BE a neighbor

*Consider the ugly-beautiful story of Sarah and Hagar.

First, the UGLY.

-Sarah, wife of the Jewish patriarch Abraham, has multiple hardships, most of them the result simply of the patriarchal system of her time and place:

  • She’s had to leave her home–twice–and wander for many years as a nomad.
  • One time during her and her husband’s wanderings, Abraham sold her into a king’s harem in order to protect his own skin (he actually did this twice, but the second time happened after the Sarah-Hagar story).
  • Sarah is barren, a mark of deep shame in the Ancient Near East. She is unable to bear her husband the son God has promised to him.

-Sarah, despite her shame and very limited power as a woman, DOES have the authority of being the “owner” of a slave maid named Hagar, and she uses this power to sexually exploit Hagar. She “gives” the slave woman to Abraham with the hope that Hagar will get pregnant and be a surrogate mother.

-Hagar does get pregnant and suddenly realizes she has an advantage over her barren mistress. Hagar, not Sarah, is bearing the master’s child. So Hagar uses her newfound power and lords it over Sarah.

-Sarah, who IS still the mistress, complains to Abraham, and he tells her she can do whatever she wants with Hagar. So Sarah mistreats Hagar to the point that pregnant Hagar runs away.

Now for the BEAUTIFUL!

-God protects both women in this story.

  • He rescued Sarah from the king’s harem (and God will do it again when Abraham “sells” her off a second time), and God eventually names Sarah as a co-partner in the promise of a son–meaning Abraham is no longer free to discard her.
  • God comes to Hagar in the wilderness after she runs away, gives her her own promise of many, many descendants, and tells her she’s carrying a son (a BIG power play card in her relationship with Abraham and Sarah). With this power play card, God sends her back to the safest place possible for a vulnerable, pregnant, unmarried woman. Hagar feels so known by God that she calls God “the God who sees her.”

-God, who is so often named as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, reveals himself to be most assuredly the God of Sarah and Hagar as well. He is well aware of the struggles of their lives. He sees them. He knows their point of view.

One of my favorite lines in To Kill a Mockingbird is a statement lawyer Atticus Finch makes to his young daughter, Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

In the incarnation, God went beyond knowing people’s skins and souls as their Creator. He climbed into humanity’s skin, walked around in it, and considered things from humanity’s point of view. He became well acquainted with all the emotions, all the temptations, and all the struggles that come part and parcel with human skin.

But it’s important to consider the exact skin God put on. It wasn’t skin that would be protected by money or privilege. No. The Son of God put on the vulnerable flesh of the baby of two poor people who had to flee violence in their hometown and live as immigrants in a far-off country. And when he was grown and clearly had the power to control the weather and drive out demons and raise the dead back to life, he hung out not with cultured, authoritative people but with fishermen and tax collectors and women–some of them the lowest of the low. 

The skin God chose was bundled at birth into whatever cloth happened to be at hand.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the poor.

The skin God chose was nearly skewered when it was still infant soft.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the powerless.

The skin God chose was carried off into a foreign country.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the refugee and immigrant.

The skin God chose was shunned by the religious and those highly reputed.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the illegitimate.

The skin God chose grew rough and calloused.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the working poor.

The skin God chose often lay itself down on the ground to sleep at night and at times grew tight over ribs.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the homeless.

The skin God chose was bruised and torn by guards.

Because Christ put on the flesh of prisoners.

The skin God chose was naked in the sight of all.

Because Christ put on the flesh of all those forced to expose themselves to others. 

When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, he did so in response to a question posed by a teacher of the law. The teacher asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turns the question around on him: What does the Law say? How do you read it? The teacher answers well: the way to live eternally with God involves loving God with one’s entire being and one’s neighbor as oneself. But then the teacher follows up with a question of limitation: who is my neighbor? In other words, Who do I HAVE to love? How far does my love have to extend? And Jesus changed tactics; he stopped the back and forth of questioning and told a story instead. The teacher had asked, “Who is MY neighbor; who am I required to love?” Jesus’ story makes that answer clear: it’s everyone. And with that truth set in place, Jesus’ redirects the teacher’s question with a charge: “Go and do as the Samaritan did. Go and love as a neighbor to all people.” 

