About 5 years ago or so, Bay Presbyterian Church, our sister church on the West side, left the denomination over who gets to be ordained. The “liberal” move, the inclusive move, of our denomination drove them away.
A nice young couple left this church about ten years ago because they didn’t like it when my sermons got political. (And I’d probably get an ‘amen’ out from that from some of you right today!)
Another person left because – and I tell you the truth – he told me, “John, you’re just too compassionate.” I can live with that!
Someone noted that Clover and I don’t preach the “whole” gospel. Huh?
It has been always thus – people come, and people go, and nothing ever changes. People join communities of faith until something seems too hard, or something is said that is unpalatable, or is interpreted too narrowly, too broadly, or sounds too heretical.
Jesus was not immune to saying something divisive and in some minds repulsive:
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. Whoever eats me will live because of me.” (56-57)
When the disciples heard it they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it.” (60) I would say so!
“Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” (66)
Now, for us, we know these words are metaphorical. We don’t eat flesh and drink blood during our Communion. (We talk about the real presence – but that is for another Sunday). But I can see why the first reader/hearer of these words would find the remarks of Jesus somewhat disturbing, if not a complete turn-off. And early Christians in the first century were martyred as “cannibals” due to passages like this.
Today there are many other kinds of words that drive people away as unacceptable or hard: “Who can accept it?” Because it is not apparent to many that “God is good,” even though we say that a lot.
Many times I get the question: “Do I have to believe that?” The Virgin Birth, seven-day Creation?
Some say: “I don’t know if I can call myself a Christian because I do not believe that God condemns the Buddhists, Muslims or Jews.”
Frankly, I am with them. These words are too difficult for me and I don’t accept them. And if that is what Jesus teaches, I too may find another place to go.
Being honest, and I really want you to be honest with your own life because I’m going to be honest with you, there are a million reasons why Christian faith seems a bit suspect. The real question is not: “Why should I leave?” but “Why do I stick around?” Why do you? Why do you and I continue to want, in some way or another, to stay at the feet of Jesus?
I’ve given up thinking that I am going to figure it all out or have all my questions answered. As the author of Hebrews wrote: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” So you and I, as followers of Jesus, have to be open to the idea that there is more than meets the eye to life, to faith, and certainly when we think about who Jesus is.
Belief is not simply intellectual knowledge (although this is very important). Defining faith as a series of propositional truths that you either accept or reject in order to determine where you will spend eternity is – frankly, to me – silly. I’m sorry if you disagree.
However, Jesus’ words and life suggest, at least to this sinner, an invitation for me and all of us to “get beyond the merely material, or the intellectual, or the fleshly.” Yes, “You Gotta Eat,” as Rally reminds us. But life is about more than food, and faith is about more than about mortality. What I think Jesus is teaching us here is that faithful life is about experience and encounter and mystery and hope – what gives you meaning. And we who are drawn to meanings deeper than surface ones, those who remain curious and open, those who take risks, I believe are on the right track to meeting and understanding Jesus.
I believe that Jesus wants you to pay attention to where you are drawn.
What you believe, what you have faith in, is not about what you give your head to, but what you give your heart to.
In verse 44 of chapter 6 Jesus says: “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father.” I know that is a packed sentence, but the important word is drawn. What draws you? What interests you? What agitates you deeply – where is your deepest yearning – your passion? You have heard that from this pulpit countless times – but it is what God wants for you to consider. Because that’s where you’re going to encounter the holy. That’s where you encounter God.
I think God takes much greater delight in the faithful doubter than the doubtless one: the one too scared to ask questions, or so set in defending the truth of their own answers that they brook no opposition. Because doubt is not the opposite of faith, cynicism and fear are the opposites of trusting faith. I don’t want you to be fearful or cynical.
At Forest Hill Church we are trying to engage you at deep levels – equip you to engage life profoundly, not just simplistically. We want you to peer into the mystery and have hope that despite what you might see, there is something else going on and that “something else” is inspired because of our understanding of our faith in Jesus.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – think of him – despite all the terror of white supremacy, despite all the hatred – still believed. He still had faith, he gave his heart to, and he saw the world through the lenses of hope that the “moral arc of the universe always bent towards justice.” Where did he get that? What kept him there?
And I was reminded recently, in an article I read last week, of Bishop Tutu. How could he smile and forgive?! No way!
I was visiting someone in the hospital this past week. She is all hooked up in Intensive Care but she said: “Thank you, God!” And she meant it!
And I just have to tell you that those examples of trusting people make me want to trust too. They’re all followers of Jesus. That’s compelling to me. I want to be one too.
True, many people want hard and fast, black and white, unambiguous answers and they flock to churches who give it to them. Fine. Fine. The “Four Spiritual Laws,” what you have to do to be saved, etc. That’s all well and good….but for me, I think God wants something deeper. Because it is not in certainty where faith is formed, it is in encounter.
And one of the most profound interchanges and encounters, in perhaps all of the Gospels, occurs in verses 67-68 of this sixth chapter of John. Jesus says to the twelve; “Do you also wish to go away?”
And Peter says: “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.”
Wow. So much to say and so little time. So lean in with me, hang in there.
Alcoholics call it hitting rock bottom – when you realize you have nowhere else to go but sobriety if you want life.
I remember that great scene from the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman.” Richard Gere wants to be a pilot but he is a wanderer, a mixed-up dysfunctional person – alone and disconnected. Lou Gossett, Jr. is the abusive and foul-mouthed sergeant who is trying to break Gere and force him to quit. Hour after hour in the pouring rain, Gossett makes Gere do push-ups and sit-ups in the mud until Gere’s body is quaking in pain. Gossett screams at Gere: “Quit, quit, why won’t you quit?” And Gere, quaking with pain, looks up and gasps, “I have nowhere else to go.” It is his defining moment, his life is changed after that. It’s a Peter moment.
When you get to the point, and we’ve all been there, where you feel you have nowhere else to go, and you have to choose, you are at the point of holiness, a point of encounter. When you just have to make the decision, you have to play the cards that have been dealt, despite the reluctance and doubt you set your bags down and call a place home, maybe you call this place home. When you finally pay attention to the yearnings of your heart, and you say to yourself “This is who I am. Deal with it.” When you repeat the words of Martin Luther who said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Those are Peter moments.
Faith isn’t answers, faith is trust that here I am going to find life, here I am going to have sustenance, here I will get my daily bread – enough to push on – because I have nowhere else to go.
There are a million reasons for me to say, “Christianity is crazy; it causes more harm than good.” One of my very best friends wrote a book entitled “Freedom from Religion.” I get it. I wish we could be free. It would easy to give into that. And yet, I have experienced a freedom in Jesus Christ that I will find nowhere else. And his gospel have given me a glimpse of the “river of meaning” that runs through life. And so I am going to interpret all that goes on through my trust in a God of love – both triumph and tragedy. I’m going to put on the lenses of faith, and see the world both as it is – in all its nuttiness – and how it might be. And I’m going to choose to be shaped by the vision of the “beloved community.” Sharing the wealth – why do I need to hoard? And not living in fear.
See, the words of Peter resonate deeply in me: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Jesus has the words that let me glimpse reality.
Remember, eternity is not a length of time, eternity is a quality of time living. Urban Holmes once wrote: “Religion is not different from ordinary life, but an intensification of it.”
I like that. I don’t want ordinary.
And I have nowhere else to go!