"To Whom Can We Go?" - Sermon for August 22, 2021 (Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost)
Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10–11, 22–30, 41–43 | Psalm 84 | Ephesians 6:10–20 | John 6:56–69
“The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63)
Who’s ready for another election?
For the third time during this pandemic, next month we’re being called again to cast our ballots… this time, to choose our new Federal Government. To select the leaders we hope will guide our country the best in the aftermath of COVID-19, and the many changes and challenges we now face together.
As I’ve mentioned before, voting is a tangible act of trust. A concrete way of saying: ‘we believe in the vision these people are offering, and the way of life they are promising to bring about.’ And as we know, during elections there are plenty of promises, speeches, and words being spoken… fighting for our confidence, as well as our support. Sometimes it’s hard not to be too cynical about these kinds of promises. Sometimes it’s a struggle to figure out who we should trust to guide our country. But every election presents us with a crisis… a moment of decision… where we each must weigh our options and decide who we trust with this huge responsibility. After all, at the end of the day, we can only cast one vote.
In our Gospel reading today we encounter another crisis moment at the culmination of a conversation between Christ and those who were following Him. For the last few weeks we have heard how this conversation has been unfolding. Jesus had performed a miracle: turning five loaves and two fish into a feast that fed over five thousand people. They had tasted and seen His life-giving power at work, and they wanted more. In fact, in John 6:15, we’re told that the crowd had it in mind to take Jesus “by force, to make Him king”… to seize political power for this Man who could provide their kind of leadership… that is, someone who could satisfy their hungers.
We can see this kind of impulse at work all the time in our world: people seizing power by force, backed by crowds that place all their future hope in them. Such stories, however, all too often bring on great tragedy and disaster… think with compassion about the people of Afghanistan today, whose lives have been shaken to the core by those seeking to rule over them.
Back in John chapter 6, we hear that Jesus resists the plans of the crowd, challenging their understanding of what it means to be God’s chosen King… to bring about God’s Kingdom by His Spirit, not by the sword.
Last week, we heard how Jesus called the crowd to find true life by eating His flesh, and drinking His blood. A summons, which at its heart is a radical call and invitation to believe… not merely in some ideal, or principle, or political platform… but to believe in Him. To trust Him. To follow Him. To receive, not just things from Him, but to receive the gift of Himself… to share in His own blessed life, offered up to one and all.
Today Christ’s invitation to believe in Him is again driven home, as He says to them (and us): “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). Here we come to the crisis point… to the moment of decision. And today we hear that many decided not to trust in Him. To give up on His vision and His way of life. “[M]any of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” (John 6:66).
Wait, who turned back? Today’s passage is not about the response of the hungry but ultimately undecided crowd. It’s about the response of those who had already committed to following Him. Many of His students… His apprentices… His card-carrying disciples decided to walk away. To no longer trust His word, and what He was bringing about.
Why? We first hear about their grumbling in John 6:60: “When many of his disciples heard it,” that is, Christ’s claim that He is the Bread of Life, sent from Heaven, and so on, “they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
His teaching was difficult. Let’s unpack that a bit.
Part of the difficulty may have been that they didn’t understand. They struggled to make sense of what Jesus was talking about. Fair enough! There’s plenty of things that Jesus says that goes right over our heads… and all the Gospels show how Christ’s disciples often misunderstand Him. It can be hard to follow somebody when we can’t quite grasp what they’re talking about. That is, unless we have cause to trust them even when we don’t understand. An infant may not understand much of what their parent says and does, and yet, they still can trust them with all of their heart. Most of us don’t know all the ins and outs of running a government, and yet we still entrust others to do this work on our behalf. Scientists, doctors, and many others see things and know things that we don’t… and yet we still trust them, and rely on them in all sorts of ways.
A simple lack of understanding does not necessarily lead to doubt. But there are other reasons why some might find Christ’s teaching’s difficult. We can understand something, and not want to believe in it. Here we have the struggle to accept what’s being said. Choosing to refuse the vision and message that is being offered. Again, we know that it is often a struggle to accept as true the things that challenge our old understandings of how the world really works. To trust in new ways of seeing things… or take on new ways of life. Yet as hard as it truly can be to accept challenging changes, it is not impossible either. We can accept, and have accepted, all sorts of big changes in life… especially if we still have something firm to cling to and believe in.
Whatever the reason that the disciples found Jesus’ teaching’s difficult, one option still remained open: they could have chosen to trust in Jesus Himself, despite not understanding… and even despite the conflict and doubts still going on inside them.
They could have chosen to stick around out of sheer commitment to Him, but instead, many chose to look elsewhere for the path to life.
Today’s reading confronts us current disciples as well with this same question: How will you and I respond to what Jesus our Lord is up to? Especially when we find the things He says and does hard to understand? Or when He deeply challenges the way we see and live in the world?
This story highlights a really important point about belief. About the kind of faith that Christ is concerned about. To believe in Jesus, to come to trust in Him is not like an election… where before we cast our vote for Him we first size Him up to see if He ticks all the boxes on our checklists… assessing how closely He aligns with our values, our vision for how things should be, to make sure He will confirm and support our own familiar way of life.
No, believing in Jesus means placing our trust and confidence in Him. To place ourselves and our future in His hands wholeheartedly… unreservedly… ‘all-in’. Jesus Christ is the One person that we’re meant to ‘swallow whole’, so to speak. That is, not to try and cut Him up into pieces we’ll say yes to, and pieces we’ll leave behind. He offers us His whole self, coming to us as He truly is, and asks us to to trust in Him, especially when that’s difficult. And just like with elections, we’re asked to trust Him over and over again… to re-affirm our faith over the whole course of our lives. To turn to Him when we find ourselves in situations we don’t understand. And when we are struggling, conflicted, and torn between the things we want, and what Christ shows us to be the way of life.
We can take heart as the Gospel reminds us that some disciples stayed true to Christ… remaining by His side, and by the Spirit’s help, keeping the faith. Jesus turns to the handful of followers left, and asks them “Do you also wish to go away?” (John 6:67). On behalf of the twelve, and also for Christians all throughout the ages, St. Peter says to Jesus: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69).
And through this handful of faithful disciples… who were not without their own struggles, misunderstandings, conflicts, and doubts… through them the Living God revealed His life-giving glory and love for the world: transforming them into witnesses of Christ’s saving death and resurrection, and receivers of God’s Holy Spirit powerfully breaking out into our world… through their words about Jesus, and as they follow His way of life, drawing people from all nations into God’s family, the Church.
When we’re discouraged, when we face difficulties, and when we begin to doubt, let us remember that Christ has spoken to us the words of “spirit and life.” That in Jesus, the Living God is offering all who believe eternal life… and that He can take a handful of far-from-perfect, but faithful followers, and draw them into His mission to reconcile and redeem the world.
Perhaps, as we consider our own lives, and the future mission of St. Luke’s, no other questions have more relevance than these: Do we believe that Jesus Christ has the words of eternal life? And if so, how must we put this belief into action? Amen.
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Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School