I know that the status of immigrants coming into this country has become a political issue, but it, in my opinion, should not be primarily a political issue for the church. It is a neighbor issue. And I think we ignore this issue at our peril as followers of Jesus. I think we do damage to the neighbor heart God is planting and expanding within us. I am pretty sure Joseph and Mary didn’t have their papers in order when they entered Egypt, and Jesus doesn’t mention the strangers in Matthew 25 having to present the proper documents in order to be welcomed. And there is no way I can preach on this passage about Hagar without bringing up the current status of undocumented immigrants and refugees in this country. 

Friday night I was at a Lights for Liberty prayer vigil in Humboldt Park, praying for migrants in detention, for separated families, and for people in this country who are facing deportation. It was hosted by a church in Humboldt Park, and we gathered in a fenced-in parking lot next to the church. As I listened to local pastors and a state representative pray and speak, I noticed a sign attached to the fence next to me. It had this picture on it, the picture of Yazmin Juárez with her daughter, Mariee. The two left Guatemala and sought asylum in the U.S. and were held at a detention center in Texas. While there, Mariee became sick. After Yazmin and Mariee were released, Yazmin and her mother took Mariee to a pediatrician, and Mariee was immediately admitted to a nearby hospital and diagnosed with a lung infection. She died in the hospital. Yazmin blames improper medical care, “terrible and inadequate” living conditions, and a culture of neglect at the migrant holding facilities for her daughter’s health.

Yazmin testified before House lawmakers and said, “I am here today because the world needs to know what is going on in ICE detention centers.” 

 As I stood next to the picture and read the brief bio of Yazmin and Mariee, I immediately thought of Hagar–Hagar fleeing with her child in her womb. I knew that God saw Yazmin and Mariee, and I, a follower of God, didn’t have the choice, standing next to their picture on the fence, to not see them as well. God sees each and every person held in a detention center; he collects the tears of every parent and child separated from each other; he hears the whispered prayers of those fearing deportation. 

 Last night our family got food from our favorite taco joint. It’s straight up Laramie Avenue from us, in south Belmont Cragin. Right next to the register was a little stack of cards with a sign. The sign, in Spanish, read, “Know your rights. Take a card.”  The cards have instructions for what to do if ICE comes to the door. 

The student population at the school where my husband teaches is about 60% Latino. At times in the last couple years, the school has had to bring in grief counselors because the stress about deportation among students has spiked so high. People in our communities are afraid. No matter what their U.S. citizenship status is, Jesus calls them our neighbors. Jesus calls US their neighbors. 

 I’m not saying that the story of Hagar and Sarah or the parable of the Good Samaritan or Matthew 25 holds all the answers as to the stance each of us should take on immigration in this country. I know it’s very complex. But these passages reveal the heart and actions of our God, and they give us a charge as to what we are to DO. “Go be a neighbor!” Jesus tells us. And we’d better not be neighbors only to the Abrahams of the world or even to the Sarahs of the world. We are neighbors to the Hagars of the world, to the beat-up stranger on the side of the road, to the despised Samaritan, to the fleeing Josephs and Marys with infants in arms.

God’s tenderness for Hagar is breathtaking, especially when we remember that societies, by and large, have never valued people like Hagar. We still don’t. Hagar is merely one of those peripheral, powerless people who never become anyone “worth” knowing. Yet God sees her, knows her name, and speaks tenderly, personally, and directly to her.

“Which of the three,” Jesus asked, “was a neighbor to the man unseen by people but seen by God?” 

“The one who showed him mercy,” the teacher answered.

And Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” 

*The post is part of a sermon I preached in our church’s Genesis: Stories of Redemption series. The poem in the middle of this post is a revision of a blog I wrote and posted a couple years ago. 


Announcement and teaching

it is wellHi everyone, it’s been awhile since I posted. It’s been a little crazier than usual around here, as our family has been praying about and anticipating a move this summer. The decision was just made final this week, and we’ll be heading just about 25 miles to the east to live in the city limits of Chicago. Specifics beyond that aren’t set (well, other than that husband Dave will be teaching at a charter school downtown–that’s a huge answer to prayer!), but we’re waiting to see how God leads.

