This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on August 26, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost and is based on the lessons for the day, Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18, Ephesians 6:10-20, and John 6:56-69.
This morning’s lessons provoke us to a moment of crisis. I don’t mean the kind of crisis where your car breaks down in the middle the night in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. I’m talking about a the kind of crisis that’s a fork in the road. A momentous decision is required. You can’t stay on the fence anymore; you have to decide to go this way or that way; there’s no turning back.
You can think of those kinds of crises in your life. Here’s one of mine. I was a freshman in college, having declared my music major. It was my intention to be a professional trumpet player. But I discovered that while I loved playing the trumpet, I did not enjoy practicing. It was a moment of crisis. I had no idea what else I would do. But I knew I would not be a musician. So, at the end of the first semester I dropped all my music classes and enrolled in other things with no idea where I was headed.
in the first lesson, Joshua, the great leader of the Israelites is gathering the people for a solemn assembly. They had come to a crisis in their communal faith life. Which god they would serve? You see, in the religion of the ancient near east, each tribe had it’s collection of local gods. There were the gods of the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Egyptians, and every other tribe that inhabited the land. Joshua was inviting the people to leave behind the tribal gods for a God that was above other gods, the God who had rescued their ancestors from slavery, had entered into a covenant with them, and who had promised to accompany them wherever they went. “Choose this day, whom you will serve,” Joshua challenged the Israelites. A moment of crisis. A moment of decision. A fork in the road. One of those “no turning back” moments.
Because that phrase has entered our popular and sentimental lexicon, it might be hard to imagine that this was indeed a crisis this was for the people of Israel. See, they had become used to having it both ways: to worship Yahweh, but also to hang out with the local gods, the ancestral gods, the tribal gods, the ones who brought them some level of comfort and security. Yahweh was the God of Israel, the one in the translation we read this morning was called The Lord; Yahweh is the personal name of God given to the Israelites, and here Joshua is calling them back to exclusive worship of this covenant God. So, the challenge, the moment of crisis that Joshua laid before the people, would have touched them deeply. A decisive moment indeed.
But Joshua was also inviting the people into a different way of living and and different way of believing. Yahweh was different from the worship of the ancestral gods. Yahweh is the God who travels with God’s people. Yahweh is not tied to any land, to any place, to any tribe, or to any sanctuary. This God makes a different promise to the people. This God promises to accompany the people wherever they go. This God will be with them not only in their prosperity, but also in their suffering and trials. This God promises security and abundance, though it may not be in the ways that the people hoped for or expected. This God promises to be present through all that life brings.
Similarly, Jesus provokes a moment of crisis in today’s gospel lesson. For weeks now, we’re been hearing this bread sermon of Jesus. For weeks, we’ve been hearing his mysterious and puzzling words about eating his body and drinking his blood that we might have life. In today’s lesson, he does not back off from that offensive language. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. . .the one who eats this bread will live forever.” And now, not surprisingly, some have had enough. Some are offended. Some are questioning it. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” And at the end of the reading, John reports that many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.
I suspect we can identify with them. Jesus does have some hard things to say. He does not always meet our expectations. The life we are called to is a different life than the world around us urges. Jesus does not offer a glossy magazine picture of a perfect easy life. There is something in Jesus’ offer of life that scandalizes even those who would follow him. His words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood ignore all proper decorum and they link us in the most physical, fleshly was to Jesus’ own body, his own flesh-and-blood life. Christ in our mouths, on our lips, absorbed into our own bodies, coursing through our veins. It’s the kind of language that led the ancient Romans and contemporary atheists to accuse Christians of cannibalism. Such talk might be considered a mere breach of etiquette were it not for the fact that Jesus follows up by pointing to something even more scandalous — his own death and resurrection. Jesus’ reference to the Son of Man “ascending” is code for the cross. And the cross is more than mere symbol. It is the scandalous center of our faith, that God became flesh and was lifted up on the cross so that we might know life with God. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we can now have life.
And let’s be clear. When Jesus and John talk about life, they are not talking about the progression of days. They aren’t talking about the biological processes that mark the difference between being alive and being dead. They are talking about Life with a capital L, life as God intended it, rich life, abundant life, life with sparkle and vibrancy, life in whole and full and rich relationship with God that overflows into life with each other that is whole and full and rich. Jesus is talking about our best life, our fullest life.
If there is any truth to Jesus’ words, then any talk of this rich and full life has to be connected somehow to Christ’s crucified life — his self-giving, his compassion, his love poured out for the world. This is the mystery of the gospel that Paul talks about in the second lesson. And this is the beginning of any Christian vision of what it means to have life. You see, Jesus will go on to say that the ones who really want to have life must lose their lives for the sake of their relationship with God, must lose their life in service to their neighbor. And in doing so they will find life, real life.
A moment of crisis. Whom will you serve? Will you also go away?
This morning we get to answer with Peter, to put his words in our mouths. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” This is yet another moment when we recognize that all our own tribal gods of comfort and security have nothing really to offer. Surely there were places that Peter and his friends could have turned. There were business prospects, family commitments, the comforts of home, and the search for social status that called for their attention. There is always another dollar to be earned, another purchase to be made, another relationship to explore, another position to pursue, another enemy to withstand, another grief to mourn, and another country to explore.
But Peter knew, even if incompletely, what he had found. In following Jesus, he came to recognize that Jesus was the Holy One of God who alone possessed the words of eternal life.
Our moment of crisis ends up being not a crisis at all, not a fork in the road, but a gracious invitation to life. Empowered by the Spirit, we choose the One who has first chosen us and who yet again offers us his risen life.
When I take communion to those who can’t come to church, the rite ends with a beautiful prayer. Almighty God, you provide the true bread from heaven, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Grant that we who have received the sacrament of his body and blood may abide in him and he in us, that we may be filled with the power of his endless life, now and forever. Amen.