Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, 2015 – 1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
Where else can we go? I want us to reflect on these stunning and haunting words of Peter in today’s Gospel: After many in the crowds including some of his own disciples, abandon Jesus because of his teaching, Jesus asks the twelve apostles, “will you also go away?”, and “ Simon Peter answered [Jesus], Lord, to whom shall we go? you have the words of eternal life” (Jn. 6:68). Where else could we possibly go?, Peter asks. We can only follow you; nothing else; only you. “We believe and are sure that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (v. 69).
This is an absolutely key moment in John’s Gospel, because it marks a pivot in the account of what it means to believe in Jesus. Matthew tells us in his Gospel, that after feeding the thousands, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”, and Peter confesses, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16:16). Today we have John’s version of this moment. Only here, everyone is leaving Jesus, and Peter is now forced to choose as well. Who is this man, Jesus? Perhaps he isn’t worth my life. Bu now Peter blurts out, almost in desperation: “There is nowhere else to go! There is nothing we can do in this world but follow you; nothing!”. That’s who you are: the all or nothing person! And who is that?
Annette and I were in Colorado for the past few weeks – we lived and worked there for 10 years before moving to Toronto. And we spent a good deal of time in Denver, where our two children were. Denver is, supposedly, the second fastest growing city in America. And we’ve certainly seen that happening over the past two decades – houses, developments, spreading across the plains and up into the mountains like a growing algae. With it, the malls, stores, and shops. And, as we found out with our kids: restaurants and bars! Hundreds of them, crowded and busy, every lunch, every afternoon, every evening. Filled with young people, and not a few older ones. It’s not really any different from Toronto, I guess. But you wonder when people work. They do, of course. But they do so in order to then get out: into the restaurants and bars; and then into the mountains, and up the peaks, and onto the reservoirs and bike paths and forest roads. With 300 days of sun per year, it’s a race to enjoy.
Unless of course something gets in the way: cancer, a romantic breakup, unemployment, too much alcohol, an emotional descent. Denver has plenty of churches, and many of them are filled, more or less. But Denver churches, even the most conservative, are about “mopping up” the edges of these sunny, active lives that inevitably, after all, fall apart: the hurts, the brokenness, the addiction, betrayals, and loneliness of members. And Denver churches also engage outreach to others perhaps worse off – the homeless and the abandoned. They offer support groups, choirs and singing, friendship, mission work. This is all good. Indeed, very good. After all: people need so much help, and Christian churches (as well as other agencies) do this with generosity and grace. But it’s a mop up job all the same. For the restaurants and bars that are filled, the drives to the mountains and canyons that are regular; and the sun that soothes the tired bones.
It’s still “the world” that constitutes all there is at the core. And that world sucks us in and down. In a cheap novel I just read (Scott Turow), one of the characters comments on the way all of us must deal with aging: “The first half of your life you’re trying to get a foothold in the world”, he says; and in the second half, you’re trying to hold on to what you have as it it’s increasingly and inevitably wrested away from you.”
Holding on to life, to this stuff here around us. Holding on. That is “who” we all are, myself included.
So Peter stands before Jesus and asks, “where else shall we go?” In the New Testament, John especially, the “world” – cosmos in the Greek, this universe that God has made – the world, with its mountains, plains, families, restaurants and bars, and also health clinics and pharmacies, is not an evil. “God so loved the world – the cosmos — that he sent his Son”, John says in a famous verse (3:3:16). Jesus is the Lamb who “takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). But the world, according to John, is also opposed to God, separated somehow from God by a huge chasm. Though God has made the world, the world refuses to accept him (1:10; 3:19, 14:17 etc.); the works of the world are “evil” (7:7); “in the world you will have tribulation” (16:33), Jesus asserts. So, even though the world is the object of God’s creation, love and saving, it is an “object”; it is not God himself. Jesus own kingdom, he says to Pilate, “is not of this world” (16:36) – it is something else.
“Where else shall we go?”, Peter asks. Certainly not to the world! We can only go to God. It is true, the apostles themselves, those who follow Jesus, are sent into the world, just as Jesus is; but, Jesus says, in doing so, they are “not of this world” (17:16).The world is not God. The world is not life. Only God is and only God gives life.
How did we get this so mixed up? I keep asking myself this, as I see my own way of living defined by, properly speaking, “worldly” concerns – jobs, money, health, mine or my family’s, reputation. It is interesting that the noun “matter” – which refers to “material”, originally timber in fact, from which houses are made and so structured around – the noun “matter” turned, in the modern age, into a verb – “to matter”, that is, “to be important”. “Matter” is what is important to the world.
The world, literally “matters” for us. It is matter. It is all that matters too often. And it is only matter.