In the meantime, I’d like to share a teaching that I gave at our women’s Bible study a couple weeks ago. It was written during one of the most uncertain times of this journey of moving (though I know there are more to come!). I’ve done an audio of it as well; it’s about 25 minutes in length and you can find it just below this paragraph. This is far longer than my usual posts, and I apologize for that.

“I AM the Way”

Our teaching topic today is Jesus’ “I Am the Way” statement. I’ve been thinking about that statement for weeks now, so the collect that was prayed at the beginning of the service this past Sunday jumped out at me. I’d like to pray it over us today as we look at Jesus as the Way for us.

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Before we get into talking ABOUT the passage, let’s read it together. This is John 13:31-14:10, some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples before he was betrayed. (Follow the link above to read the passage on Bible Gateway.)

In John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This morning we’re looking at the first noun in Jesus’ statement: “Jesus is the Way,” and exploring what that means for us, both in terms of salvation but also for our daily lives, for the step-by-step journeys we are all on. I’m “preaching” to myself this morning. That is usually the case when I teach—God always makes it very personal, but this is one that has been intensely applicable to me right now, and I’ve been praying that the journey I’m on and what I’m learning of Jesus being the Way for me in it will be of real use to you as well.

For about a year now, my husband and I have felt a pull to move to the inner city, with my husband sensing a specific draw to urban education. We’ve sought discernment about this urge, we’ve gathered people to pray with us, we’ve gotten counsel, and my husband has applied for a couple of jobs in inner-city Chicago schools. I won’t bore you with the process that has followed, but it has been very much a 3-steps-forward, 2-steps-back kind of journey, and both jobs are still possibilities even though it’s now almost May—and in the educational world, that’s getting late! Meanwhile as I’ve sensed the Lord’s leading, I’ve fought fears of “If this happens, what about school for my kids? Won’t they all have closed their enrollment? What about housing? How will we sell our house and find someplace to live in that short of time? What neighborhood?” It’s gotten to the point that I realize that if God actually opens doors and makes this happen, it truly is miraculous because I’ve got no control over it.

So, with all this swirling around in the background of my life, I began to prepare for this teaching. One of the things we do to prepare is to work our way through a set of pre-sermon questions, and one of the questions is this: “How is this passage supposed to make you feel?”

I laughed out loud when I read that question because, honestly, I identified in many ways with the disciples. I’m asking some questions that sound really similar to theirs. “Where are you leading? What is going on? Is your way for us here or there? Can you please just make the way clear?”

So, just like the disciples in the passage, I was feeling confused. I was identifying more with their feelings than with what Jesus was saying. But then I had to look at the question again, because it doesn’t ask, “How does this passage make you feel?” It hadn’t asked me how I actually felt when reading the passage but instead asked how the passage was supposed to make me feel—and that was entirely different, because the intent of this passage is hope! It’s an incredibly hopeful passage, full of eternal belonging and promises of home.

But I, just like the disciples, needed to see it differently. I needed a different perspective on Jesus being the Way. I needed a different understanding of the way.

We, here in 2016, know that verse 31 is speaking of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection; he’s speaking of our salvation. Then, in verse 33 he is referring to his ascension and in 34 to the new resurrection life his followers will live. These are huge, eternity-changing events!

And after he says all these monumental things, Peter asks, “Where are you going?”

Peter missed the salvation; he missed the new life of love, and he focused on Jesus leaving. I get that! Peter missed all the other stuff because Jesus just said something that threatened Peter’s imagined way of life. “What? You’re leaving? That can’t happen! We’ve got plans! You’re our leader!” Peter, along with probably all the other disciples, had his sights set on something other than God, something other than God’s purposes. They couldn’t see anything other than their own purposes. Peter was still expecting Jesus to establish an earthly kingdom, to restore Israel to glory, and Peter was wanting a significant part in this restoration. Now please understand I’m not putting Peter down for this. He wanted to be Jesus’ right-hand man, the one known for being completely supportive. He wanted to be the rock that Jesus had called him.

