Sermon: XIII Pentecost (16b)

Patrick Allen on August 30, 2012


XIII Pentecost (16b)
Josh 24.1-25; Eph 5.21-33; Jn 6.60-69
26 August 2012
Fr. Patrick Allen

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We come this morning in our Gospel lesson to the end of a long account of Jesus’ teaching and interaction with an apparently largish group of his disciples at the synagogue in Capernaum.  It’s known usually as the “Bread of Life” discourse and it takes all of chapter 6 of St. John’s Gospel.  We’ve spent four Sundays reading through it, and as we’ve seen week by week, Jesus has continually raised the level of shock and offense.  His words are often harsh and always difficult. 

And now, as we have heard Deacon Michael read for us, for most of the crowd – who again are not just casual listeners but are actually called “disciples” – it’s just too much.  All of this talk about “eating my flesh and drinking my blood, ” this insistence by Jesus that apart from him, from his body and blood, they have no life in them – after this, St. John tells us, many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.  At this point, Jesus turns to the Twelve, his closest disciples, those who had been with him from the beginning of his ministry, who had received his special commission as “Apostles” and asks, “What about you?”  Do you also wish to go away

Much as Joshua, as we heard in our first lesson this morning, pushed the twelve tribes of Israel gathered together at Shechem to a day of decision – Choose this day whom you will serve! –Jesus has pushed, purposefully pushed, his twelve Apostles gathered together at Capernaum to their own moment of choosing. 

After all, they can see other disciples, no doubt friends of theirs among them, walking away – maybe angered, maybe saddened, maybe disillusioned – but walking away.  It’s a real choice; leaving is a live option.  Fish or cut bait. Do you also wish to go away?

And of course it is, ever and always, a real choice for us, too.  It’s a question addressed to us every day, even moment by moment, as we seek to live lives true and authentic to God’s calling.  We can take for example the subject to one another lives we are all called to generally in the Church and many of us particularly within marriage, wives respectfully submitting to husbands, husbands loving wives by their self-denial and self-offering which we have heard from St. Paul in this morning’s epistle.  Subjection, submission does not come easy to any of us; it’s an affront to our prideful sense of self.  But always we are called to choose:  Jesus or someone, something else. 

And so it might be worth thinking briefly about the difference between those who depart and those who stay, at least as St. John presents them to us.

The disciples who have had enough of Jesus, who drew back and no longer went about with him, have heard Jesus’ words, have felt their offense, and they say, This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?

The first things we should say – and I tried to say it last Sunday – is … they’re right.  It is certainly true that Jesus’ words about his Body and Blood and the life we lack and cannot have apart from him are, as he himself says, spirit and life.  But it is also true that they are hard.  “The bread I give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you.”  And now the two-ton block of concrete that breaks the camel’s back, this lunatic personal claim to Divinity – What if you saw the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?  

These are hard sayings; these disciples do not understand them, are offended by them, and they draw back from Jesus.  In other words, they are functioning under a particular presupposition, which is that if they do not understand Jesus, or if Jesus is saying things they do not like, then the problem is with Jesus.

It sounds harsh and blunt to put it that way – though that seems to me to be the truth of the  matter – but at the same time, and again, we must remember, these are truly hard things that Jesus has been saying.  In fact, it’s plain that Jesus has been intentionally pushing the envelope of offense.  So, why – why is he do this, forcing these disciples into an apparently untenable position? 

Well, perhaps he has been doing so to bring them to just to this point, to bring us to just this moment of revelation.  It may be that Jesus has been doing this, saying this, to get to the crux of the matter, to reveal their true object of faith – which is not Jesus but their own understanding, their own self-conception and expectation.  And actually, St. John tells us that Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe.

St. Augustine famously said that if a man will pick and choose which parts of the Gospel he believes, it is no longer the Gospel he believes but himself.  In a similar way, these departing disciples show that they were not committed to Jesus so much as they were to their own categories of understanding.  They did not trust Jesus to the point of allowing him to lead an internal revolution in their thinking about life, the universe, and everything.

