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

1 Peter 4:7-19 – Show Hospitality without Grumbling

The end of all things is near. Therefore, be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice, inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And,

“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

So then, those who suffer according to God’s will, should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. (New International Version)

“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”

Henri Nouwen

One of the most practical and biblical ways of demonstrating love is through hospitality. Hospitality, at its heart, is an invitation to come into my home and into my life. It is a ministry of acceptance, encouragement, restoration, and healing.  The loving work of hospitality “covers a multitude of sins” through the power of influence. When we have face-to-face conversations around the table, it prevents us from engaging in sins that would otherwise be committed if left to ourselves.

Because the end of all things is near, we need our wits about us through a determined focus on prayer, love, and hospitality. The word “hospitality” literally means, “love of the stranger.” I invite someone whom I do not know very well into my home and befriend them. This is what Jesus did for us. Although we were all estranged from God and on the outside, Jesus came to eat with us.

“Listen! I stand at the door and knock; if any hear my voice and open the door, I will come into their house and eat with them, and they will eat with me.” (Revelation 3:20, GNT)

Jesus invites us into the life of God. We are to invite others into our lives. Jesus has so closely identified with his people that when we practice hospitality, we are inviting Jesus in. In fact, we may not realize that some people we host are angels: 

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2, NIV)

Inviting another person into my home and heart takes time and effort. It may even create some suffering. Doing it without grumbling is a necessity. In an ideal world we always receive something back for our work of hospitality – an invitation from the other person, or, at least, a simple thank you. That does not always happen and cannot be the driving reason why we are generous.

Hospitality is a work of love which originates from a heart touched by the hospitality of God. Our earthly hospitality is a form of saying “thank you” to God for his grace to us. Complaints break into the house like unwanted burglars when we expect to receive, and do not. If you receive another person as though they were Christ himself, grumbling will likely be far from you. Instead, there will be rejoicing over the opportunity to serve Jesus.

Jesus said, “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me. And anyone who welcomes me also welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40, CEV)

In the New Testament world, a concrete expression of love to other believers in Jesus was providing food and shelter for Christians traveling throughout the Roman Empire. Often, the traveling strangers were itinerant evangelists spreading the message of the gospel from place to place. 

Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth. (3 John 5-8, NIV)

At other times, believers were deprived of necessities due to occasional waves of persecution. The people Peter addressed were mostly Jewish Christians. As they faced persecution in Jerusalem, they fled to geographical places dominated by pagan Gentiles. As refugees, they were often poor and needy. The townspeople where they went were not hospitable. So, they had to rely on the love and hospitality of those believers they could connect with who had the means to help.

Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. (Romans 12:13, CEB) 

There is a great need for hospitality in our world.  Many American’s circle of friends is shrinking. According to one study the number of people who said they had no one to talk to about important matters has more than doubled in the past 10 years. 35 million Americans now live alone (which is 28% of all households). 

Hospitality cuts both ways for us. We are to invite the lonely into our hearts and homes; and the lonely are to invite others into their hearts and homes, instead of waiting for somebody to just show up.

Food is to hospitality what weightlifting is to bodybuilders; you really need food, meals, and the sharing that goes with it to make a difference in another’s life. In biblical times, eating a meal together was a sacred affair.  To have another person in your house, sitting around your table, communicated acceptance, care, and friendship. That is why the religious leaders had such difficulty with Jesus eating with “sinners.” Jesus was unequivocally loving and accepting of such persons.

No matter our gifts and abilities, each one of us can be hospitable. Something mystical happens at a dinner table that does not happen anywhere else – it opens the door to true community.

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28, NRSV)

For the Christian, eating and ingesting bread and wine serves as a tangible way of understanding what life is to be like. We take Jesus into the depths of our lives. We ingest him, that is, we engage in an intimate relationship whereby the two of us can never be separated.

We are meant for life together, to enjoy eating and drinking together. True life is sharing both our resources and our hearts with one another. 

Loving God, thank you for your generosity. I am a stranger in this world, yet you invite me to be your guest. You lavishly offer me your hospitality and welcome me into your family. You invite me to share in the abundance of your kingdom. Help me remember that when I offer hospitality to others, I am receiving Christ into my home. Gracious God, I open my heart to those who are wounded; those who have wounded me; those who are outcasts; and to all who are searching. I want my everyday ordinary life to please you. I am grateful that there is always room at your Table, through Jesus, my Lord. Amen.

Philippians 2:12-18 – Think of the Needs of the Group

Photo by Ingo Joseph on Pexels.com

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act to fulfill his good purpose.

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So, you too should be glad and rejoice with me. (NIV)

Here is what I would like you to do. Go back and read these verses for today….

