“Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’” —John 6:66–68
Joshua puts the question before his people: “Choose this day whom you will serve… but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” And in the epistle lesson (Ephesians 5:21–33), the apostle Paul wants Christian husbands and wives to choose one another, just as they have chosen Christ.
Life is about making choices. We get to choose how to live, what kinds of people we will become, and to whom we give our allegiance. The question before us is, “How do I make the right choices for my life, given who I am presently, and who I’m trying to be?”
One wise pastor taught me many years ago to “…make sure that who or what you put your faith in can hold you up.” In other words, you need to be very careful what you choose in life (e.g., of sitting in the chair you are in; you are putting your faith in it being able to hold you up. Not everything in life is as trustworthy as a Cathedral chair!)
There are many examples of bad choices that people make; they may choose to put their faith in money, power, violence, pleasure, possessions, people, science and technology. Even “religion” itself can be a bad choice!
Our Gospel lesson today poses three questions that can guide our thinking about the choices we need to make in life. The first question, asked by many of Jesus’ disciples who were having a hard time understanding what he was saying, is “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Indeed, if we are to be honest, all of us have asked this question at least in the back of our minds as we try to come to grips with the strange and difficult world of the Holy Scriptures and of the Christian faith.
Early critics of the church complained that in their mysterious worship rites, Christians actually practiced human sacrifice. The rumor was that Christians literally ate flesh and drank blood in their assemblies. It was felt that this new religion would undermine the morals of the Roman Empire, and it’s not hard to see how that rumor got started. Indeed, it is a hard teaching to swallow. Who can accept it? Even if we could accept Jesus’ language as symbolic of sharing in his life and death, it still offends. In the synoptic Gospels, it’s “Take up your cross and follow me.” In the letters of Paul it’s the foolish preaching of the crucified Christ. In John it’s eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood. The metaphors differ, but the message is the same.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” “Does this offend you?” Jesus asks. “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you are those who do not believe…For this reason, I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father” (John 6:61–66).
According to the Gospel of John, this last teaching is the final straw for most of Jesus’ hearers. Not only are they called upon to follow this man who speaks of eating flesh and drinking blood, they are told that even the decision to do so is not ultimately theirs to make. “No one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” This is a hard saying—the hardest of all for us modern, progressive American Christians. We can just about manage to convince ourselves that this talk of eating flesh and drinking blood can be softened by careful interpretation. We can even accept that Jesus is the way to a truth not revealed by other religions. But now Jesus tells us that even if we get over these hurdles, the decision to follow him is not ours to make.
How then can we make a choice for something that is beyond our control? How can I make a choice for God? William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, tells this story from his seminary days (from The Christian Century, February 7–14, 1996, p. 137):
In a church history course in my last year at Yale Divinity School, the professor invited an Orthodox priest to lecture. He gave a rather dry talk on the development of the Nicene Creed. At the end of the lecture an earnest student asked, “Father Theodore, what can one do when one finds it impossible to affirm certain tenets of the creed?” The priest looked confused. “Well, you just say it. It’s not that hard to master. With a little effort, most can quickly learn it by heart.” “No, you don’t understand,” continued the student, “What am I to do when I have difficulty affirming parts of the creed—like the Virgin Birth?” The priest continued to look confused. “You just say it. Particularly when you have difficulty believing it, you just keep saying it. It will come to you eventually.” Exasperated, the student, a product of the same church that produced me, and a representative of the 60’s, plead, “How can I with integrity affirm a creed I do not believe?” “It’s not your creed young man!” said the priest. “It’s our creed. Keep saying it for heaven’s sake! Eventually, it may come to you. For some, it takes longer than for others. How old are you? Twenty-three? Don’t be so hard on yourself. There are lots of things one doesn’t know at twenty-three. Eventually it may come to you. Even if it doesn’t, don’t worry. It’s not your creed.”
