Where can we go? A Sermon for Proper 16B, 2021

Proper16, Year B

August 22, 2021

Have you ever faced one of those life-changing decisions, one where you knew that whatever you did, your life would change forever? It may have been a relationship, a job opportunity, where to go to college. It may have been a decision between remaining in the familiar comfortable place, where you knew who you were and where you stood, and the uncertainty and challenge of a future that held the possibility of excitement and a transformed life, but also might have been dangerous. 

We know all about bad decisions, regretting the choices we made, things that led us down deadends, or trouble. We also know about doors that we didn’t open, opportunities that we didn’t pursue.

We know about bad decisions in the world around us. We see them playing out in society, in government, in institutions like schools or universities as we all struggle with the pandemic and with the challenges we face. The news is full of such stories these days; some of those decisions affect us, our livelihoods, the health and welfare of our families and in the face of those bad decisions, we wonder how we can make right ones.

We are seeing bad decisions play out on a global scale as we watch unfolding events in Afghanistan; the fruits of a twenty-year long military debacle, and repeated bad decisions, or refusals to make the hard decisions. And we see the consequences of those decisions in the lives of Afghanis who wanted to create a better society and better lives for themselves and their families.

Often we can’t know or imagine the implications of decisions we make—how they will affect those around us, our future lives. And in such circumstances, we often don’t take others into consideration when we act, or out of fear that we might make the wrong decision, we don’t choose, which of course is a decision of its own.

I was scrolling twitter last night, witnessing the deep partisan conflict and anger that is endemic to that platform; seeing links to heartbreaking stories of COVID patients, chaos in Afghanistan; witnessing the fear and anxiety of individuals as they try to do the right thing; conflicts over, well just about everything. As I scrolled, I thought about Peter’s response to Jesus in today’s gospel reading, “Where can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Facing a choice, facing a decision, Peter and the twelve vowed to walk with Jesus into an uncertain future.

We are finally coming to an end to our reading of John 6. Next week, we will be back in Mark for the rest of the liturgical year. Today’s reading provides us with a helpful transition back to Mark because it addresses one of Mark’s central themes, and certainly a central theme of that part of Mark where we will find ourselves for the next several weeks. 

Let’s go back and look at what is taking place. The story begins with the feeding of the five thousand. His disciples cross the lake and Jesus walks on water to join them. After discovering that Jesus is gone, the crowd follows him back across the lake, and then begins the lengthy debate, discussion, argument, over the meaning of the miracle and the significance of bread. Now, as the chapter comes to an end, we are told that Jesus said these things, with the culminating statement: “But the one who eats this bread will live forever” in the synagogue at Capernaum, where he had been teaching.

Then we are treated to another shock, or abrupt transition. The crowd with whom Jesus had been debating has suddenly vanished, and only the disciples are left. The controversy is over, or Jesus’ opponents are gone, and in the quiet of the moment, some of those closest to Jesus have second thoughts: “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” 

Struggling to comprehend what Jesus is saying, what he is about, the gospel writer observes, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”

And then, Jesus took the inner circle, the twelve, aside and asked them, “Do you also wish to go away?” 

Peter answered for the group: “Where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” 

“Where would we go?” 

Peter and the twelve had borne witness to the conflict. They had listened and watched as Jesus and his opponents argued over the meaning of bread, and the bread of life. They saw as his opponents appealed to history and tradition in their attempt to silence Jesus. They watched too, as their friends, other disciples turned away because Jesus said difficult things. 

We might very well be among those that think Jesus’ teachings are difficult, so difficult in fact, that we refashion them into an ideology that reflects our fears and baser instincts, that contribute to white supremacy and Christian nationalism, that reinterpret the command to love our neighbor and our enemy, so that they refer only to those in my family, race, political party, or socio-economic class. 

Jesus has difficult words for us, difficult teachings. Wherever we stand on the political spectrum, wherever we stand on the burning questions of our day, it is easy for us to view Jesus, his teachings, through the lens of our political and cultural assumptions. We can see that when others do it; when they mold Jesus and Christianity into an ideology supportive of their political perspective. It’s often much more difficult to see when we do it ourselves.

Where would we go? 

As we return to the Gospel of Mark next week, we will see that following Jesus, discipleship means for that gospel, following Jesus to the cross—an arduous and dangerous journey for those who would follow Jesus. We will learn from Mark his perspective on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

In the gospel of John, there’s a rather different emphasis. As I mentioned last week, in this gospel discipleship is all about relationship with Jesus, being with, abiding with Jesus. There’s a poignancy in this little episode, when some of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. Having tasted that relationship, having abided in him, having glimpsed the abundant life Jesus offers, they chose the easier path, to walk away. 

But Peter and the twelve saw that they really had no option. There was no alternative. “Where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

We stand at a crossroads, in this liturgical year as we move from John to Mark, and between somewhat different notions of discipleship. We stand at a crossroads as Jesus asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” We may want to step away from him, from the difficult words that he teaches, back into the comfort of easy answers and complacency, but to do so means also turning our backs on the life he offers us. Behind us lies the familiar with all of its easy answers and certainties. Ahead of us lies the uncertainty of a future, and amid that uncertainty the promise of a life lived in Christ. Where will we go?

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