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August 27, 2006 (Sunday 21 • Time after Pentecost)—“To Whom Will You Go?”
Interim Pastor Steve Jensen
When I was growing up in my home church, I used to be in awe of our pastor. Most of us called him Dr. G_____, a few referred to him as Pastor G_____, but no one ever used his first name. To me he was about as close as you come to God on earth. He had a distinguished, commanding presence; could readily retrieve tremendous amounts of information, especially about scripture; was a well-regarded orator and preacher; and demonstrated great administrative skill in organizing and running a large congregation.
Frankly, I was afraid of him. Confirmation class was an exercise in trying to be unnoticed. But I was also always well prepared just in case he called on me. I never wanted to get “that look.”
One Halloween our Luther League youth group was using the hallway and closets reserved by the choir beneath a balcony in the social hall for a “spook house.” We filled vats with substances we would tell blindfolded victims were all manner of horrible and disgusting things. We had people staged to grab ankles, jump out of closets, or hold items at face level. Since our group had designed and staged it, we invited local youth and other church groups to our party. But would it be all we had hoped?
Dr. G_____ happened through the social hall on the way to his office just prior to the arrival of the other youth groups, and a few of the more daring youth invited him to check out our scary obstacle course. Stand back, I thought, and wait for the lightning bolt. But he smiled and agreed to be their guinea pig. What he did next shocked me even more—he took off his shoes and socks! The Herr Pastor had bare feet! Apparently the traditional black pastoral garb could come off. My mind just wasn’t ready to go beyond that. Had I really thought he was superhuman or from another planet—or descended directly from heaven?
The packaging of this man of God changed that day for me. It had never dawned on me before that I could approach him with personal issues; he inspired too much fear and awe. But after that experience, I realized that he might be human after all and might know the challenges the rest of us face in daily living.
Listening to his sermons thereafter was different. His preaching and his teaching were no less intellectually challenging. But it was no longer about taking notes to turn in for class; it was about listening for what he had to say about my building my relationship to God.
It appears our relationship changed for him, too. Several years after he left our congregation, he contacted me while I was in seminary to ask if I would consider being his intern. And Josh thought he had a challenging internship...
Recently I met a new pastor at a meeting and was struck by the fact that most others greeted him with a comment on his exceptional good looks. I found myself wondering how big a challenge that was for him to not only be greeted that way, but to help people get beyond his attractive appearance and know the committed, Spirit-filled man of God beneath the packaging. Would this be another case of the messenger causing difficulty for people receiving the message?
I am not unaware that my own intensity in seeking to prepare the congregation as well as possible for the calling of a new pastor can often cause me to appear to be more focused on the task than on loving the people. While I want to assure you my love for you is genuine, I realize that once again the messenger can get in the way of the message.
As I read and wrestle with today’s Gospel, it seems to me that one of the reasons the followers of Jesus are having a difficult time hearing the message because of the messenger. He’s insisting that he came down from heaven. Not only that, he’s claiming that God sent him and that they could not go to God except through him.
They respond that he’s much too common to have come down from heaven. This local boy, one of several children of Mary and Joseph, is too much like you and me. It’s the wrong packaging to the other extreme.
What was God thinking? Perhaps he was thinking that people like me actually get the message better from the Christ he chose. I don’t respond well to simply being told how to live. It is easier for me to swallow when you show me by example how to live. The awe and fear only takes me so far in my relationship with God. Beyond that I need to see that God cared enough about me to allow his Son to experience the type of human life that I do. I need to believe that Jesus appreciates the challenges I face because he did, too—and more. Yet despite being fully human, he led his short life devoted to the will of God, in a way that demonstrates for me how I should live. His love was a love that came from God, that enabled him to love the unlovable and even die for them.
I couldn’t do better in the packaging of the Word. Could you?
But we see that it isn’t just the messenger that gives the disciples pause; it’s the message, too. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”
What a hard message to hear; what an offense to the faithful Jews. Eat his flesh, drink his blood? What’s he saying? Few things are more abhorrent to a Jew than to eat blood of an animal. Blood was life—life given by God. He dares equate himself to the manna sent from God to our ancestors in the wilderness. God sent that nourishment down from heaven to feed his people, but it only nourished their bodies and they died. “I could feed you loaves and fishes every day and give you your fill, and it wouldn’t give you life,” he says. “The Father sent me down from heaven so that if you eat of me you will live (now and) forever.”
Allegiance to this Jesus could bring expulsion from the synagogue for the Jews, and possibly ostracism from the family along with their emotional and financial support. Their inability to respond to him could be from an unwillingness to face the harsh consequences that following Jesus demanded. It could literally mean leaving one’s old life behind.
So while Jesus’ miracles and earlier messages of love and acceptance drew great numbers to him, now these hard messages, this offense of the Gospel cause them to turn away. Apparently Jesus hasn’t learned from this experience because the hard sayings will continue:
“Take up your cross and follow me.”
“Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you.”
“Forgive those who have wronged you—not once, but 70 times 7.”
“Sell all your possessions and give everything you have to the poor.”
“I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
In other words, leave your old life behind and become a new being in me.
Ironically, some of those who had once hung on every word would now find it so difficult to hear his words that they not only turn from him, but turn against him. Those who once shouted “Hosanna” would soon shout, “Crucify him!”
Jesus, the Word become flesh, watches the backs of those who walk away. Then he turns to his remaining 12 and asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” I can picture the penetrating look that accompanies the question.
Simon Peter speaks for himself and the others. While both the messenger and the message may be difficult to fully comprehend, these simple everyday people got it. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Who else feeds our real hunger? Who else stirs our very souls? Who else explains the mysteries of the scriptures in ways that give us hope and peace and life? Who else causes us to look at who we have been and want us to look at who we could be? Who else invites us to an intimate relationship with a loving, living God? Only “you have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
The question is asked of us at various times in our lives. “Do you also wish to go away?” Are Jesus expectations of us as disciples too hard? Do we cling to our old, familiar lives so tightly we’re unable and unwilling to eat of this Bread that brings new and complete life?
The great Lutheran theologian (!) Mark Twain is quoted as having said, “Most people are bothered by those passages in scripture which they cannot understand; but as for me, I always notice that the passages in scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand.”
Perhaps the challenge for us is that we understand perfectly what Jesus is saying and what he’s asking of us. Following Jesus is not a one-time conversion, but a continuous act, a daily conversion of turning back towards the living God.
By ourselves we cannot make the great statement of faith that Peter did. Faith trusts that Jesus Christ is real and that he is present with us. “I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10 ) The living bread from heaven gives us life today. He enables us to be fully alive today. His nourishment feeds our souls to overflowing so that we can do no other than to share this bread with others. His body and blood are where we draw life.
So as we come to the Table of the Lord again this day, he asks, “Will you allow my body and blood, my nourishment for your soul, to make you a new being in me? “ Invite the Holy Spirit to enable you to say and confess along with Peter, “You have the words of eternal life. I have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Feed me, Lord, with your Bread of Life.
Copyright © 2006 Steven Jensen
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org