Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time (Ephesians 5:15-16a)
The apostle Paul tells us to make the most of the time. That’s one of the marks of being a human being. We not only can, but also yearn, to make something of the time we’re allotted.
We don’t want to waste time or to kill time. We recoil at the idea of a misspent life. The Psalmist teaches us to number our days (Psalm 90:12), to make our lives matter.
That’s what it means to be wise: to inhabit our world in a way that is directed by a sense of purpose, permeated with a sense of significance, devoted to multiplying goodness, and seeking to uncover the beauty imbedded in all things.
Being wise means having the knack for making the most of life as we find it. I don’t mean by that to settle for a meager portion, something less than we had hoped for.
Instead, by making the most of life I mean that the wise among us have mastered the art of unleashing the unmitigated joy that so many of us leave locked away in the recesses of the ordinary lives we lead.
To put this a different way, the wise among us tap into eternal life right in the midst of the most commonplace comings and goings. Wisdom is the knack for receiving the Bread of Life that Jesus offers.
In addition to being our Savior and our Lord, Jesus is also the perfect example of wisdom. In his teaching, he instructs us how to be wise.
Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life.” And in so doing he teaches all of us the answer to three questions that form the foundation of wise living. Here are the three questions:
Who are we?
What do we need?
How do we get it?
Let’s take those three questions one at a time.
Who are we?
Who are we? We are the hungry. We are dependent upon something beyond ourselves for our very existence.
You can see this biologically. We cannot survive unless we eat, drink, and breathe. Unless we take food, water, and air into ourselves from the environment around us, we will die.
Obviously, only some things will properly nourish us and sustain our respiration. Eating and drinking certain things, even though they may look appetizing, can poison us. Oxygen sustains our bodies, but other gasses can slowly suffocate us.
In addition to needing something from beyond ourselves to sustain us, we need the right thing.
Our biological dependence upon something beyond ourselves for physical survival points to a deeper spiritual reality. God created us to have eternal life, not only the fleeting existence we experience in space and time.
Just as we need something beyond ourselves to sustain our physical life, we also need something beyond ourselves to have eternal life. And that brings us to our second question.
What do we need?
What do we need? What is the right food to sustain us in eternal life?
Let’s answer by first comparing physical hunger to the spiritual hunger appropriate to eternal life. Physical hunger is a gnawing to be full.
Spiritual hunger expresses itself in a variety of ways, but for now let’s look at just one. We want to be assured that our lives matter. God created us with the desire to know that our existence is justified. Our loves and losses and sacrifices and delights and joys and tender moments and triumphs count for something.
We will slip into despair—into a kind of spiritual malnutrition—if we begin to believe that none of that ultimately matters. It is not enough for our life to be significant for a brief a moment. Created in God’s image, we yearn big. We yearn for eternal and infinite significance. That is our spiritual hunger.
To return to Paul’s way of putting things for a moment, we are looking for how to make the most of time. We want our lives right now to count from the perspective of eternity.
We need spiritual bread to sustain us. Our struggle is identifying what counts as truly nourishing bread.
Just as some foods and some drink may appeal to us but in fact fail to nourish us or even do us harm, some spiritual food may promise to make us happy and fulfilled while actually causing us to fail to thrive and to wither away.
One of the dismal truths of human history is our persistent tendency to select malnourishing spiritual fare.
We seek the approval of other people with our looks or their applause with our achievements. But our looks fade and the applause will always recede.
We try to secure a place for ourselves in history through our accomplishments or make ourselves important with career and social status, only to learn that even the greatest human achievement will one day be utterly forgotten and any office or status we hold will inevitably pass to another.
None of that very earthly bread will sustain us in the eternal life God created us to inherit.
Jesus tells us plainly. He is the Bread of Life. We depend upon him and him alone for eternal life.
Let’s be clear about this. Eternal life is much more than making it through heaven’s admission office. It is a completely different kind of life from merely physical existence.
Eternal life can begin to saturate all that we do and think and say right now. It can grow in power and depth even as we go about our ordinary routines. And it continues in fullness when we eventually pass through the veil of death.
Neither a one-time assent to Jesus’ atoning sacrifice nor a creedal profession of his divine and human person will suffice to transform our lives in this way.
Instead, Jesus teaches us to rely upon him and only him as our daily bread, the bread without which we would wither and waste away.
The key to eternal life is our relationship with Jesus. He teaches us to make him such an integral part of our daily life that he is like the food we have consumed and made a part of our very bodily selves.
And that brings us to our final question.
How do we get it?
We are hungry. We yearn for the Bread of Life because only that Bread gives us the eternal life we crave. The final question is this: how do we get it?
We don’t have to win Jesus over or prove to him that we are worthy of passing through the pearly gates. On the contrary, Jesus is stretching out the hand of friendship to us already.
So the question can be reframed like this. How do we take up the hand of friendship that Jesus is offering?
Let’s listen to what the apostle Paul has to say on the matter:
“Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:18-20)
Look closely at each part of what Paul says:
He says “among yourselves.” Following Jesus happens in community. Discipleship is not a solo performance. It is a choral offering of many voices woven together into a single anthem.
The Christian community is distinctive in its spiritual practices. Paul tells us to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. In other words, we are to worship together as the foundation of all that we do together in our Lord’s name.
Elsewhere we learn that hospitality to the stranger and service to the poor and the weak are expressions of our life of shared worship.
Life in a practicing community transforms each individual. When we worship and serve together, each of us begins to make melody to the Lord in our hearts. Our relationship with Jesus is not private, but it is deeply personal. Eternal life begins to permeate us.
We do not get what we need by earning it or achieving it. Jesus himself gives us the Bread of Life. He does so as we gather to hear his word, to eat his Body and to drink his Blood, to serve the poor in his name, and to welcome the stranger.
The Word and the Sacrament instruct us and strengthen us to live eternal life already now, albeit in glimpses and foretastes.
We begin to see the goodness buried in the morally messy and the beauty in what others dismiss as ugly. Our feet begin to tap to a faint melody where others hear only grating noise.
That is because we are beginning to sense in our very bones the redeeming work of Jesus in our own lives, in the lives of others, and in the world around us. We sense eternal life beginning to infiltrate the very life we’re living.
We are beginning to be wise enough to see that Jesus is making the most of life.
This sermon was preached at Leonidas Polk Memorial, Leesville, Louisiana.