John 4:31-38 – Real Food

Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus, the saying ‘One sows, and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (New International Version)

Today’s Gospel narrative reads something like the stereotypical mother concerned for her son saying, “Sit down and eat some of Mama’s pasta. You need some food!” As if preparing and serving a meal will make everything better.

Food has both the power to bring us together, as well as separate us. A meal can create the conditions for fellowship, acceptance, and enjoyment. Eating can bond people together through hospitable love. On the other hand, sitting down to eat can also be a way to avoid painful emotions. In this manner, eating becomes an obstacle to giving and receiving love.

It seems Christ’s disciples were doing the latter. They were uncomfortable and perhaps a bit stressed. Looking to fill up with food instead of with God, the disciples’ sense of unfulfillment was coming out sideways by opening the refrigerator, poking through the meager leftovers, and putting the emphasis on feeling better.

I know we can be hard on the disciples in the Gospels. Their ups and downs from faith to fear and back to faith again can be weird. Yet, through it all, I believe their hearts (excepting Judas Iscariot) were in the right place.

Jesus could see through the entire scenario and put the focus off eating. He addressed the disciples’ soul hunger through putting the spotlight on doing the will of God. Deep within they were hungering and thirsting for righteousness.

Paying attention to our vocation and discovering our humble work in the service of God, rather than a vacation to the pantry to cover our unwanted feelings, is the essence of Christ’s interaction with his disciples.

People are much more ready for the gospel of Jesus than we think. There are times we can become so insular, and lost within our own heads, that we are then unable to see the world as ripe for a harvest of people who are actually eager to be gathered into the community of the redeemed.

Jesus just had a significant interaction with the Samaritan woman. Back in that day, you just didn’t have dialogues with half-breed Samaritans – an unholy mix of Jewish and hated ancient Assyrian Gentile blood – let alone a man talking with a woman of disrepute who experienced several failed marriages.

Christ had a way of doing the will of God, despite conventional thinking of the time. And a lot of people got their undies in a bundle from it. The disciples, having a front seat to most of Christ’s shenanigans, did a few too many palms to the forehead, believing their Rabbi’s un-orthopraxis was going to make him unpopular. They feared no one would follow him.

Looks like the disciples didn’t quite get that one right.

The Samaritan woman received Jesus as Living Water, having her ultimate needs met by the penultimate Lord of all. The disciples hadn’t quite caught up to this, so fell back on their old ways of physical food and drink to assuage the weirdness happening inside them.

The woman was gushing over with Living Water, becoming a wellspring of good news to her community. Whereas the disciples (eventually becoming an incredible fountain of the gospel after Christ’s death and resurrection) are here nothing but an annoying drip from the kitchen faucet.

A non-descript ethnically suspect woman of dubious character coming to faith was meant by Jesus to open the disciples’ eyes to a new reality: The good news of Christ is meant for the world, not just Jewish men.

The disciples were given the opportunity to participate in the world’s takeover – a mission of bringing the love of God where love wasn’t present, of helping all kinds of people awaken to the deep spirituality within them, of lifting their downcast faces of guilt and shame to see the Living God wanting to bless the world with the body and blood of Jesus.

For this is real food and real drink.

Many believers in Jesus today think they are working hard for the Lord by seeking people for their churches. Yet, the real work is being done by the triune God – the heavenly Father who scans the world and seeks spiritual misfits to bless; the gracious and truthful Son who put hands and feet to that blessing; and the wild Holy Spirit who moves in unpredictable ways – are working infinitely harder for our churches, our families, our neighborhoods, and our world.

All of our work, no matter how big or small, is made possible by the pre-work of the Holy Trinity. The great Three-in-One has done all the preparations of chopping the onions, mincing the garlic, slicing the carrots, and peeling the potatoes so that we, his followers, can make a savory stew of diverse people sharing a common pot of God’s love and hospitality.

This is the food we know nothing about, and that God knows intimately.

O God, you made us in your own image, and you have redeemed us through your Son Jesus Christ: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

*Above painting: Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of the Last Supper

Acts 17:16-31 – How to Effectively Communicate

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So, he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are deeply religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So, you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore, since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (New International Version)

“Focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging,”

Marshall Rosenberg

The city of Athens was a major intellectual center in the ancient world. Ideas, philosophy, reason, rhetoric, and debate were standard fare amongst the citizens. At the time of the Apostle Paul’s arrival in the city, Greece knew next to nothing about Christianity. Paul’s response to what he saw and felt, dictated what he did and said; it was both wise and deeply impactful to the people of Athens. It’s almost akin to a seminar in how to communicate with folks who believe and live very differently than ourselves.

Observation

Paul entered the city and made a simple observation: Athens is full of idols. Out of all the observations Paul could have made, this one would not likely be made by most people visiting the city. Athens was a glorious place with its unparalleled architecture. The Acropolis and the Agora were resplendent with the arts and democracy.

