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Pentecost 10

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost 

Readings: 2 Samuel 11:26–12:13a; Ephesians 4:1–16 & John 6:24–35

In the late nineteenth–century, the established patriarchy in the United States came under threat, surprisingly not so much from calls for women to be granted the vote and access to higher education, but from of all things, the bicycle! In particular, it was the actual act of riding that upset male society so much. Riding a bike in a dress of the day would have been virtually impossible, and the idea of a woman wearing trousers in order to ride would have been unthinkable. So the lawmakers made it illegal for a woman to ride a bike. 

Perhaps the most deceitful attempt to stop women from taking up the healthy activity of cycling came from the medical profession. “They warned of the terrifying female–only condition called ‘Bicycle Face’”. The Literary Digest of 1895 actually printed this warning: ‘Overexertion in the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted bicycle face.’

In a way, this was an abuse of power on the part of the medical profession, a profession which obviously held considerable authority and sway, and that used such authority and sway to attempt to deny women access to an activity as simple and harmless as riding a bike. A more recent, and notable abuse of power, is the treatment that Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein inflicted on countless numbers of women in the film industry. He used his position of authority and influence within the film industry to satisfy his own sexual desires.

We see a similar situation with King David and Bathsheba in our reading this morning from the Second Book of Samuel. David forced himself sexually upon Bathsheba. When she became pregnant by him and David was unable to get her husband, Uriah, to sleep with her because he was loyally committed to the battle against the King’s enemies, David ordered that the innocent man be sent to the front line, where he was killed. How do you confront someone who commands such vast authority and power as David, and who uses his position to commit atrocious evil?

This is the situation the prophet Nathan finds himself in. As God’s mouthpiece, Nathan is compelled to hold David accountable before God for his immoral actions. But put yourself in Nathan’s shoes. David did not hesitate to send Uriah to his death, so why would he not do the same to you if you cross him? However Nathan cannot let David’s actions go unchallenged. So he cleverly uses a parable about a poor man’s lamb, that is like a member of the man’s family, to tap into David’s own childhood and early life as a shepherd and arouse David’s empathy with the man’s situation. Nathan compares David to the rich man in the story, who takes the poor man’s lamb and slaughters it for a guest rather than use one of his own lambs. When David hears this he acknowledges his wrongdoing, and importantly he confesses his sin before God.

Sadly the church over the centuries has not been without its own fair share of abuses of power, and these incidents have unfortunately often caused great disunity within the church. Unity in the church is actually one of the key messages from today’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians. 

Writing to the church in Ephesus, the author affirms that all members of the church have received various gifts from Jesus, “some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers”. Regardless of the individual gifts that each person has received, they are to be used collectively for “the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”, which of course means the church itself. Each person is called to become more like Christ. 

And as each person grows in the likeness of Christ, their own ministry adds to the growth of the church. Each is called to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which (they) have been called” (v. 1) by “bearing with one another in love” (v. 2). The tools by which they are to do this are humility, gentleness, and patience. Humility keeps us grounded in the reality that we are as creatures formed from the dust by God. Gentleness reminds us of our common identity. Because we are essentially part of the body, we are called to build up the body by attending to one another. Finally, we are patient because we live in time. The kingdom of God is a gift from God, not a work achieved by humans. The Christian life is one of expectation for what awaits beyond this mortal life, which gives us hope in the here and now. 

There was a name in nineteenth–century China for people who came to church because they were hungry for material food. These people were baptised, joined the church, and remained active members as long as their physical needs were met though the generosity of the congregation. But once their personal situation improved, and they and their families no longer needed rice, they drifted away from the church. Missionaries therefore referred to them as “rice Christians.” 

The crowds that followed Jesus to Capernaum, to find him after he fed the five thousand in the wilderness, were like the “rice Christians” who saw faith and church membership as something they could use for their own needs or to pursue their own interests. These people saw the miracle that Jesus performed as an end in itself, rather than as a sign that pointed towards the revelation of God in Jesus. 

They received a sign, but still they did not believe. Moses, Jesus reminded them, did not give the bread that came from heaven. It was God who gave the manna to their ancestors, and it was God that gave them the bread that satisfied their hunger on the day of the feeding miracle. The same God will give them bread from heaven that will satisfy forever. In response to his teaching, the people ask Jesus for this bread, and he replies by saying that he is the bread of life who will satisfy hunger and quench thirst forever. 

Sometimes it can be easy for us to also forget how to pursue what really matters. Even within the church, we can at times become too focussed on increasing attendances, or trying to engage more with those in the local community who aren’t Christians, and doing more mission related activity in the local community, all of which are worthy activities in their own right, but in doing those things we can forget that what we have to offer is “soul food”, which lasts forever and doesn’t change with the changing circumstances of the church and the world. 

We can perhaps be fooled into embracing a culture that rewards consumers and addresses their needs, instead of proclaiming a gospel that offers us faith in Jesus, who gave his life and who is lifted up so that all who believe in him have everlasting life. He is the bread of life. Those who come to him will never be hungry, and those who put their trust in him will never be thirsty.

This of course can be a hard saying to accept for those who have everything and who need nothing. Do we believe the good news—not caring whether believing brings us material prosperity or personal happiness—for that new, transformed life along the way?

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