Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
John 6:24-35 (New International Version)
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.”
(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Ephesians 4:1-16 (New International Version)
This Gospel reading selects just the few verses between the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, Jesus walking on the water and the crowd’s response to Jesus’ statement that he is the Bread of Life, and then it leaves us in suspense.
And as a preacher I must admit when I first looked at the reading I thought there’d been a mistake! What could these verses possibly be saying today? But as I also looked at the associated reading from Ephesians, there seemed to be a common theme, as both ask their audience to examine how they are living their lives.
The crowd in the Gospel reading spent a lot of time and energy searching for Jesus, not because of who he was, or because of why he came to earth, but because he could give them an easier life by supplying a very basic physical need, food, and provide it for free.
In every nation and culture today, people in one way or another also spend a lot of time and effort making sure they have enough to live on. And there is nothing wrong in providing for our need. However, in the Gospel reading, Jesus told the crowd there was something even more important than providing their physical needs, and that was making provision for eternity.
Recently, I heard a talk where the speaker said he’d just written his own obituary! He wasn’t ill or anything, but had suddenly decided it would be a good thing to do. And humorously he told us some of the things he’d considered putting in it. But though he’d begun writing it light-heartedly, in the end, he’d found it harder than he’d expected. What did he really want to be remembered for, what was going to be of lasting value after his death? And having written the obituary the speaker then realized that if this is what he wanted to be said at the end of his life, he’d better start living like it now!
And this is what both the Gospel and Epistle are saying. Jesus and Paul are asking their listeners, ‘How are you living your lives? What are you giving your time and energy to?’ Jesus tells the crowd that their primary concern should be their relationship with God, their spiritual lives, and eternity. Flour and water may satisfy our hunger in the short term, but Jesus will sustain us now through all the pressures of life, and beyond death to eternity.
Jesus is saying to the crowd, Don’t just use your life, your time, talents and energy fulfilling earthbound wants and needs; remember, think about and make provision for your eternal needs too. In both the Gospel and Epistle the people are challenged about how they are living their lives, and are reminded they should be living them in the light of eternity.
And today, both readings ask us the same questions. What do we set our hearts on – what do we labour and work for – what are our hopes and dreams? What would you like to be said in your obituary? What might our lives look like if we are truly living as God’s children with our eye always on eternity?
Paul in Ephesians gives us some idea as he encourages his readers to live a life worthy of their calling as God’s children.
It is a life of humility, gentleness, patience, and showing forbearance to one another in love. It is a life of diligence and working to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. It is a life of prayer and service, of growing in maturity and love and of building others up so our lives and the Church’s life bring glory to God. It sounds wonderful, but it is not the normal thing one reads in an obituary, which is often more about the individual’s social standing, accolades and personal achievements.
So how do we get a balance between the very real need to provide for our physical needs of food, shelter and clothing, whilst maturing our spiritual lives and building up the the Church? How do we lead lives that are worthy of our calling as God’s children?
Firstly, we need to remember who God is, and that he knows our needs and makes provision for them, God is the God that counts the hairs on our head, and has promised he is like a good father who will not give us a stone or scorpion when we ask for what we need. In other words we need to ask God to provide and sustain all our normal human needs which may be different from our wants.
Also, we need to remember that as Christians we are not isolated individuals, but part of the body of Christ. And in the early Church this is where the disciples really began to discover they didn’t need just the apostles, but a whole range of people with different skills who could minister to the widows, and organize feeding programs, and finance them, as well as those who could preach and teach.
Today, just like the first Christians, we are called to be part of the body of Christ, God’s Church, and called to live lives that maintain the unity in that body. As Paul described in that wonderful image of the limb being joined and held together by all the muscles and ligaments each doing their own bit to make it all work. And as the history of this Benefice shows, that is not always easy to do.
Since childhood I’ve loved watching the Red Arrows fly their formations in midair. They are amazing, so I was fascinated when I read an article about how they select the pilots. They take days over the process and ensure the candidates are competent flyers and capable of working as part of a team. But they needed this long and complicated process because if one pilot suddenly decides to do their own thing in the middle of an air show display, there would be a horrendous disaster.
Like an orchestra, the pilots have to work as one, even though each pilot is different, does different things and uses different skills. And this takes practice and humility, and working for the good of the team rather than their own glory. They have to lean forbearance, gentleness when correcting, and be diligent in their training and learning. In other words, the pilots need the same skills that the Ephesians needed to maintain unity in the Church, but they don’t come naturally to humanity, nor are they skills that receive much praise.
In our world today we are largely encouraged to live for ourselves and for the moment, but our Bible readings challenge this, and call us to live our lives as part of a greater whole, and with eternity as our timescale. Living our lives as a body doesn’t mean we will become clone-like or always agree, but it does mean, that as a Church, or a Benefice, we will set our minds and hearts on being one, and will be patient with each other and forbearing.
We will commit to pray and listen to God and allow time for each other to grow and mature at God’s pace. We will have God’s expectations and not impose our own on others, or ourselves. We will also be looking to see the gifts God has given to the Church, and encouraging, developing and enabling each other to grow into these gifts. And we will know the hope that Jesus is the head of this body, and can bring about all that he calls the body to be.
Paul lists a few of the gifts God gives to his Church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. And I can name a few more: intercessors, readers of the Bible, encouragers, financiers, artists, sidespeople and those who welcome, cooks and washer-uppers, musicians - in fact anyone who uses their God-given gifts for God’s glory and to build up and strengthen the Church.
Today the longest obituaries go to the famous and high achievers, but Paul is saying in Ephesians our obituary should not be about what we as individuals have achieved, but how much our lives have glorified God and strengthened the unity of body. And the difficulty with this is that so often we have no idea just how much our small word of encouragement strengthened someone, or our smile, cup of coffee, picture or piece of music enabled someone to face the next day, which is why, for Christians, their real obituary will come when they see God face to face and he says words like, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant', or 'When you did it to the least of these brothers and sisters, you did it to me.’
Together the readings from the Gospel and Epistle remind us that our lives are heaven-bound and should not be lived in isolation or for our own ends. We are part of a Church that is called to serve a hurting world, and bring it God’s message of hope. And we will be most effective when we work together.
And so to end, our lives need to be lived very practically on earth, but in the light and reality of eternity, and as Bishop Nicholas suggests, they should be lived in prayer, service and growth, so that together we can be a strong and healthy body, living out the hope God has given us, and being now the obituary we would like to hear at the end of our earthly life.