August 26, 2018
Proper 16, Year B
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
I love being a preacher on Sunday mornings. I love this connection I feel with you right now. I love that I get to bring you a word from God…a word that will hopefully comfort and challenge you, delight and amaze you, and maybe – if the Spirit wills – even draw you a little bit closer to God and help you become a little bit more of who God is calling you to be.
Preaching, for me, has always felt like a gift and a privilege.
I love being a preacher on Sunday morning.
I feel like Tom Brady at the Super Bowl or YoYo Ma at Carnegie Hall. When I’m up here in front of you and I see your faces light up with hope or understanding I feel like a therapist whose patient has just decided they want to live. I feel like a teacher who has just taught a child how to read.
I am on fire when I’m up here in front of you. I’m in the zone. I know I am doing what I was created to do and it is the best feeling in the world. I love being a preacher on Sunday morning.
That being said, I really don’t love being a preacher on Monday mornings. And there is definitely this inverse ratio thing going on, which is to say that the better I feel about how things went on Sunday the worse I feel on Monday, because I just can’t see how I’m ever going to get back there again.
Being a preacher is exhilarating and it’s exhausting. Nothing else makes me feel quite so alive and nothing terrifies me more than living into this calling week after week. It’s a weird combination of knowing I am doing exactly what I need to be doing and wondering just how much longer I can keep doing it.
I watched the new Demetri Martin special on Netflix this past week. Any Demetri Martin fans here? He’s a comedian who drops droll one liners like: “I go to the gym religiously, about twice a year around the holidays.”
I enjoyed the new show so much, that I went back and re-watched his comedy special from 2015. And then it hit me: I’d bet you money that right after he completed the first special there was a part of him that wondered if he could ever do something that funny again. Just as I bet there was a part of him that knew, because he’s a comedian, that he would need to try anyway.
I’m sure this is how every musician feels after they write a great song.
How an artist feels as they take the final step back from their canvas.
How climbers feel as they summit the peak.
Although I know that these feelings can strike us in life’s more quotidian moments as well. It can be that moment when you stand up, stretch your back, and survey you’re perfectly weeded garden or gently shut a dresser drawer knowing that every last piece of laundry in your household is now clean, folded and put away.
You can feel it as a parent tucking your child in after a really good day.
You can feel it as a child tucking your parent in at the end of a really good life.
It’s hard to put this into words, but I’m talking about those moments in life when you feel most alive. Those moments when you step up and into your best self. Moments when you are fully present, firing on all cylinders, feeling deeply, thinking sharply, seeing clearly.
Those times when you can feel in your bones that you are doing the good you were created to do, being the person you are meant to be. Moments when you feel, deep in your heart, that this is what it is to be alive in the midst of all life’s brutal and beautiful glory! This is why you were put on God’s green earth.
Alright, maybe getting all the laundry clean and put away isn’t that intense, but do you know what I’m talking about?
Then you also know that you can only stay in those moments for so long, not just because life moves on and kids need socks, but because as much as they give you, the intensity of these moments also takes a lot out of you. There is no better place to be and at the same time you can only take so much.
Well I think Peter knew that feeling. I think he knew it all too well. He gets the last word in our lectionary reading for today:
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
I love those words, because as beautiful as they are, there’s also a whole lot of ambivalence packed into them. You can hear in those words Peter’s desire to follow Jesus mixed with his fear of where all this might lead. You can here is exhilaration and his exhaustion.
He knows that Jesus is it for him. He’s a true believer. But you also get the sense that if there was an easier way that felt real or felt right, some other teacher he could trust to make him feel as alive as Jesus made him feel, that Peter would jump ship in a heart beat.
Because here is the thing: as unbelievably wonderful as he is, following Jesus is incredibly hard. Peter is beginning to understand just how incredibly, wonderfully hard it can be, and after 5 weeks in this one chapter of the gospel of John, I think we are too.
For those of you who haven’t been walking through this chapter with us, allow me a quick recap:
In the space of 66 verses and 2 short days Jesus has generated a following of over 5000 people by miraculously feeding them – which would be great if he hadn’t also managed to alienate all but 12 of them by saying that you need to eat his flesh and drink his blood if you want to live forever.
Yeah. Well, not surprisingly, the people don’t get it. Jesus sounds more like Hannibal Lecter than Billy Graham, and his first big revival goes bust. It’s a total P.R. disaster. Honestly, the only thing that could have made it worse was if Jesus was on twitter. (But he was too smart for that wasn’t he _________). Yes he was.
Basically, the people are frustrated. They are frustrated because they want relief and security. They want Jesus to keep feeding them from his bottomless bread basket so they never have to worry about where their next meal will come from. And they want to make him king so he can use his powers to protect them, crush their enemies, and bring them peace. They want Jesus to meet their material needs, and they want him to do it now.
But Jesus has a different vision. I think his cryptic words about the “Spirit giving life,” and the uselessness of “flesh” are his way of telling people not to take him so literally.
Instead, he wants them to trust him – and let me just say that wherever you see the word ‘believe” in this chapter – a much better translation is “trust.”
Jesus wants them to trust him enough to lay down their need for power and control, choose love over fear, forgiveness over vengeance, and trust that if they are willing to share the little they already have with one another, there will always be enough.
