A Reluctant Faith
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on John 6: 56 – 69. Focus on how doubt and faith go hand in hand. Check out Jody Sinkway and Bill Ucker as they perform Ave Marie.
When I was in seminary the daily worship service reflected the various, mostly Protestant, traditions of students and faculty, but on Wednesday of each week there was a Catholic mass. About 15 to 20 students attended, Catholics and Protestants.
The priest must have broken all kinds of rules to serve communion to anyone who walked in the door, and that’s why I almost never missed a single Wednesday worship service. I wanted the priest to know how much I appreciated what he was doing and the way in which he was doing it.
Very quietly, not a lot of fan fare, just one priest’s subtle demonstration that we were all God’s children, that no church had a right to deny the Lord’s supper to anyone who wanted to receive it.
It was a simple service, bare bones, scripture reading, prayers, bread and wine. One of the responses, which probably has been in the Catholic service forever, but was new to me, came after the consecration. The congregation said something like, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Touch me and I shall be healed.”
These words are Peter’s confession of faith in John’s Gospel. In all of the other gospels Peter is self-confident, rather impulsive in his declaration that Jesus is the Christ.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am? Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’” (Matthew 16: 15-16) It almost feels like the answer to Final Jeopardy, “Who’s Who for $5,000.” And the final answer is Jesus.
John’s version, however, is for people who are less impulsive, more doubtful in their faith, people who at any given moment might consider leaving the church, its worship, its politics and its problems.
But there is this problem for those who struggle with the problems of organized religion and who at the same time have a deep sense of God in their lives. It’s almost like trying to run away from home, only to realize that we have nowhere to go and say: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
All this talk about eating flesh and drinking blood is too much. It’s not bread and juice on Sunday morning, but something much more invasive. It’s as if Jesus was saying, “If you want to live, you need me to pervade every pore in your body.”
They were right. Following Jesus offered no guarantee of bread, and it wouldn’t protect them from suffering. It didn’t make sense, and between flashes of brilliance, at least in John’s Gospel, Jesus could be downright boring and nearly always obscure. No wonder they began to go away.
And when they do, we see Jesus at one of his most vulnerable moments. He turns to his twelve closest friends and asks, “Do you also wish to go away?”
And surprisingly, the impulsive Peter doesn’t blurt out much in the way of reassurance, he simply describes the corner he’s backed into, “Lord 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.” (vv. 68-69)
Peter’s confession in John’s Gospel is made without bravado, at a time when he may be full of doubts, when the trend was to give up. So he says, “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Where else would I find life like this? Where else would I find love and acceptance like this? Where else would I see God?
Peter’s confession is a mustard seed sort of faith. It’s not big. It’s the kind of faith that comes from Missouri the show me state. It’s a faith that doesn’t’ believe in everything that is taught about Christ.
It’s a faith that doesn’t like everything in the church, a faith that has considered walking away. But it’s a faith that has been touched by Jesus enough to know that there is no other place to go.
For those of us who struggle with organized religion, with the church because it is too tedious, too old-fashioned, to boring and too discriminatory at times, Peter’s question becomes our question, “Lord, to whom can we go?” Who else has the words of eternal life?
And gradually as the mustard seed grows, the faith that begins reluctantly, gains enough confidence to say, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
But just because there is no other place to go, once Jesus has touched your life, does not give the church an excuse to be irrelevant, obscure, boring or discriminatory. There is no promise in scripture that true believers will stick it out no matter how terrible the church acts in the name of Christ.
So we who believe must communicate the gospel, the good news, with all the love and all of the grace that we can to those who do not understand what love and grace are all about. And this in turn frees us from the temptation to speak easy words, sliding, melting words, watered down just to get people to stay in the church.
Jesus needed followers, but he spoke hard words to them. He said how close he wanted to be with his disciples, how they couldn’t be spectators in faith. Those words might have chased Peter and the others away, but he kept right on speaking them.
So the church needs to keep calling us to examine our priorities, challenging us to a deep commitment and service to all those in our society who have been discriminated against – the poor, gays and lesbians, African Americans, women, and the list never ends nor does it go away.
And some in the church will go away, and others will find eternal life by giving there lives away in the service to others.
At some time each one of us will have to wrestle with the question, “Do you also want to go away?” To answer, you must ask, “Where would I go, and what am I looking for?” Where would you go? To a different church or religion?, To some vague notion about being kind and respectful toward others? These are good things, but do they fill that deep place that longs for God?
Do they give hope in things not seen? Do they stand with us when the rest of our life falls away? Do they connect us to what is holy in life?
To whom shall we go? With Peter we can say, “Jesus, I don’t always understand you; I don’t even like what you have to say all of the time, but you have the words of eternal life. You see Lord, we have come to believe and know that you are the holy one of God, in whom there is the abundance of life.” Amen