“Bread of Life?” Too many carbs!

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How do carb hating Americans begin to understand Jesus’ words on “bread of life”? My mother baked bread. She encouraged Julia to bake bread and Julia has baked bread at nearly every other week for the nearly 50 years of our marriage. I really enjoy her bread. During tomato season a BLT, usually without the B, is a frequent feature of my lunch. Colder weather brings out my carefully seasoned cast-iron skillet for grilled cheese with the addition of mustard, then meatloaf or sprouts or Lebanon bologna or whatever compliment is available.

Until my Meniere’s was brought under control bread toasted was a first food welcomed after a bout of nausea. (That and Cheerios which I still associate the Biblical character Legion. After recovery from nausea, getting dressed and eating food again—Cheerios usually—I felt I, like Legion, was “clothed and in my right mind.”)

But bread “of life”? For the first century citizen, according to a bit of research I did, bread made up a third to a half of the diet by volume. On this year’s Thanksgiving Feast table, I am not sure I saw any bread—there was some in the stuffing/filling/dressing. Probably the five loaves and two fishes the boy carried in his bag would give us a volume of ten to one or so. He probably ate the dates his mother packed.

In an era when Wonder Bread was first introduced, Consumer Reports experiments determined that rats could not be kept alive with the bread. How can we gain any sense of Jesus’ “bread of life” saying? Even with the vitaminized version of bread today “in a healthy diet” as the bread loaf label says, do Jesus’ words have any clarity? Has this rumination brought me any closer to a first hearer’s understanding of Jesus’ words? Can the tools of historians and cultural anthropologists cut through the veil of 21 centuries to open up the truth of what Jesus was teaching? Will eating a Biblical diet bring me closer to Jesus?

 

 

Grace for the journey

Do “Marvelous grace” or “Wonderful grace of Jesus” aid us in living as Christians?

Much-loved songs like the ones mentioned above celebrate one kind of grace. Being ‘saved by grace’ is often thought of as referring to a past, usually datable event (at least in my upbringing). “Marvelous grace of Jesus” jumps from the initial experience of grace to the final grace of God’s presence. As joyful as it is to sing, “Wonderful grace of Jesus” wouldn’t it be good if it had a verse celebrating grace for dealing with the issues of life? Due to the familiarity of Eph. 2:8 “By grace are you saved through faith…” grace is most associated with the initial saving event in our lives. Perhaps the importance of grace to that event cannot be overemphasized. But does grace stop there? In the songs referred to above there is a jump from that initial event to heaven. This is the common pattern in many songs and hymns. * A notable exception is the verse from “Amazing Grace” that concludes “’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.” “Open the wells of grace and salvation” comes close. Without mentioning grace other gospel songs reflect the spiritual pilgrimage. But what pattern do we find in the use of grace in the Bible?

Definitions

The word ‘grace’ (NIV) occurs 116 times. Some of them refer in general terms to the goodness of God or signs of the goodness of God, such as in Luke’s account of Jesus: (“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.”; or the description of Stephen in Acts 6:8.) “Grace” and “saved” or “salvation” occur together frequently and are synonymous at places. Salvation, too, has a continuing aspect. While we were saved (past), we are being saved (present), and we will be saved (future). The middle tense of saved is ‘grace connection’ for this essay.

Grace for weakness

Paul in a very familiar passage connects this aspect of God’s goodness to a weakness in his life when he reports that God has told him:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Would it be appropriate to conclude that whenever we become aware of a weakness in our lives, God’s grace is already available to deal with that weakness?

Grace for growing

Beyond using our gifts, especially in giving, God’s grace is available to us for growing as Jesus’ disciples:

“Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:32)

An important part of that growth is seeing the pattern of attitude and behavior of those around us who are not followers of Jesus and determining to live as God created us to live.

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, (Titus 2:11, 12)

Avoiding error by learning more about Jesus will keep us growing.

Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:17-18)

Grace and generosity

Paul seems to see a special kind of grace that leads to generosity with gifts of money.

But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us —see that you also excel in this grace of giving. (2 Cor. 8:7)

Grace gifts

Another part of ‘grace for living’ is “grace gifts”. (The word in Greek for grace is charis, and charismata for grace gifts.) Romans 12:6-8, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Corinthians 12:1-14 give us lists of ‘grace gifts’ that all Jesus’ followers have.