Actually, that’s the kind of life Jesus wants for us all: a world where no one has to worry about themselves or the future because we’re already taking such good care of one another right now. That’s life as God means for us to live it – not someday up in heaven – but right here upon the earth.
In fact, that’s the “eternal life” Jesus is talking about throughout this chapter, which I know is terribly confusing because when we here the words “eternal life” we immediately think immortality, right?
But just like “trust” is a better translation for the word “believe” in this chapter, the words, “eternal life,” should really be translated as something more like “life of the ages” or “life to the fullest.” So a verse like 47 should really read more like this:
“Very truly I tell you, whoever trusts me enough to live like me will know what it is to live life to the full” (John 6:47).
Very briefly: there’s how we live right now in this present age and there’s how we will all hopefully live someday when we finally evolve and start loving each other the way God already loves us. When you live and love that way now, you experience that fullness of life, life as God meant for it to be.
To paraphrase Rob Bell, the gift of “eternal life” that Jesus offers is not about escaping the world, it’s about saying yes to Jesus’ invitation to work for a better one. It’s not about securing a life in heaven when we die, but about living a life that brings heaven to earth in the here and now.
That’s the promise Jesus is holding out to each and every one of us and we can live into that reality in this very moment, if we so choose. But laying down our need for power and control, finding the courage to choose love over fear, forgiveness over vengeance, and share all we have is a deeply counter-intuitive way to live.
Jesus knows this is a stretch for us and so he says to the people, you’re going to have to trust me to find your way there. Jesus knows that kind of trust requires a huge leap of faith. He knows we can’t live like that on our own.
We need God’s help to live the life of heaven here on earth and the good news Jesus was trying so hard to express was that God wants to help. God wants to help so much that God has come. God is here in the person of Jesus. This is something God wants to do with us so much that it’s almost impossible to find words that are strong enough to express it.
So Jesus does the best he can. He uses the language of eating to express just how much God wants to become a part of us so God can help. And on some level it makes sense. I mean, if you can take God into you the way you take bread than to paraphrase Martin Copenhaver, God can no more be taken from you than yesterday’s breakfast.
If you can drink of the spirit the way you drink from a cup, than God’s love can flow through you like blood, animate you, restore you to life – ba-bump – like every new beat of your heart.
All this talk of eating his flesh and drinking his blood is really just another, much more visceral way of saying “Abide in me as I abide in you.” “Take and Eat” says Jesus. Take every last bit of me and together – to quote the great theologian Belinda Carlise – “we’ll make heaven a place on earth.”
But his metaphor offends them. It’s more than they can swallow. It’s not a bottomless basket of bread. It’s not the humiliation of their enemies and a restoration to power or wealth.
It’s more of a do-it-yourself version of bringing heaven to earth, and they are not interested.
Jesus version of eternal life comes with some assembly required, and one by one people grumble and walk away; all 4988 of them – not including the women and children – they all walk away except for the 12 disciples – again not including women and children.
“Do you also wish to go away?” Asks Jesus.
68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
As I said before, you can hear some ambivalence in Peter’s response. I hear in his words both resignation and affirmation. It must have been so disappointing to watch Jesus’ message flop and thousands of people walk away.
And yet, at the same time I think Peter is catching on. He gets that the “eternal life” Jesus is promising is not some heavenly time share reserved for you in the sky if you can just wrap your mind around Jesus’ words long enough to believe the right things about him. Eternal life is what Peter is already experiencing.
This young man is following Jesus day in and day out. He’s picking up what Jesus is putting down. He is eating, sleeping, and breathing Jesus 24/7. He is seeing things you cannot imagine. He is learning things of which you cannot conceive. He’s experiencing the fullness of what Jesus is promising the masses, and it’s a lot.
I’m sure there are mornings when Peter wakes up and wonders how much more of it he can handle. As amazing as it is, I bet there are days when he’s not sure how much more of it he can take.
And yet I think when you finally make the decision to trust Jesus with your life and let him live in you, there’s no going back. It’s kind of like having children. If you knew how hard it would be you’d never do it, but once you’ve done it you can’t imagine your life any other way.
I saw some of this in the face of one of our circle of care members this week. I asked her how it was going for the team as they helped re-settle a refugee family from the Congo and it was amazing to watch how her whole face lit up with joy as she talked about how challenging it is.
Navigating the logistics for a family when you don’t speak the same language – orienting them to the bus routes, helping with child care, getting them all to language classes and and doctor’s visits when it takes 3 or 4 cars to transport everyone, is really complicated.
“It must be hard?” I said, “Yes, but… you know….” And then words started to fail her in much the way they failed Jesus.
I watched as she struggled to communicate just how much blessing there was in the challenge and how much calm in the chaos. Because when you’re in the midst of it – when you accept Jesus invitation to work for a better world – as hard as it is, you know what it is to have God in the midst of you.
You’re communing with Jesus, trusting in his way, doing his will, experiencing what it is to be alive in Christ and what it is to have Christ alive in you.
It’s what I’m feeling right now as I preach. What any one of us feels when we make the courageous decision to follow in the way of Jesus: to love, forgive, or share.
Really living is not for the faint of heart. Living into the kingdom takes a lot out of you. Daring to believe that you can change the world by doing what God has equipped you to do and being who God has called you to be is as terrifying and exhausting as it is exhilarating. But like Peter, I can’t imagine life – real life, true life, eternal life – any other way. And I’m glad I get to live this life with you.