The works of God

2 August 2015
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 13B (RCL)
2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a
Psalm 51:1-13
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

The theme of “work” seems oddly out of place in a discourse about bread. And it is introduced in one of John’s seeming non sequiturs. As the people come seeking Jesus, he chides them for seeking him only because they ate their fill of the loaves and then tells them to work for the bread that endures (or remains — the Greek is menein). They respond by asking, “What must we be doing in order to be working the works of God?” Working for bread makes perfect sense, but connecting it to the works of God is a bit of a jump. Jesus replies that the work of God is to trust the one God has sent.

In the previous chapter, Jesus has said that the son will do the works of the Father and even greater works. The Father raises the dead and gives life, so the Son gives life to whomever he will. In a perfect instance of Johannine irony, the crowd responds to Jesus’ statement that the work of God is to trust the one whom God has sent by requesting a sign, so that they may see and believe in Jesus. Haven’t they just eaten the loaves? What kind of sign are they looking for? Jesus had been correct in telling them they are seeking him only because they ate their fill. One suspects that is also why the crowd wanted to take him by force and make him king. Here is a king who will provide our every want.

The crowd refers to Moses sign of manna in the wilderness, to which Jesus replies, “Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (my emphasis). This is the disruptive piece of this discourse; Jesus, as bread, gives life to the whole world — not just to the people of Israel in the desert. Whoever comes to Jesus will never hunger, and whoever believes in him will never thirst. In the same way that Leviticus located Jewish identity in the act of sacrifice at the Temple (whoever sacrificed at the Temple was a Jew), so Jesus now expands that identity to belief (or trust) in him.

The miracle or sign of the bread is not so much about how many people at from five loaves and two fishes as it is about how every one who shares this meal is included in the people who feast with God on the mountainside, ratifying a new covenant. If that is the purpose of the eucharist, it is certainly easy to get discouraged. A quick look around shows that we are a long way from God’s new, all-inclusive covenant. We are as badly divided as the synagogue which threw out John’s community. And, as often as not, we are the ones doing the throwing out. I think that is why Jesus says that the work of God is to trust the one whom God has sent. Trust has very different connotations from believe. Trust is for the long haul.

The imagery in Ephesians is helpful here. The body is an organic image. Maturity is not something that happens overnight, but something that one grows into. Bonds, ligaments, unity, peace — all suggest the growth of the Body of Christ into a unifying force in the world, and the work it takes to keep that ministry in sight. The graces given, when Christ ascends and takes captivity captive (quoting Psalm 68), and distributing the booty of his conquest, are the gifts of ministry distributed in the community for the building up of the ministry of the whole. It is easy to be blown about by the latest news, the pessimistic view of the pundits, and be pulled in by the deceit of politicians using the latest catastrophe to their advantage. We are, instead, to speak the truth in love (the Greek says “doing the truth in love”) for the building up of the body. This takes a completely different vision of what God is doing in the world.

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