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The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens

The Rev. Dr. B. Wiley Stephens is senior minister of Dunwoody United Methodist Church in Dunwoody, GA.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

Dunwoody United Methodist Church, Dunwoody, GA


Living in Love

John 6:35,41-51

10th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 14)

August 10, 2003

The way we view the world can limit our horizons or expand them to eternity. The crowd that surrounded Jesus in our Gospel lesson in John became angry at what they perceived as arrogance, if not blasphemy, on his part. How dare he call himself the bread of life? The way they saw him--wasn't this the kid that grew up down the street? Was he not the same one I used to have to run home when it was supper time? You know, the one who was so smart. Wasn't this that carpenter Joseph's son? How can he satisfy us? Do you remember that time he got lost in Jerusalem? How is he making such a claim? After all, he is one of us.

According to a few verses earlier in the chapter we read from today, that sure had not been their opinion. They had been ready to make him king. They had seen a little boy's lunch turned into a spread for thousands, and the leftovers spill over from 12 baskets. But Jesus knew while they were amazed at the miracle they really weren't understanding the good news. So he told of himself as the bread of life, something that would last far longer than the bread we eat or the bread that had been fed to the multitude, something that satisfies the hungers of our souls. But they couldn't see it.

This talk of having come down from heaven only confused them. They had seen him grow up like us all, though he had been born during that oppressive census the Romans took that made people scatter all over to the cities of their heritage. They thought he had a mother and a father just like all of them.

If they had seen more than the carpenter's son, they might have heard the depth of the good news, but when we limit our world to what we know or have experienced, we can miss the vastness of God's grace.

Karl Barth wrote, "Were we to hear only of a god who measures up to our rule and is able to do what we can also do for ourselves without him, what need have we of such a god? Whenever the church has told man of such a tiresome little god it has grown empty. That radical daring, our yearning for the living God, will not be denied."

How can we find the bread that will satisfy?

In the letter to the church at Ephesus, there is a challenge at the first of the fifth chapter that sets a high standard:

"Therefore be imitators of God as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice for God."

There is an ancient legend of a man with a scarred face who in trying to hide his scars had a mask made to cover his face. It appeared as a saint. He falls in love in the legend. Years later his past is revealed, and an attempt to reveal what he really looked like was made by ripping the mask away. His face had taken on the form of the saint's face.

We become what we habitually imitate. We become what we make ours just as the bread we eat. The thoughts that fill our minds, the loves that fill our souls--these are creating who we are. If we fill our hearts and minds with the trivial, the faddish, the debase, we're making ourselves a smaller person. That is why it's so important for what role models we choose for ourselves and our children. We will become the patterns by which we live. If we fill our hearts and minds with God's Word and attempt to love as he loves and to care as he cares, we are creating a soul for eternity. We are becoming imitators of God.

It has become popular for children to wear bracelets or pieces of clothing with WWJD on it. This means, of course, What Would Jesus Do? You see the same on bumper stickers. It sounds so innocent. But as with imitating Christ, that can be very difficult to answer in the middle of a business decision or a political dilemma or a moral issue.

John Wesley once wrote, "First let us agree what religion is. I take religion to be, not the mere saying over of so many prayers, morning and evening, in public or private, but a constant ruling habit of the soul, a renewal of our beings in the image of God, a recovery of the Divine likeness, a self-increasing conformity of heart and life to the pattern of our most holy redeemer."

For all of us who have struggled to stay on a diet, we know the importance of developing taste for the right foods for us. What we don't eat on a diet can be far more important than what we do eat.

We have come to make some hard choices that fill our days and thus fill our hearts and minds. We have to be selective about what will be the bread on which we feast.

It is one thing to survive, to just get by...like the manna that got the children of Israel through the wilderness. It is another to feast on that which will last forever.

We have to ask, "What has to move out for God to move in? What do we need to make sure is not a part of our diet?"

We turn back to the letter to the church in Ephesus--in the chapter before the challenge to imitate God -- and we find a list of things not compatible to God being the bread on which we feed. In verse 25 we read, "So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors...."

Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life." We are challenged to deal honestly. Truth is the bond that makes community possible. That is why perjury is such a serious crime. One would imagine that is why truth-telling is one of the Ten Commandments. Remember how Jesus compared the foolish man that built his house on sand and the wise man who built his house on rock. Falsehood is sand. Truth is rock.

