider the claims of Christ today.

Those whose philosophies include generous portions of people-pleasing and posturing for people-praise will not be judged or rejected by Jesus today (and, so, ought not to be rejected by us, as well!) but will be judged by the words and message of Jesus on the Last Day. According to this philosophy of ministry, there is neither a precedent nor a need to step in and (attempt) to do the Spirit’s work. Rather, we place our faith in Jesus and allow that belief to shape our conversations and interactions with others.  A Christian philosophy of ministry does not need to be complex; it just needs to be Christ-centered.

Great God of deliverance, thank you that you sent your Son, Jesus, to save people from their sins.  I believe in you and what you did and what you stand for.  Each time I open my mouth, may you form my words so that they are not judgmental, but helpful in bringing others to realize life-giving faith through the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.