St. Paul is also clear about this: the world – the cosmos – is what God has made and what God is after to save and renew. But the world is not God, and our lives are about God, they are bound to God, because they are from God and inhabited, as it were, by God. He breathed his spirit into them (Gen. 2:7). “We have not received the spirit of the world”, he says, “but rather the Spirit which is from God” (1 Cor. 2:12), that Spirit which gives life, as Jesus says today (Jn 6:63; cf. Mal. 2:15; Rom. 8:2). This world, as we know it, as we use it, as we live in it – its sun, its glorious skies, its ordered forms and disordered structures – the “scheme of this world”, Paul writes, “is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). Something new is coming, and only God, who will be “all in all”, will remain (1 Cor. 15:28; Eph. 1:23; cf. 1 Pet. 1:25). Only God.
Where else can we go? This is the fundamental question for our world, our culture, our society, for us.
God is not an add-on. God isn’t there to mop up. Jesus Christ stands before us as one who is other than everything we have and do and consider worthwhile, and he claims that all these other things are nothing in comparison.
“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things – and we all will, by the way! — and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philip. 3:8). This is a totalizing claim, that must uproot our lives, even as it is seen by the world to be incredible, usually dangerous, and certainly pointless. It is why there is no place for the Christian faith within a normally functioning society – not for long, anyway. God would embrace all people, and even the lives we so frailly and misleadingly put together. But to be so embraced is to be fundamentally changed. And in a way the world simply cannot understand or accept.
As I mentioned earlier, in Matthew’s Gospel, we hear Jesus asking the disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter rightly answers: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God”. And then, as the other Gospels tell us, Jesus finally “began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mk. 8:31). The Passion, the Cross, the Resurrection. “That’s who I am”, Jesus tells them; “and if you are to be with me, you too will enter this reality”.
Of course, the disciples didn’t understand, because it went against every natural and worldly line of thought for the King of Glory’s destiny, God’s own personhood. And this is what John is talking about in Chapter 6 as well: here, the destiny of God’s life for us is explained in terms of “eating and drinking” the flesh and blood of Jesus. This is the Passion, Cross, and Resurrection, now offered in terms of ingestion, of participation, of becoming one-with the very person of God’s love, Jesus Christ. Eat my flesh; drink my blood; let my Spirit become one with you; have true life, the source of life, the origin of all things. Know God. Turn your gaze away from the world, to me.
Or, as Jesus says in the other Gospels: “He called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. … For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mk. 8:34-36). Life is not the world; it is God.
The problem of course, even for us, is that God is not a “thing”, to be pointed to and measured and applied. Spirit is not matter. Indeed, “spirit doesn’t matter” in our normal, worldly lives. Indeed, there is no “spirit” at all in the world. The “spirit of the world” is simply matter itself. All this stuff about “faith” in the New Testament is bound to this: you can’t see God with your eyes (cf. Jn. 20:29; 2 Cor. 5:7; Heb. 11:1; 1 Pet. 1:8), which is the way we deal with things in the world. So John writes, at the very beginning of his Gospel, “No one has ever seen God” (1:18). No one. Not even Moses (cf. Ex. 33:20). How could one? Not only are our corporal frames incapable of it – if we cannot see atoms, how can we see God? – but our beings would, in the present state, simply disintegrate in his direct presence. This is, literally, a “matter of physics”. We can’t see God. So then, what? John goes on, and elaborates: no one has ever seen God; but “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known”. Made God known; literally, he has “explained him, exegeted him”. Spoken about God and of God and from God. “Where else shall we go?”, Peter asks. “You have the words of eternal life”.
God is not visible; God is not matter; God is not the world. But that doesn’t mean that God is a figment, an idea. God, in his love for the world, for us his creatures, for me and you, has come to us tangibly in his Word. “The words that I have spoken are spirit and life”, says Jesus today. My words! Listen to them (cf. Mk. 9:7). “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (Jn. 5:24). Where else shall we go? Eat my words, drink up their meaning. God’s words and Word is that which makes the world, the cosmos: “Let there be light”, God said; and it was so (Gen. 1:3).
Where else shall we go? This is what it comes down to: “Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock” (Mt. 7:24).
Do this – do what I say, what I explain, what I make known. And it is life, because these are the words that come from the author of life itself.
These are the words that lead through death to resurrection; He said them, He who died and rose again. They are His words. Not the world’s. They are not instructions or guidelines: they describe what true life is. What life is, the life that God gave us and wants for us, and promises us and is Himself. Do what I tell you!
That is why we’re here today. Isn’t it? At least in part.
We are here so that we might find our way out of the world, and into God, such that world we live in might finally discover its true place before God. We are here so that we might offer our hearts to God, through Jesus Christ, to be transformed, to be made new, to be softened from the hardness of our self-concern and self-regarding fears, into the flesh of the Spirit’s glorious movement.
The realm of God’s life, not the world’s. “I will give them a new heart” (Ez. 11:19). We are here in order that we might become lovers of God, and only then true lovers of God’s world. We are here so that the Word might become flesh in our midst, and that the words of the Word, Jesus’ words, might become our word to the world. We are here to be redeemed and to find the life we so desperately need.
That’s why we are here and have remained with Peter. And with ears wide open, we are in the right place. “Where else shall we go?”, asks Peter, when other disciples fall away from Jesus. “Where else? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Grant us grace, O Lord, that we may hear your word, and have the will to do it. Amen.