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

Colossians 3:12-17 – Wear the Right Clothes

God loves you and has chosen you as his own special people. So be gentle, kind, humble, meek, and patient. Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together.

Each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace. So let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts. And be grateful. Let the message about Christ completely fill your lives, while you use all your wisdom to teach and instruct each other. With thankful hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. Whatever you say or do should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, as you give thanks to God the Father because of him. (Contemporary English Version)

New life is fantastic!… Until it isn’t.

Like a new car eventually losing its new car smell, so it is quite easy for the Christian to experience the mountaintop of transformation, only to lug back down and walk through the boring old valley.

And it’s fun to have a new set of clothes… until they wear out, go out of style, or fall apart in the washing machine. the thing about those new clothes we were so excited about when we got them is that they are wearing out.

When I was eight-years-old (a long time ago!) I still remember my favorite pair of jeans. I wore them every day. My Mom had to order me to take them off so she could wash them. Finally, after having several patches sewn on them, having grown too much, and with the material so thin you could see through them in places, that old ratty pair of jeans actually just fell off my body in a heap, as if to say, “Enough is enough, boy!”

Our nice white spiritual clothes, given to us through Christ’s resurrection, are to be our favorites. We need to clothe ourselves in them every day.

Because of Christ’s redemptive events of crucifixion and resurrection, believers can experience new life, free from sin, death, and hell.  Oh, it isn’t that we never need to deal with evil; we very much do. The difference is that we now have a new awareness of our spirituality.  And with awareness comes choices. 

If we aren’t aware of our feelings, our spirit, and/or old nature, well, then, it’s as if we operate on auto-pilot – losing altitude in an immanent descent into tragedy. When we are aware of our inner selves, then we mindfully ascend through the clouds to join Christ.

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Ephesians 4:22-24, NIV

We can make choices about what to wear. With awareness, we look in the mirror and see that the grave clothes need to come off. The old raggedy garments of pride and hubris, greed and immorality, selfish lust, jealous envy, spiritual gluttony, unholy anger, and complacency get taken off and tossed in the garbage. 

We then go to God’s expansive walk-in closet and choose the bright raiment of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and grab the beautiful coat of love which covers it all with such dignity and honor.

It would be super weird to try and put the new clothes over the old raggedy grave clothes. That’s not only gross, but it’s also downright wrongheaded. Practical Christianity always involves two actions: taking-off and putting-on. 

“No one cuts up a fine silk scarf to patch old work clothes; you want fabrics that match. And you don’t put your wine in cracked bottles.”

Matthew 9:16-17, MSG

Human willpower and/or ingenuity tries to live a virtuous life while ignoring the vices. This will not do for the Christian. The endearing qualities we so desire to possess cannot be obtained without first dealing with the crud of sin which clings to us like so many stinky dirty clothes. To put this in theological terms: the cross and resurrection go together. Sin must be put to death before a victorious life is put on.

Once we have acknowledged sin, let Christ take it all off, and put on the new clothes. Then we’re ready to hit the town in style!  We walk out the door with a tremendous sense of peace, knowing God in Christ has cleaned us up.  We stroll into the world with lips whistling and a song in our hearts – singing with gratitude for what the risen Christ has accomplished on our behalf. 

After all, we just put on expensive clothes and it didn’t cost us a dime.  In fact, we’re so darned thankful that we don’t just talk to others, we sing our words to them – even though we can’t carry a tune.  It doesn’t matter.  Our coat of love compels us.

Almighty and everlasting God, you willed that our Savior should take upon him our clothing of death upon the cross so that all humanity would have the privilege of wearing humility, gratitude, and love. Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of Christ’s life, and also be made aware of our participation in his glorious resurrection, in the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Matthew 8:18-22 – The Path of Christian Discipleship

When Jesus saw that a curious crowd was growing by the minute, he told his disciples to get him out of there to the other side of the lake. As they left, a religion scholar asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said.

Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”

Another follower said, “Master, excuse me for a couple of days, please. I have my father’s funeral to take care of.”

Jesus refused. “First things first. Your business is life, not death. Follow me. Pursue life.” (The Message)

Count the cost. Realize what it will take. Have some understanding of the time, energy, and resources needed. Discern the kind of commitment which is before you. It’s a matter of life and death, of spiritual survival.

If you had to carry everything you needed in a backpack, what would you put into it?

First off, for me and most people, that means identifying the barest essentials. It would likely take a long time to think simplistically about what is most important for survival. A lot of things would get left behind. And many items would gain greater attention and appreciation.