It’s the Church’s creed. We say, “We believe…”, not “I believe…” in the Creed. As one professor at Virginia Seminary used to say, “No matter what the preacher might say in the sermon, following it the Nicene Creed is the church’s way of saying, ‘Nevertheless, We believe in one God…’” The Creed is the church’s great “nevertheless!” It took the Church 300 years to come up with the words of faith that they could all agree on. Three hundred years! We today might want to say the Creed differently; I certainly would use different words to express my core beliefs about the Christian faith today. But it’s not meant to be my personal statement of faith. You and I, when reciting the Creed, choose to place ourselves in continuity with a great tradition of thinking Christians who are always struggling to find the words to convey the great mysteries of God to human beings. We are one with our spiritual ancestors in rising to say, “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ.”
The point is that sometimes you choose to believe in something—or someone—simply because you know in your heart that it’s true, lovely, pure and beautiful, even though you do not know it in your head yet. The fact that you may never know it in your head does not negate the fact that you know it to be true on another, deeper than rationalistic, way. For instance, there is something very true about this Cathedral. Its beauty, its majesty, its spirituality speak to a truth deeper than you may hope to know at any particular time, perhaps even now. The artists, artisans, and craftsmen gave expression to the great truth of the mystery of a universal Christ that welled up from deep within them. Anyone who has ever been in love knows that the heart has its own reasons, and sometimes you simply choose to obey your heart.
That’s what we do here at every worship service. We invite you to obey your heart. We invite you to choose to believe.
The second question that the Gospel lesson poses for us is, “Do you wish to go away?” Well. yes. Frequently. Just like even Jesus’ disciples were tempted to do. Sometimes we just don’t want to be bothered by any religious impulses at all. Howard Thurman, the great black mystical writer and Christian minister, once wrote (in Meditations of the Heart, p. 49):
“God is at work enlarging the boundaries of my heart, making room in my heart for compassion. There is already a vast abundance of room for pity. It is often easy to be overcome with self-pity, that sticky substance that ruins everything it touches. My list of excuses is a long list and even as I say it, I know that under closest scrutiny they disappear, one by one. There is pity in me—pity for others. But there is something in it that cannot be trusted; it is mixed with pride, arrogance, cunning. I see what my pity really is and the sources from which it springs.
“God is making room in my heart for compassion: the awareness that where my life begins is where your life begins; the awareness that a sensitivity to your needs cannot be separated from a sensitivity to my needs; the awareness that the joys of my heart are never mine alone—nor are my sorrows. I struggle against the work of God in my heart; I want to be left alone. I want my boundaries to remain fixed, that I may be at rest. But even now, as I turn to God in the quietness, God’s work in me is ever the same.
“God is at work enlarging the boundaries of my heart.”
Why does he return to God at all? Why do you return? Why go to a church that “enlarges your boundaries”, that sometimes upsets you, that sometimes challenges you to reevaluate beliefs and opinions that you had thought were the truth?
You return because of your answer to final question posed for us in the Gospel lesson. When asked if they wanted to go away, Simon Peter, speaking for the twelve, replied, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. In the Gospel of John, Jesus uses many images and metaphors for life: “I am the Bread of Life” . “I am the Resurrection and the Life” . “I am the water of life” . “I have come to bring you life” . “I have come that you may have life more abundantly.”
What is this life that Jesus speaks of, that wells from deep within and from above? It is the opposite of death, that force within us and around us in the world that threatens to destroy the intention of God for all creation. It is God’s intention that all creatures live in harmony within themselves, with one another, and with Godself. Where else can we go to defeat the power of death? We must go to the One who is author of all life.
In a few minutes, all of you will be invited to come forward. No, we don’t have an “altar call” tradition here that some of you may be acquainted with, where you are encouraged to stand up and make a public statement that you are a Christian, that you believe. While we do not do “altar calls” like that in cathedrals, in a way that’s exactly what we do at every Eucharist. You will be invited to come forward and share in full public view this life that Jesus calls us to as we recreate the eucharistic feast. I hope you choose to do that. I hope that you choose to come and stand or kneel at the altar, receiving the bread and the wine—the body and blood of our Lord—or to receive instead a prayer blessing if you desire. By partaking of the One who has given us the words of eternal life, we are choosing to say, “Here I stand… I choose to believe.” Amen.