Rev. Danielle K Bartz August 22, 2021
John 6:56-69 “Questions and Memories”
What have you come to believe? How did you get there? And where do you still look to go? These are questions Jesus poses to the disciples. And these are the questions we are still asked, and ask ourselves. What have we come to believe and know about God? What have we come to believe and know about ourselves? What have we come to believe and know about our place and role in God’s Kingdom? These questions, while never fully answered, are the focus not only of today’s scripture, but also the questions people of faith ask themselves throughout their lifetimes.
In today’s scripture lesson, Jesus has just completed teaching a complicated lesson to the disciples – not only the 12 we have come to know, but also the crowd of followers who were curious and hopeful about Jesus. Jesus has explained to them all that in order to truly follow him the people must consume, must embody, the lessons. Jesus teaches, I believe, that to be a people of God means a person’s whole self is involved. It is not just thought and words. It is actions and deeds. As 16th century nun Teresa of Avila said, the people must become the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Jesus removes the metaphor and instead leaves only flesh – our flesh, our lives. And the people, the disciples and followers of Jesus, become overwhelmed and some decide turn away. Some decide that what Jesus is asking of their lives is too much, too complicated, too difficult, and they walk away for those lessons.
The scripture doesn’t seem to imply that Jesus was about this. In fact, it seems to me he expected it. I believe Jesus understood the magnitude of what he was asking. I think Jesus knew, better than anyone, that to live a life devoted to doing the work of God, in whatever way that work manifested itself, would feel to some like an impossible task. So, as some of the people walk away Jesus does not shout after them, berating them, he instead turns to the 12 disciples who had been with him from the beginning and asks if they too wish to walk away.
And I choose to believe that the question was honest, not meant as a trap, or even a test of commitment, but rather as a way to offer a choice. Do they wish to leave, is this not the life they want to lead? The scripture leaves no pause between the question and Simon Peter’s answer. But, as I read the story, and as I imagine Jesus asking me the same question, in the beat between the query and the answer contains an eternity of memories and hope for the future.
If Jesus were to stand before us today and remind us that a commitment to God involves our full selves, no matter what – and then ask us if we wish to walk away from that commitment – what memories would come to your mind? For me, it would be the miracles, the tragedies, the hopes, the dashed expectations, the successes, the sacrifices, and the rewards. It would be the memories of the times when I did not give my all to God, and the memories of the times that I did – and the emotions would be mixed and complicated. And that question, “Do you also wish to go away?” would be held up against the truth of Jesus’ lesson – that to continue to move forward with him would mean a recommitment of my full self.
I think for the disciples the reality was beginning to set in. Remember, they had given up everything to follow Jesus. They had left their families and their livelihoods behind. They had set aside everything they thought they knew about God and committed to an entirely new way of believing. They gave their whole selves over to the adventure. And they experienced miracles along the way, moments of transcendence, experiences of God, and hopes made manifest. And they also experienced difficult lessons and angered authorities. They felt the struggle of moving against the tide of humanity. So, when Jesus asked them if they also wished to go away from him, I am sure that for a moment many were tempted to do just that. And I think we can all relate to that. The lessons Jesus taught and the commitment required to follow those lessons, are hard to live into in today’s world.
Jesus taught that we are all to love our neighbors as ourselves, but as we strive to make that lesson real, we are confronted each day with neighbors who do not return that love.
Jesus taught that we are all created in the image of God, but as we strive to make that lesson real, we are confronted with daily reminders that for far too many people, only a select few are welcomed into that place of privilege.
Jesus taught that we are to pray and work for peace, but as we strive to make that lesson real, we are confronted with a military industrial complex and the ease so many have to declare others enemies.
Jesus taught that all of creation is sacred and we are to be stewards of it, but as we strive to make that lesson real, we are confronted with powers that declare the profit of a few are more important than a future for all.
I have no doubt that the disciples felt in their bodies and spirits the struggle of moving against the tide of humanity. I too feel that struggle – of standing in the pulpit week after week offering words of encouragement and hope that the Kingdom of God is real and we have it within us to bring it forth in the world. Week after week I ask you to continue to move against the tide of humanity and offer prayers for resilience and strength along the way. But, doubts and exhaustion creep in, and there are days when, if we were asked, do we also wish to go away, the temptation to say yes would be strong.