Mark Twain put it well, saying, "When in doubt, tell the truth."

Anne Lindbergh wrote, "The most exhausting thing in life is to be insincere."

In verse 26, we read, "Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger." There is a place for anger. We should get angry at injustice but be civil in disagreements. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared, "To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it."

Remember Jesus cleansing the temple, whip in hand or Jesus crying over Jerusalem.

Hear the words of Amos echo through the ages: "But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream."

But it is one thing to be angry at the issue and another to fail to be a sister or brother to the one you do not agree with. We have done just the opposite, been quiet in the face of injustice and demean those we disagree with.

Deal with what makes you angry now. Don't let it fester, to become a part of you. When on a diet, you don't eat hardier today because you can make up for it tomorrow. Martin Luther said, "You cannot keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair."

In verse 27 of that fourth chapter of Ephesians, we read, "Do not make room for the devil." Someone has said that when the old devil knocks, don't even answer. If we will fill up our lives ahead of time with the right things, we're answering the questions in advance.

There is the old story of the farmer and his mule. In order to save money, he tried mixing in sawdust with oats. About one-fourth seemed to work. Then he tried half. That seemed to work, so then he tried three-quarters, which seemingly had no effect. The farmer went to all sawdust. Two days later the mule died. The farmer commented, "That mule ate himself to death."

We must be cautious on what is filling our lives. At first it may not seem to matter, but what we are filled with will be what we are.

When the writer of Ephesians tells us not to return to our old patterns, he writes thieves must give up stealing. It sounds strange but he's saying there is a need for real change, for us to feast on what is lasting.

Søren Kierkegaard told a parable of a community of ducks waddling off to duck church to hear the duck preacher. The duck preacher spoke eloquently of how God had given the ducks wings with which to fly. With these wings there was nowhere the ducks could not go. With those wings they could soar. Shouts of "Amen!" were quacked throughout the duck congregation. At the conclusion of the service, the ducks left commenting on the message and waddled back home. But they never flew.

In verse 29 the challenge is to realize the power of our words. Our words have the power to tear down or build up. Jesus used his words when he saw a rock in old Simon, a disciple in Mary Magdalene, a friend in Zacchaeus, to build them up.

The power of words to encourage, to show appreciation, to express care--these same words can be twisted to tear down, to hurt, even to destroy. And, of course, the way to control the words is to make sure we are filled with the right things. We need to feast on the bread of life.

In verse 30 we are told to remember whose we are. We are cautioned not to break God's heart. The measure of what we are filled with will show in our lives.

Then as we come to the last two verses of the chapter, we are warned to put away bitterness and wrath and wrangling. As we fill ourselves with the bread of life, we develop a skill of forgetting and forgiving. You can't move on until you unload. Bitterness and wrath and wrangling leaves little room for God.

In the book The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom recounts the moment when the experience of such forgiving came to her. It happened in a church in Munich where she was the guest speaker. Out of nowhere there stood before her a former Nazi SS agent who had guarded the shower floor at the prison camp where she and her friends had been processed and exposed to many indignities and cruelties. The man reached out his hand to shake hers as he expressed his appreciation for her message, but Corrie ten Boom kept her hand at her side. Angry feelings surged through her, but she realized how wrong they were. She prayed, tried to smile, struggling to raise her hand but nothing happened. She breathed a silent prayer, "Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness." She described what happened. "As I took his hand, the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand, a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it's not our own forgiveness that the world's healing hinges, but on his. When he tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself."

And thus we are challenged to be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving.

The image of Little Richard, a popular rock singer of the '50s and '60s from Macon, Ga., appears in stained glass at the Hard Rock Café. (This may be as close as he might ever be to being a saint.) Little Richard once said, "My concern is to let people know of the love of God. The way you do that can differ. It's not just holding up a Bible and preaching. It's by living a life of love and letting people feel love in you and through you."

Jesus' promise in our Gospel from John today is if we will eat of such bread, we will live forever.

Let us join our hearts now in prayer.

Gracious God, give us the power this day to select that which you would have us to select to be a part of our lives that we may be filled with your grace and your love, and we, too, may have the bread of life. Amen.


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