The question that will not go away…
One of my favourite writers is Philip Yancey. One of the reasons is that he has the knack of putting the thoughts that swirl around in my mind on paper in a way that… well, just makes sense.
The reason I started reading his works was because of the title of one of his biggest sellers: ‘Where is God when it hurts?’ In it he asks the questions that are probably the most asked in our world: ‘Why does God let that happen?’, ‘Where was God when I needed him?’, ‘How can so much evil exist in this world and what is God doing about it?’, ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’, and so on…
He revisited these questions in his book ‘The Question that never goes away.’ In it he speaks of a visit to Sarajevo – the city besieged for 4 years during the Yugoslavian civil war in the 90’s – and he pondered how ordinary people – neighbours, friends, even family – could commit such cruel and evil atrocities against each other.
Of course these questions have always been asked and will continue to be asked, because, as the poet – Steve Turner – reflects:
‘History repeats itself… It has to. Nobody listens.’
The sad truth is that much of the evil that goes on in the world can be traced back to the actions of individuals – things that we say and do – that are never challenged or dealt with and instead are allowed to grow and mutate and like the ‘Butterfly Effect’, something small and innocuous, can result in something so destructive. I’m reminded of the chorus of the Rolling Stones’ song, ‘Gimme Shelter’:
‘War… It’s just a shot away.’
How we are to live…
Paul in his letter to the Ephesians seems to understand this and he is writing to this young Christian community, urging its members to be mindful of how they treat and care for each other. The letter could be seen as a picture of how the Church could be and should be, and an encouragement for these new Christians to be the people God needs them to be if this Good News is going to spread, and if the Church was going to grow.
And it starts with them… And us… (Ephesians 4:25-31)
• No more lying. Each of you must tell the truth to each other.
• Do not let your anger lead you into sin, and do not stay angry all day.
• Don’t give the Devil a chance.
• Earn an honest living for yourself and to be able to help the poor.
• Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up.
• Do not make God’s Holy Spirit sad; for the Spirit is God’s mark of ownership on you.
• Get rid of all bitterness and anger. No more shouting or insults, no more hateful feelings of any sort.
Imagine what being part of that worshipping community must have been like! If ever there was a picture of a dysfunctional Church this is it.
Church is meant to be a place of welcome and safety; a place where people are accepted as they are; are shown love, kindness, friendship; a place to learn and grow in faith and love; a place of trust…
Instead, the Church in Ephesus seemed to be a place of distrust; of suspicion; of back-biting; a place of lies and deceit; of harmful words and bitterness.
How could faith grow in a place like that? How could the people of Ephesus come to know true forgiveness, salvation and peace, if what was happening inside the Church was no different to what was happening outside?
Of course we should be thankful that things are not like that today in our churches, eh?…
Yes, that last sentence was written ‘tongue in cheek’. I know most of you reading this will be thinking about your church or worshipping community and sadly, you will be able to relate to some, if not all of what Paul is saying.
A Christian community is no different from any other community in the sense that it is a group of people who a fallible, sinful and can very easily forget what it is that holds them together. When that happens we start adopting the values of those living outside the Church and the way we relate to and treat each other in the Church is no different from how we relate to and treat each other outside.
And going back to how I introduced this talk, it can be the ‘little’ things: the hurtful word; a bit of gossip; a ‘white’ lie, that if not dealt with could lead to so much pain and suffering within a Christian community. This isn’t about God allowing it or abandoning us, it is about us ignoring God and how He wants us to live.
Where a Christian community should be different is in the way we love each other, care for each other and treat each other. But that, Paul says, can only happen when we fully grasp what being a Christian and being Church is about.
Living in Christ…
Instead, be kind and tender-hearted to one another, and forgive one another, as God has forgiven you through Christ. Ephesians 4:32
That is how Church should be. That is how a Christian community should be. That is how a Church grows and how our family, friends, and neighbours can know for themselves salvation and eternal life.
People in our communities should look at us and the way we relate to each other and want to be a part of our Church. And Paul understands this and that is why he is writing this letter, wanting the Church to be united – to be one – and to share the Good News of God’s kingdom with the world.
But Paul also understands that this isn’t something we can do on our own. It isn’t just a matter of trying to live better lives. Remember, we are a sinful people and sadly, we will always fall short. Instead, Paul urges us to be Christlike.
Since you are God’s dear children, you must try to be like him.
Your life must be controlled by love, just as Christ loved us and gave his life for us as a sweet-smelling offering and sacrifice that pleases God. Ephesians 5:1-2.
The Bread of life…
The greatest revelation for me was realising that Jesus Christ was truly alive; that he died for me; and that I could be forgiven and know eternal life. It really was a life-changing event. It gave me a whole new way of looking a the world. As Paul says earlier in this letter:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith… Not by works so that no-one can boast. Ephesians 2:8,9
This is all about grace – God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. It’s about Jesus. If we want to be a Church that is growing; where people can find true love and forgiveness; real meaning and purpose; certainty for the future, then we need to be like Christ.
In the Gospel reading Jesus uses this wonderful phrase:
I am the bread of life. Those who come to me will never be hungry. Those who believe in me will never thirst. John 6:35
What a wonderful image! Bread is the staple of life. It is often the basis of our diets, it is the foundation of the nutrition that keeps us alive. And Jesus is saying the same about himself. I am what you need to live. You want to know fulness of life? Then come to me. You will never hunger and thirst for meaning, purpose; certainty and security, for you will find it all in me.
That’s what he had to offer the crowds that came to him that day, but they missed the point and therefore, the opportunity. The previous day they had been part of the thousands that had been fed to overflowing with just a few loaves and fish. But instead of understanding that Jesus had the power to transform their lives, they just came for more food. They just wanted a free meal that day. But Jesus had so much more to give:
“I am telling you the truth: he who believes has eternal life.
I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died…
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If you eat this bread, you will live forever. The bread that I will give you is my flesh, which I give so that the world may live.” John 6:47-49, 51
Why do you worship? Why do you go to church? Is it just to get some food for that day? If it is then, yes you will receive for that day, but you will miss out on so much and so will your community, because you will continue to be hungry and thirsty for God and will have no time (or thought) for those on the outside, who don’t know this Good News.
Jesus wants us to eat and drink of Him; to be filled with His Spirit; to know life in its fulness. To do that we need, as Paul says, to be like Christ.
Come to Him each and every day. Pray to Him always and read His word. Actively seek to share the Good News with your family, friends and neighbours. Not only will you find that your hunger and thirst for God will be satisfied, but also your church will grow as people look at you and your fellow believers and want to belong .