“You Have The Words of Eternal Life!”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
August 26, 2018
I have to be completely honest with you and say that most times it is easier for me to identify with the crowds who misunderstood Jesus than with Jesus himself. That might not be the thing you want to hear from a pastor, but it is the honest truth. This, today’s reading from the gospel of John, is one of those times. John 6 records Jesus saying some really interesting stuff. For instance, Jesus says that he is bread of life and that he is the only provider of food that truly nourishes. Jesus says that he has given himself to his followers, his flesh and blood, and that when his followers eat his body and drink his blood, they abide in him. These are, as some in the crowd said, very hard words: hard to understand and hard to believe.
Most of Jesus’ followers desert him after he says these hard things. We need to be careful, though—it is always tempting to write off those who gave up on Jesus as people too lazy or too stupid or too unfaithful to be his followers. John didn’t see them that way. John does not call them “the crowds” as he does elsewhere in the Gospel; rather, he calls them ‘disciples.’ The people in today’s reading who now desert Jesus are precisely those who had, in fact, believed in Jesus. They believed in him, and in his message and way of life, so they followed him and gave up much to do it. But now, after all their waiting and watching and wondering and worrying, they have grown tired. They can no longer see clearly what it was about Jesus that attracted them in the first place. They leave because Jesus is saying things so strange that he might just be out of his mind.
If we take time to think about it, are we really all that different? Have you ever thought that all of this faith and church stuff might be in vain? I know I have. Maybe it happened during the dark of the night, watching and praying by the bedside of a loved one. Maybe it happened in the morning when you woke up alone and wondered how it ended up like this. Maybe it was in an unemployment line, or in a line for a meal, or in a line to receive help that you said you would never have to ask for. Maybe you have that thought—that this whole belief thing is bunk—when you lay your head down at night and think about how crazy this world has become and how far it has fallen from the glory of God.
At these times—and, my word, there are so many of these kinds of moments in the life that we lead—at these times aren’t we tempted to conclude that the promises we trusted were empty? In these times thoughts creep in that maybe the faith we once held was misplaced. We might not go as far as the disciples and renounce the authority of Jesus; we probably will not denounce God publicly. But our hurt and brokenness shows up in other ways. We stop going to church, we stop socializing, we stop trying to be a part of one another’s lives. We reduce what we are giving—time, talent, and treasure. We might be more reluctant to help others because if I’m in such a terrible place, why should I have to worry about someone else? It might be that we pray a little less each day until we’ve stop praying all together. The fact is that we don’t have to literally turn our backs on the Lord to turn our backs on the Lord.
The picture that John paints for us today is not a pretty one, but it is entirely realistic. It is a realistic picture of how easy it is to lose faith, to begin to question, to turn and walk away when the things coming from the Lord become too hard to believe and do. We see it all the time. Each and every week, here in Enid and across the world, a new church springs up, promising a new and better way to follow Jesus. These are a response to Jesus and his difficult way of life. Flip through their websites and social media and you quickly learn that its all built on a theology of “I’m good. You’re good. We’re all good.” What you won’t see, though, is anything about Jesus saying, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Why not? Because its hard. And generally, we don’t like to do the hard things. It would be much, much easier and more enjoyable for us all if Jesus would lay off loving your enemy, and turning the other check, and serving the needy, and anything that has to do with the cross.
And yet, in the midst of this Biblical picture of lost faith and turning away, there is also a picture of immense faith, or courage and belief, too. As many disciples drew back from Jesus and no longer followed him, Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Wow. This is the disciple that will deny knowing Jesus when Jesus is just feet away being tried for treason. Peter doesn’t take this easy opportunity and walk away with the rest. Instead, sweet Peter has perfectly identified who Jesus is and what he has to offer.
I wonder if Peter and the other eleven disciples got their faith. To put it another way, I wonder what makes them so different from all those who gave up on Jesus and walked away. For as easy as it is to write off those other disciples as stupid or blind unbelievers, its even easier to imagine Peter and the rest as flawless faith giants. This was certainly not the case, and all four gospel writers are sure to point it out. The inner circle of Jesus’ disciples suffered at times from an overabundance of pride and a lack of courage, and they held on to fear with their dear lives. Peter was asked three times if he knew Jesus; if he had said yes, he might have been able to tell the court that Jesus was not the danger and threat they thought he was. Peter just shook his head and said, “I do not know that man.” So if the twelve were not any smarter or any more faithful or any more courageous than the rest, then what is it that sets them apart? How were they able to follow Jesus to the very bitter and bloody end?
