Jesus offers us life with the Triune God – forgiven, restored, abundant, eternal life – and will change us from within to make this life, this relationship happen. The question before us is whether or not we want the life enough to accept the changes Jesus will make.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 21, year B; texts: John 6:56-69; Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
I’ll never forget the time I almost called off a wedding a week before it was to occur. The couple and I were meeting for some last minute checking in, and suddenly we got into a conversation which literally was turning the bride’s face as white as a sheet. We’d been dealing with some questions of where they’d live after the marriage, and somehow on this day the groom began talking about marriage in a way he hadn’t before. He spoke strongly about how compromise was a word he didn’t believe in, how he didn’t expect to be changed in marriage, and how he felt he was being forced into something he didn’t want to be. His somewhat stringent views of his life had come up before, and in general he was a really good guy. But in this conversation it took a more radical turn than we’d discussed before. It was as if he believed that he could be married to someone and not have to consider changing a single thing about his life, his daily schedule, his comfortable patterns. Even his living arrangements.
Well, we kept talking, and after a couple hours we came to a place where I think he wanted to be, and certainly where his fiancée could consider going forward. That was years ago, and the last I heard they have a good marriage and several children.
But anyone who’s been in a life-long, committed relationship of love and grace with another person knows how utterly unrealistic it is to expect to be the same as you were when you entered it. Now, when a couple is considering such vows, I urge them to realize that they won’t be able to change their beloved; the package they now love is pretty much the deal they will have to face for the rest of their lives. But the reality is that when we commit to love, forgive, respect, and be faithful to another person for the rest of our lives, we are committing to be changed profoundly in that relationship. Or we have no business making such vows.
This is the problem Jesus faces with the disciples today, and with us. He offers us the fullness of life with the Triune God, a restored relationship with our Creator which fills us, changes us from within into new people, and gives us life now, and life eternal. Since the feeding of the thousands, Jesus has been trying to convince the crowds, and now even his disciples, that he has so much more to offer than material needs met, simple wants supplied, even such basic needs as food and shelter, water and clothing. He has life to offer.
But such a relationship he offers, while freely given, will change us. Profoundly. Jesus means to change us from within, as we considered last week, because frankly, we need it. Our broken human natures need to be restored to the Creator’s intent. But Jesus will also not force us, or anyone, into this, something he will prove as he willingly goes to the cross.
And thus Jesus has a problem. None of us really likes being changed from who we are. Like the disciples in today’s story, we find this too difficult to accept. Not too difficult to understand; we understand quite well. We just are basically pleased with ourselves and who we are. We’d like God’s grace and presence in our lives, but we’d rather not be changed by it.
And it’s critical to note that it is, in fact, disciples Jesus is talking to here. People like us, not non-believers.
In Jesus’ ministry there were crowds who gathered where he was, sometimes following him to the next town. These crowds would come and go, and in the case of this chapter of John, at one point there were thousands who were there at night, needing food. Some of these were beginning to believe in Jesus; some would become disciples. Many others were simply coming to see what this was all about, much in the manner of crowds throughout history to today. When they chased Jesus down on the day after the miracle, these crowds wanted another show, and certainly another meal.
But there were also disciples who followed Jesus, literally followed him from place to place. These were people who developed a special relationship with him as their teacher, who committed themselves to being his disciples, seeking the discipline this teacher had to offer.
And it was far more than twelve in this category. Luke reports at one point Jesus sent 70 disciples out to preach and teach, in pairs. At the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, there were 120 gathered together when the wind of the Spirit blew. Disciples, not random crowds.
The expression for what they did was, “they went about with him.” So this is Jesus’ crisis: not only the crowds have dissipated. Many of his disciples have left him. As John says it, “they turned back and no longer went about with him.” This means they have severed their relationship with him as teacher. They no longer feel bound to him.
So when Jesus asks the twelve if they, too, will leave, it is a critical question. Is it possible that he will lose everyone because of his teaching?
This becomes a crisis for the Church as well, we who are baptized into this Body, we who “go about with Jesus.” The same commitment Jesus invites, the same change from within he offers those who were with him then, he offers us. Like them, we identify publicly with him, we claim his name. We are “followers of Jesus.” Christians, anointed to be Christ like our Lord Christ. And we’re struggling with Jesus’ difficult teaching just as much as they.
It may be helpful to look back at two snapshots from Israel’s history to help us see a way ahead.
