Pentecost 13/Lectionary 21B, John 6:56-69
I had promised you someone else in the pulpit today. Alas, Dr. Lowell Almen, retired Secretary of the ELCA, sends his regrets. He was not able to travel because of an unexpected health issue. So you have me for yet another sermon on Jesus’ difficult teaching in John chapter six.
Throughout this chapter, John reports that Jesus has been making the case while teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum that he is the bread of life that comes down from heaven and that this bread is his flesh and that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will live forever.
All of this is a challenge to take in and comprehend to say the least. Indeed, John reports that Jesus’ own disciples, not just the religious authorities, had objections. The disciples complained and said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
Jesus’ replied to them: “Does this offend you?” Jesus was aware that he did not have universal support among his followers, and was aware even then of the one who would betray him.
John reports that many of Jesus’ wider circle of disciples “turned back and no longer went about with him.” Then addressing the twelve, Jesus asked, “Do you also wish to go away?”
Jesus forced no one to follow him. If fact, relating to Jesus centered on the invitation: “Follow me.” Not a command, but invitation. People could choose to follow him or choose not to follow him.
Which raises the whole question of the nature of choice when it comes to religious faith. And behind that all of the philosophical and theological questions concerning human free will, and the extent to which human beings have free will.
One of the founding principles of our nation is freedom of religion – and perhaps freedom from religion. There is not an officially established state church or religious tradition in our country.
And freedom of choice is a flash point in the current political climate. When it comes to the pandemic, freedom of choice is invoked in relation to wearing masks or not. Then there are approaches to abortion rights couched in the language of “pro-choice.”
But the question of free choice is a complicated one when it comes to Christian faith.
Yes, in the religious climate of our nation centered on individualism and the freedom to choose, whole Christian traditions have emerged in this country that focus on individual agency when it comes to faith – as in, “I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.”
I happen to believe that the old sinful Adam is quite seductively active when it comes to social and religious perspectives that reduce human agency to individual choice, where it’s all about me and what I want apart from other communal and relational dynamics and considerations.
So, let’s delve into what today’s readings reveal about the nature of choice when it comes to faith, to choosing God, to following Jesus, who invites us to affirm that his flesh is true food and his blood is true drink.
Today’s readings suggest a more complicated set of dynamics related to choice in connection with faith than simply “I choose to accept.” There’s a lot more going on before we get to the point of assent.
In today’s first reading, Joshua had gathered all the tribes of Israel and presented them with a choice to serve the God of their ancestors or the idols of their choice. Joshua indicated that he would serve God. The people likewise gave their assent: “Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for the Lord is our God.”
Seems pretty simple and straightforward, doesn’t it? But let’s look more closely at the story. Before the people made their choice to serve God and not idols, they recounted their memory of all that God had done for them. Here again is what the people remembered: “for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. The Lord protected us along al the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who live in the land.” (Joshua 24:17-18a) Only after rehearsing out loud all that God had done for them did they reveal that they would serve God and not idols.
In short, their choice, their assent to serve God was based on and emerged from the activity and agency of God in their communal lives. It didn’t come out of the blue from their own individual proclivities.
So, too, in today’s gospel reading from John, the decision to continue to follow Jesus was more involved than simply individual free choice in the moment.
Recall that Jesus concludes about those who chose to follow him and those who went away: “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” That essentially repeats what John reports elsewhere in this chapter about the centrality of being drawn by God the Father when it comes to belief in Jesus and his teachings about his being the bread that comes down from heaven.
Thus it is that we have Simon Peter’s response to Jesus asking whether or not they also wished to go away. Simon Peter’s asked rhetorically, “Lord, to whom can we go?” Then Simon Peter concludes, based on the wealth of experience of encounter with Jesus: “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)
Simon Peter’s reply suggests a whole lot of story of encounter along the way before the decision – the dynamics perhaps of being drawn by the Father, belief granted by the Father. It’s as if Simon Peter was saying, “how can we help but say yes given all that we have experienced and come to know about you, Jesus?” “Lord, to whom can we go?” is not an expression of desperation but grace-filled clarity based on everything that Jesus had been doing in their presence.
The good news in all of these dynamics is that when it comes to faith, it’s not all about us and our choice, but about God and God’s agency and activity, that our assent, our yes, is an important part of the equation, but that our yes is itself a gift of God, a result of our having been drawn by the Father. That’s the good news.
The bad news, in fact, is that radically free choice, or the perception of it, can be quite the burden, causing anxiety, terror, even. What a relief to know that the burden of our choices is relativized by the sovereign realities of God’s grace and the claims of divine grace in our lives.
Many of you may have seen the classic foreign film from Denmark back in the 1980’s, “Babette’s Feast.” It’s based on a lovely short story by Isaac Dinesen. One of the main characters, a Swedish general, struggles with his life’s choices, but during the feast on which the movie centers, to me, a parable of the Eucharist, the General receives the gift of clarity and stands to make a speech before those gathered at the table. Here’s what the General says, and to me this speech reveals the point of the whole story, and it’s is a lovely expression of a Lutheran theology of grace:
“Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. [We], my friends, [are] frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be ﬁnite. For this reason we tremble. We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is inﬁnite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with conﬁdence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace… makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”
What matters is not our choice, but God’s gracious choice for us in Christ Jesus, the bread that comes down from heaven. How can we help but say yes? That’s my take as a Lutheran pastor, and as an anxious sinner, on the questions of freedom of choice when it comes to our faith.
So it is that we, too, drawn by God, confess as we come to the table of divine grace, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Thus it is that we are fed and clothed, too, well-protected by the full armor of God, and given gracious gifts with the coming of the Spirit in baptism. Here’s what we are given to echo the words of the author of today’s passage from Ephesians – we are clothed with: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the capacity to proclaim the gospel, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.
Thus, we are well-prepared to engage the sacred work entrusted to us in and for the sake of the world, the work of contending with the “rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” (Ephesians 6:12) – all part of God’s ongoing mission to continue to choose God’s creation in grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love. Amen.