But then…but then…we remember. We remember the hope of singing songs of peace in the face of hate. We remember the stories in scripture that feel like balm for our troubled souls, no matter how many times we hear them. We remember the joy of welcoming in the stranger and finding how many ways our stories meet in commonality. We remember the arguments that turned into moments of grace, and the good that was accomplished. We remember the shoulder of a friend that we cried on, and the celebrations of lives made sweeter by the gathering of community. We remember the saints who have come before us and the inspiration they gave. We remember a night of quiet prayer that led to restful sleep. We remember the refreshing waters of baptism and the sweet bread of Holy Communion. We remember the smell and feel of the still air in a historic sanctuary so full of memory, it rests on our shoulders like a blanket.
When we are confronted with the question, “Do you also wish to go away?” do not despair when you notice your temptation to say yes. Do you not pretend to not remember the struggles you have endured. They are part of our journeys of faith – memories that carry lessons that we may not fully understand yet. But also hold on tight to what you have come to believe and know. Simon Peter said, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” We too have come to believe and know that something more than our current reality is possible, and we have seen the arc of history moving towards justice. We have come to believe and know that hope is real, and have seen how a holy imagination can create miracles in this world. We have come to believe and know that we are not alone in our journeys, but we travel with people of all faiths, each striving to bring to their corner of the world the good that they can. We have come to believe and know that the lessons that Jesus has taught, while complicated and requiring of our full commitment, can and do in fact change this world. And we have come to believe and know that we are accompanied by the love and grace of God, and by the presence of the Holy Spirit, the living memory of Christ, which carries us along.
My friends Katie and Chris recently told me the story of taking their young daughter, not yet two years old, to the pool for the first time. Their daughter, Junia, stood with her toes just barely wet in the zero-depth entrance of the pool. She observed the other children laughing and playing in the water, and took one slow and careful step forward. And then another. And another. Soon, that brave little girl was up to her shoulders in the water. But she did not panic and turn back. She knew and trusted that she was not alone, and very soon her parents came alongside her, helping her take more steps forward, until they guided her deep into the water and she swam for the first time. The joy she experienced in the water was made all the sweeter because she made the choice to keep moving, and did so trusting that she would not be going into the deep alone.
We too must have the same trust that we are never alone, no matter how deep the water gets. When the tide of humanity is moving strongly against us, we can be assured that we have alongside us a community of people holding one another up, Christ at our backs urging us along, and God surrounding us, keeping our footing sure. That is the miracle of our faith and the promise of God. Amen.
God our guide and companion, there is a path before us that we cannot quite see clearly. While we trust it is leading us to a place of peace and justice, we worry about the obstacles we will encounter along the way. We wonder if we will have the strength to keep going. And we question if the hope we have in the destination is realistic. As we walk this path together and with you, give our doubts grace, and give our hearts courage.
God, along this journey we see all the hurt humanity is experiencing and wonder what we can do to be a comfort and help. Give us the generosity to give of our abundance when we are asked. Give us the peace to sit quietly alongside those who grieve. Give us the wisdom to discern when to speak up and when to be silent. And give us the reassurance that whenever we strive to do good in this world, we are pleasing you.
And in this moment, help us to open our spirits to prayer, for prayer not only changes the world around us, but changes our very selves. We pray for all those who are sick and hurting. We pray for the hungry and frightened. We pray for the places in our world where violence reigns and fear overwhelm. We pray for the vulnerable. We pray for the leaders. We pray for the poor and we pray for the rich. We pray for the planet. We pray for our neighbors, and we pray for ourselves.
God, alongside you, each step forward is possible, and for this we are so grateful.
We pray all of this, and so much more, in the name of Jesus Christ, who not only taught us what it means to believe in you, but asks us questions along the way, to give us the choice of how we can best live those lessons into reality. And we pray in the way he taught, by raising our voices together…Our Father…