Proper 16 – August 22, 2021
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 and John 6:56-59
Today marks the end of John’s long discourse on the bread of life. I have to admit that this year, after having just discovered that I am gluten intolerant, the concept of bread takes on whole new meaning. So, this year more than any other, I “get” the spiritual meaning behind what Jesus is saying. Bread was considered daily sustenance, and the physical body needed bread to survive. We can choose Jesus as our spiritual sustenance on a daily basis. We can take in, absorb, or “eat and drink” that Spirit of God on a daily basis.
Choice is a common theme in our readings this morning. As both the Old Testament and Gospel readings this week make clear, choice still matters. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua tells the Israelites as they present themselves before God at Shechem.
“Do you also want to go away?” Jesus asks his disciples as people take offense at his teachings and abandon him. Now the stakes have gone up. Jesus has said the shocking thing, the seemingly impossible thing. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” “Whoever eats me will live because of me.” This is the fork in the road. It’s time to choose.
What’s at stake in both stories is whether or not God’s “already-beloved-and-rescued children will choose — hourly, daily, moment by moment — to live fully into who they already are. The daily “altar call” is a call to hold in tension two amazing and paradoxical truths: one, that God has already chosen us. And two, that we are therefore invited to choose (or not choose) God in return, not once or twice, but over and over and over again”.
What does it mean to choose God? According to Jesus, it means “eating” his very essence, taking the Incarnation so deeply into our own bodies and souls that we exude the flavor of Christ to the world. It means doing what Jesus did and living as Jesus lived. It means turning the other cheek. It means loving our enemies. It means walking the extra mile. It means losing our lives in order to gain them. It means trusting that the first will be last and the last first. It means seeking God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. It means denying ourselves. It means the cross. In other words, these are passages about real choices. Real choices with real consequences.
In today’s reading some people make the choice to go away. But can we blame them? They had believed in Jesus, they had followed him, giving up things for him. And now, after all their waiting and watching and wondering and worrying, they have grown tired, and they can no longer see clearly what it was about Jesus that attracted them to him in the first place, and so they leave. But think about it…are we really all that different? I mean, who here has not at one time or another wondered whether you have believed in vain? During the dark of the night, perhaps, watching and praying by the beside of a child or grandchild in the hospital, wondering why he or she is so sick. Or in the early part of the morning, maybe, waking up alone and wondering why your spouse has left you. Or in the latter part of the afternoon, perhaps, while cooking supper and thinking about your family – so full of ill-will toward each other – and wondering why things have not turned out the way you hoped and whether they ever will.
At these times when we are looking for God, for some sense that there is a God, and can have such a hard time seeing God, we also are tempted to conclude that the promises we trusted were empty and the faith we once held was misplaced.
And so, the picture John draws for us in today’s reading may not be a pretty one, but it is a realistic one. It is, in other words, a fairly accurate portrait of disbelief, with Jesus surrounded by folks who wanted to believe, who used to believe, who have been trying to believe, but have gone through the motions too long and have finally given up.
At the same time, though, John’s picture is also one of belief, of courage, and of faith. For as he writes, after many disciples drew back and no longer followed him, “Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Will you also go away?’ [And] Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’”
Where do Peter and the other twelve get their faith? Or to put it another way, what makes them different from all those who gave up on Jesus and went away?
Listen, again, to Peter as he says the words: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter, you see, knew where to look. That’s it. That’s what makes him and the others different – it’s not their brains or their ability or their status or even their faith: they simply know where to look. They look toward and choose Jesus.
The twelve are existing in an in-between space.
This is, I think, familiar space for many of us in our life. The space between both confidence and questions, both commitment and reticence, both enthusiastic confession and yet rational resistance. Which side do we choose? These are spaces that actually demand discussion and discernment. Not simply and easily choosing a side.
These spaces between certainty and uncertainty, between belief and unbelief need attentiveness and responsiveness. This space needs you to listen, truly and deeply, to the other and even anticipate being heard in return.
Our dominant model of dialogue seems to be about taking sides, arguing for one position or the other. This is where the Gospel of John is an essential corrective now and again — where believing in Jesus is a relationship and not solidified statements. This is where we are invited to abide in and with God and that, by definition, should be unpredictable, indeterminable.
William Jennings Bryan once called people to pause and contemplate the mystery of a watermelon seed–one of those little black things that we spit out without a second thought. Bryan said:
“I have observed the power of the watermelon seed. It has the power of drawing from the ground and through itself 200,000 times its weight.
(Meaning that the mature watermelon weighs 200,000 times as much as the seed). When you can tell me how it takes this material and out of it colors an outside surface beyond the imitation of art, and then forms inside of it a white rind and within that again a red heart, thickly inlaid with black seeds, each one of which in turn is capable of drawing through itself
200,000 times its weight. When you can explain to me the mystery of a watermelon, you can ask me to explain the mystery of God.”
This space that John opens up for us is a space that so few of us get permission to be in. Today is an invitation to abide in that space, not for just for the sake of choice, but for conversation and companionship. This space opens up to us the way for deeper relationship with God and with each other.
We are surrounded by mysteries–and our lives are more interesting because of them–so we have come to accept the mystery involved in Jesus words.
Christ calls us to choose him daily, Christ calls us to BE–to be people who have a center of strength within ourselves. He gives us the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit guiding and empowering, we never know when our faithful word or deed might make a great difference in someone else’s life.
Jesus said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the ages.” “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”. Like Peter, we say, ‘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.’ Amen.