To whom can we go?
Ordinary Sunday 21, 26th of August, 2017
Colleen Clayton, Klingner Scholar and Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
John 6:53, 60-69
Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.
To me, these words of Peter are amongst the most poignant in the Bible. This is not a joyful, exultant expression of faith. Instead his words have a ring of despair about them: Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Holy One of God, the living bread come down from heaven but that doesn't make the reality of following Jesus any easier. In this moment we can hear the costliness of choice. Peter can either walk away from the One who has the words of eternal life or he can continue to follow that One and to wrestle with his hard teachings. He knows what he must do but it is not easy.
When I hear Peter's words, I think of the conversion of CS Lewis, the great Christian writer who came to faith at the age of 31. Here is how he describes it:
You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. (Surprised By Joy, C.S. Lewis, p266)
Lewis, like Peter, must believe. He knows in his heart that truth has caught up with him. He knows that he has found the words of eternal life; but there is no joy in that knowledge. Instead Lewis recognises the demands and the consequences of giving in to God and accepting God's costly love. For eternal life, there is nowhere else to go. Lewis and Peter are each experiencing one of those moments of awful clarity that sometimes come. A deep knowledge of what is true, accompanied by a deep emptiness in the pit of the stomach at the consequences of that truth and of the inevitability of accepting it, living by it and of never being the same again.
Epiphanies - moments of transformation - don't always feel good.
Peter's moment of clarity and acceptance comes as many disciples are walking away from Jesus. It is clear from the way John writes that there has been a large group of people who have been following Jesus, intrigued and disturbed by him but wanting to learn more.
Throughout this entire chapter John's Jesus has been exploring images of bread, earthly and heavenly. First Jesus feeds the crowd that is following him. Next, Jesus identifies himself as the bread of life come down from heaven. Now he tells the people that if they want to have life they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. The people have been grumbling periodically throughout all this and now they have really had enough. This teaching is difficult, they say, who can accept it?
Well, Jesus says to those following him, if you have trouble with that, wait 'til you hear the next bit! Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? The bread of life come down from heaven will ascend to the cross to be broken for the life of the world. It will look as though betrayal and death has won but the ascent to the cross will turn out to be the path by which the Son of Man will rise in glory and return to the Father. No wonder the people said it was a difficult teaching. No wonder they walked away.
This is not how the people had imagined the Messiah. God, incarnate in Jesus, is a vulnerable human being. Something of that vulnerability can be observed in this scene from John's Gospel. Jesus reveals himself to the people who are following him, including revealing how God's purpose will be fulfilled through him, and the people reject him and walk away.
Last Wednesday night I went to hear Archbishop Kay Goldsworthy give the 48th Annual Barry Marshall Lecture. In discussing some of the difficulties that she has faced as a woman in leadership in the church Archbishop Goldsworthy said that people still do not always see the person right in front of them. Sometimes they can only see her gender and not the fullness of her humanity. In this passage from John's Gospel something similar is happening to Jesus. He reveals to the people who he is and they cannot see him because he is not presenting the picture that they expect. And so they walk away.
God's love is still revealed to us in ways that can be hard to accept. On many occasions the presence of Christ is still not seen because we are scandalised by the way in which that love is made manifest. Often, we too can be tempted to walk away.
Jesus' question to the twelve demonstrates that he knows how hard it can be for people to accept the ways of God. It has, I think, some of the same poignancy as Peter's response. Do you also wish to go away? he asks. Jesus knows that even for those who love him, the understanding of who he is, of what his messiahship looks like, is a hard teaching. Will they see the person right in front of them or will even they choose to walk away?
Peter responds with sad and beautiful clarity, Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. There is great pain and cost involved in accepting Jesus and in living in his way and yet this is the way to eternal life. Unless we eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, we have no life in us. Brokenness and death are the way to wholeness and life.
Catholic priest Fr Laurence Freeman expresses this concept beautifully:
The way to wholeness is through our brokenness. The way to integration is through our disintegration. The great symbol of this is the Eucharist. We break the bread at the Eucharist in order to create the unity of the Eucharist. The bread is broken that we may share in the one bread and become one with each other. The brokenness of Jesus is the healing, the making whole of the world. (The Ego On Our Spiritual Journey II, Laurence Freeman OSB, p4)
For me, one of the gifts of today's Gospel reading is to hear, in Peter's voice, the reality that, even when we choose not to walk away, to continue following because we know that there is nowhere else to go, discipleship doesn't always feel good. We might know that there is nowhere else to go but we might still wish that there was. We might still wish that wholeness could be found without brokenness.
What helps us in choosing to continue as disciples is the Spirit. Jesus says that we need the gift of the Spirit to reveal to us the life that eyes of flesh cannot see. As disciples who continue to follow Jesus, we know that we can't go to anyone else to receive eternal life. Sometimes that knowledge brings joy, at other times, pain and sorrow but regardless of how we feel, through the spirit we have received eternal life and we are called to share that life with the world.
Archbishop Goldsworthy described Jesus as living as one;
- who stands against injustice
- keeps on faithfully
- sees others as allies of God
- whose life shows congruence
- who stands tall before his accusers
- is completely dependable
- whose compassion can't be shouted down
- who sees possibility
- whose mercy never ends
- whose judgement is that of the One who sends him.
When Jesus revealed himself and his purpose, many of his disciples walked away.
Today many disciples have walked away from his church. Have they walked away in response to the challenge of the revelation of Jesus? Have they heard the words of eternal life but been unable to accept them because they are hard teachings? Or have they walked away from a church that does not reveal to them the nature and purpose of Jesus? Have they walked away still looking for the words of eternal life?
These are important questions for us to ponder. The church is a flawed, human institution but it is also the Body of Christ on earth. It is made up of us, the vulnerable, broken, imperfect, sometimes despairing people who have chosen to keep on following Jesus. It is made up of our struggles to accept the hard teachings of Jesus and to see the person right in front of us.
We are called to seek the spirit who will give us life and enable us to share the characteristics of Jesus with the world. We are called to walk forward in faith, saying with Peter, Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.