None of these things are bad, but they were what Peter wanted. Peter wasn’t asking what God wanted. He wasn’t looking to the Father, as Jesus always was. In chapter 14 we see the same tendencies in Thomas and Philip. Thomas, in verse 5, said, “We don’t know where you’re going.” He, too, has his eyes somewhere OTHER than God. And that’s when Jesus points him—all of them—back to God, telling him that the way Jesus is going is ALWAYS to the Father and then Jesus makes the I Am statement that He is the complete and only way to the Father,

And before I smack my forehead and say, “C’mon, guys, don’t you get it?” I have to realize I do the same thing. I formulate my own plans, and I get my eyes off the Father. I forget that HE is my ultimate goal, my complete belonging. I, too, form a plan that seems right to me, one in which I know my place and feel settled and secure, and when God does something or says something that upsets my plan—or suggests that’s not His plan, then I’m just like Peter. “What?”

And when I do this, it’s like I’m walking through an open field with my eyes on the ground, making my own way—forgetting my way doesn’t lead to the Father. I forget to look up at the Father and keep looking up, so I also forget that in him I am home.

This looking, this Father-gaze—this Father-fixation, you could say—is only possible through Jesus. He made a Way, the only Way possible, between us and the Father. Through his death and resurrection he wiped out all the sin and evil that was between us so we can see the Father and know his loving face and feel his arms around us. So we can know that in the Father’s love, we are home. We belong. In and through Jesus, we are brought to our true home with him and the Father. That home is our ultimate destination.

And this Destination influences the journey to it, and this is another meaning to Jesus being the Way. He is not only the destination, He is the way of the Father. Jesus perfectly lived this way of the Father. He revealed it to us in both his words and actions. In the Gospels, he said, over and over, in many different ways, that his eyes were on the Father. And that determined how he lived. He wasn’t trying to please others or himself—just the Father. And this is the kind of life, the kind of way to which Jesus is referring in John 13:34-35. He tells his disciples—he tells us—Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. Earlier in this chapter he’d given them a very concrete example of this when he washed their feet and told them to do the same. Bishop Stewart spoke of this call to love in the sermon this past Sunday. He told us we are called to choose a life of costly love, sacrificial love—that is the Christian life. That is the life Jesus lived, the life that revealed the Father to us, that showed us the Father’s way. And it is also the life we are to live. We are called to service, to other-focused lives.

And here is where I get a little stuck–in a couple of different ways: first, HOW do I do that? I’m selfish by nature. How do I live a life of sacrificial love when I am unable to do that? Second, how do we know exactly which direction this life of sacrificial life should take? For example, in my particular situation right now, we have a lot of good choices, and all of them—including the choice of staying in our current situation—involve costly love and service. I don’t think there’s ONE right choice. I think God could and would use all of them, but we still are faced with a choice, and that can be overwhelming.

I see this in my head kind of like a Google map with the middle part missing. It’s as if I’m looking at the map, and two dots are flashing on it. One dot is the “You are here” dot; it’s our current location. The other dot is the “destination” dot. The map behind the “You are here” dot is filled in, in a lot of detail. We can look back on our journey and see a few of its twists and turns and kind of how it got us to the point we’re at. The other dot, the destination dot, is labeled “eternal home,” “eternal life with the Father,” and around the dot are all these wonderful descriptors like “full satisfaction in Christ,” “freedom from all selfishness,” “completeness,” “wholeness,” “belonging,” “everlasting peace and love.”

So I have the ultimate destination dot and I have the current location dot, but the map in between isn’t filled in. It’s blank, so I don’t know the path between the two dots.

Now, so far I have talked about two “ways” that Jesus is the Way. The first is that Jesus is our destination, our ultimate home with the Father, and the second is Jesus as our example, showing us the Way of the Father—full of sacrificial love.

Those are two wonderful and essential understandings of Jesus being the Way, but I need more! If I only have those two dots—the current location and the ultimate destination—and then the example of Jesus, that still leaves me with big blank space in my map. HOW do I walk your way? I ask. Which direction do I take? How do I know? Am I just supposed to choose the way that looks hardest each time? What if I don’t? What if I choose the easier way and then feel guilty? (Some of us get stuck in that trap, don’t we? You know who you are!) We say, Lord, I’m lost in the in-between place. I’m stuck!

