The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: August 23, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
You know this song?
Darling you gotta let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I’ll be here til the end of time
So you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
Maybe only a certain generation of us knows it – after all, the Clash recorded it in 1981. But it came to mind as I thought about today’s gospel. After weeks of laying out the central message of the Christian gospel, Jesus, as it were, throws down the gauntlet. I am the bread of life, he says. I give up my own life so that you can live. In order to really live, you need to trust in my self-giving love, and follow in my way. Can you accept this or not? Are you staying or going?
The question is revealing. A whole group shuffles off, embarrassed, put off by what he’s been saying, disappointed in his lack of leadership. Another, smaller, group stays. Peter says, where else are we supposed to go? But even so, Judas makes plans to leave.
So how about us? Are we in, or are we out?
Now, we could stop everything at this point and get John down here on the Hammond organ and have an altar call – a chance to vote with your feet, come on down and commit yourself to follow Jesus right here and now. But that’s not really Episcopalian style. Too showy, too emotional maybe – but it’s also because in our tradition we tend to see this faith commitment thing as nuanced, more gradual, taking its time to grow in us. That’s why we welcome babies for baptism who can’t make a commitment for themselves, and offer confirmation for those babies once they’ve grown up – even then without expecting that this commitment is guaranteed for the rest of their lives. The danger in this is that we can be lukewarm about the whole thing, go for years without really considering just why we’re here. But the possibility is that we can grow more and more deeply as the years go by. It’s always hard to explain this to people from other faith traditions who talk about being ‘saved,’ and who can name the day and the hour when it happened.
But actually, Jesus may not really be throwing down the gauntlet. In John’s gospel, we’re only at chapter 6. There’s a whole lot more to the story before the end, and the commitment even of those who stay today wavers in and out by the time it’s all through.
So what is this choice Jesus is asking his followers, and us, to make? I am the bread of life, he says. Take me into you; abide in me; believe in me, and you will have eternal life. Then he goes even further: These words I am speaking to you are not just teachings to consider; they are spirit and life. Just as God spoke the world into existence in the creation story of Genesis, and breathed life into Adam, so Jesus’ words open our hearts, and breathe life into us. These are words that sink into us, not just an idea to decide on intellectually; this is the Logos, the word incarnate, here present with you. If you stay with me, Jesus says, if you abide in me, then you will come to believe – trust – and to know in your bones, that I am of God. I will become part of you, just as you are part of me.
In other words, it’s a whole-self decision Jesus is inviting us into – not simply making up our mind who to vote for, but a commitment of body and spirit. It is a big thing indeed.
So when those disciples of his turn away, they’re doing something pretty understandable. The passage is an echo of the early days of the Israelites in the Exodus story, where God rained down manna from heaven and yet they grumbled and complained and refused to trust that God would provide for them. These disciples turn away because they can’t trust either. What Jesus is saying doesn’t attract them after all. Jesus is asking too much. He’s offering them life, but they just can’t trust that it is real, that it will last, that it will be good for them to stay.
And we do the same thing, whether we’ve been baptized or saved or not. We don’t always trust. We go through dry spells. Something terrible happens in our life and we don’t see God’s hand in it, and we stop trying to believe. Daily life happens, and it all looks more interesting and makes more sense than promises of God’s love, and we wander off. We move to a new town, or graduate from school, and getting ourselves involved in a church and a faith routine again just loses its appeal. Turning away for us may not be an ultimate renouncing, just a drifting away, losing our ability to trust that it means anything, that it is useful for us to stay in the life of faith. But it doesn’t have to end there.
Just to pile on metaphor on top of metaphor, really what this commitment is like is this: it’s as if Jesus is asking his followers for their hand in marriage. It’s an image that turns up throughout our tradition: nuns used to consider themselves the brides of Christ, and it’s right there in scripture, in the parable of the wise & foolish virgins waiting for the bridegroom, the teachings of John the Baptist about who is to come, and the letters of Paul about the relationship of God to the church, among other places. Christ is the bridegroom; we, the people, are the bride. And each one of us is invited into marriage with God.
Like a marriage, there is a starting point. But we also live into this relationship bit by bit, mind, body, and spirit: learning more and more with our mind about how God acts in the world; acting more and more with our body out of love for God and the desire to work God’s will; joining more and more with our spirit to God’s very self. And like a marriage, what this looks like on a daily basis is pretty simple: we show up and we stick around. Every day we choose to be there, not to leave, despite whatever is going on. Some days we do it feeling joyful and deeply in love; some days we do it not even knowing why we stay; but we always hang in there. Where else are we going to go? Peter asks. We’ve already chosen you.
But of course Peter is the one who famously denies Jesus when the going gets tough. He leads the pell-mell flight away from Jesus when the crucifixion comes, all the disciples abandoning him. But they come back, and Jesus carefully reinstates Peter again at the end of John’s gospel, and they all go on to lead the new community of the resurrection. Turning away and coming back again is all part of the story too.
So it’s not a once-for-all decision, and yet it a little bit is. At some point in our faith life we do decide to stop dating other gods – our selves, or our money, or success, or whatever god we’re into. We step away from the things that aren’t feeding and nourishing us like we really need. And we commit to this God instead, starting to live out in a more intentional way the love of God and neighbor that the gospels teach about. Maybe we decide quickly and excitedly; maybe we take a long time about it. Maybe we have periods of regret or uncertainty. Definitely we have times when we feel like we’re going through the motions, or maybe even considering leaving, interspersed with other times when we can’t imagine life without God. But we grow into this marriage, and it grows on us, and as the years go on it becomes more and more who we truly are.
So no, we’re not doing an altar call today. But Jesus’ invitation is always an open one. It’s always a choice to stay or go. Jesus says, Come along with me; abide with me; stick around with me. Jesus is worth getting to know; time spent knowing him feeds you in ways nothing else can. If you haven’t tried it recently, here’s your invitation to do so again. I am the bread of life. Nothing else is. Taste and see.