Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
For those who may be new to our church – or for those who may not completely understand how Pastor Cathy or I plan a worship service – I want to begin by giving a brief overview of what is called the lectionary. The Revised Common Lectionary is a preselected schedule of scripture texts that many Christian churches use to decide which passages are read in a worship service. This schedule follows a 3-year cycle that eventually dips its toes into a large portion of the 66 books of our Bible. Following the calendar of the seasons of the Church, each year begins on the first Sunday of Advent and ends on what is called “Christ the King Sunday.” Right now, we are in what is called “Year B,” which means that our readings for each Sunday are more or less the same as they were three years ago in 2015, and they’ll be the same three years from now in 2021. While I can’t speak for Pastor Cathy, I have to say that I really like the lectionary for the most part. I like that the readings follow the rhythm of the liturgical year, with the assigned readings corresponding with the season or holy feast days of the Church. I also like the fact that if we were to sneak into a majority of the Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, or Catholic churches around the world today, there’s a very good chance that we would hear the exact same scripture passages being read in worship. And as we believe that the Holy Spirit can and does speak to churches through the lectionary, I’ve been amazed at how often the preplanned lectionary readings correspond powerfully to what is going on in our world.
Over the past few weeks, however, I’ve been tempted to stray from the lectionary and pick other passages to preach from. This is the fifth Sunday in a row that we’ve been in this portion of John, and I have to admit that I’m running out of things to say about this text. Sure, I could probably right a solid exegesis paper about the nuances of each scripture reading each week, and I could surely find some kind of theological nugget each that speaks powerfully about the Methodist theological understanding of sacraments and the incarnation. But let’s be real – that would be a boring sermon.
Another reason that I’ve been hesitant about these texts from John is that they’re challenging. These are passages that theologians and preachers alike have wrestled with for nearly two thousand years, and I promise that we are no closer to any kind of consensus about what they truly mean or what their impact on us today actually is. On top of all of that, they’re flat out weird and a little off-putting. All of this talk about eating flesh and drinking blood isn’t necessarily palatable for us 21st Century Americans. While we who preach on Sundays like to deliver nice, neat messages with a pretty bow on top, this portion of the Gospel of John if anything highlights the strangeness of the Gospel, throwing off any attempt to corral and package Jesus’ words in a nice, digestible package.
I get a little bit of comfort, though, to find that I am not alone in this struggle. Our reading picks up where we left off last week, with Jesus saying something weird: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them…The one who eats this bread will live forever.” For those who would have been listening to Jesus say these words, they would have been scandalized and offended. After all, we can read from the Law in Leviticus, which says: “If any native Israelite or foreigner living among you eats or drinks blood in any form, I will turn against that person and cut him off from the community of your people.”
In just a few words, Jesus alienates his Jewish brothers and sisters and scares away a large portion of the rest that remain. The crowd that was initially so large at the feeding of the five thousand begins to rapidly dwindle as they actually listen to his words, and by the end of this passage, it seems that only a few remain with him. Their words tell the story: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
These words of Jesus – just as much then as now – are difficult. They’re challenging to accept and perplexing to try to carry out. But perhaps we churches have done well at sanitizing the message, making it palatable to hear. Maybe we (and I’m speaking just as much, if not more, to myself) have figured out a way of hearing the Word of God and fitting it into our own language and sensibilities about what it means to be a person of faith in the 21st Century, especially in a city like New York. And I think that’s part of why I’ve been hesitant about this passage of scripture. Because these demands of Jesus seem out of touch and too supernatural for my liking. I more often than not want a faith that keeps me comfortable and secure, an unchallenging faith that lets me go to sleep at night without too many thoughts or concerns. But, John says, that kind of faith isn’t the faith that Jesus is talking about. Jesus is not talking about an easy faith. Rather, this is a faith that calls us to consume the body and blood of Jesus so that we might become the body and blood of Jesus, embracing his life, death, and resurrection in a way that leads us to radically shift our own lives in a way that leads to many small deaths and even the final death; to pick up our own cross.
The call of the faith of Jesus is strange and difficult, offensive and alienating. It reaches far beyond our time in the pew on a Sunday morning, instead taking hold of every single aspect of our lives – our workplaces, our finances, our relationships, our consumption, our politics, our eating habits – and holding them up to the precedent set before us in Jesus Christ. The faith of Jesus is not an easy faith.
But what can be easy is choosing to walk away from it. Because there are things that make our faith seem absurd and irrelevant, right? There are things that strike our sensibilities in a way that make us consider dropping this whole church and God idea altogether.
There is of course the news regarding clergy of all traditions that were actively sexually abusing children in church, using perverse teachings to coerce these young ones into horrifying acts. I need not tell you the myriad of ways that the teachings of Jesus are used to justify racism, sexism, and homophobia, all in the name of those individuals being the true and authoritative Christians. We’ve seen the ways in which the church has massed riches and luxuries, all while those experiencing homelessness sleep on the church steps and children scrounge in the trash simply looking for a meal.
Outside of that, we have to deal with the fact that Jesus’ life and teachings just make life inconvenient and hard for us. There’s the whole business in which he says that if we have more than one coat, give the extras away; that we should love our enemies and pray for those who mistreat you; that we should forgive not seven but seventy time seven times; that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.
And, quite frankly, giving up one of your only free mornings to come sit in this hot church for an hour or two isn’t necessarily the most appealing thing to do. You could instead just be waking up after sleeping in for a few hours, or you could be sitting somewhere eating a leisurely brunch. Or maybe you’d just be in your apartment sipping on your morning coffee while reading that book that you’ve been dying to open, not worrying about committee meetings or coffee hour.
There may seem to be better things to do. There are other messages to listen to that aren’t as offensive or challenging. There are people to associate and dine with that aren’t as problematic.
And yet, here we are. We’re here, a part of all of this even still. So, what gives?
After the vast majority of people have filtered out, Jesus asks the remaining disciples, “Do you also wish to go away?” to which Peter responds, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” He knew what he found. He knew that he had found something truly remarkable, something so grace-filled and life-giving that he was willing to give up all that he had to follow it. To walk away would be settling for something far less.
To speak personally, I think I’m starting to be able to identify what it is that keeps my faith alive; that keeps me following even in the midst of so much disappointment and so many failures; those words that contain eternal life in a world that is filled with so much death. My faith is kept alive, I think, by the fact that Jesus pronounces blessings on the poor, the meek, the humble, and the peacemakers. It’s kept alive by his message of good news to the poor, freedom for those that are enslaved and oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor. It’s sustained by a belief in love that transcends any boundaries that we might set up, a love that is our purpose for being. It’s sustained by the vision of rest, of peace, and of eternal life that not even death can hinder. Quite frankly, it’s saved by Jesus. It’s kept alive by the ways that I feel and see the Spirit moving in and around us. It’s sustained by grace.
This morning, I don’t know what keeps drawing you back, and I’m not sure why you’re here in the first place. But in the face of all of the myriad reasons as to why it’s easy and even sensible to walk away from faith, I can’t help but believe that there is something that brings you hope and joy and peace and an openness to love. I pray that you don’t lose sight of those eternal words, of that eternal Spirit, and of that eternal hope.
For there is a better way. There is better life, life that is eternal and without end. Let us not settle for anything less.