This is where the third understanding of the Way brings hope to my heart. Jesus is the Destination; he is the way of the Father—and he is the way to the Father. He is the path beneath my feet as well as my guide and companion on the journey; He holds my hand as we walk together; he carries me in the difficult parts; he is before me and behind me and beside me. He is in me.

In this passage in John, the disciples couldn’t see this yet. Their vision was still clouded. They didn’t understand; they weren’t saying, “Lord, we get it; You’re completing our eternal salvation with your death and resurrection.” No, they were still looking for an earthly kingdom and still hoping for some recognition and honor in it—but regardless of their clouded perspective, they had this one hugely important thing right: Jesus was their life! They’d walked with him for three years, and they didn’t want that to end. They’d journeyed with him. They’d looked to him for where they were going to go and how they would be fed and where they would sleep at night. And now he was talking about leaving them. I would have asked the same question. I still do!

And Jesus says to me, to us, exactly what he said to them. Please look with me at John 14:16-19, 26-27. (The link will take you to John 14:16-27 in the NIV.)


Jesus didn’t leave the disciples as orphans. He doesn’t leave us either. We are not vainly trying to make our way to the Father, hopelessly striving in our own strength to live as Christ did. No, He gave us His Spirit. “You will see me,” he promised. “You are not alone on the way. I will come to you. Because I live, you also will live.”

So the Spirit guides us through the blank space between the current location dot and the destination dot on the map. This doesn’t mean we get to punch the “list navigation steps” button and see all the twists and turns laid out. No. Often the Spirit reveals only one step in front of us; though at other times the Spirit settles us in a sweet spot for a time. Sometimes the way is full of trouble and hardship. Sometimes we seem stuck—with the way in front covered in fog. We’re not sure where to step.

But no matter what the journey is like, we’re not doing it alone. And that makes all the difference.

As my family has been in this journey of ambiguity—which Pastor Matt calls “a darn good story,” (because he’s not the one living it! J) the Lord keeps reminding me of this truth in a lot of ways. There was the time when Father Kevin stood up after the sermon a few weeks back and said, “I sense there are some here who are in a smog of confusion”—actually, I don’t remember if he said it just like that, but being who he is, I can see him picking words like that—and my husband and I looked at each other and just nodded—and then went and sought prayer. There was the Good Friday service, when I knelt at the cross, full of uncertainty for my children in this possible move, and I heard the Lord say, “I have them. They’re mine.” And then when I shared that moment with my two daughters at the Holy Week reflection service a couple weeks later, my younger daughter’s eyes got wide and she said, “Mom, he told me the same thing when I was at the cross that night. He said, ‘Maddie, I have you.’”

In just the right moments, when my doubts are crowding in, God elbows them out of the way and says, “Look at me instead.” He did this earlier this week when I was meeting with a young mom friend and she said, “God gave me an image while I was praying and I think I’m supposed to share it with you.” And though her vision didn’t give specific direction—it was of a woman lying paralyzed at the feet of Jesus and then being raised by him into courage and strength and service—it encouraged me and renewed my hope. The Lord has done this again and again in this process.

And when I keep my eyes on the Father, when I remember that the Spirit is with and in me, then I also remember I don’t need to worry about the navigation steps. I don’t need to know them. He will reveal what needs to be revealed, when it needs to be revealed. I don’t need to be troubled or afraid. Jesus has made the way for me to be home in the Father, to belong to him. That will be fully realized in eternity, but it’s also a resurrection reality right now. I can live, now, at home in the Father, belonging to him. That is most important—that’s the BIG thing—so I can trust him for everything else, for this journey right now.

You can, too, no matter what your “current location” looks like, no matter what the step in front of you looks like, no matter if you feel paralyzed or overwhelmed or bored or lost or sad or anxious in your “current location.” In these past few months, my husband and I have prayed the prayers for dedication and guidance and quiet confidence over and over. Sometimes we pray them back-to-back, asking for our hearts to be prepared for service, asking for direction and then asking that we would be reminded that our place of belonging is in God. I’ve combined the elements of these prayers into one that I’d like to pray for all of us right now.