In our first reading, Joshua is challenging the Israelites on the edge of the Promised Land to swear allegiance to the LORD, the God of Hosts, who saved them from Egypt.
But it’s the verses we’re missing which really tell the full story. In between verse 2 and 14, Joshua beautifully re-tells their whole salvation history, reminding them of what the LORD has done for them from the beginning until now. In that context, Joshua tells them to choose whom they will serve, the LORD, or gods their ancestors served. And of course the Israelites say they will serve the LORD.
But in the verses after our reading, Joshua throws their words back at them and says that they won’t be able to do it, they won’t be able to stay away from false gods. And they say back that they will, they will, they promise to serve the LORD. Finally, Joshua relents and cuts the covenant in stone for them, but also tells them that they then will need to get rid of their false gods. It almost appears that while they’re swearing fealty to the LORD they’ve got idols in their saddlebags, and Joshua exasperatedly points out how clearly hard it will be for them to be faithful.
So that’s their crisis: living among people who worship other gods, even having some of their own, how will Israel learn to be faithful, to live into their commitment in such a way that they are changed, different? Or will they want all the benefits of serving the LORD but none of the changes it will entail?
Contrast this scene with one a few centuries later, when King David is confronted by the prophet Nathan over both his adultery with Bathsheba and his arranged murder of her husband Uriah. If you remember the story, Nathan brilliantly doesn’t directly confront David, knowing his king well enough to know David might resent the accusations. Instead, he re-tells the sins with another as the accused, and of course activates David’s keen sense of right and wrong, of the way of the LORD.
When David learns he has judged himself, remarkably he confesses. He asks forgiveness from God in a beautiful psalm we sing to this day, Psalm 51. But the astonishing thing about that confession, that psalm, is that David bypasses both crises we’re considering, that of the Israelites and that of the disciples.
He wants what they want, a relationship with the God of the universe, the one, true God. He knows he needs, like them, forgiveness and grace to have it happen. But he knows one more thing: he knows he will have to be changed.
When he prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” he’s asking for a completely new heart, not just forgiveness. “Create this in me,” he says. He realizes now how unlike the LORD he is, how damaged he is, to have done such horrible things.
He knows it will take more than a forgiveness. It will take a heart transplant, a complete change. And that’s what he asks for in this psalm. He asks for what the prophet Ezekiel later would promise, that God will remove our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh. (Ez. 36)
It’s what Jesus offers: complete transformation into new people of God. And King David knew that’s what he needed, he who believed he was the servant of the LORD, God’s chosen, God’s anointed, he now realizes he’s completely broken and damaged.
And so we find ourselves standing next to Peter, hearing Jesus’ question: “Do you also wish to go away?”
And we hear Peter say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And that becomes our focus, our way ahead. Do we have any other way to such life as Jesus offers? Can anything we give our lives to offer this? Can anything of our broken natures that we wish to keep, to hold on to, give us this? Is there anything in the world that offers such life, such grace, such forgiveness?
David knew there wasn’t. So did Peter. And really, so do we. Because as much as we want to cling to our old ways, and ask forgiveness while still hoping not to have to change anything about us, if we look even deeper we know we want such change.
We want to be the kind of people that look like Jesus. That are Jesus. We want to live in the world with such grace and hope that we are part of God’s changing of the world, part of God’s saving. It’s only our outer shells that resist being different, that hesitate to let Jesus transform us. Inside, in the quiet of our hearts, like David we know what needs to be done.
And we gather here each week because, honestly, we have nowhere else to go for the words of eternal life.
We come here for heart transplants, as painful as they are, because here we have found the heart of God, and have learned it beats in love for us, with us. We come here for guidance and direction because we so easily fall back into our old ways and need reminders. We desperately need to “go about” with Jesus because he knows where to go. And we come here for food and life – not for the physical food value of the Lord’s Meal but for the gift of Jesus that it is which does the change inside us, and transforms us into completely new people.
Those folks were right. This is a difficult thing to accept.
But even more, Peter and David were right. This is the only way to life we’ve ever known to really give life. It’s the only place we have found the true God and discovered that the true God was looking for us in love and grace.
Yes, the changes Jesus has in mind for us and for the Church will change us profoundly. They will hurt sometimes. But his are the words of eternal life, and there’s nothing else we want, nowhere else we hope to be found but with him always.
And thanks be to God, that’s exactly what he’s offering us. And the whole world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen