Whenever we read the gospel of John we need to remember that it was written during a time of painful separation between the early church and the synagogue. When John speaks of the Jews, he usually is referring to local religious leaders. It can be helpful then for us to make that substitution in our minds: when we hear the word “Jews,” to think “religious leaders.” Every character in this story, including Jesus, is a Jew.
John 6:35, 41-51 Jesus 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.
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They 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”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It 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. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
Ephesians 4:25-5:2 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves 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. Let 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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
“A Tender-Hearted Life”
Psychologists tell us that imitation is an essential skill in the process of human development. Go ahead, stick your tongue out at an infant and be delighted when she responds in kind. On the other hand, watch what you say at the dinner table, lest it be repeated on the playground.
And don’t imagine that we become immune to the power of imitation as we age. Researchers tell us that even mature adults subconsciously mimic the gestures of people they like.
The author of Ephesians is familiar with this human tendency,
but encourages us to put it to startling use when he exhorts us to be imitators of God. I do not know how that comment lands on your heart or how you hear the larger sweep of this passage from Ephesians. If all we absorb from this reading is a list of behaviors we are to avoid and a list of behaviors we are to practice, we might slip out during the last hymn feeling more discouraged than when we arrived, reminded of all the ways we don’t measure up. After all, how many of us can say that we have put away falsehood, or found ways to channel our anger constructively, or swallowed all the of the malicious words that rise in our throats?
If you find this whole line of thinking discouraging; please don’t give up yet. I’m convinced that the author of Ephesians is offering something more than a list of virtues and vices. But it might get worse before it gets better. Before we move on I want to call attention to an unusual phrase in this passage. The church at Ephesus, and we, looking over their shoulders, are told that we must strive not “to grieve the Holy Spirit.”
Must we now add to the burden of knowing that we occasionally grieve our parents and siblings and friends and colleagues and partners—must we now add the awareness that we also grieve the heart of God? I think that the answer is “yes, sometimes”—but don’t despair—because truth and mercy travel together.
Friends, the God we are called to imitate is a God who grieves.
The God we are called to imitate is a God so intent upon living in love with the world, that God grieves when that love is not returned.
The God we are called to imitate is a vulnerable God.
If the word “vulnerable” does not pair easily with your conception of God, know that you are not alone, but the essential quality of vulnerability has regained currency in the last decade.
Since 2010, many of us have stumbled upon a TED talk by Brené Brown on the subject of vulnerability. Watched more than 35 million times and translated into 52 languages, it is among the ten most viewed TED talks ever recorded. Brown holds an endowed chair at the University of Houston, and her work is informed by years of research.
It also seems shaped by her faith.
Brown defines vulnerability in terms of “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure,” but she distinguishes vulnerability from weakness, insisting that our willingness to be vulnerable is the “most accurate measure of [our] courage.”
According to Brown, persons who display this kind of courage, this kind of vulnerability, are “willing to invest in relationships that may or may not work out.” They are willing to act, with no guarantee of success. She says such persons do not describe the experience of vulnerability as either “comfortable or excruciating, just necessary…These are the folks who are willing to say ‘I love you’ first.”
Brown says we all long for connection, but in order to have deeply connected relationships we must let ourselves be known—really known, even at the risk of rejection.
Does that sound like anyone you know?
Someone who would share a meal with anyone who crossed his path? Someone who welcomed children and talked to women in a day when neither were much valued by their culture? Someone who ate with people who were despised and also with those at the pinnacle of power? Someone who celebrated and wept, who expressed anger and grief, who carried hope and experienced disappointment? Someone who did not fear contagion or confrontation with evil? Someone who let himself be known—really known—even though that it cost him his life?
When the author of Ephesians asks us to be imitators of God, he points us to the life of Jesus.
If we are going to let ourselves be that kind of vulnerable, then it goes without saying that the truth will be spoken. If we are going to be that kind of vulnerable, we will put our hurt and anger on the table rather than letting it fester like a wound.
But being human, it also goes without saying that we will miss these marks rather frequently. That reality does not need to lead to shame. The author of Ephesians is not trying to shame us; he is inviting us to live.
When it all comes crashing down, the author of Ephesians urges us to imitate our tender-hearted God, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven us.
No part of this is an intellectual exercise. Forgiving, beginning again, offering compassion, these are visceral, embodied responses.
When the author of Ephesians urges us to be tender-hearted,
he is using the same word used throughout the gospels to describe the compassion that Jesus experiences when he sees someone suffering.
The word in Greek is so guttural that it is hard to pronounce—it is related to the word for our bowels. Jesus feels compassion in his gut.
We are encouraged to be so open to one another that we feel our neighbor’s pain in the core of our being.
When we feed on the bread of life, when the “Compassion of God” takes hold in us, we no longer need to stand at a safe distance from each other. We risk real and mutual relationship not only with each other, but with those we have identified as needing our help. We come to the place where we hope not only to make a difference, but to be made different by each encounter. We open our hearts to the possibility that God might want to change our hearts in ways we cannot foresee.
The community described today in John’s gospel could not get there. They would not make themselves vulnerable to a new kind of relationship with Jesus—a relationship that might change them.
They already knew who he was and that got in their way. They knew his parents and where he lived. They knew what the scriptures said. They chose to hold onto what was settled in their minds rather than opening their hearts to his disturbing presence.
I wonder how often we do that, too. Some of us decided a long time ago that it was safer not to expect too much of God, or of each other, or of ourselves, lest we be disappointed. We guard our hearts to protect ourselves from pain. I wonder if that’s what Jesus is lamenting when he says that those who save their lives will lose them.
Brené Brown insists that joy, creativity, belonging, love—
all spring from a willingness to be vulnerable. A few years ago, she found her way back to church. She says this about her return:
“I went back to church thinking that it would be like an epidural,
like it would take the pain away…. Faith was not an epidural for me at all, but it was a midwife, who just stood next to me saying, “Push, it’s supposed to hurt …. It was a completely new experience going back for me…
I believe God is love…. Love is not easy…. In order for forgiveness to really happen, something has to die…. whether it’s your expectations of a person…there has to be a death for forgiveness to happen. If something has to die in order for forgiveness to happen, and people are deathly afraid to feel grief, then we just won’t forgive anybody.”
She concludes: “Because I don’t want to feel grief. I thought faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort.’ But what it ended up saying is that I’ll sit with you in it.
I never thought that that would be enough. But it’s perfect. I don’t feel alone…anymore.”
I do not know how you experience church. Some of the most life-giving dimensions for me are the chance to know and be known at a deep level, to find our lives mirrored in the words of scripture,
to discover that as God gives us to each other, God makes more of us than we thought we might be.
But that can only happen if we will allow ourselves to be seen—to be really seen. It can only happen if we will commit to a life of costly forgiveness.
When we trust each other with what is most precious to us,
when we risk injury for the sake of what might be, we are imitating the one who sent his own out of love for the world.
Friends, we worship a God who knows what it means
to suffer for the sake of love, and to bring irrepressible life from each vulnerable offering.
May we become, more and more, like the one we worship.
(also see Brené Brown on Shame: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame
 “In the Testament of Naphtali 4:5 the Messiah is identified as ‘the compassion of the Lord’: ‘and the Lord will disperse them over the face of the whole earth until the compassion of the Lord comes, a man who effects righteousness, and he will have compassion on all who are far and near.” The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1, Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments, ed. James H. Charlesworth (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1983, 812, as quoted in Allen Verhey & Joseph S Harvard’s Ephesians, A Theological Commentary on the Bible, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 201.
 Matthew 10:39, Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, John 12:25