Father God, through Jesus we have our home and belonging with you. By the might of your Spirit, lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that through Christ, you are our God, you are our Father. As our Father, please help us to follow the way Christ revealed. Draw our hearts to you, guide our minds, fill our imaginations, and control our wills so that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you. Then use us, we pray, for your glory and the welfare of your people. And Lord, when we are uncertain of the way, give us the grace to ask you for guidance. May the Spirit save us from all false choices and lead us on your straight path. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Bread of Life

I delivered this sermon to the women’s gathering at our church last week, so for a blog post, it’s SUPER looong and it sounds more like a “talk” than an essay! If you’d rather listen, I recorded it (about 25 minutes in length). Just click below.

DSC_0432I first read the prayer below in a book I was reading on the Old Testament Law. It’s called the “Prayer to an Unknown God” and was found on a tablet dating from the mid-seventh century BC. The original prayer is from Sumer and probably dates from somewhat earlier. What follows is just a small portion of this prayer:

May the wrath of the heart of my god be pacified!
May the god who is unknown to me be pacified!
The sin which I have committed I know not.

An offense against my god I have unwittingly committed.
The iniquity, which I have done, I know not.

The lord, in the anger of his heart, hath looked upon me.
The god, in the wrath of his heart, hath visited me.
I sought for help, but no one took my hand.
I wept, but no one came to my side.

I am afflicted, I am overcome, I cannot look up.
I kiss the feet of my god and [crawl before him] . . .

How long, known and unknown god, until the anger of thy heart be pacified?

Can you imagine being in that situation? We don’t live in an ancient near eastern culture, so the idea of having to appease an unknown god is pretty strange for us, but this was the norm in that time. When you listen to that prayer—and I only read a very short portion of it—you hear the desperation and you begin to see why people did so many strange and even terrible things to appease these gods they didn’t even know. About a month ago I read a fictional book about a village in ancient times that was oppressed by a demon. This oppression had gone on for decades, so by the time the story takes place, the villagers have made up a religion to try and please this demon. They’ve elected a priestess to serve the demon, and she spends her entire life trying to determine what the demon wants. But things have gotten worse and worse, and they’ve finally begun offering their children to the dragon, a different child each month. They choose the child by lottery and take the child up into the hills and leave it there to be consumed by this demon. The author allows you to get into the mind of the young priestess, and you get to feel her confusion, her dread, her sorrow at the death of children she has known and played with. But she doesn’t know what else to do. She doesn’t know how to please this angry, hungry god. It’s heartbreaking! They give and give and give to meet the demon’s needs, but it’s never enough.

This isn’t just ancient history, is it? That scenario describes so many of the religions or systems that people follow even today. Many of our systems are governed by questions of “Is this enough? Is this what I should be doing?” People who follow them are plagued by feelings of inadequacy and failure and hopelessness.

Does this sound familiar? If we’re honest, we have to admit that WE often put ourselves under those systems—without even realizing it. And then we discover ourselves asking those same questions, feeling those same feelings of inadequacy and failure.

But we don’t have to. We don’t pray to an unknown God. We don’t live with an unknown God. We follow a God who has made Himself known, who has revealed Himself to be a God of goodness, a God of light and love.

And what is more, in complete contrast to every system we’ve created, to every demon that has demanded worship, God doesn’t ask US to figure out an offering for Him. HE OFFERS HIMSELF!

This is unheard of! Unprecedented! It’s so far outside our natural inclination as to be CRAZY!

God gives Himself to us.

Do you see this in the passage we just read, in John 6:25-35? Let’s look at it again.

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

26 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. 27 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.”

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

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

30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’[c]

32 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. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

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

35 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. 

Now we have to go back before we go forward. In the section just before this one, Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two small fish. That’s what Jesus is referring to in verse 26.

So he tells these people who have followed him to focus more on eternal life rather than physical food, and they respond with a question, a very typical question, one that is our normal response when we’re told that what we’re doing isn’t quite right, isn’t “enough.” They ask, “What should we do? What is the work God requires?”

Such a normal question! Whenever we’re told—or we even feel that what we’ve done or who we are isn’t enough, isn’t completely right—we do the same. We, too, ask, “What do I do?”