Which brings us to the Twelve, the Apostles.  Jesus turns to them, as many of the other disciples walk away, and asks, Do you also wish to go away?

St. Peter, as always, speaks up for the entire apostolic band, and here’s what we do not hear:  “Do we wish to to go away?  Certainly not.  You present no difficulties.  All that you say, all that you claim for yourself, makes perfect sense and confirms all of my own intuitions and/or prejudices.  More, please.”

No, not at all.  Instead we get least self-satisfied, self-sufficient answer imaginable. Peter says, Lord, to whom else would we go?

The first thing to say about that is that the Twelve, whatever their other problems, have become profoundly humble:  to whom else would we go?  They have gotten past the illusion of self-sufficiency.  They understand that the answer they are looking for, the answer to the problem of their own guilt and alienation, the answer to the problem of Israel’s messianic hope – that answer is not within them.  It must come from the outside, from Another.  They understand that to walk away from Jesus means to walk toward someone or something else.

And the second thing to say is that they have reached the point of believing that that someone or something else will just not measure up to Jesus. 

The Apostles, whatever their reservations about Jesus’ plan to walk into the lion’s den of Roman and religious collusion in Jerusalem, and despite their slowness to understand the full meaning of Jesus’ ministry  and its implications for their own lives, a slowness which Jesus himself often remarks upon, despite their own evident fear – whatever their problems, the Apostles are committed to Jesus. 

No doubt they found Jesus’ words in this Bread of Life discourse as alternatingly opaque and offensive as the rest of those disciples.  But they know Jesus, and so they are willing to bracket, if you will, the hard saying because they have learned to trust the Say-er.  They can put up with difficulties with Jesus’ teaching because they have no doubts about Jesus himself.  We have come to know that you are the Holy One of God

Let me be clear, as President Obama is fond of saying:  the Twelve have not wrapped their heads around all that Jesus has said in the Bread of Life Discourse, but they do believe in, trust in Jesus.

I think this is often times precisely where both we on the inside and the Church’s cultured despisers on the outside get it wrong.  Almost as if looking through the telescope from the wrong end, we focus on our own evaluations of the teachings, the ethical demands, or even worse, on our own feelings of faith or not faith, and then make a decision about Jesus – rather than beginning with the Lord, with God’s love revealed and made manifest in the person of Jesus, and allowing as best we can the other things to fall into place from there, bracketing our difficulties in favor of obedience until the difficulties resolve and ignorance becomes knowledge.  Being sure about Jesus, confident in Jesus, we then have a place, a foundation from which we may begin to question ourselves.

Again, since St. Paul brought it up (and since Ashley is out of town!):  Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Wives be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord…Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.  That kind of subjection in marriage, that kind of putting the other first, may not seem to make a lot of sense in the moment – and those can be some long moments, can’t they?  But what does Paul say?  Do it out of reverence for Christ.  The particular realities and ramifications of obedience, of faithfulness may not necessarily, in the moment, make a lot of sense to us, but Jesus does; he can be trusted.

At the beginning of his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), Pope Benedict XVI made just this point.  He begins by referencing St. John’s first epistle:  “We have come to believe in God's love.”  And he continues:

“…in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with … a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

To be Christian is a day by day, moment by moment, “encounter with a person,” with Jesus.

And finally I would just point out that Peter describes the Apostle’s faith in Jesus as the Holy One of God as something they have come to know.  In other words, it is a conviction that grew and developed over time and with shared experience.  And the same must be true for us.  Christianity, we may even say eternal life, is nothing less than friendship with Jesus, and friendship, intimacy, trust, and confidence – these things, as for the Apostles, develop over time and with shared experience, because Jesus is not an idea or a concept, but a living Person – a Person who, it turns out, loves you, gives himself to and for you, and wants to be your friend.

He is dying for that to happen.  On the cross, he stretches his arms wide, that you and I and the whole world might come within his saving embrace.

Come to Jesus.

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