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United in the Grace of Christ

2 Samuel 19:5-9, 15, 31-33
The First Lesson is found in a book of the Bible whose existence as a distinct text derives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which divided the story of Israel’s monarchy into four sections (1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings). This book is probably the result of two or three sources: (1) early traditions about Samuel and Saul; (2) editor-molded materials brought together into a connected history, implying a critique of the events, deeming kingship as problematic; and (3) incorporating the previous strand into the more Deuteronomistic history (the result of the religious reforms under King Josiah n 621 BC). This last source entails that a central theme in the book is a struggle to remain obedient to the torah.

The lesson is an account of the battle of the Forest of Ephraim and David’s army’s triumph over the forces of his rebellious son Absalom (vv.5-8), Absalom’s death (vv,9,15), and David’s grief (vv.31033). The narrative may have been addressed to the citizens of Israel who were outraged by Absalom’s execution. For the account seems to shield David from blame.

The account commences with David instructing his military leaders to deal gently with Absalom (v.5). David’s army routs Absalom’s forces (largely assembled with support from the northern tribes of Israel [15:9-12]) (vv.6-8). Absalom’s head was caught in an oak and left hanging. He had been riding a mule, the customary mount for royalty (which he was claiming from himself) (v.9). The lesson omits the ethical struggles of David’s captain Joab, who finally thrust spears at Absalom (vv.10-14). Eventually the armor-bearers kill Absalom (v.15). The lesson omits a burial of Absalom and the desire of Ahimaaz (the son of a priest) to inform David of the outcome. Joab had chosen a Cushite (a black man from Africa) as his emissary (vv.16-30).  

There are significant segments of the American population who have been betrayed by their nation. One in three Native Americans live in poverty, and this was their land before most of our ancestors got here. The US Census Bureau reported in 2020 that nearly one in five African Americans (18.8%) and 15.7% of Hispanics live in poverty. The American majority have betrayed these members of our American family no less profoundly than Absalom betrayed the patriarch of his family, David. As Absalom’s betrayal of David was a betrayal of God and his plans, so our betrayal of the poor and oppressed on our soil is a betrayal of God.

We are most likely to get the point across regarding David’s compassion to Absalom as a model for the faithful, if the story of the lesson is told in a dramatic, compelling way. Help hearers in majority white congregations to identify with Absalom and in minority congregations to identify with David. Absalom’s sin against David is no worse than what American has done to its minority citizens. Help white congregations to appreciate the heinous character of their betrayal, but to see David as a pointer to God’s forgiveness. (In making us aware of the depth of our sin, note how it was a person of color [the Cushite] who communicated the message to God/David.) Raise with congregants how overcome with that awesome love (Martin Luther claimed it is a love greater than the oceans [What Luther Says, p. 821]) we might begin to make amends to those American family members we have so betrayed. For minorities hearing this sermon and identifying with David, it is good to be reminded that David’s forgiveness of us Absaloms is really God’s forgiveness, not a forgiveness they must offer. For David is a cipher/sign for God working through those who have been wronged. But knowing God’s forgiveness is given to the betrayers, it may be the beginning of bonding with those betrayed.

Ephesians 4:25--5:2
The is part of as circular letter, either written by Paul from prison late in his career or by a follower of the apostle who had had a hand in assembling the collection of his epistles. It was likely addressed to a younger generation of Christians (1:15). This lesson is an appeal by the author to renounce pagan ways (begun earlier in Chapter 4) (v.17). Among the behaviors exhorted include speaking truth, not letting the sun go down on one’s anger, giving no opportunity to the devil, working honestly to share with the poor and only talking constructively about building others  up (4:25-29). Exhortation is offered that we do not grieve the Holy Spirit with which the faithful are sealed to the day of redemption [apolutrosis] (v.30). Other behaviors exhorted include putting away all bitterness, wrangling, and slander, while being kind and forgiving [charizomai] as God in Christ forgave us (4:31-32a). Readers are again urged not to grieve the Holy Spirit, with which the faithful have been marked as a seal (4:30). Forgiveness through God in Christ is proclaimed (4:32b). But we are exhorted to imitate [mimetai] God, to love [agapao] as Christ loved us in offering a sacrifice [thusia] to God (5:1-2).

America is plagued by a lot of anger, not least of all directed towards those of a different political orientation. According to a new Cygnal and Lounge Group poll, 76% of American voters are experiencing anger (32%), fear (31%), and sadness (13%). Don’t make this a sermon about having to forgive. But follow the Pauline logic, focus the sermon on how God in Christ has forgiven us for all the dumb things we have said, taught, and espoused. Help the flock to recognize that when we stay angry and don’t forgive, we grieve the Holy Spirit. There seems to be scientific evidence that being wrapped up in God’s forgiveness, in religious activities, makes forgiving easier. Anthropologists and neurochemists have found that these activities result in pleasant stimulation of feelings and also more social cohesion (Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct, pp.79-81). Also don’t overlook the sound biblical advice in the lesson: Never let the sun go down on your anger (4:26).

John 6:35, 41-51
The gospel is drawn from the last of the gospels to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. It is very different in style in comparison to the other three (so-called synoptic) gospels. It is probably based on these earlier gospels. The book has been identified with John the Son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and this claim was made as long as late in the first century by the famed theologian of the early church Irenaeus (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, p.414). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John. It was probably written for a Jewish Christian community in conflict with the synagogue, one in which Christians had been expelled from Jewish society. Its aim was to encourage its readers to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31).

The lesson begins with Jesus’ identification of himself as the Bread of Life, that whoever comes to him will never hunger or thirst (v.35). Several verses not included in the lesson follow, in which Jesus assures hearers that everything the Father gives him will come, and that he will never drive away those who come, for God’s will is that he should lose nothing but raise it up on the last day (vv.36-40). Jews then protest this identification of himself as the Bread of Life that came down from heaven, for he is just the son of Joseph (vv.41-42).

Jesus then warns against complaining, noting that none can come to him unless drawn by the Father (vv.43-44). As implied in verse 37, faith is God’s work. Jesus’ response continues: All are taught by God, so that everyone who learned from the Father comes to Jesus, for he alone is the one who has seen the Father (vv.45-46). Jesus proceeds to assert again that he is the Bread of Life and that the Jewish ancestors eating manna in the wilderness still died but that those eating his bread have eternal life. This bread given for the life of the world is his flesh (vv.48-51).

America has long been a stressed-out nation. In the Spring of 2020 long before the worse stress of the pandemic hit, Gallup reported 60% of us were stressed. We did not need the pandemic to feel stress. For modern life often feels like a meaningless treadmill.

This is a lesson for sermons aiming to alleviate stress. The key is to focus on the meaning of Jesus as the Bread of Life. Bread is the source of energy. To be in Christ is to have that energy. In addition, just as bread gets in our guts, so we have that kind of union with Christ, bearing him with us. This entails that the latest task and the stress it seems to bring is not part of a meaningless treadmill. It must have eternal significance, for Christ goes with us, so and so it much be of significance.

Other possible themes would be to relate eating the Bread of life to the Lord’s Supper, preaching on its significance as the source of our energy in coping with everyday life. Also, we can celebrate the comfort in verse 37 that God drives no one away from him.

All the lessons and sermons on them relate to unity, the unity we have with God and/or the unity he wants us to have with each other. Alone we are not able to establish that unity, but by uniting himself with us and our plight, the grace of God creates unity and the joy, energy, and sense of wholeness that comes with it.
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