But Jesus’s answer is NOT normal—is SO “not normal.” It’s a shocking, crazy, upside down answer!

“Believe in the one God has sent.”

Believe in the offering of God!

He doesn’t tell them how to fix THEIR offering. He doesn’t give them more specific instructions. He tells them to believe in him.

He goes on to explain that this belief, though, is not just a head decision; it’s not flippant. The Amplified Bible gives several of the meanings inherent in the word and translates “believe” as “adhere to, trust in, rely on, and have faith in.”

Then Jesus takes this further, and equates belief to “eating his flesh and drinking his blood.” Let’s look at verses 47-58:

47 Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

52 Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

53 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 

Jesus tells us to ingest Him, to eat and drink of Him. Think of all the implications in that: tasting, chewing, swallowing, and then a digesting that spreads his being into every part of our being!

He’s telling us to believe in him to the point that we take him into our own selves—THIS is what will please God!

It sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it! And how, exactly, are we supposed to do that?

Now I want to point out that in this passage John brings up two Old Testament events that “fill out” this command of Jesus and might help us understand this I Am statement. First, John opens chapter 6 by mentioning that the Passover was coming. He just throws it in there like a throwaway statement, but it’s not. The Passover was the celebration of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from the Egyptians; it was His rescue of them from slavery and oppression. So the word Passover was synonymous for the Jews with the word salvation, and John mentioning the Passover is a clue that this entire passage is about Jesus being salvation—that the miracle that opens this chapter and leads into Jesus ‘s statement about his being the Bread of Life is about way more than Jesus just providing physical food.

So when Jesus tells us He is the Bread of Life; he’s telling us He is our salvation, our deliverance. This is central every time we celebrate Eucharist. “This is my body, broken for you. Take this in remembrance of Me.” His flesh, offered for us, brought us deliverance.

That’s amazing! That God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Him—through His own Body. HE made the offering. We don’t have to. All he asks us to do is believe that He actually did this for us—and that it’s enough!

But remember that I said there were two Old Testament events that John brings up in the passage? I think the second one actually helps us to believe the first one. The second one is what moves our belief in Christ from our heads to our hearts. We can SAY, “yes, I believe Jesus is the bread of life for me”—but it’s in the nitty gritty, every day “eating” of him that this belief becomes something real and warm and true inside us!

So let’s look at the second Old Testament event. In verse thirty, right after Jesus tells the people that the work of God is to believe in the one God sent (Jesus!), the people bring up the manna in the wilderness. “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? … Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Now just a little backstory. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness AFTER their deliverance—that’s important—and the manna was bread that came from heaven every single day for their sustenance. They’d already been delivered from slavery, but they needed something to carry them through the gap between the deliverance and arrival in the Promised Land.

We, too, need sustenance. Our salvation is one of those “Now and not yet,” things. We have eternal life, but we’re not living in the actuality of it right now.

But hold on! Let’s not just gloss past this, let’s not SETTLE for something less than what Christ offers us. Remember, Christ told us that he came that we might have LIFE—and have that life to the full! He’s still offering us Himself—and He’s holding it out to us every day! He’s saying—that eternal life that I offered myself for—that my death provided for you—I want you to start living it NOW, HERE!

He doesn’t mean that we never struggle; he doesn’t mean that we don’t experience problems; he doesn’t mean that we’ll never have to fight against our sin tendencies.

But He does mean that He is making available to us a life in the here and now that is full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, a life that is able to consider others’ interests ahead of our own without resentment or bitterness, a life that is drawn to the noble, beautiful, lovely, and the good!

We know what it’s like to have moments of that eternal life here, don’t we? But we also know a lot about the half-life, the shadowed life, the pseudo=life we usually live in—the life we plod through, always struggling with ourselves, with others, lacking joy, lacking peace. The church father Athanasius described this life as a return to “nothingness.” He described it kind of like being a zombie (okay, the word “zombie” is MY take on Athanasius’s idea!—wandering around, walking dead, grunting and geared toward grumpiness and destruction!)

That’s a little how I’ve felt in the last 30 days. My husband and fifteen-year-old daughter went on a Whole 30 diet about a month ago—for a month—and in sympathy I went on a modified Whole 30 with them (I did NOT give up my afternoon sweet chai ritual or cream in my coffee!). But I did give up bread, which is not terribly difficult for me outside our house, but I MAKE our bread at home, and it’s darn good, whole wheat, incredible toasted with some butter! Mmmm.

