Life in Community and the Bread of Life

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

4:25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

5:1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

John 6:35, 41-51

35 Jesus said to the crowd, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41 Then the Judeans began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

This morning, a good friend of mine, also a pastor, is giving her first sermon in a new congregation. After serving in another location for many years, she is just starting this week in a new community. They are in that early stage of getting to know each other—she and the rest of the congregation—and they will hopefully be together for a long time.

I think that the second reading today from the book of Ephesians will be especially helpful for their new beginning together in worship today. It is a great passage for beginnings in Christian community. It would be an appropriate choice to read at baptisms or new member Sundays, whenever people first become a part of the church, because it describes some core values for what it means to be a community together that is centered in Christ. Of course, this is helpful to read on an ordinary Sunday, too—one such as today, when most of us have been church together for some time and will all hopefully continue to be church together for some time into the future. I know I am looking forward to the years ahead here at Holy Trinity. Well, Ephesians 4 offers a powerful list of reminders for both the ordinary and extraordinary moments of Christian community, for life together as followers of Jesus. Among them are these:

  • Speak the truth. More than just refraining from lies, truth-telling is a way of building trusting relationships. We need each other, after all, and we need to be able to trust each other. So say what is true for you, and trust that others will be able to hear it.
  • Be mindful of your anger. It makes sense, I suppose, that this follows truth-telling. You might get angry sometimes, and that’s okay. You don’t need to be afraid of strong emotion. In fact, there are times when in the face of injustice and violence it would be wrong not to get angry. But remember also that the kind of anger that festers or manipulates others or seeks only to tear down others will be seriously harmful to a community. So deal with your anger well, whether it’s about big things or small things. Be mindful of your anger.
  • Be aware of the needs of others. In your life and your work, don’t just keep your head down focused only on your own accomplishments and desires. Take a look around you, and be mindful of how you could help others. They might need some food or clothing; they might need a kind and gracious word from you, which is just as important. Help where you can.
  • Be kind and tenderhearted. Forgive one another. Forgiveness is perhaps the most important mark of Christian life together because none of us does life perfectly. I need your forgiveness often. We all need to ask for, receive, and offer forgiveness. Church is a great place for practicing this.

Again, while there are other things we could add, this is a helpful list for any Christian congregation, and I hope that it continues to describe who we are together. Beyond the church, this list in Ephesians could also inform and strengthen other relationships. It could serve friendships, marriages, relationships between parents and children, among siblings, in neighborhoods both small and large, maybe even a society. We would do well to study Ephesians 4 often for the sake of all our communities. But if you can’t remember all the details, it all seems to be summed up in that final phrase: “live in love, as Christ loved us.”

That sounds so simple when it’s put that way, doesn’t it? Live in love. It sounds trite, even. And yet there is a powerful promise here for our world—more than just the church, the whole world. What would it mean for us to live in love, as Christ loved us?

I often wonder if the world is becoming more loving or not. Have we learned anything from Ephesians and from countless spiritual teachers who have gone before us, or do we keep falling into the same traps of human nature over and over again? Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed optimism about this, saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I want to believe that he is correct. I want to believe that in the 50 years this weekend since the signing of the Voting Rights Act our society has become more just and loving toward all people. But the death of Michael Brown and all the events of the past year have me wondering. I want to believe that in the 70 years this weekend since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki our world has become less violent and more creative and courageous in overcoming conflict. But the signs of endless war point to a different conclusion. I try to be optimistic, yet when my eyes are opened to the sorrows of our contemporary society, I must confess that it is not easy for me to trust in that bending arc of history.

A couple of weeks ago I watched an interview with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was on the Daily Show with now former host Jon Stewart. Coates, a scholar of racism in America, clearly disagreed with Dr. King’s optimism. Most of all, he said he doesn’t want us to lose sight of individual arcs. That is, when an individual’s life is ended due to hatred, when a life that a mother has built for her child is “all gone in one racist moment,” then we should not “try to make ourselves feel better about that” by talking about the universe’s arc. We need to sit with that pain. We need to recognize that an individual’s very important arc has come to an end.

I appreciate his honesty and his sense of urgency. He is willing to speak his own truth with clarity and passion. In listening to him, I felt an even greater need to respond now to this call from Ephesians to live in love, as Christ loved us. Our world is in desperate need of this love right now.

So I am grateful that Ephesians doesn’t just show us the need for love. It also shows us where that love comes from. Like other books of the Bible it proclaims a consistent trust that God is loving us. God is present and active in loving us in each moment, even in the worries and challenges that we face, even when it is hard to find reason for optimism or hope. I don’t know if things are getting better in our world day by day, but maybe the conviction that we gather around in our worship, the thing that draws us here week after week because we so desperately need it is the awareness that God is, in fact, loving us, and that love is what gives us strength to love others. Maybe that’s what believing Jesus—believing in Jesus—is all about. It is trusting that God will continue to love us—beyond every challenge and failure, beyond even death itself. That trust will renew us for life, no matter what we face.

Wendell Berry wrote a poem that could be a daily prayer for any of us who seeks to follow Christ in a troubled, complicated world. He said:

I know that I have life

only insofar as I have love.

I have no love

except it come from Thee.

Help me, please, to carry

this candle against the wind.

There are times when circumstances in our world make it seem that “living in love” is an unattainable fantasy, or at best just a dimly burning wick in a windstorm. The good news is that the kind of love that can change communities and even societies is not a result just of our own understanding or determination. Through Christ, God will continue to feed us and strengthen us and give us what we need for the journey. You may be at an especially challenging point in your own journey this morning; there are certainly challenges in the world around us, and we cannot see where the journey will end. Still, God will be faithful along the way. In love, God will renew you for love. Amen.