Lectionary 21B, August 26, 2018
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18, Psalm 34:15-22, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-71
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s one of the great verses of the Bible, often-quoted and used in worship: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And it’s true! Jesus’ words bring life to all. Moreover, Jesus is the living Word of God made flesh, all the things God wants to say to us wrapped up in flesh and blood and sent out into the world for all to see. The life that Jesus brings is eternal, everlasting, extending from now and lasting past the end times and into the reign of God. The life that Jesus brings is more powerful than death itself. The life that Jesus brings is abundant, meant for all of creation and all people, meant to transform the world and our lives and our hearts and minds and bodies and all that is, seen and unseen. There is no one else that has such life, no other source of it. Peter knows this and is absolutely right about it.
Of course, the fact that Peter knows that Jesus is the only source of the words of eternal life doesn’t stop him from deserting Jesus in his hour of need, a couple of years later when Jesus was arrested, tried, beaten, and executed for blasphemy by the civil and religious authorities. Peter didn’t just abandon Jesus, he denied knowing him.
And, let’s look at the rest of the people around Jesus now, the crowds and students and disciples and such. Jesus brings the words of eternal life; Jesus brings himself. Jesus feeds them both physically and spiritually. Jesus overflows with food for their bodies and souls. And what do they do with this gift of life? They leave. The physical food is great, but they don’t like the message that goes with it. It’s too hard. Too confusing. Too weird. People like Jesus as long as he’s predictable and giving them what they want. But as soon as he’s asking them to think deeper, to challenge the way they see the world, they start leaving because his words are too hard for them. And even the ones who stay with Jesus at this point aren’t going to stay with him forever. Judas is there, and Peter, and both of them are going to betray Jesus in different ways. Jesus is the Word of eternal life, but even the disciples who know that repeatedly choose to turn away. Peter can say “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” But he can’t live up to that knowledge, or at least not consistently.
Why do we do that? Even when we know better? Even when we know all that God has done for us? Even when we know that life comes from God through Jesus Christ, why do we still turn away? Well, when the disciples say “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” they’re right. Jesus’ teachings are often hard. I can’t tell you the number of sermons I’ve heard in my life where the preacher has devoted themselves to explaining how Jesus doesn’t really mean what it sounds like he means. And sometimes they’re right; sometimes, there’s a difference in culture or context or language between then and now means that we hear things very differently from how Jesus meant them. But a lot of the time, that’s not the case. A lot of the time, the preacher just didn’t like what Jesus was saying, and so decided that Jesus couldn’t possibly have meant it. And religious professionals aren’t the only ones guilty warping Biblical texts to something that they like better. Most Christians do it at least some of the time. This is true regardless of denomination, of training, of political convictions—knowing that the words of eternal life come from God through Jesus Christ does not stop us from turning away from those words, or leaving them behind, or turning them into something that we like better.
For example, we’ve spent the last several weeks going through John 6. Jesus has been talking about drinking his blood and eating his flesh. Okay, we know he’s talking about the bread and wine of communion, not literal cannibalism, but we can understand how his original hearers would be confused since it really only makes sense when you know about Jesus’ Last Supper and his crucifixion and resurrection, none of which have happened yet. So the body and blood stuff would have been hard to hear for his original listeners in a way it isn’t for us.
But that’s not the only thing that’s hard to hear about this chapter. Jesus fed people and then compared it—and himself—to the manna in the wilderness. Remember that, from the book of Exodus? Every morning, the people would go out and find a mysterious bread-like food covering the ground. They could gather only as much as they needed for that day, no more, or it would go bad. The lesson of the manna, which they forgot as soon as they came into the Promised Land, was to trust God. To depend on God. To trust that no matter how dire things were, God would be there, every day, fulfilling God’s promises. The people of Israel had to learn to trust God and not their own abilities. They had to trust God more than their resources, more than their intelligence, more than their health and wealth, more than politics or economics or experience, more than anything else in the universe. That’s what Jesus is telling people to do in this passage. Trust God’s gifts of life, more than anything else, no matter what.
I bet if I asked you, most of you would say you trusted God. But. Could you live like that? Could you live every day knowing that God’s gifts were a literal life-and-death difference in your life? Could you trust that God would provide more than you trusted your own ability to figure out a way to get what you needed? Could you trust God more than your own ability to work hard, more than your ability to think and figure, more than your assumptions of how the world works, more than anything else in the world? Most people can’t, or at least, we can’t for long. We tell ourselves that we’re trusting God, but really we’re trusting ourselves and telling ourselves what we want to hear. And so we go astray. Just like the people did in our Gospel reading. Just like Peter did, after Jesus’ arrest. But you know what? Even when we go astray, even when we betray Jesus, even when we forget that Jesus is the only true Word, God does not turn God’s back on us. God’s grace and forgiveness are lavished on us no matter what, and Jesus the Word keeps speaking to us until we hear him again and turn to him once more.
Consider our reading from Joshua. That, too, contains one of the great classic lines of the faith. “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” You see it embroidered on pillowcases, printed on bumper stickers, calligraphed on wall hangings. It’s a beautiful statement of faithfulness to God. God has freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, God has led them through the wilderness to the Promised Land, and here Joshua their leader brings them together after all they’ve been through and reminds them of all that God has done for them, the freedom and new life he is giving them, and asks them to choose to serve God. And the people give a resounding yes! “It is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
Problem is, they failed. They were sincere when they made the promise; they just weren’t sincere for very long. They failed repeatedly and consistently. That’s the story of the rest of the Old Testament. The people promise to serve God and live as God’s people. They fail. Sometimes by explicitly worshipping other gods, but sometimes by allowing injustice and oppression to take root among them while still giving lip service to God’s commandments. God sends a judge or a prophet, the people don’t listen, things get worse, God allows their enemies to invade and conquer, the people repent, God saves them, but it doesn’t last. People turn away from God, again. It doesn’t matter what promises we make or what words God gives us: we turn away.
Jesus’ words and teachings are hard, if we really take them seriously. This is just one of many that sound simple on the surface but are almost impossible to truly live out. Thank God for God’s forgiveness and love, lavished on us even when we choose to go astray. Thank God for the Word of eternal and abundant life present in Jesus Christ our Lord, who keeps speaking even when we turn away. May we hear that Word, and may we always come back when we turn away.