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?

Where would we go? A Sermon for Proper 16, Year B, 2018


 There’s something about natural disasters that brings out the best in people. Of course there are always scammers, those who seek to take advantage of vulnerable people but the reality is that we tend to come together when we are faced with difficult situations brought about by events that are out of control. We help each other, but we also want to share stories, tell of our experiences and listen as others share their experiences as well. We do it on social media but we also do it when we’re going about the daily business of life. We chat with cashiers or fellow customers about what we’ve seen and experienced, and what’s happening elsewhere.  Many of us also volunteer, filling sandbags, or helping to clean out neighbors’ or family members’ basements after the flood.

Such spontaneous community is increasingly rare in our society and culture. In our divided nation, and with the fragmentation brought on by the many cultural changes that we’ve seen over the last decades, it often takes a natural disaster like a flood to draw our attention away from the immediate concerns of our own lives and focus for a time on the larger questions and larger drama of human existence.

As we have read John 6 these last few weeks, we have seen a somewhat similar dynamic play itself out. The chapter begins with the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. Imagine the excitement, the conversations among those who experienced the miraculous appearance of food. Imagine the stories they would tell to their children, grandchildren, neighbors and friends!

But the scene and the energy quickly shift. We see dialogue, conversation, and finally, conflict, as Jesus’ dialogue partners become increasingly critical of his statements. And now finally this:

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ 

We’re told that the scene has shifted in another way. Whoever Jesus had been talking with earlier in the chapter—when was he addressing the whole crowd? And when did it become a smaller group? Now he has moved into the synagogue and is speaking with the congregation gathered there.

And another set of characters is introduced—the disciples. So the group of those with whom Jesus had been talking has become smaller, more intimate, more deeply connected with Jesus. They were those who had been following him since the beginning, or had joined the group along the way somewhere. But this is a hard saying—it’s more than a “hard saying” it’s a scandal, an offense, the Greek word from which we derive scandal is used here.

So some of them turn away—not the vast crowd that had been fed bread and fishes; nor even those who had listened to Jesus speaking in the synagogue. Now, some of those who turned away were his disciples—men and women who knew him, had followed him thus far, had listened and learned. But the circle grows even smaller. Jesus gathers his closest companions to him, for the first time in the Gospel, there’s a reference to the “twelve.” It’s a term that appears very infrequently in the Gospel of John. Jesus turns to them and asks: “Do you also wish to go away?”

In the last two verses of the chapter, there’s an ominous note-a reminder that not even the twelve could remain with Jesus to the end—The gospel writer mentions Judas by name and his betrayal of Jesus.

The reference to Judas is a reminder to us that when Jesus speaks of his body and blood, he is not speaking only of the Eucharist, but also of his crucifixion and resurrection. It’s no accident, nor is it insignificant that in our Eucharistic prayers, going back to Paul’s account of it in 1 Corinthians, we begin the words of institution with “On the night on which he was betrayed, Jesus took bread…”

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.

















Abiding in the presence of Christ: A Sermon for Proper 16, Year B

Today is a historic day for Grace Church. As we break ground officially on our renovation project, it’s important to acknowledge all of the hard work and vision that have brought us to this moment. We’ve been working on this for three years. As I’ve said before, there have been countless meetings, hours and hours of conversation and debate. Almost everyone involved at Grace has participated in some way in the work as we’ve developed, revised, revised, and revised again the Master Plan, saw our Giving Light, Giving Hope capital campaign to its successful conclusion, and helped us prepare our facilities for construction and the move. Continue reading