In Hebrews also we are encouraged to use these gifts of grace.

Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. (Heb. 13:10

How is God’s grace working for growth in your life? What songs and hymns have been of help to you?

 

*I would be glad if anyone would bring to my attention songs that include something about ‘grace for living’.

Another patriotism? Love of the Father

Bible Knowledge Quiz

How many times does each of the following phrases occur in the New Testament?

God of hope      God of love      God of peace       God of wrath       God of judgment

[Find the answer below]

What kind of God do you serve and worship? What image of God comes to mind when you think about God? When you feel the need for something or someone beyond yourself for support or comfort, what vision of God do you have or feeling about what God is like?

For me this question was a puzzle, especially when others in the small group talked of a grandfatherly person on whose lap they could climb or a large, fearful elderly person. The only image that came to me was from a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon of Calvin at school. When Calvin was not learning as expected, a large, ugly scary looking teacher grabbed him by the ear and dragged him to the blackboard to ‘teach him’. The other image I had of God was of a very large dark area with bits of light showing around the edges. Later, I realized that image of God looked somewhat like photographs of complete solar eclipse at the height of the eclipse.

What kind of God do you think of when seeing “In God we trust.” on coins? When you recite the new version of the Pledge of Allegiance using the phrase, “under God”? The God of the Hebrew Bible, which we call the Old Testament, is sometimes seen as a violent, revengeful and judging God. That may have been a major component of my image of God. With the benefit of teaching, reading and meditation, I realized that image needed to change. Most important was God’s image/likeness/appearance in Jesus.

From the Bible

Jesus assured us that if we have seen him, we have seen the father. The God that Jesus showed us is a God of love, compassion and justice. Through Jesus we see how God was leading his people in the past and what he was expecting of his people in the future. That includes today. At times governments have expected or required actions of the people of God that differ from our example, Jesus. Often governments have assured citizens that their duty is to kill their enemies, proclaiming the support of God for this. Political leaders declare that duty to the state or patriotism should motivate us to do whatever the commander-in-chief or king or Caesar tell us to do. But is that what the God revealed in Jesus wants us to do? Perhaps redefining ‘patriotism’ can help us think more clearly about how our actions could be guided by the image we have of God as revealed in Jesus.

Patriotism defined

The other ‘patriotism’ I would like to propose is love of our Father in heaven (not the father land). The usual understanding of ‘patriotism’ is love for or devotion to one’s country that includes love of the ‘fatherland.’ Those feeling this kind of patriotism will fly flags, have “God and Country” or “God bless America” bumper stickers and feel having “In God we trust” on our coins is important. Other believers in a more standard patriotism emphasize the importance of protecting family, friends and property and are willing to give and take lives to protect others.

Actually, the root of “patriotism” is the Latin “pater” or Greek “patria” just means father. There is nothing in the word root itself suggesting love of nation/land/country. I am thankful that I was born in the United States. God has blessed us with natural beauty and rich resources. However, at times the activities of our government, its leaders and those who support its purposes conflict with our love of the father. Our heavenly father through his son, Jesus, tells us to love our enemies so that we can share the love that the father has for us with all those who were our enemies.

Our Father, the God of peace

The other patriotism, the love of God the Father, includes living the life and sharing in the death and resurrection that the Son of God experienced. The phrase “God of peace” occurs many more times in the New Testament than the others is a clue to the kind of Father we serve. You check, but the phrases “God of wrath” and “God of judgment” do not appear. “God of hope” and “God of love”, only once each. But, “God of Peace” occurs many times. (From Willard Swartley’s book: Covenant of Peace.)

Can we connect Jesus words: “My kingdom is not of [like] the world’s kingdoms or my servants would fight” in John 18 with later words from Jesus?

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (I John 2:15)

Love of the Father: Another patriotism.

 

 

Exodus to exile

Isaiah 40 : Preparing for the suffering servant

For a people who have been torn from their homeland, their center of worship and perhaps from their God, comfort was needed. So, the prophet begins Isaiah 40 with assurance that their punishment is over, that Yahweh is coming to them with mercy. The Hebrews need to be reminded what their God is doing. The Hebrews that the prophet was writing to, were captives. While one need not think of the Hebrews being in a refugee camp (remember Jeremiah’s instructions to “seek the peace of the city …”) their situation was not pleasant. So the prophet begins his messages with words of comfort.

The New Exodus theme appears a number of places in chapters 40-55 of Isaiah. But Chapter 40 does not make a return to Judea explicit. Israel is told that they will not need to do the fighting to defeat. Just like at the Red Sea, God clears the way. Instead of water pushed aside, roads will be straightened, hills leveled, and valleys filled in to make the journey easier. According to The Message, rocks and ruts will be removed. But, wait— God is coming to His people! That is the way his glory will be revealed.

Then in verse ten the prophet declares what God will do when he arrives. “He is going to pay back his enemies.” There is little detail about the when/how/what of that payback. In contrast with that image of God, the next of God’s word through the prophet returns to the spirit of the first verses of the chapter with the gentle shepherd image.

Acknowledging the God of Judah and Babylon

The prophet’s listeners may have experienced the harrowing journey to Babylon (900 miles-on foot?) or maybe their children heard the stories that were passed down to them. God’s promise to clear the way and take care of the enemy contrasted with what happened about seventy years earlier. The contrast appears also with the Psalm 137 tells us they refused to sing songs of Zion and Ezekiel found a valley of dry bones. So in verses 12-17 the prophet forcefully reminds the Hebrews of their foundational belief in a Creator God of the entire universe. This was not just a God of Judah. Their God is present and in control in Babylon as well.  Then the prophet contrasts God with human creations called gods. Verses 21-24 describe how God maintains the universe. In various ways the power of God over the whole world is emphasized.

Waiting for strength

The first and last sections of Isaiah 40 are the most familiar ones of the chapter due to familiar songs based on them. The “wait” songs should remind us of the connection between 40:28 and 40:31. Both contain the words “weary” and “faint”. Humans may be weary or faint, but God is always strong. In other passages the word, “wait” nearly always comes as a command from God in the context of violence by evil humans.  The “wait” verses in Psalms and the prophets, the oppressors of the poor, weak, or oppressed may have been fellow Hebrews. Here, those waiting to be rescued from the oppressor are all people of God. Here they are given assurance God will be the one to defeat the oppressor. God’s people will be given youthful, eagle-like strength to return to covenant living as God deals with the enemy. But the explicit return to Judah is not made.

Given the beginning of the Isaiah 40, one might assume that the author is encouraging the travelers headed from Babylon to Jerusalem. But could the author’s audience be the Hebrews who stayed in Babylon (were they a majority of the Hebrews)? Next we need to ask, for what are God’s people to wait? The first verses of the chapter suggest a road or path is being prepared. But even though the prophet mentions Jerusalem, I don’t find the text making the return to Judah the focus. Due to the use of Handel’s Messiah, “Comfort ye”, “He shall lead his flock” and “And the glory”, we think of Isa. 40 as a Christmas passage. But Isaiah 40 may be leading us toward Easter. Isaiah 41-53 tells us about the suffering servant. But if we are to think of the suffering servant “waiting,” that seems at odds to “rising up with wings like eagles”. Perhaps Isaiah 40 points toward the suffering servant looking forward to the vindication of his/their suffering.

Waiting On God An exploration of the basis for the new testament peace witness in the first (old) testament

The Psalmist counsels us “wait on the Lord”! What do you think of or imagine yourself doing in response to this counsel? In what situations have you recalled passages from the Bible that include this phrase? In the passages below, what is the context of the word “wait” or “waiting”? In the past I have thought of “waiting” as suggesting prayer and meditation. Is this made explicit in the text?

For the subjects of the Psalm, what would be the alternative to “waiting”? What more than prayer in suggested by “waiting”? How often does the “waiting” command come in the context of violence? What is the significance of this?

Psalm 33:  16-22

16 The king is not saved by his great army;
a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
17 The war horse is a false hope for salvation,
and by its great might it cannot rescue.

18 Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,
on those who hope in his steadfast love,
19 that he may deliver their soul from death
and keep them alive in famine.

20 Our soul waits for the Lord;
he is our help and our shield.
21 For our heart is glad in him,
because we trust in his holy name.
22 Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
even as we hope in you.

Psalm 37:(5-9) 14-15, 32-34

14 The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
to bring down the poor and needy,
to slay those whose way is upright;
15 their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.

