Texts: 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 34:-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
Theme: Eating the bread of life is the way our lives and the life of the community of the church begin to be signs of Jesus’ kingdom.
Two challenges immediately confront the preacher. First, discerning a single neatly defined theme from these texts could damage the integrity of one or more of the texts (although having said that I am going to suggest a way to do exactly that at the end of these comments). Second, the selected John passage is part of five weeks of texts from John 6, forcing the preacher who is preaching all five Sundays on this chapter to be disciplined in their focus so as not to steal material from the surrounding material which is to be preached on other Sundays.
2 Samuel 18 describes the conclusion of Absalom’s rebellion against his father, David, ending in Absalom’s tragic death. (The preacher who uses this as the heart of the sermon will need to fill in some details of the story if their hearers are going to understand this text.) The selected verses focus our attention on David’s care for his son, a care not shown by all of David’s supporters. David was emotionally distraught over the death of his son, his son who rebelled against him, his son who made him a laughing stock before Israel and the surrounding nations, his son (a kind of prodigal) who wanted not just half the inheritance – but the whole kingdom. David had every reason to want Absalom to suffer punishment, but David’s words demonstrated his love for Absalom, a love offering mercy and the possibility of reconciliation to an enemy, a family member turned traitor. How do Christians treat their enemies, those who plot the downfall or failure of the church, those who seek to see the freedoms of Christians limited? When Christians have the upper hand against those who are our enemies, how do we respond? Do we want the enemy to pay, or do we offer mercy opening the door to reconciliation no matter what they have done?
The passage from Ephesians describes what life in the church is to be like. A place where anger is expressed but dealt with, a place where bitterness and bitter speech do not happen, a place where people forgive each other. The church looks different than the win-at-all-costs world, different than take-what-you-can-get world, different than the looking-out-for-number-one world. Paul is under no illusions about how difficult this is: to live this way will require a sacrifice in emulation of Christ’s death on the cross. The preacher needs to clearly state living the way Paul is describing is not easy, it will require sacrifice of one’s rights and privileges and personal ambitions. It will require doing for those within the family of God, the church, what David offered to Absalom. Even when those inside the church hurt us, stab us in the back, we offer mercy and the possibility of reconciliation.
The song from the 1970’s proclaimed “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Christians have a high and holy calling to live in a radically different kind of community called the church. These two texts push the church beyond the warm fuzziness of “fellowship” over coffee after church to the tough reality of community that extends to how we live with our Christian sisters and brothers in church business meetings, in the marketplace, and as neighbors.
The passage from John calls for a decision, will Jesus’ hearers get hung up on the niceties of making sure he has his theology and his self-identity correct, or will they allow themselves to be drawn by God to the living bread? Will they debate where the bread comes from or will they with joy trust Jesus to be the bread of life and eat? The preacher needs to be wise here, it would be possible to turn the sermon into an opportunity to preach the uniqueness of Jesus’ divine sonship (which is clearly in this passage), but too much attention there risks overshadowing the invitation in vs. 51 for all who have been drawn by the Father to eat the living bread of Jesus. To declare our loyalty by eating of the bread that brings life in Christ’s kingdom. Jesus’ death is the means by which we and all the world are drawn God and by which we are fed – a death which is the supreme example of Jesus’ love for us.
Maybe the three passages can come together this way. The fragrance of fresh baked bread permeates a house or bakery, just as the fragrance of Christ’s loving sacrifice fills the church (Ephesians). Jesus invites those who want to follow him to eat of the living bread (John) to discover what Psalm 34:8 says “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Only by eating the bread of life will our life in the community of the church (Ephesians) and in relationship to our enemies (I Samuel) begin to have the fragrance of Jesus.
“Bear with one another in love and charity” (Taize)
“For Your gift of God the Spirit” (Clarkson)
“Be doers of the word of God” (Gillette)
“O food to pilgrims given” (Riley) (Third verse is clearly Eucharistic)
“They’ll know we are Christians by our love”
As we listen to David ordering his men – “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom” – we know that David’s recovery is almost complete. Deep changes were taking place in David as he descended from the heights of Jerusalem down the “Jericho Road” into the wilderness of the Jordan. He was descending the road that a thousand years later Jesus ascended to suffer and die….[David] recovered his life of compassion, his life of love, through the rejection and scorn of Absalom. The worst rejection of his life precipitated the most wonderful love—love for Absalom. - Eugene Peterson
Any breach of these rules [from Ephesians 4:25-29] is a menace to the common life created by the Holy Spirit. Bitter or harsh feelings are incompatible with the forgiving disposition which is required of those who have been forgiven by God. In short, those who wish to be members of God’s family must take after their Father, and that means a self-forgetful love like that which turned Christ’s death into a sacrifice offered to God. - G.B. Caird
So long as a human being remains, and is content to remain, confident of their own ability, without divine help, to assess experience and the meaning of experience, they cannot “come to” the Lord, they cannot “believe”; only the Father can move them to this step, with its incalculable and final results. – J.B. Lightfoot (Quote modified for inclusive language)
Bread of life,
You taught us to put away bitterness and anger,
and with tenderhearted kindness
to share the fruit of our labor with the needy.
Strengthen us by your grace,
we may forgive one another
and live in love as Christ loved us. Amen.