For all its physical beauty and brilliance, the one thing Paul homed-in on was the idols. This would have struck many folks as odd – something like focusing on the dog collar instead of the dog. Yet, Paul was using more than his physical eyes – his spiritual sight was making a big observation – that Athens was very much a religious place.

Feeling

The Apostle felt upset and distressed. Paul was disturbed down deep in his gut with the spiritual state of this renowned city-state. The sheer volume of idols and the practice of idolatry created an overwhelming sense of both pity and anger.

Paul handled his emotions well. By freely acknowledging them, he was then able to choose his response. Had he not done so, it is likely Paul might have just gone on some frustrating tirade, thereby never truly connecting relationally with the people. There’s nothing wrong with being irritated or exasperated; its what we do with those feelings which are important.

Need

It is our emotions, not our thoughts, which move us to act. Paul knew why he was feeling disturbed and decided not to stuff those feelings but step out and address the great need he was observing. He decided to meet the Athenians on their turf and on their level by reasoning with them every day in the great buildings and open spaces of the city.

While in Athens, it seems Paul understandably utilized the Socratic method of dialogue – involving questions and answers. Its impressive that throughout the Acts of the Apostles, Paul demonstrated a deft ability to communicate and connect with a broad range of people.

Appeal

Paul wasn’t interacting and dialoging just for the fun of it; he wanted to make an appeal, a request to seriously consider the Christian good news of Jesus Christ’s resurrection as a viable philosophy of life. He made his appeal with Jews, Greeks, and passers-by, as well as philosophers.

Since the massive intellect of Paul could handle any reasoned debate, he was invited to the Areopagus, which was the place where the best-of-the-best carried-on their discussions.

Paul’s address to them was incredibly cogent and well-reasoned – finding common ground from which to debate and maintaining outward grace amidst his inward disturbance.

Conclusion

The late British exegete, John R.W. Stott, reflected on today’s New Testament lesson and gave us words which are still relevant:

“Why is it that, in spite of the great needs and opportunities of our day, the church slumbers peacefully on, and that so many Christians are deaf to Christ’s commission, and dumb with tongues-tied in testimony? The major reason is this: We do not speak as Paul spoke because we do not feel as Paul felt. We have never had his indignation. Divine jealousy has not stirred within us. We constantly pray, ‘Hallowed be Thy Name,’ yet we do not seem to mean it… Paul saw people created in the image and likeness of God giving to idols the homage which was due to God alone… and he was deeply pained by it.”

John R.W. Stott

May the good news be so pressed into our minds, hearts, and guts that what comes out of us is deep compassion, wise dialogue, and effective ministry for the sake of our Lord. Amen.

*Above picture: ruins of the Greek Acropolis in Athens where the Apostle Paul addressed the Areopagus.

John 16:16-24 – There Must Be Suffering Before Glory

Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”

At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”

Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born, she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So, with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. (New International Version)

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come with patience and equanimity.”

Carl Jung

An Unpopular Message

Jesus often said things that were neither expected nor wanted. Jesus consistently told his disciples there must be suffering before glory. The disciples either could not or would not hear of it. They didn’t sign up to follow Jesus into suffering! Trying to get people to pay attention to suffering is like trying to get a bunch of Baptists to put their names down on a sign-up sheet at church.

Christ was speaking to his disciples in the Upper Room, the last meal he had with them before his death. When they were called by Jesus three years earlier, the disciples were not expecting all the gibberish about leaving and grieving. To put this in contemporary terms, the disciples’ response was akin to saying, “I only think positive. I don’t listen to things that are negative.”

Suffering, death, and grief were far from the disciples’ expectations of how things would and should shake-out. They had such a hard time understanding what the heck Jesus was saying because his words were out of alignment with their assumptions. Yes, there would be glory and joy. First, however, there must be suffering and grief.

A Real Message

Just as a woman experiences terrible pain in childbirth, then ecstatic joy over seeing her child for the first time, so the Christian’s excruciating pain in this life points to the inevitable joy at the end of that suffering. In the scope of eternity, adversity and pain last only a moment. Glorious joy, however, will be forever.

In talking with his disciples about their disappointment, even depression, about Christ’s words of leaving and grieving, Jesus graciously gave them the gift of joy. Yes, there can be and is joy even in the mourning. Not every story has a happy ending.

I can say, however, that the grandest story of all – Jesus Christ’s suffering and death – has resulted in resurrection and ascension. It will all be complete when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Then, the grand narrative of redemption will realize its conclusion of no more crying, tears, or pain. There will be only unending joy.

For now, however, we still experience heartache along with the great joy of resurrection and new life. It can be confusing, living in the awkward state of simultaneous grief and joy. Yet, keep in mind, the grief is temporary. The despair will not last. Joy, on the other hand, has staying power and will be the permanent state of the believer. It is only the smaller stories which may or may not end well. The big story of redemption already has the ending written – joy without grief.

A Good Message

Christians serve a risen and ascended Lord. Therefore, we need not wait to be happy, and we need not expect everything must go our way. The good news is that there are always fresh opportunities to be happy through asking and receiving. Imagine a Partridge Family sort of bus coming around to all the bus stops of life. Happy times and music arrive around the clock. Chances are the opportunity to be happy has already arrived. Often, it is right in front of us; we just missed the bus because we were daydreaming about a future state of joy.

We are living days of constant change followed by ever new normal. Just as there was no going back to a three-year hiatus of walking with Jesus for the disciples, so we need to embrace new and different ways of life together here on planet earth. We have the gift of joy. Its just a matter of unpacking it.

Now to him who can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

1 Timothy 6:11-12 – How to Fight the Good Fight

But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so, run from all these evil things [the love of money]. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight for the true faith. Hold tightly to the eternal life to which God has called you, which you have declared so well before many witnesses. (New Living Translation)

Today’s New Testament lesson is a pertinent message for contemporary Christians. These verses come as the conclusion to the Apostle Paul’s letter to a young pastor in Ephesus, Timothy. The epistle is filled with encouragements, exhortations, and warnings of how to go about conducting ministry. 

Paul left Timothy with some pointed instruction to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness. These are the qualities which ought to inform every practice in the church and the Christian life. 

The Apostle gave Timothy a sacred trust, to hold tightly and guard the message of faith in Christ given to him. This good news of forgiveness and grace leading to eternal life through Jesus must be continually upheld. Because there will always be other individuals and groups distorting and diluting this wondrous salvation.

Two Exhortations

These two exhortations – pursuit of a godly life and grabbing hold of Christian good news – needs to be always held together. To only pursue virtuous practices apart from grasping the message will cause slow erosion and compromise the faith entrusted to us. To only embrace the gospel without trying our best to live a virtuous life will lead to ornery and combative attitudes, as well as behavior which undermines the very gospel we seek to uphold.

So, then, competing in the arena of spiritual warfare is useless without knowing why we are in that arena to begin with. We are striving for the hearts, minds, and souls of people who need the life-giving message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. We are to carefully apply the poultice of grace to the incredible need of the world’s people, using all the virtues of righteousness and godliness at our disposal. 

Badgering, bullying, and bludgeoning people with the truth are unbiblical because it ignores the virtuous practices integral to our faith. On the other hand, loving others without careful proclamation of the gospel misses a central thrust of Paul’s letter to Timothy.

Ensure you are putting your energy into the right things. Uphold the faith delivered to us through sacred Scripture. Use love and gentleness in everything said and done. Seek after righteousness and godliness. Clutch eternal life and hold it tightly. With both hands, uphold the sanctity of the Christian message through the sacredness of holy living. We are to pursue the following:

Righteousness and Godliness

Being right with God comes through the justifying work of Jesus. This right standing then is to work out itself in practical daily living. We are to strive toward having right relationships with others.

Once you’re convinced that Christ is right and righteous, you’ll recognize that all who practice righteousness are God’s true children. (1 John 2:29, MSG)

Desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. (Matthew 6:33, CEB)

Like righteousness, godliness is given to us so that we are viewed as godly. Yet, living a godly life is a skill which requires much training. Since God is One and Love, so we are to work at unity and loving others with the divine power given to us.

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. (2 Peter 1:3, NLT)

Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:7-8, NRSV)

Faith and Love

Faith is also a gift of God. Once given, we are to hold onto it, lean into it, and rely on it throughout our lives. We pursue our faith through being above board on all things and listening to our inward conscience, even and especially when outward circumstances are troublesome.

Love is the actionable means of meeting another’s needs. Armed with a robust faith in God, we are to confidently love the world, knowing the Lord has our back.

Cling to your faith in Christ and keep your conscience clear. For some people have deliberately violated their consciences; as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked. (1 Timothy 1:19, NLT)

What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. (2 Timothy 1:13-14, NIV)

Perseverance and Gentleness

We contend for the faith delivered to us by having the long view of Christianity and the Christian life. A daily walk of faith is rarely glamourous. The growth of our spirits and the construction of our souls is tedious and patient work. It requires a great deal of endurance.

Do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,

“In just a little while,
    he who is coming will come
    and will not delay.”

And “But my righteous one will live by faith. (Hebrews 10:35-38, NIV)

The practical working of perseverance in one’s life is marked by gentleness. When we take the long view, we can be gentle, not rushing or hurrying people to be godly beyond their own personal growth capacity.

Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. (Philippians 4:5, CEB)

Holding tight to the gospel message is a very practical affair. It isn’t an abstract doctrinal or dogmatic defense but a righteous, godly, believing, loving, enduring, and gentle application of truth in daily life.

King Jesus, Lord of all, help me to keep your commandments in ways consistent with the gospel of grace so that your church is encouraged, and your world is blessed with both the message and the medium. Amen.