Scripture is filled with stories of relational breakdowns where the results are winners and losers. Today’s Old Testament reading is but one round of a battle of deceit between brothers. Jacob was a professional wrestler of sorts always trying to get the upper hand over others. This scrapping nature all began early for him. Scripture records that Jacob wrestled with his older brother Esau even while a babe in his mother’s womb. Later this sibling rivalry evolved into a battle of the wills, into a contest of deceit through which, the younger Jacob deceived his older sibling and tricked him out of his birthright. The family birthright was the bestowal of special privilege, the family inheritance, and the responsibility for carrying forth the family line on the eldest son. It was something of great importance to an older son, and to lose it meant losing everything. The birthright was not enough for dear Jacob for later, he deceived his own father and took away Esau’s paternal blessing. The struggle for the upper hand that began in the womb, resulted in the breaking of a bond based on a common family connection; the closest of human connections. The skirmishes of human connection for Jacob does not end with his brother, today we find ourselves reading the story of how Jacob wrestled with God Almighty. This time, the contest over intimate bonds was very different and the outcome of this match was unlike any in which he had engaged before.
The feeding miracle in which Our Lord took a small portion of bread and fish and healed the deep hunger of over 5,000 people, includes a hint of what it means to wrestle with God. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he healed the sick, restored the penitent, and fed the hungry. The disciples after a long day of beach preaching and healing were getting a bit hungry and urged the Lord to send the crowds into town to get a bite to eat. Jesus challenged their thinking. He wrestled with them over their preconceived notions about mutual responsibility, God’s abundance, and sharing what one has with others. When they looked at their measly crumbs of food and looked the crowd, the disciple’s only solution was to send them away. Jesus commanded, “You feed them.” Jesus pointed out that there was a need, a human need to be filled, and the disciples needed to wrestle with how they were going to respond. The human bonds of one to another, are based on the God-given principle that we are one family and we absolutely must the share the responsibility to love and care for each other. God does not stand aloof and merely point the way to loving neighbor by dictating and thus, demanding human obedience to live in harmony, peace, mercy and grace. No, God is with us in the muck and mire of human relational brokenness, and Our Lord persistently calls us to love one another, to be in reconciliation with each other, to offer grace to each other, and to forgive one another. Jesus does not merely demonstrate the life we are to live, he himself wrestled with what it means to love one another when he walked among us.
God is willing to wrestle with humanity, to struggle with us despite our sometimes resistant , mostly misguided desire for the upper-hand in the relationship arena. Theologian Christopher Morse once commented, “God has made a commitment to be for us and with us before we ever came into existence.” (Morse, Christopher. “Karl Barth on “covenant partners.” Living Pulpit 14.3 (2005): 10-11. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. EBSCO. Web. 30 July 2011.) God is not seeking the upper-hand, but a covenantal mutual life with creation. God is for us and with us, and God is willing to meet our resistance with persistence and the freedom to choose. Our choice as Christ followers is to accept or reject God’s way of life grounded in right relationships. We must wrestle with the choices that either lead to relationships based on mutual respect and forbearance, grace and mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation, or relationships based on deceit, a battle of the wills, and always gaining the upper hand.
Jesus tells us simply to “Love our neighbor,” but that does not mean Jesus is offering us a trite sentimentalism by which, if we but say, “I will with God’s help,” all will be ok. There is more to loving God and loving neighbor, there is more than an idealistic nirvana when it comes to this common life in Christ that we all share. Church life can be messy and most certainly, it is not easy. All you have to do is look at the 2000 years of church history and you will find a story of people wrestling to live in harmony and peace. Honestly, when we strive to be in right relationship with God and each other it will, be wonderful, rewarding and spirit-filled, but be ready, at some point it will get downright difficult and unpleasant. If in our search for Christian community, we expect the perfect church, if we expect people to be without fault, without sin, without anxiety, without the need for reconciliation, transformation, and sanctification, we are not seeking the Body of Christ, we are seeking a false perception of God’s Kindgom. If that is our quest, I am not sure we will ever find the blessing we seek. The blessing we truly seek is the one, which results from being accepted in our brokenness, being restored in our estrangement, and being sent out to proclaim the Good News of God’s restorative grace. So, after today, you may ask, “you mean God wants me to struggle in this Christian life, to question my own preconceived notions, to examine my own life and relationships with others, to struggle with what I believe, and to seriously consider another way of living?” Yep! That’s it; we have to wrestle with this new way of life in Christ.
God invites us to the wrestling mat on which we can before God, lay our uncertainties, our brokenness, our bad attitudes, our inner secrets, our junk, and tussle around with the Almighty until we receive a blessing. It is true, we may come out of that scuffle slightly injured; maybe we will have a limp from the disjointed hip of facing our self absorption , or the bruise from the challenge to accept radical transformation in our life, or the laceration of knowing we must reconcile with someone we’ve hurt, or the contusion of the awareness of our own words when we speak harm to someone we love. In wrestling with God, we are wrestling with ourselves as well , and the spiritual life following Christ is not effortless and trouble-free. You might experience some discomfort, you may receive a temporary pride injury, you may even receive a minor setback, but you can know with peace and certainty that the God who is challenging us, is also loving us and blessing us in ways that we may not be aware.