This is the message that I gave on the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 10 August 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY. The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 18:5 – 9, 15, 31 – 33; Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2; and John 6: 35, 41 – 51.
I subscribe to a magazine called Bible Review. It is an interesting monthly journal that gives me something to think about when it comes to reading the Bible. But what is also interesting are the letters written to the editor. In the August issue were a number of letters. In response to an article about Enoch and Jesus, Doyne Mitchell (no relation, I can assure you) of North Hollywood, CA, wrote,
How dare you presume to proclaim yourself Bible reviewers while printing Birger A. Pearson’s “Enoch and Jesus”? Mr. Pearson’s attempt to equate Enoch and Jesus is to deny both.
There is no equal to Jesus of Nazareth. He is Lord God (YHWH), Savior of sinful humanity (John 1: 29, 14: 6). The biblical Enoch makes no claim to deity! Mr. Pearson leaves out a vital reference to the biblical Enoch: Hebrews 11: 5 – 6. Enoch was taken up by God, because of his great faith, evidently something neither Mr. Pearson nor BR possesses! (Letter to the editor of Bible Review, August, 2003)
Mr. Pearson responded in an editorial note that he had made no attempt to equate Enoch and Jesus but rather to compare their stories as handed down in the traditions about them. He also added that since the writer did not know him, there was no way he, the writer, could determine whether Mr. Pearson had faith or not.
In an earlier letter Rico Carnevale of Pukalani, HI wrote concerning a letter in a previous issue where the writer canceled his subscription to Bible Review.
So another subscription is canceled? So BR “twists the Scriptures to justify its ‘evil work'”?
I find each issue thought-provoking, mentally challenging and very educational. If I wanted a one-interpretation-only faith magazine, I could find several on the newsstand, and they would do the thinking for me.
Continue the fine work. (Letter to editor, Bible Review, August, 2003)
The very next letter was also interesting. Harvey Stoneburner of Brooklyn, NY wrote
I notice that you frequently get letters from intemperate people who denounce your magazine for being a “false teacher.” They seem to think you try to turn people into atheists.
Well, all my life I have been an atheist. Your magazine helped me appreciate the Bible and helped convince me of its basic validity. This past Sunday, I was baptized and inducted into the Presbyterian Church. All I can say is, “I was blind, and now I can see.” Thank you for your good magazine. (Letter to editor, Bible Review, August, 2003)
We live in a complex world, a world in which our ability to understand what is happening is constantly challenged. For the most part though, the complexity of the world never comes into play. It is easy to see life in very simple terms and we are quite happy do so.
It is quite easy then to let others do our thinking for us. You can see it in the letters to the editor to journals like Bible Review. Many readers do not want their view of the Bible challenged by intellectual thoughts; to do so or to be forced to view something in a different view is upsetting. Life should be simple; life should be in black and white. So whenever something happens to upset that simplicity; whenever we are forced to face the fact that life is not as simple as it seems, we get very uncomfortable.
What we have read in the Gospel these past few weeks is Jesus’ explanation about what the bread of life is that he was providing. But while he was explaining about God’s grace and the reward of heaven, the people were expecting real bread, food for the table. The problem that we are becoming aware of in today’s Gospel reading is that the people were not willing to go beyond the present; they were not willing to do what was required of them. Society at that time had made faith a matter of law and obedience to day-by-day rules. There was no need for people to think independently, as Jesus was asking them to do.
But it was because that Jesus was asking them to think for themselves, to look beyond the present, to not accept the status quo, people were getting upset. Life was simple even if the laws of the time were at times contradictory or repressive. And those who benefited from the enactment and enforcement of those laws correctly saw that Jesus would take away from them that which they had gained, rightly or wrongly. Jesus challenged them and rather than accept the challenge, rather than open their minds to the possibilities gained through God’s grace, they reacted with emotion.
Those who felt threatened by Jesus’ ministry saw their lives in black and white. They did not want to see Jesus outside the image of the carpenter’s son from Nazareth. They did not like being challenged to see God’s work before them. Yet, that was what was happening before their eyes. And because they were challenged they were defensive and angry. It is understandable that they would get angry. There is something in the human nature that causes people to get angry when the way they do things and have done things is challenged.
More times than not, when we react with emotion, it is an angry emotion. There are times when that may be appropriate. Christians may respond in controlled anger to injustice and sin but they should never be consumed by such anger. Instead, those are opportunities when the expression of Christ’s love for other is best expressed.
When we let our anger drive our emotions, when our decisions are made by our anger, we can be assured that the results will never be what we want. Paul pointed out to the Ephesians that we should never “let the sun go down on our anger.” (Ephesians 4: 26) He knew that we should not allow our anger to fester or continue for long. He was reminding the Ephesians of what Jesus had said earlier,
“And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”
In the verses preceding the reading for today Absalom, David’s son, had led a rebellion against David and the kingdom. At first Absalom was simply angry at the rape and killing of his sister by his half-brother. It appears that David was incensed by his one son’s actions towards his half-sister but there is no record that he took any punitive action. This inaction, by which David abdicated his responsibility, both as a king and as a father, led to Absalom’s further action.
But in the battles that followed, the armies of Israel defeated the armies lead by Absalom and he was killed. The Cushite comes to David and proclaims victory. He saw the victory as a vindication for the kingdom as lead by David; but failed to see the personal cost to David. The problem with war is that the personal cost is often overlooked.
There are many lessons learned from this episode in the life of David. David’s loyalty to his family blinded him when it came to making decisions as king. His inability to act as king almost lost him his kingdom. The actions of his sons went unpunished and the anger that Absalom held for his brother and his father ultimately led to his own death.
Paul challenges us, through his letter to the Ephesians, to look at how we react in this world. It was not enough to just control our anger. Rather, we need to live life differently, to change the way things are done and to become responsible for our actions.
General William T. Sherman, the man perhaps most responsible for the concept of total war, understood this. He said,
War is at best barbarism . . . Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot, nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. (From Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, Kenneth C. Davis)
Those who call for war, those who call for angry responses more often than not do not understand what the consequences of their actions will be. Those who are safe from the harm are often the loudest to call for action when they know that they themselves will not be harmed. And it is not just in war that the loudest cries come from the least oppressed, the ones who will not take the ultimate actions.
Paul’s challenge to us requires we see life in new terms. Not only must we change our ways, we must work together to see that the goals of the community are reached. It is no longer appropriate to do things the “old” way; life in Christ requires that we do things differently. Paul in saying, “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.” (Ephesians 4: 28) This was not simply a call to stop stealing or being greedy but a call to be generous, to have a true change in attitude.
Paul reminds us that we must ultimately follow God’s example. We must walk in love as Christ loved us and lead a life in which what we say and do are imitations of what Christ said and did on earth. We will always be aware that evil thoughts and actions are always possible but if we remember that it is God’s own Spirit that lives on in us, we are apt to be more selective in what we say, do, and think.
As we come to the table this morning, we are reminded that what we would do, that what we should say, was first expressed that night in the Upper Room. All that Jesus alluded to in the days after he fed the multitude came to pass with the Last Supper with the disciples. We are reminded that the bread that we partake today is the bread that Jesus himself gave us freely and without reservation or qualification. We are reminded that the juice that we drink is the representation of the blood Jesus shed for our sins.
We come to the table, not judging others or judging those who come with us but confessing in our own sins. We leave refreshed by the bread of life, by the Spirit of Christ present in our lives. Our presence at the table this morning is a reminder of all that we have been taught. And what we have been taught will guide us through the coming days.