We would need some small basic tools including: a multi-tool with a knife and pliers; a source of illumination, like a flashlight and extra batteries; duct tape; rope; fishing line; a way of starting fire; a pot, pan, and mug; first-aid kit; emergency poncho; and just a few extra items of clothing.

If we were to live out of a backpack, it would very much change our lifestyle. And that is the point Jesus was trying to get across to some individuals who seemed like they couldn’t do that.

Trying to fit an existing life into a brand new life won’t work. It will not fit into the backpack of Christian discipleship.

Instead, we must adjust to a new reality, a completely different way of being.

When my wife and I were raising our girls, those precocious little females brought lots of life to the dinner table each night. There was never a dull moment with them. Today, however, they are all grown with their own families – which means we are empty-nesters.

It would be weird if my wife and I continued to live as if they were home – making large meals, dirtying lots of dishes, and engaging in mock conversations. Rather, although it took a while to get used to, we eventually came to grips with the new reality that our precious girls were grown and no longer living under our roof. And that meant a complete change of lifestyle for us.

A full-orbed Christian spirituality includes both the comfort of Christ to others, and the rugged responsibility to obey the words and ways of Jesus. In other words, the love of Jesus Christ is both tender and tough, at the same time, all the time.

Hurting and healing are both necessary for the follower of Jesus. Hard teachings and uncompromising commands for discipleship from Christ become the pathways of healing.

So, then, to go all out for Christ will involve much difficulty.

Jesus said to his followers, “If any of you want to be my follower, you must stop thinking about yourself and what you want. You must be willing to carry the cross that is given to you for following me. Any of you who try to save the life you have will lose it. But you who give up your life for me will find true life.”

Matthew 16:24-25, ERV

In today’s New Testament lesson, Jesus rather rudely rejected two would-be followers. When it comes to God’s upside-down kingdom, the eager beavers are turned away, and the half-hearted are called.

Jesus wants us, all of us, and not just our dedication. That is the demand of Christian discipleship. Anyone who believes they can remain the same person and simply fit a bit of Jesus into their lives, does not understand the cost of following Christ. The person who thinks it is Christianity’s lucky day when they decide to follow Jesus has not yet grasped what it means to be a Christian.

Whereas the religious scholar’s head was too big to fit through the narrow hole of Christian discipleship, the man who wanted to bury his father was too fainthearted and timid. He wanted to dip his toe in the water, and really had no intention of taking the all out plunge into the pool.

Nobody needs to do something “first” before following Jesus. Essentially, Jesus was neither invited nor welcome to the funeral. And Christ will have nothing to do with people picking and choosing which areas of their lives he will be invited into. It’s either a wholesale welcome or no welcome, at all.

When Jesus knocks on the door, he wants to be invited into the entire house, not just the foyer.

For Jesus, following him isn’t easy. The world is full of spiritual zombies, the walking dead. This old fallen world needs Christian disciples who will follow Jesus anywhere – into the hard places and rough terrain of engaging the sinful world.

We are meant to wholeheartedly follow Jesus, neither flippantly without counting the cost, nor procrastinating the hard road of Christian discipleship. Christians are to accept and maintain orders of first importance – which means full submission and obedience to Jesus Christ. Anything less is merely a cheap form of following.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross by Isaac Watts

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Where every realm of nature mine
My gift was still be far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Lord, you are all-knowing and full of wisdom. Your plan is masterful. Help me as your disciple to follow you in every thought, word, and deed. Give me a heart of obedience and trust so that I do not get wrapped up in my doubt or what I think is the right choice.

Help me to recognize that your good will does not always look the way I think it should, but that doesn’t make it any less good. I desire to be your disciple and follow you all the days of my life. Please give me the strength to do that. Amen.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 – Speak to the Dry Bones

Sometime later, I felt the Lord’s power take control of me, and his Spirit carried me to a valley full of bones. The Lord showed me all around, and everywhere I looked I saw bones that were dried out. He said, “Ezekiel, son of man, can these bones come back to life?”

I replied, “Lord God, only you can answer that.”

He then told me to say:

Dry bones, listen to what the Lord is saying to you, “I, the Lord God, will put breath in you, and once again you will live. I will wrap you with muscles and skin and breathe life into you. Then you will know that I am the Lord.”

I did what the Lord said, but before I finished speaking, I heard a rattling noise. The bones were coming together! I saw muscles and skin cover the bones, but they had no life in them.

The Lord said:

Ezekiel, now say to the wind, “The Lord God commands you to blow from every direction and to breathe life into these dead bodies, so they can live again.”

As soon as I said this, the wind blew among the bodies, and they came back to life! They all stood up, and there were enough to make a large army.

The Lord said:

Ezekiel, the people of Israel are like dead bones. They complain that they are dried up and that they have no hope for the future. So, tell them, “I, the Lord God, promise to open your graves and set you free. I will bring you back to Israel, and when that happens, you will realize that I am the Lord. My Spirit will give you breath, and you will live again. I will bring you home, and you will know that I have kept my promise. I, the Lord, have spoken.” (Contemporary English Version)

Dry. It might be good for humor or a martini. Dry, however, doesn’t feel good when it is a time of spiritual dryness. In many ways, this past year has been very dry. Quarantine. Masking. Social distance. Lost jobs and businesses. Some churches already dry from withering attendance simply folded and died.

The hard circumstances of our world, stress in our families, and challenging personal lives may easily create anxiety, and, so, parch our souls and leave our spirits bone dry. There is, however, a God who can breathe new life into us and move us from old-worn ruts in our thinking, feeling, and behaving, to renewed ways of being in the world. 

The prophet Ezekiel’s vision is a promise and a hope of resurrection, revival, and new life. Regardless of who we are and the situations in front of us, we are all displaced people – cast out of Eden and in need of restoration.  We, along with the ancient Israelites, are in exile and long to return to our true home with God. Along with St. Augustine we declare:

“Our hearts are forever restless until they find their rest in God.”

St. Augustine

There are dry bones lying around – parched places in need of being reinvigorated. Maybe you are experiencing the dry bones of hopelessness and despondency. Perhaps you are in a dark night of the soul where all of life seems like one huge rut. It could be you are wondering if God is really listening, or is even there at all, because of the dry bones surrounding you.

I do a lot of work as a chaplain on a behavioral health unit with folks who are, ironically, bone dry from too much drinking. Their alcoholism is like a massive desert littered with thousands of dry bones. Attempting to reanimate themselves while dulling the pain of incredibly hard dry circumstances, they drink liter after liter of “spirits” to replace the dead spirit inside them. Many become so dry and dead, inside their immaterial selves, that they seek to end their material lives through suicide.

But it need not be this way. We might believe we will be able to live life and pursue God better without danger or hardship – that somehow difficulty is not to be part of life. The dry bones exist, however, as an opportunity for God to give life. That’s why Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s reaction to his exile in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia was to bless it, because it was there that, he said:

“I discovered that the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but in the development of the soul.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

God not only gives life; God restores life. And this is an important truth to know and remember in the inevitable dry times of our lives. God is not only a helper; the Lord reanimates us from spiritual rigor mortis to lively resurrection through breathing on us. And this is done for a reason. Jesus came to his disciples after his resurrection and said:

“Peace be with you!  As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

John 20:20-21, NIV

God resuscitates us for a purpose, so that we might be a blessing to the world. Faith is not only a possession to keep, but a gift to give. We glorify God in loving one another and loving the world as Jesus did.  God could have resurrected the bones without Ezekiel. Instead, the Lord used Ezekiel and had him participate in the revival by speaking to the bones. 

Such a challenge to speak to the dry bones can seem overwhelming to us. What do you do when your life is upended, even shattered – when such a profound change comes to you that it is impossible for your life to be as it was? 

The questions and commands of God seemed totally absurd to Ezekiel, speaking to dead dry bones. Maybe we ought to operate more in the realm of the absurd than in the realm of the safe routine. Perhaps we ought to expect our faith to be exercised and look for God to breathe new life into the dead and decaying. To believe that something, someone, or even myself can change is to have internalized this amazing story of dry bones living again. 

Our self-imposed graves cannot hold us because God is among us. We need a genuine heaven-sent, Spirit-breathed, glorious reanimation in which God sends reviving grace and raises the dead. 

God Almighty, Lord of Resurrection, be attentive to our prayers. For those whose hope is lost, who feel dried up and cut off from you, open their graves; bring them back to the land of the living. For those who are spiritually oppressed and held captive by the enemy of our souls, release them from their chains; unbind them and let them go! For those who weep, lost and lifeless in a tomb of fear and shame, give them the peace of your presence, and show them what your love can do.

And for those who are complacent, withering on the vine, and living a dull dry existence without any spiritual vigor – awaken them God! Breathe into them new life! Pour out your Spirit gracious God and awaken your people to a revival of obedience, love, and courage. May your people be so full of your Spirit that life comes rolling off our tongues and the strength of life empowers our hands for service. Amen.