The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
For the past several Sundays, we’ve been looking at the journey of discipleship. Through Scripture, we’re called to be disciples in the familiar places in our lives. And we’re called to travel light and not be distracted. And we’re called to be compassionate and to feed God’s children ourselves. And we’re called to row our boat in the storm, trusting that Christ is present in that boat with us. All those wonderful Jesus stories we’ve heard over the past several weeks that have held important lessons for us–But lots of times all of that can seem very hard. Discipleship can seem dauntingly difficult—hard work.
So it’s not surprising that we fail to be disciples, a lot. Good ones, anyway. & It boils down to this. Here’s the dis-ease: I don’t think discipleship would seem so hard if we really, really believed in our hearts and in our bones that God’s love is so freely and abundantly offered through Christ. Because isn’t discipleship really just modeling that kind of love freely and abundantly offered? Modeling the love of Christ?
But, often, we don’t really believe it, do we? So in a thousand ways we quit modeling love freely and abundantly given. And that’s when we fail to be disciples. And we fail over and over again….And its frustrating.
And when we get frustrated like that, sometimes we look at God and say, “Okay, this is hard. You’re asking a lot of me, and I’m trying, but I keep messing it up. & it’s frustrating to me, and, By God, I want some proof that it’s not all for nothing. I want some proof that you are who you say you are, that you’ll do what you say you’ll do, that you will do something for me. What’s in it for me–this discipleship stuff? Show me a sign! Make my belief easier! Show me something cool, something I can believe in, something that makes me say, “Wow!” and then I’ll believe. I’ll follow.”
And that’s what the crowd wants from Jesus, too. He’s just done a miracle, feeding 5000 people with five loaves and two fish, and they follow him. And Jesus says to them, “Look, quit following me around because you think I’m good for a free lunch or a magic show. I’m not a magician and I’m not a meal ticket. I fed you to teach you about God’s gift. This isn’t about food which perishes.This is about food which endures for eternal life.”
Jesus—as he always did—is using a metaphor to talk about the love of God. He knew that one has to use poetry and metaphor to talk about God’s love because it’s too big—so much greater than anything we can express directly. So, He uses the image of food (bread) and sustenance to express the gift of God’s love.
And the crowd responds just like we do: They aren’t any better at accepting gifts than we are. They say, “That sounds good. What do we have to do to get it (this bread)?” But Jesus won’t let them earn it. He insists that it be a gift. So he says, “You just have to believe in me. That’s all. & Accept the gift.”
So now they are where we are. Both of us have been told that what we have to do—all that we have to do—is believe in our hearts and in our bones that God’s love is abundantly and freely offered in Jesus.
And they respond in just the way we often respond. They ask for a sign to make belief easier—to assure them that they will get something out of it. They say, “Make manna fall from heaven like in the days of the Moses.”
But Jesus says, “You still don’t get it, do you? I’m not going to help you with easy belief by showing you this sign.” What Jesus is asking for is not an easy faith based on seeing miracles or magic tricks. He doesn’t want people to follow him because he can do these kinds of amazing things. That’s a faith from outside. A performance-based, proof-based faith, a faith that’s easy to have and easy to follow because someone performs well or gives you proof. And that’s really no faith at all. That’s the kind of belief we have in quarterbacks or baseball pitchers. While they’reperforming well, they’re heros. But when they stop performing, they’re discarded, like yesterday’s news.
Sometimes that’s the kind of belief we have in each other.
Sometimes we get angry at underprivileged people because we try to help them and they don’t perform the way we want them to.
Sometimes we believe in and love our children because they perform well. Sometimes married couples lose their faith in each other because one of them stops meeting the other’s needs and desires. “You’re not doing what I married you for. You’re not giving me the income, or the status, or the attractiveness, or the attention,” or whatever.
That kind of performance-based belief just doesn’t have endurance. It won’t last. Because when the performance stops, so does the belief.
Jesus knew that when God sent manna to the Israelites the first time, they believed, but only until they got real thirsty. Then God had to send them water from a rock. And that only held them for a little while, until they decided they wanted meat.
Performance-based belief is shallow and fleeting and unsatisfying, and it isn’t the kind of belief that Jesus wants us to have in him. So he wouldn’t perform for the crowd, and he won’t perform for us. We don’t earn God’s love, and Jesus won’t allow us to make God earn ours.
Instead, he says, “Accept the gift. Just accept in your hearts and in your bones that I love you. God is giving you, right now, right now, the bread you need. Don’t believe in me because of what I can do for you. Don’t love me for that. Love me because I love you. Just because I love you. And I love you even when you’re not very good disciples, when you’re not performing well. Even when you fail me, I love you.”
There’s the manna.That’s the bread we eat for the rest of our lives. The gift of God’s love. And we take it in and digest it and it becomes a part of us, part of our hearts and our bones. It becomes who we are.
And the Eucharist—communion—is a symbol for that: it’s poetry and metaphor and, at the same time, the real presence and mystery of God’s love. When my son, Ian, was about three years old, I overheard him one day explaining communion to one of his friends. I didn’t hear the whole conversation, but I think I heard the most important part. He said, “…and then the priest gives you the bread, and you eat it, and that’s how Jesus gets inside us.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better explanation of the Eucharist than that. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a statement on the theology of the Eucharist quite so profound.
We’re not disciples first, who work for God’s bread. We don’t earn it. God doesn’t have a performance-based belief in us, and thank God for that or we’d all be pretty hungry. But it is by God’s gift and love, and our acceptance of it, that we become disciples.
So when we say to Jesus, “Give us Proof that this isn’t all for nothing,” it’s as misguided as the call for him to make the manna fall. When we’re really being disciples of Jesus, we’re not doing it to try to earn anything from God, –and we aren’t doing charity, or loving our children, or treating a spouse or neighbor with dignity and respect, because its what we’re supposed to do or because of what we think we might get out of it from the person we’re helping, or from those watching, or even because we think it will get us into heaven. That’s all performance-based belief, and Jesus says that should not be—cannot be—our motivation.
Instead, we’re disciples because we’re aware of how freely and abundantly God’s love is offered in Christ, and we are responding to God’s gift of love, with the gift of our own love. So we do the hard job of discipleship not to get the bread, but because we know in our hearts and in our bones that we are constantly sustained by the feast of God’s abundant love, and we can’t help but respond by wanting to invite the whole world to the banquet—so that we can share that same kind of love.
Then we are really disciples. And you know, when you think about it, it really doesn’t seem so hard, does it? Not when we realize that our discipleship is our gift of love to a God who loves us so much.When we know in our hearts and in our bones that we are fed and sustained by the true Bread of Life, Jesus Christ our Lord.
When we know it is the true gift and the true love of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.