First Reading:

35Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, I am the bread that came down from heaven. 42They were saying, Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, 'I have come down from heaven'? 43Jesus answered them, Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

John 6:35,41-51

Second Reading:

25So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil. 28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

5 1Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Ephesians 4:22-5:2

So today's the day the rules about time begin to change… of course they're not in full force until the 20th of September, but it begins today because today is the day preseason NFL football kicks off. When September 20th rolls around, the time the service gets out carries much more importance than it does over the summer because for 10 out of the next twelve weeks, the Redskins play at 1:00 on Sunday afternoon… When you're in a new place and a new culture it's interesting to observe how the rules get communicated because they inevitably do… one way or another we learn what we are expected to do and what we are supposed to do to fit in with the particular norms of the culture… Here at the United Parish, I have to say, you've been good to me, you let me know upfront and in no uncertain terms that for about half the year, during football season, especially on Redskin game days, there are different rules about time.

I read today's passage from Ephesians a couple of weeks ago and I started paying attention to the way rules get communicated in our society… I took some of the youth from the church to Six Flags the other day and I was amazed that they post their rules all over the place… I don't actually remember what any of the rules were but I remember that there were signs on garbage cans, in the bathrooms, even posted in the middle of the walkways telling everyone what was acceptable behavior while they're in the amusement park. It's brilliant if you ask me… then no one can claim that they don't know the rules… at least the rules that are on the signs.

In the last few weeks, I've travelled on airplanes and buses, I've been to a couple of different pools and gyms, my family and I stayed at a time share unit, two sets of grandparents houses, two friends houses and our own home and in each of those places I watched how the rules get established and communicated. Some places, like airplanes, you get pictures that tell you things like not to open the door if there is visible flame on the outside of the plane. Some places you get lists, check out time is 10:30… place all your dirty dishes in the dishwasher and turn it on before you leave. Some places you should know what's expected… we don't eat in the living room… and I'm learning that when you travel with kids, sometimes you need to make up the rules as you go along. You know the kinds of rules… Hey, hey- you're only allowed to squirt people who have a squirt gun… you're only allowed to throw soft things at each other…

But perhaps my favorite genre of rules that I've seen in the last few weeks comes in the form of literature, specifically the books they produce for toddlers. For those of you who may not know what I'm talking about, I brought an example. This is Polite as a Princess … one of Natalie and Michaela's favorite books and I've probably read this a couple hundred, thousand… I don't know maybe even a million times. On each page there are instructions in manners. It goes through saying please and thank you, sharing and cleaning up after yourself. It touches on many of the basic manners of polite society…

Now, for most of the other rules I've mentioned, the rules tend to serve the rule maker. They revolve around either increasing safety like on the plane and the amusement park or reducing the amount of time required by the one who made the rules, like the check-out rules and not eating in the living room. Likewise most of the other rules I've mentioned have some sort of negative consequence: if you preach long on a week the Redskins play at 1:00, some people might get up and leave… if you break the rules at Six Flags, you may be kicked out of the park. If you open an airplane door when you can see fire, besides the fact that you're in trouble anyway, you might also get burned.

But Polite as a Princess has a different sort of model. It starts out on the first page by saying It's important to have good manners. If you are nice to others, they will be nice to you. I'm not sure that statement is empirically true but it gives insight into motivation. Why in the world would we want to follow what this little book says? Well it tells you on the first page… if you follow these rules, your life will be better. Likewise the consequences of the book are laid out on the last page, and they have to do with identity. The last page tells you A princess is a polite young lady. Don't you want to be just like a princess? Well, no, I don't but there are thousands of three year old girls out there who probably do. And they just might adopt some of the behaviors in this book because they've heard a million times that this is the way to be just like a princess.

Now there's no doubt that part of the goal of Paul's letter to the Ephesians is to teach new Christians what right behavior looks like in concrete examples, but for Paul, the change in behavior is never about a change for change's sake. It's not about change so that the world can be a better place or even so that the Christian community can be built up. Those things may be beneficial byproducts, but they aren't the ultimate goal. For Paul, the end goal is actually connecting right relationship to renewed behavior… it's a shift in identity. You may have noticed that I added a few verses to the beginning of the reading that's printed in the bulletin. As I was praying over this passage, trying to figure out what holds it all together, what is the unifying principal, I realized that the people who put together the lectionary broke the reading in a place that separated a thought. The behaviors Paul talked about are a result of new life in Christ. Let me read again what Paul wrote to the Ephesians in the verses preceding our passage: You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lust, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

I just imagine people questioning as Paul spoke to them about new life in Christ and from then until now the question never seemed to go away… What does new life look like? I mean really, what must I do to receive this new life? You may remember Jesus answered a similar question once… And so when Paul wrote, he gave concrete examples that showed the contrast behaviors associated with the old-self and behaviors associated with the new-self: in verse 25, falsehood or speaking truth; in verses 26-7, honest emotional response or suppressing and holding in anger; in verse 28, advancing yourself at the expense of others or doing honest work; in verse 29 speaking in a way that tears down community or speaking in a way that builds up community; and in verses 31-2 harboring grudges and holding onto grievances or offering forgiveness and showing kindness.

Paul knew that one of the pitfalls of faithful living has always been to take the idea of a renewed life and reduce it to a list of rules. So as he gave examples of contrasting behaviors, he also intertwined four reasons for choosing the right behaviors. —

The first from verse 25: we are members of one another. As followers of Christ we aren't strangers and we aren't acquaintances; even if we don't know each other at all, we are part of the same body, the body of Christ living in the world. As we harm one member we harm the body as we build up one member we build up the body. Second reason from verse 28: To have something to share with the needy. On the socioeconomic grid, there will always be people better off than each of us and there will always be people worse off than each of us. Part of what it means to be a follower of Christ is that we are more concerned with looking down the grid and doing what we can do to help the people we find there, rather than looking up the grid and doing what we can to help ourselves get there… this is concrete sacrificial love. Third reason: Verse 30: you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. There is a promise that comes with following Christ. And that promise is redemption; in the fullness of time there will be a new heaven and a new earth where justice and peace will reign and where health and wholeness will be the norm. We haven't seen it yet but as followers of Christ, this is where our hope resides. And the Fourth reason, verse 32: God in Christ has forgiven you. We live grace and forgiveness because we have received grace and forgiveness. It is God's gift to us and God's action in the person of Jesus Christ that makes right relationship possible.

Building up community, sacrificial love, holding onto hope and living grace and forgiveness: these aren't just the motivating factors for choosing right behavior according to Paul, they're also markers of growing in the identity of a follower of Christ. In the last couple of verses of our reading, Paul says to be imitators of God and to live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us… after all, Jesus Christ was the concrete example of what a life lived in God looks like. This passage wasn't intended to be some sort of a list of rules to make someone a Christian... rules can't do that anymore than being polite can make you a princess… The passage is intended to be a picture of new life in Christ. It's an invitation and a call to continually choose new life by saying yes to God, not because of who we are but because of who God is, not because of what we do but because of what God has done. Not out of our own initiative but because God reached out to us while we were still sinners and said you are important to me. That's the location of identity for the new life in Christ and Paul calls us to remember it always because when we act out of that place within us, the new identity becomes second nature as we continually grow into imitators of God.

The foregoing sermon was given by Rev. Dan Holland at the United Parish of Bowie on August 9, 2009.

© 2009 Daniel Holland