Now, I want you to read them again, but with this understanding: Every pronoun in the verses is plural, not singular….

Did that last reading make a difference for you? You see, we all tend to read with certain lenses. Reading with American glasses usually means we read such biblical passages, like our New Testament lesson today, with individualist lenses. But this would be a misreading of the text.

These words from Holy Scripture are directed at the community. They are meant to be read with a collective understanding. So, when the Apostle Paul told the Philippian church to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” he wasn’t aiming it toward individual persons. He meant everyone together was to help one another live out their common salvation. In other words, deliverance is more than an individual affair – it is also a communal concern.

This also shapes how we understand the admonition to do everything without being a grump and a complainer. The community works together to encourage each other and weeds out all arguing and bickering. Practically speaking, no one individual is going to get over being a crotchety curmudgeon without the help of the group. Since people are hard-wired by God for community, always trying to be radically independent will almost always end in being a faultfinder and bellyacher.

Group work is human work, and vice versa.

Interdependence with others is the proper road to travel, without veering into either ditch of independence or dependence. Community dynamics are necessary to life. Mutual giving and receiving are a must. Both sharing and accepting need to occur for any sort of relational health.

The reason the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Philippian Church was because they weren’t getting along, weren’t playing well with others. Christianity is a team sport. Everyone must work together, even when it comes to salvation. Deliverance from sin, death, and hell – salvation from guilt, shame, disconnection, and relational separation from both God and others – is a matter for the collective community. That’s why no one is baptized alone or observes the Lord’s Table all by themselves.

Today’s New Testament lesson is not a text dealing with individual salvation but is an ethical text dealing with the outworking of salvation in the believing community for the sake of the world. Paul’s present concern was with a group of believers being God’s people. Individuals were to stop their selfish in-fighting and get along with each other.

To do that, the entire group was to set aside selfish ambition and put the concerns of others ahead of their own personal agendas. Everyone is to think of the needs of the group. When we do that, we then discern that murmuring and grumbling are simply not helpful. And, what’s more, such an attitude can damage, even destroy a group through bitterness resulting in gangrene of the church body.

Instead, we are to be blameless and pure in all our dealings with one another. Here are a few basic ways this communal concern works itself out practically:

  • No one cries alone.
  • No one suffers in silence.
  • No one falls through the cracks.
  • There is always someone present to share joy with.
  • There is always someone around to hear your story.
  • There is always somebody there to pick you up.

When such a dynamic dominates any group, then it will be hard to find any grumblers, any sort of in-fighting, and little discontent. Rather, there is a great deal of carrying one another’s burdens, a lack of judgment toward others, and a settled hope that, even though the world might be going to hell in a handbasket, we will be okay because we have each other.

So then, the church is to be an inclusive community, inviting persons into a hospitable space of care and support. Church as factory cannot do this. Church made up of special interest groups is not able to do this. Church as simply a Sunday affair will never get it done.

However, Church poured out as an offering to the world will get it right. Church as oriented toward faithful service for the common good of all has it. Church as the community of the redeemed, living out their faith together as one people of God cannot be stopped or restrained from blessing the entire planet.

Do you want to go it alone? That is what Satan did, and it hasn’t worked out so well for us.

Will you think of the needs of the group? That is what Jesus did, and it resulted in our salvation.

We are to work out that salvation, together, so that our collective faith is strengthened, and the world is delivered from its great loneliness. So, put your best foot forward and think of the needs of the group.

Holy God, we your people come with deep gratitude for our common call as believers for the life of your big world. Draw us into communion with you and all creation. Living with intentional awareness and openness to change, we seek to expand the expression of our collective obedience to the mission of Jesus to love God and neighbor, inviting others to walk with us in sharing our gifts. Free our hearts to recognize and attend to Christ in hidden and unexpected places. We renounce and reject societal barriers created by the misuse of power and authority by selfish individuals. Transform us to listen deeply to one another and to the brokenness of the world. Bless our efforts to be the change we want to see in the world, through the enablement of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Matthew 12:46-50 – Family

En la Cena ecológica del Reino (At the Ecological Kingdom Dinner) by Spanish artist Cerezo Barredo

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (NIV)

Jesus obviously did not get the memo that blood is thicker than water. When his own blood family were waiting outside for him, Jesus used the occasion to speak of what makes up a true follower of God. Christ boldly asserted that his true family is made up of people who do God’s will.  By saying this, Jesus brought the point home that the kingdom of God turns on obedience.

Rather than solely confessing belief, or appealing to a family heritage of faith, Jesus said that a genuine believer in God is one who listens to God’s words and then promptly obeys them. Therefore, a Christian is defined by allegiance to Jesus, and not by having a certain bloodline. 

