Sermon Archives

Sunday, August 1, 2021
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13 (Year B)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
On Questions and a Purpose-filled Life

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Before I dive headlong into my sermon, I want to say a brief word about the Epistle we’ve just heard; specifically, the short parenthetical note which read:

(When it says, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)

Unlike most parenthetical notes, which usually include an interesting tidbit of history or a brief explanation of some word or custom just mentioned, this little inclusion explores a matter of great theological substance – among the most profound, in fact, of all Christian doctrine . . . in a brief two sentences, no less!  For while people of all faiths have readily agreed that God is the Creator of the all the heavens – that God is, in fact, “ascended” high above – this passage reminds us that this same God who has created all things, and who stands above all things, has also “descended” to fill all things.  Paul is reminding us that the great God who created the mountain heights and ocean depths and vast array of stars in the night sky, is also found here, among us and even within us.

Now, while all that hugely profound theology is packed into these two simple little sentences, we should note that the first of the two sentences is a question, and questions often get a bad rap in Christian circles, especially when they reflect an uncertainty or challenge to an experience of God.  And yet, Paul explores one such question here and Jesus, of course, was often peppered with questions, by the crowds which surrounded him, or the religious leaders who challenged him, or the disciples that followed him.  In this morning’s Gospel lesson alone, Jesus is presented with three questions:

“Rabbi, when did you come here?”

“What must we do to perform the works of God?”

“What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?
What work are you performing?”

… three questions from the crowds which had, only the night before, been so generously fed after a long day in the countryside.  We mightn’t be surprised if one of the disciples had tried to silence the questioning crowds with a terse reminder of all that they had received the day before or a perturbed retort along the lines of, “don’t you realize who you are talking to?”

Yet, Jesus engages them all …. Perhaps not with the answers they wished to receive, but also not with a disregard for the questions they ask.  While some questions may be traps, often questions are critical means to engagement, a way of deepening bonds of relationship and understanding.

This is certainly true of the authentic questions, regardless of subject.  Unlike questions that serve merely to trap – a way to lure another into a conversation in which we will “prove” our point – authentic questions seek to deepen, at the very least, our understanding of the content of our discussion … even more, however, authentic questions are fundamental to our understanding of another (their experience or idea or values) and even a pathway to understanding ourselves.  Such authentic questions are like doorways that open to new rooms or worlds of understanding between people and within ourselves. 

Far from being rude or unfaithful, questions are fundamental to the deepening of relationships with others and our maturation and growth as individuals.

And they are equally fundamental to our deepening understanding of our faith and our relationship with God.  To use the words of Paul in Ephesians, questions are a critical tool for our “maturity,” for living into “the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

But only questions that are asked and engaged.

One of the great themes of the Gospels, a theme we encounter again today, is Jesus’ comfort with difficult questions.  Whether in exchanges with his disciples or the pharisees or chief priests or Pilate, or today with the crowds, Jesus engages questioners with an openness and authenticity through which he not only reveals his true self, but also invites the questioner to better understand themselves. 

In today’s brief exchange, however, Jesus does more than simply demonstrate his comfort with direct questions.  Dig a bit deeper into the conversation, and we see that Jesus yearns for, and is nourished by, something more than bread in the wilderness.  For Jesus, there is a “life-giving bread” that is more enlivening, more fulfilling and more sustaining and more compelling, than mere bread that nourishes our body.  He calls this life-giving bread, “the Bread of Heaven” – of course, it is not literal bread, but rather a way of life that is so enmeshed with God that it gives life both to Jesus and to those around him. 

And what is this life?  What is this heavenly bread? 

It is a purpose-filled life – and not just a randomly chosen “purpose-filled” life, but rather a life intentionally, purposely filled with “all humility and gentleness and with patience, such that we learn to bear with one another in love” as Paul again says.  Such a life can only be rooted in God’s grace and patience for us – an awareness of God’s first love for us, expressed in God’s humility, gentleness, and patience with us whom God’s bears in love …. And only such a life, can begin to bear God’s grace and patience toward others. 

The consequences of such a life are remarkable – such lives create life – life in those around us and life within us. 

Friends, let us aspire not simply for things that fill our time and homes, but make for a holy and life-giving life:  let us aspire for a life that will endure, a life filled with “all humility and gentleness and with patience, such that we learn to bear with one another – and all whom we meet – in love.”