A sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 26, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
Lord, to whom can we go?
Today is the fifth Sunday in a row that the Gospel lesson is from the Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. Starting with the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus explained that he is the Bread of Life and in him, and by partaking in his body, we abide in God and God in us. Some may hear this as bland or everyday Christian piety. But when Jesus said it, it was anything but bland. It was a huge controversy, and at the end of the lesson all those disciples and all those thousands of people who came to hear Jesus preach and received bread on the hillside were upset and went way. Jesus was alone with the twelve, no one else would stay, and he asked Peter, “Do you also wish to go away?”
The gospel is a challenge, not a joyride. When we say Jesus is the Bread of Life, that doesn’t imply the cake and cookies and sumptuous meals and everything we think we want. The Bread of Life is the fundamental nourishment of our spirit, the food to get us through the difficult journey. It does not promise power, it just gives us Jesus. And those people who had been hanging around realized that Jesus was on the way to the cross, and he wasn’t going to make their lives any easier, or make them more powerful, or even get rid of the Romans for them.
They left, and Jesus asked that question of Peter. Peter’s answer really struck me this week. I think it is my answer too: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
It was a discouraging time for both Peter and Jesus. What may have looked like success was all gone. We can’t assume that Peter wasn’t interested in success—that he didn’t want to have a successful group, even an organization. But they were all gone. In particular, all those who were there as joiners of successful groups had just walked off. The situation forced Peter to consider why he was there and what he was doing. All the organizational and institutional reasons had disappeared. The idea of a movement that would somehow restore Israel—perhaps as a purer, more loving religion with people helping one another, or perhaps as a political movement that would get rid of the occupying Romans and restore justice—was gone. I don’t know exactly what had been in Peter’s mind in the previous days or weeks or months. But on that day, he said, “To whom can we go?” Where else or what else makes any sense, or has any truth?
The story of Jesus is not one of triumph. And as much as we often would like it to be, being his church isn’t a matter of triumph or success. A while back, I read a book, entitled “Church Refugees.” In it, a sociologist named Joshua Packard interviewed people from a growing category of Christians, who are sometimes referred to as “the Dones.” These are people who have been active in their churches but stop. They are “done with church.” Interestingly, in this research, this group of people did not leave because they were challenged by the Gospel, or because they lost their faith in God; rather they left because characteristics of the church became barriers to their following God and growing spiritually. Judgementalism in congregations and preoccupation with structures rather than service often led to breakdown of spiritual community, at least in the experience of these people. It happens increasingly among people whose experience in many congregations is enough to make them “done with church” altogether. They find themselves alone, with Peter’s question, “To whom then, can we go?”
Peter says these words to Jesus, and he continues, “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” When Peter says this, it is not when he is leading the church or defining doctrine. Peter says this when both he and Jesus are basically “done.” The people had come, and they wanted many of the things that they saw, but when they came to see the truth, that Jesus was talking about transforming of their spirit, not about giving them security, power and bread in excess in this world, they went away. Peter and the others in that small group of twelve saw the truth as well, and they knew they could not be part of that large group walking away. They saw the truth and they had no place else to go.
Jesus said, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” The spirit takes us out of concern for ourselves and puts us in a life of generosity. The flesh that Jesus mentions is a preoccupation with our own well-being that blocks us from living in generosity. This happens in churches and other organizations as well as in individuals. The community that is fearful and preoccupied with its own existence, its own material needs, its own desire for the security of the flesh becomes unable to be generous in the spirit. At that point, it is not surprising that some faithful Christians become “done with church.”
In my own life, there are certainly times when I have been very nearly “done with church;” discouraged by being part of an institution pre-occupied with preserving an image of itself that was never real—perfect, successful and never wrong. What brings me back from being done is my experience of the real church in a real congregation: a community that respects Christ and one another. The temptation is always there to be afraid, to turn inward for fear of losing the flesh and substance of the church. But in any of these cases, we are in the same place as Peter and the twelve. “To whom can we go?” The answer is: to him who we know is the Holy One of God.
Here is what Jesus said:
“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. …
The one who eats this bread will live forever.”