You have the words of eternal life: A Sermon for Proper 16, Year B

August 26, 2012

It’s August, the general election is still more than two months away. Of course, in Wisconsin, it seems like we’ve been in election mode for the last two years. We’ve been inundated by ads. Those of you with landlines have had to deal with pollsters. The news is full of partisan rancor. Most of us long ago made up our minds and most of us can’t quite understand how anyone could disagree with the perfectly rational choices we’ve made, politically or otherwise.

The partisan gap is so wide that most of us can’t conceive how people on the other side have come to their positions. We listen to them and roll our eyes or ridicule them on facebook. We’ve heard this week from a senate candidate who spouts nonsense as scientific truth. We know all about those who refuse to accept scientific evidence that supports evolution or climate change. We wonder, how can anyone believe something in the face of such clear evidence?

I came across a couple of articles that explored that question in those two areas—how our beliefs concerning climate change or evolution are shaped by our culture and background. In each of those essays, the authors made the point that our beliefs about science, and by extension, our beliefs about religion or politics, are as much a product of our psychology as they are about the scientific evidence. They are a product of the way we look at the world, a product of our backgrounds, cultural contexts, emotional commitments as much as a product of careful weighing evidence or assessing arguments.

Still, we think that our decisions are rational, and we can only conclude that the reason someone might disagree with us is because they are irrational. One of the reasons for such a disconnect between empirical evidence and our deeply held beliefs is a product of historical development. And that disconnect is as profound when it comes to our religious beliefs as it is for things like evolution or climate change. Thanks to cultural change since the Enlightenment, we understand beliefs, whether they have to do with science or religion, to have to do with assent to propositions. Is evolution true? There can only be a yes or no answer. The same is true of religious propositions—Is Jesus Christ the Son of God? There can only be two answers, yes or no, and anything in between, any answer, any statement that might involve our heart as well as our head, or our head as well as our heart, is out of bounds.

Well, this is not unlike the dilemma that the disciples face in today’s gospel.

We are finally at the end of our summer with the bread of life. This is the last reading from John 6, the last time we will hear from John in the Sunday Eucharistic lectionary until All Saints’ Sunday, November 4. But don’t think it will get any easier. When we return to Mark, we will spend much of the next two months focused on discipleship, what it means to follow Jesus.

We’ve got a little of that here, although with a Johannine, rather than Marcan emphasis. That is to say, in the coming weeks we will hear a great deal about what Mark understands following Jesus, being a disciple, means. Today, we learn a little bit about what John means by the same term. But it’s helpful before we turn to today’s text to look at where we’ve been.

The chapter begins with the feeding of the five thousand. Following that miracle, Jesus withdraws from the crowd because he realized they were going to proclaim him king. Then he and the disciples cross the lake. This is when Jesus is seen walking on water. Eventually they make their way to Capernaum, where Jesus engages in a lengthy dialogue and discourse, during which opposition to his words escalates. The discourse culminates with Jesus saying, “I am the bread of life.” He continues, verses we hear last week:

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

This is the hard saying that the disciples have trouble hearing. To us, they sound fairly innocuous. Jesus wasn’t speaking literally. He was referring to the Eucharist and whatever he meant, he didn’t meant that we are literally eating his body and blood.

But there’s more for us to think about here. Jesus is not speaking only of the Eucharist. He is also speaking of himself. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood, abide in me and I in them. Discipleship in the Gospel of John is about relationship with Jesus. Throughout the gospel, from the very first chapter, those who follow Jesus are invited to abide with him, to be with him.

In today’s gospel, Jesus’ listeners are presented with a choice. They can turn away or reject him, or they can listen to him, hear his words, and follow him. It’s not a yes or no choice. After some of those who had followed him walk away, Jesus asks those who remain, “Do you also wish to go away?”

Peter’s answer isn’t yes or no. Having walked with Jesus thus far, he can’t imagine life without him. “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter has already experienced relationship with Jesus, abiding with him, and the prospect of life without him is incomprehensible. Jesus’ words are eternal life; his words are spirit, all else seems empty in comparison.

Now the Gospel of John has the characteristic that simple ideas, words, concepts can suddenly seem to be remotely abstract, foreign to our experience and lives. Spending time in the gospel of John can be disorienting and alienating. The words wash over us. We have, after all, been spending five weeks hearing this chapter from John’s gospel. If you read it through in one sitting, it comes across as repetitive, to some, even nonsensical. Many of us, including your preacher, will be happy to return to Mark next week, whose language and message is much clearer, though perhaps equally difficult to make one’s own.

What matters above all in John, once we cut through the verbiage, is relationship. What matters is the life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ, offered by Christ. What matters is the experience of abiding with him as he abides with us. John is trying to help us understand, but more importantly to experience, the life that he experienced with Jesus Christ. All of the language, all of the discourses, all of Jesus’ miracles, are directed toward this.

Most of us struggle with our faith. Most of us wonder at times, if God exists, whether Jesus was the Son of God, or whether he truly was raised from the dead. We wonder about heaven and hell. We have lots of questions, doubts, uncertainties. Some of us probably aren’t even sure why we bother coming to church. Does any of it matter? Is any of it true?

But there is something that draws us here, something that speaks to our deepest yearnings and hopes. We might not even be able to articulate or name what it is. We come here and find something. For the Gospel of John, what we find here is relationship, life. We experience in the community gathered, in the bread and wine, in the word read and proclaimed, in all of that, we experience life. Jesus offers us that life. He invites us to stay, to abide with him, to live in him as he lives in us. When we say yes to him, we are not proving an argument or saying yes to a proposition. We are inviting and experiencing relationship. When say yes to him, we say yes to life.

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