Identity determines activity. For example, if I identify myself primarily as a worker at my job, my activity will show it – I will spend long hours at my labor, and will do whatever it takes to please my boss and gain promotions. If I identify myself primarily as an athlete, I will spend long hours honing my skills, and do whatever it takes to please the coach and to win. If my identity is mostly wrapped around being a husband and father, I will focus most of my attention on my family and seek to please my spouse and children in all things. 

If my identity is first and foremost as a Christian, I will always seek to please Jesus. I will then view my job as an opportunity to express the ethics of God’s kingdom, as a calling from God, and as a means for God to transform me for his glory. I will view athletics as means to glorify God, and not as an end in and of itself but as a special gift for God to teach me about the importance of community and working together. 

If my identity is clearly in Christ, I will view my kids as belonging to God and I will steward the trust of children given me by doing whatever it takes to teach and train them in the way of Jesus. I will thank God for my family and not confuse them with being God by idolizing them.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus was inside a house, with his family on the outside. So, why were the family members of Jesus not inside the house sitting at his feet, taking the posture of a disciple? The disciple Matthew wanted to communicate more than physical distance between Jesus and his physical family – being “outside” was meant to convey the posture of Christ’s family as spiritually distant, skeptical of him, and indecisive about who he was and what he was up to. In fact, the disciple Mark made this spiritual and emotional distance clear:

Jesus entered a house. A crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him and his followers even to eat. When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, “He’s out of his mind!” (Mark 3:20-21, CEB)

Christ’s earthly family were not looking for Jesus to give them warm-fuzzies and have a family group hug. They were there to tell him: “Cut it out, Jesus, because you’re acting like a nut-cake and embarrassing us all!” The kid brothers of Jesus (James and Jude) would go on to become powerful Christian preachers and each pen a New Testament letter, but that does not happen till after Jesus’ resurrection.

Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of Christ and his disciples

Jesus was saying that identifying only with a biological family leads to only pleasing that family. However, identifying with Jesus leads to a radical form of following God that seeks to please him instead of submitting to family practices, mores, and beliefs which are inconsistent with the kingdom of God. 

For the follower of Christ, the church is the family of God, and we are to act consistent with being in such a family.  We are to go hard after God’s will, serve one another, and adopt outsiders into our family.  The church is a family, not a restaurant.  When we go to a restaurant, we either like the food and the service, or not. If the experience was unpleasant, we might complain to the waitress and may or may not come back.  Try doing that with your mother and see where it gets you!  As a biological family, we are committed to each other. There is no complaining about mom because of dad’s wrath. Instead, we are expected to clear our plates and put them in the dishwasher, to sweep the floor and clean the table, and to work together for the benefit of the entire family.  In the same way, following Jesus means being committed to his family, the church.

Priority is to be given in doing God’s will, regardless of blood, because obedience to Christ identifies us as being in the family of God.  Our actions and the way we live points to what we honestly believe and where our commitments truly lie. 

The first step of God’s desire for us is quality focused time in sitting at Christ’s feet and listening to him because this is at the heart of all Christian discipleship. We cannot do God’s will until we have clearly heard it; and we cannot hear God’s will unless we take the time to be at the feet of Jesus. 

Both listening and doing are necessary.  Listening without engaging the world is a failure of mission; and doing without first listening leads to misguided acts and eventual burn-out. Allow Jesus to call the shots and let him instruct us so that we can act wisely and obediently. 

Jesus did not devalue blood relatives as irrelevant. Rather, Christ emphasized that our primary allegiance is to him, and not to our biological family.  The kingdom of God seeks to restore and redeem all things, including family. Both church and family are important. The relationships within each are to be nurtured.

The family of Jesus, the church, is important because Christ suffered and died for her. So, we are to be committed to the church, love the church, and serve the church because we are family. If we have a good grasp of this, we will make decisions based in what we believe God’s will is, instead of whether a relative will get upset, or not. 

Our biological families are important.  Jesus never pitted one against the other, because he wants to see families redeemed and work together as the family of God. Every Christian family can do this:

  • Appoint a time to read Scripture together and listen to Jesus and discuss it.
  • Show hospitality so that we can eat and drink our way into the kingdom of God. 

We need to persistently pray for spiritually lost family members, and those whom we are estranged from. Most families have at least a few toxic persons in their orbit. Here is how we might pray for them:

  • That God will arrange divine appointments between them and other believers who love Jesus.
  • That God will draw them to the mercy of Christ.
  • That God will hinder the devil’s schemes against them.
  • That they will understand and respond to the good news of God’s grace.

Soli Deo Gloria