32 The wicked watches for the righteous
and seeks to put him to death.
33 The Lord will not abandon him to his power
or let him be condemned when he is brought to trial.

34 Wait for the Lord and keep his way,
and he will exalt you to inherit the land;
you will look on when the wicked are cut off.

(See below for a list of similar passages*)

In Psalm 33 use of the word “wait” is preceded by description of violence against the people of God. (“Whether the king is to use his great army or not is not clarified.) Action by God’s people is not needed. Waiting leads to affirmation of God’s presence and control of the situation. Note the words “help”, “trust”, “hope” as helper words for “wait”.

In Psalm 37 the situation is bleak. Not just the people of God are the target of the forces of evil, but specifically “the poor and needy”. Violence is what evil people do. In the end “the wicked [will be] cut off”. The people of God “wait” and “keep his way”. Keeping God’s way (v. 34) refers to covenant/Torah behavior. In Isaiah 40, the setting is a bit different. While in these Psalms there is the implication that God will overpower the enemy or the evil Hebrews, that is not as clear in Isa.40:28-31. Is the vindication of the “suffering servant” what one is to wait for?  (See my blog on Isa. 40, “Exodus to Exile”)

Waiting and then what?

Are these “wait” passages behind Paul’s instructions in Romans 12:19 and following? “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19 with Deut. 32:35)? How is Paul’s reminder related to the need to wait? The normal response to violence is vengeance.  Note surrounding the “vengeance” command we are encouraged to “love”, “seek peace”, and “feed” [your] enemy”. Here we have some of the things from the life and teachings of Jesus that are to the focus the people of God while waiting for God to act.

The “First” Testament basis for the peace understanding of Anabaptists needs further exploration. While there is much violence found in the first testament, the new testament affirms the contrasting thread lifted out here that calls for us to wait on God. From God comes protection and vengeance/justice.

 

*Similar passages are:  Psalm 25:1-5, Psalm 27: 11-14, Psalm 62:1-7 (See also, Psalm 40:1-3—no suggestion of violence in this passage), Psalm 130:1-6, Proverbs 20:22, Lamentations 3:13-26, Isaiah 30:15-18 (the word “rest” is used in this passage), Micah 7:2-3, 7; Isaiah 40:28-31 (God has just “rescued” Israel from Babylon), Isa. 64:1-4, Zephaniah 3:8

Related concept:

“The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:14).

Not Just for Preachers — Living our call in all of life

Our small church was in a time of leadership transition and the overseer was visiting. He asked me if I had a call to serve the church.  I was in my forties and had thought about the question and responded to what I sensed was his question: “I have not identified within myself a leading of the spirit to the pulpit ministry.” He asked no further questions.   He didn’t seem interested in my struggle with how I could best serve God in the church and beyond. Sometime later a young man from the congregation began pastoral leadership in our congregation. We were discussing some issue and he responded that his views should have greater weight because he had been ‘called.’ Later a friend reminded me that Paul’s lists of qualification for ministry do not include having a CALL.

First look at call

You have all been called to follow Christ. Just as Jesus called disciples and the Spirit called Paul at Damascus, everyone hearing the gospel has a call to follow and serve Jesus. Most Christians would agree with these two sentences. [This use of the word call will appear in lower case letters.]   In the Bible there are many ordinary uses of the word “call” such as “request to come” or to give someone a name. Paul uses the word ‘call’ refer to the spirit’s leading or God’s encouraging us to follow Jesus. For example:

For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. 1Th 4:7

To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ–their Lord and ours: (1Co 1:2)

Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, 2Pet.1:10

We are all called to become Christ ‘s followers. Our call includes doing as Jesus’ disciples did, whether it is holding the baskets to collect the leftovers after the feeding of the 5,000 or going to the village for food while Jesus talked to a woman of Samaria or going out like the seventy-two to announce the coming of the kingdom. As Paul was directed to take the gospel to the gentiles, our call also includes making tents while talking about Jesus to shoppers.

