Words of Offense AND Eternal Life
A sermon on John 6:56-69
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Sammie Chaffin on Unsplash.]
“Lord, to whom shall we go?”
It’s a familiar phrase. One that we sing weekly before hearing the gospel read in worship.
It’s so familiar, in fact, that it doesn’t really sound like a question, despite the question mark at the end. We don’t expect an answer.
And, in this case, I think that familiarity is helpful in leading us to the true meaning of these words. Because, despite the question mark, it really isn’t a question.
Peter is not asking Jesus where else he and the other faithful disciples might go. Rather, he is offering a confession of dependence.
He is saying that they cannot stand on their own. He is rejecting the self-assured authority assumed by those who have turned away that they can stand in judgment over what Jesus is offering in order to decide this is not for them.
It’s possible that this past week has made me more attuned to Peter’s confession of dependence than I would have been on any other week, because of how much I have had to depend on other people to help me, since I injured my knee.
I have depended on my family to bring me ice and food,
on doctors to prescribe me medication and tests,
and on anyone nearby to hold doors for me to hobble through, and to carry things that I can’t manage on crutches.
I have been lucky that over the last week to never have to ask “to whom can I go?” because there have always been people there (at most a phone text away) to come to my aid.
But that is not the key difference between my situation of dependence and Peter’s confession.
In my situation of dependence, I needed help from people with two fully functional legs, but, with the exception of the Doctors, it was mostly just their mobility (and kindness) that I needed.
I was in charge of defining the help that I got: telling my son what food I wanted on the plate he was bringing me; telling my husband where I wanted him to drive me; making the call about when I was going to ice my knee.
I was dependent, but I was still in charge of defining the help that I needed and when.
Peter’s confession is different. He knows he is not in charge of what he needs from Jesus. In contrast, he confesses that what he needs from Jesus is the very thing that is so offensive, the very thing that made others turn away:
“You have the words of eternal life,” he says.
This framing of what Peter needs from Jesus is important because Jesus’s words that precede this confession had been deeply disturbing.
He told his followers that they needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood.
Perhaps we don’t squirm away from these words because we have learned to treat them as metaphors. We have been told week after week that we are receiving the body and the blood of Christ, but these gifts of the sacrament have tasted like bread and wine in our mouths, so it hasn’t been uncomfortable. This teaching has not been “difficult.”
But this teaching was difficult for those who heard it straight from Jesus’ mouth.
Many who had been following Jesus with devotion, people who had wanted to find in him the leader for whom they longed, had turned away and left him for good in response to his words.
They had been awed by Jesus’s power and compelled by his teachings… but only as far as what he said aligned with what they wanted to believe.
When his teaching got difficult. When his words demanded of them a different level of trust. When Jesus started saying things they weren’t sure they could accept, they turned away.
And, from one perspective, I cannot blame them.
Blind allegiance is dangerous. Suspending healthy skepticism and abdicating our responsibility to carefully weigh the words of charismatic leaders is something that I generally discourage in the most forceful terms.
That kind of mentality is how conspiracy theories flourish and cult leaders gain willing followers.
Offering the kind of trust that Jesus is demanding to any human being would be both foolish and dangerous.
And Jesus knows this. He makes it clear that the authority he is claiming is divine. If you are going to follow him at all it will be as the one who has come from above, and who speaks through the spirit of life (which is to say, the Creator, from whom all life flows).
He is telling his followers that following him is not like following a teacher whose words affirm what we want to believe.
Following Jesus means going all in on trust.
It means letting go of our independence, and the right to pick and choose what we will believe and what Jesus has a right to ask of us.
It means a level of vulnerability that goes beyond just confessing that we need him; It means confessing that Jesus gets to decide the right way to meet that need.
Even if it’s difficult and hard to accept. Even if it offends us.
Have you ever considered what Jesus could say to you that you would find offensive?
What values or allegiances you hold so close, that even God doesn’t have a right to touch them?
It’s an intensely personal question. I don’t expect you to tell me the answer. But can you say it to yourself? Can you look closely enough at your own heart to recognize the corners of it that are off-limits?
What are the words that I could say from the pulpit, claiming the authority of God’s word, that would make you stand up and walk out, or shut-off your computer?
What loyalties could Jesus violate? What sacrifices, or new ideas could God demand you to accept that would just be too difficult?
What is your line in the sand? What words would you refuse to hear as the words of eternal life?
The disciples who walked away weren’t wrong… this IS a HARD teaching. It is a claim that demands us to trust Jesus MORE than we trust ourselves. And there is no greater vulnerability than that.
That’s why I wanted you, why I wanted all of us, to imagine the thing that we are NOT willing to hear from God.
Not because I’m sure that God is saying that thing, but because until we imagine that thing, we can tell ourselves that we trust God plenty. That our faith doesn’t really need to be examined.
We can passively hear Peter’s words in the acclamation before the gospel reading: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we can nod our heads in comfortable assent not realizing that this teaching is difficult.
But it is. It demands that we let go of our independence, our freedom to chose what we will and will not believe; our right to define our own needs and demand that they be met the way we want.
It demands that we actually trust there is no one else to whom we can turn… not even ourselves.
The only thing that could possibly makes this good news, is the second part of Peter’s confession. Lord, you have the words of eternal life.
THAT is what Peter, and Jesus are calling us to trust: that what Jesus offers us, to replace our trust in our own independence, is LIFE.
That holding ourselves back, maintaining our autonomy from Jesus is actually death, but that we have another option.
Because Jesus’ words are LIFE. The body and blood that he gave for us are LIFE. The unity with God that he offers us is LIFE.
We aren’t in charge of the words of eternal life… but we don’t need to be. “We can come to believe and know that Jesus is the Holy One of God.” And we can trust him with our lives.
Thanks be to God.