One thing. Listen again to what Peter says to Jesus: “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter knew where to look. That’s it. That is what makes Peter and the other eleven disciples different from the rest. It was not their brains or their status or even their faith. They simply knew where to look. They knew that if they had any chance of surviving this crazy world, that if there was any hope in the hopelessness that is all around, that if there was any light that could pierce the darkness pressing in from all sides, they had to look to Jesus and keep their eyes fastened on him.
According to many Christians throughout the centuries, this is what makes church so important and so vital to being a faithful follower of Jesus. Each and every week, through every season and change and time, we gather in these sacred places to hear the Word of God and share the sacraments. In these services we are offered again and again the Word of eternal life. That Word, with a capital ‘w,’ is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ comes to us in the good news of the gospel, through the waters of baptism, and in the bread and cup at his table. Through these acts, these weekly rituals, Jesus’ real presence is made manifest in our world. This place, and places like it throughout the world, is one where all the tumult and upset of the world is not left at the door but brought into the presence of God where it sanctified and transformed into peace, reconciliation, and love.
This is not to say that God is not at work in others places. The whole world, even the places that are darkened by evil and sin, pulse and vibrate with the creative energy of God. God’s creative energy is at work in nature, in the government, in our friends and families, in the work that we do and in the benefits we receive from the work that others do. God’s creative energy is present as a child begins to walk and talk and in the final days of one who has lived well for many years. God’s creative energy pulses through symphony orchestras and in plays and musicals, and it is electric in organizations that embody the compassion and love of Jesus even if they have no religious affiliation at all. In all these things and places and more, God continues to be both present and active, creating and sustain the whole creation.
But it can be hard to see God there, right? It can be hard to see God at work when nature turns violent and destroys towns and cities like a child kicking over a sand castle. It can be hard to see God at work when governments are corrupt, when elected leaders speak out of both sides of their mouths, when most states in America spend more on housing inmates than educating children. It can be hard to see God at work when there is discord and disagreement at work or at home. It can be hard to see God at work when all the things we usually count on come up empty and we no longer know where to turn. It is here that we become like Peter. When we don’t have any other place to turn, we don’t turn away…we turn to Jesus. We turn to him, to look to him, we cling to him because he has the words of eternal life, and it is here, in his church, that his words come to us most clearly and with the most power.
The 16thcentury monk and reformer Martin Luther once said, “Although God is present in all creatures, and I might find him in stone, in fire, in water, or even in a rope, for he certainly is there, yet God does not wish that I seek him there apart from the Word, and thereby cast myself into the fire or the water, or hang myself on the rope. God is present everywhere, but does not wish that you grope for him everywhere. Grope rather where the Word is, and there you will lay hold of God in the right way.”
Grope where the Word is. That’s a strange, yet inviting way to think about the faith we profess and try our hardest to exercise. The truth is, we can’t do it alone; we cannot follow Jesus as individuals. We need each other and we need a place to come together, a place where we can gather around God’s Word and Christ’s table and hear over and over how much we are loved. This is that place; there Word is here. When we gather here we come to know and believe the most important things about our faith in God: we were created by God and called very good—even before we took our first breath, God knew us—we are broken people made beautiful by Christ’s sacrifice—only God can say who and what we are—there is no greater way to live than to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Then, we seal these truths of faith with sacraments of bread and wine and water. In all of this, we receive and claim the promise that Jesus is the bread of life, that he offers us his body and blood, and that he has and freely offers us words of eternal life.
So today, my friends, we’ve come to this place with a lot of things, some good and some bad. We have the weight of a week of our shoulders and most of us are looking at the week ahead and wondering how we’ll carry it all. There is sadness in this place today, there is fear in this place today, there is joy and peace in this place today. You might be wondering and thankful that you even got here today. The good news of the gospel, for all of us and in all of these situations, is that Jesus Christ is here and he is ready to meet each of us just as we are. He has words that will put your fear to rest; he has words that will calm the storms within; he has words that will wipe the tears away and give you hope. Come, listen. Receive the words of eternal life. Come, listen, as Jesus tells you that you have infinite worth in God’s eyes, that your life has purpose and meaning, and that through you God intends to do great things. Come, listen, and receive the Word of eternal life, Jesus Christ, that you might believe in him and that believing in him have life in his name. Amen.