CALL as a special experience

At one point the Mennonite Church had a program to address our concern over the lack of candidates for pastoral office. “Culture of CALL” initiative encourages people with pastoral and administrative skills to consider church ministry, usually on a full-time basis. Historical shifts of the past century (status and difficulties of church workers, a shift away from use of the lot, and perhaps opening of the pastorate to women (and probably other factors) have affected the drawing of young people to church work. But if everyone is called, why are we speaking of CALL in the specific sense regarding Christians entering church offices? What is the origin of the use of the word ‘call’ to mean a special leading of the spirit to service and leadership in the church. Almost always people experiencing a CALL in this sense are already Christians. [I will use the CALL to indicate this specific use.]

The word call in the Bible

Gospel writers sometimes use the word ‘call’ in reporting Jesus’ inviting the disciples to follow him. Paul does refer to himself as being called to be an apostle in the salutation of two letters

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, (Ro 1:1.) Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, (1Co 1:1)

Are these references to Paul’s Damascus experience? Was that a conversion experience, a vocation change invitation or both? Prior to his ‘call’ was he (were the disciples) a follower(s) of Christ? Paul, in discussing the office of elder/bishop/overseer and deacons, does not list “call” as one of the qualifications. These servants of the church, of course, had a call that led to their salvation. One passage that includes both the word call and speaks of church offices is Eph. 4.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Eph. 4:1

In Acts 13:2 we are told that the Spirit has “called” Barnabas and Paul to a particular task. Does this imply a lifetime leading? When speaking of the leading of the spirit to church office, the Paul does not use the word ‘call’. Is the pattern of use of the word ‘call’ in the New Testament reflected in our use today?

Finally, Paul uses the word church, ecclesia, as the distinctive term for followers of Jesus. This word is defined as the “called out ones”

Uses of the term CALL in the church

The probable origin of the use of the word CALL for full time church workers is the development of a two-tiered spirituality after the establishment of the state church under Constantine. According to this tradition, Jesus had a special spiritual vocation/calling as Messiah. Since it was his ‘vocation’ to suffer and die, the events of his life are not a norm or example for us to follow. Some Christians like Jesus have a ‘spiritual’ rather than a temporal or secular vocation and receive a special “call.”   These are the people who become priests and nuns. The laity did not need to follow Christ closely in spirituality, direction for Christian service or service in the military. Priests, for instance, were expected to be pacifists, but not the average Christian. At the time of the Reformation, some claimed that only the ordained were CALLED and part of the church.   Taking issue with this separation of life into secular and spiritual, Anabaptist sought to recover the sense of following Christ in all of our lives. They insisted that those called were to follow Christ in ‘churchly’ activities, work and all of our daily lives.

The word CALL identifies the leading of the spirit, the thinking of the individual and counseling by other Christians directed toward individuals considering full time work in the church, especially the pastorate. This term is generally not used for those who are considering other careers or occupations.     (Some have worked to extend this sense of a special leading of the Spirit to all work situations.) I wonder if this focus places unnecessary stresses both on those considering church work and on those considering secular jobs?   For those with gifts and skills suitable for the pastorate or full time church work, there is pressure to expect a high intensity and memorable experience (probably datable) of the Spirit’s leading to full time church work. On the other hand, devout followers of Christ seeking the leading of the Spirit for work direction or job change who desire to serve God in their work and in their non-vocational time may wonder how God leads them differently. Does using the impetus of the concept of CALL accomplish in a scripturally sound way (as interpreted above) the important job of encouraging individuals into missionary or pastoral positions? If we used “call” in the scriptural sense for persons entering “secular” work would they better understanding that work as a way of serving Christ?

Living out our call

Let’s find ways of encouraging and aiding people making decisions about their life’s work. Initial career choice or later changes are major life milestones at which fellow Christians should provide support for one another.   Finding a job in which we can honor and glorify God requires the spirit’s leading within us, as well. To cooperate with the spirit’s leading and to work with the spirit in aiding all Christians in career choice, we should affirm that

  1. Serving the church/extend the kingdom is an important responsibility of all Christians.
  2. Serving Christ in one’s vocation is part of every Christian’s calling.
  3. Encouraging fellow Christians to make the best use of their gifts is an important task for the people of God.
  4. Challenging jobs such as the full-time pastorate or outreach in difficult areas may require encouragement from others, and extra prayer and courage by the one making the choice.

God’s call comes to all people. Those who respond are called to salvation and a life of serving God. Let those who answer God’s call live all their life in response to the call.