This week's readings are Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Psalm 78:23-29; Ephesians 4:1-16; and John 6:24-35. They can be found at Vanderbilt's Lectionary Page.
There is a pattern that runs throughout the narratives of scripture, both Old and New Testaments. God does something incredible, people are amazed and praise God for about five minutes, then they forget and either go their own way or ask for another neat trick.
That's what happens in the Exodus reading. The liberated slaves' feet are barely dry from crossing the seabed that God had opened up for them when they start complaining that there's no food out here in the desert. Instead of smiting a bunch of people because they griped (there's plenty of that later), God gives them the gift of manna, from which they make bread and are able to survive during the coming decades in the wilderness. The Psalter celebrates that story in a song about God's goodness.
The same thing happens in the gospel reading. Jesus calls out the people trying to find him because they were looking for another neat trick. Instead, Jesus asks them to see the signs he is performing not as cool things in and of themselves, but as pointing beyond themselves to the God who is engaged in the work of healing and restoration.
Read the rest of John 6 and you see Jesus "thin out the herd" by dropping some hard teaching on them about his flesh and blood being food and drink. If you want a sense of how crazy this sounded to first century people, our friends at South Park have recaptured it for us. Lots of Jesus' hearers really heard him and split. When Jesus asked those who remained why they were there, Peter replies, "where else are we going to go?" They didn't necessarily like what they were hearing either, but they were all in with Jesus.
Perhaps we gravitate toward neat tricks because they're easy to wrap our minds around. It's safer if those things are isolated happenings rather than signs of God's reign taking over our world. If God is in charge, we aren't, and that's scary!
A huge part of discipleship is getting over ourselves and letting God set the agenda for as long as we can before we start yanking control back. We're only human, after all. When we realize we've been pulling it back toward ourselves, we own up to it and trust that God will help us do a little bit better each time.
That's what Paul is talking about in Ephesians when he says we should strive to "lead a life worthy of the calling to which (we) have been called". I used to be uneasy with this passage because I thought it was about never messing up, which is an unrealistic standard to hold ourselves to.
We can spend all our time beating ourselves up over all the ways we fall short, or we can read Paul's exhortation as an aspirational statement. "Strive to do better every time, because that demonstrates your gratitude for the incredible gift of forgiveness you've been given."
If I can get over myself, my need to be at the center of things and exercise control, then I'll stop looking for neat tricks from God. I'll really be able to respond to this invitation to a journey where things more amazing than I ever thought possible will happen, because someone a whole lot smarter than me is in charge.