I discovered that there was another side effect of giving up bread. One morning I ate some leftover stew for breakfast (you eat weird meals sometimes with Whole 30). I worked for a couple hours and then took the dog for a walk in the woods. It was good—until I just bonked. My energy was gone. The stew—the little bits of meat and lots of veggies—were gone. My legs and arms felt heavy, and every step was hard. I thought, “Oh, if I’d had a slice of bread this morning, I wouldn’t feel this way,” and I longed for a warm slice right then! Instead I had to drag myself the rest of the way out of the woods to the car.

That’s a picture of the half life, and it’s not the full life Christ is offering us.That full life fills us full! It spreads the fruits of the Christ’s Spirit all through us and gives us the power to live like Christ did, energized by the Spirit, motivated by the love of the Father, in fellowship with God and his people.

We KNOW how to live the half-life, the dragging, defaulting-to-self-and-negative-emotions life. That is completely natural to us. But we don’t really want that—not deep down. Deep down we want the full life Christ tells us about—and we SHOULD. C.S. Lewis once said that the problem is not that we desire too much but that we desire too little. The Holy Spirit wants us to recognize that desire for more, that desire to be filled with Christ, to be empowered by his Spirit, to have life to the full.

But how do we do this? (Oh, I’m back to asking what do WE do, am I not?)

Here’s how: we eat Jesus like the Israelites ate manna in the wilderness (which often describes our here and now, doesn’t it!).

That means daily!

We can learn from the Israelites’ wilderness experience here. God sent the manna every day to them, and he told them not to store it up. They tried to—a few of them went out and gathered a whole bunch of it—either because they didn’t want to gather it the next day or because they doubted God would provide it the next day or they were trying to be resourceful—but when they opened up their “stored” manna bread, it had worms in it. It was stinky and rotten.

We do that, don’t we? We try to do life on our own. We follow our own plan. We want to be in control. We want to prove ourselves—that we’re strong and capable. We don’t believe God really means it when he says he wants us to come to him empty handed every day! We don’t believe he’ll love us or want to be with us if we’re too needy.

But we have to believe that he really wants us to come with our bellies empty and our hands empty, empty but ready to receive from him. He doesn’t ask us to gather the wheat or press the oil or grind the salt. He just tells us to come and believe that he is who he says he is—the one who made us and loves us and feeds us. He wants us to believe that like we take bread into our mouths and chew it and swallow it down inside us, filling us.

Our only work in this is to come to him, to cup our hands or, if we’re simply too weary to even do that, to open our mouths and let the Holy Spirit feed us the Bread of Life.

Practically speaking, what does this look like? It looks like us coming out of sleep each morning and saying, “I got nothing. If I try to feed myself with myself—or anything else— today, if I try to function on my reserves, it will be disastrous. I will crash. I will struggle through my day, feeling overwhelmed or weary or struggling with negative attitudes” OR we acknowledge, “I will seem to function just fine but I’ll be charging through without the ability to really care for those around me or to notice God and the gifts He is giving me.” (Those are just a couple of examples of what it is like to live the not-life—you probably have some ideas in your own minds of what it looks like for you.)

But if we eat Jesus as our daily bread, we dwell in Him—who is Life itself!—and Life Itself—Jesus—dwells in us! And THAT is a life worth living. THAT is eternal life NOW!

So how do we eat this daily Bread of Life? I came up with three action steps:

First, we Look at Jesus.

Second, eyes still on him, we Reveal our brokenness and emptiness.

We acknowledge it—to ourselves and to him.

And third, we Accept His fullness for us.

We say, “Oh, I want to really believe in You today. I want You to be my all in all. I want to know and rely on and trust in you—completely! Help me to do this.”

We do these steps at the beginnings of our days, in the middles, at the ends—daily bread might need to be hourly! We probably need to graze on Jesus all day long!

Look at Jesus.

Reveal your brokenness.

And Accept His fullness for you.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of our God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit abide with you, now and forever. Amen.