Sermon - Ordinary Sunday 21 Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
To whom can we go?
[Note: As background for this sermon see others on John 6: Miracles and the bread of life and Food for eternal life.]
These words of Peter, To whom can we go? pose a question that is sometimes asked when people see that they are in a desperate situation, meaning "Who can help us?" or "Who can save us from this danger?" Such questions might be asked when a person is seriously ill and needs medical treatment of a kind that is not readily available; or perhaps someone who is facing bankruptcy or a family breakdown and their way of life is threatened might think that perhaps there might be someone they can go to who could help them solve the problem? People who are seeking to make some sense of their lives, who feel lost and want to discover some meaning and purpose in it might also seek answers from some unknown source saying "To whom can we go?"
Another way of putting it might be, "Whose words can we trust?" Sometimes, you might be unsure what is going on, and what you can believe about what you have heard. Perhaps there is uncertainty about the truth. If you are puzzled and anxious, you might feel very strongly a need to know who you can trust to tell you the truth. Who is reliable? Who is trustworthy? Who knows, and can be trusted? Who will be honest enough, if they know, to tell you even what you might not wish to hear? Who will tell it like it is?
Peter, saying You have the words of eternal life, was saying that the words of Jesus could be trusted, as he could be trusted to give them the truth in a way that would meet their deepest needs and bring them to the fulfilment of their hopes. Meaning and purpose and salvation could come from him.
When Peter asked the question To whom can we go? he was answering it himself with an expression of faith, beginning with Lord, saying Lord, to whom can we go? To call Jesus "Lord" was more than to address him with respect, as when someone might call a man "Sir", it was to confess faith by addressing him as he might have addressed God. For the early Christians the basic confession of faith on which people were baptised was "Jesus is Lord", which meant that Jesus is God. That he meant "Lord" in this sense is clear from what follows:
Jesus, "the Lord", is called "the Holy One of God" at another significant point in the gospel accounts of his ministry: it was when he was first showing his power to overcome and banish powers of evil, at the synagogue in Capernaum.
He commanded the evil spirit to come out of him. It was then that they recognized a new kind of teaching, teaching with authority, such that even the powers of evil obeyed him and departed. Such was the power of his words. It was a sign that the rule or the kingdom of God had come near. To recognize the One who brought it near as the Holy One of God was to know that he was the Messiah who had come to establish God's kingdom. Mark's account of what happened in the synagogue at Capernaum at the beginning of his ministry in Galilee carries the same message as John's account of the conversation about the bread of life as Jesus prepared to depart for Jerusalem (see John 7:1-10 for the departure). It is a nice parallel that John records Jesus' teaching about the bread of life as taking place also in the synagogue at Capernaum and many scholars believe that John expected his readers to be familiar with Mark's gospel and to read what he wrote in the light of it. Here now, near the conclusion of this period of his ministry in Galilee, some of his disciples have begun to accept what only the threatened powers of evil could see in the same place at the beginning.
We have reached a forward looking kind of conclusion part way through, at the
end, as it were, of Part I of the story. Peter is confessing him now as the
Lord, the holy one of God, but the great climax comes much later when after
the resurrection Thomas meets Jesus and calls him "My Lord and my God" (John
20:28). Their journey had not yet reached its end, but they had travelled with
him long enough to know there was no one else they could go to for the words
of life and truth. The experience of journeying with him is expressed in Peter's
saying We have come to believe and know. A developing relationship
is implied in saying "We have come to believe and know that you are
the Holy One of God." So they had travelled a long way, far enough, at least
at the best of times, to anticipate the end of the journey.
It is like that for believers today. Your faith, your feeling confident in trusting the words of Jesus, and beginning to believe in him personally, develops as you journey with him. You need to spend time getting to know him. It is not a matter of having faith first and then following him, without any experience of him as the holy one of God. You need to go about with him, to share his daily life and he yours, so that trust develops and you come to believe and know. It may be true that believers follow Jesus because they trust and believe in him, but it also true that people come to believe in him by following him, by going about with him, "keeping company" if you like.
Not that everybody who went about with Jesus came to believe in him in the days of his mission in Galilee. We learn in this particular story that there were many who did not. Peter's confession of faith, "Lord, to whom can we go? Your have the words of eternal life" came when there was a crisis of belief and many turned back and no longer went about with him. It came after the feeding of the five thousand when Jesus had explained the meaning of that great sign in terms of sharing in his life as the bread that had come down from heaven (see the whole of John chapter 6). He had told them that the one who eats this bread will live for ever (John 6:51,58, on which see last week's sermon, Food for eternal life.):
It was a real test, and indeed a shocking thing to ask, especially of a Jew. To speak of eating his flesh and drinking his blood was to ask the impossible. It was shocking enough in ordinary human terms. To the Jews with their beliefs in the spiritual significance of blood it was the most serious breach of their laws and customs regarding holiness and uncleanness. It was the point at which many of his disciples left Jesus. In the sermon I preached a few weeks ago on Miracles and the bread of life, we reached this point (which was developed further in last week's sermon, Food for eternal life.):
And we saw Jesus how went on to explain that it was the Spirit that gives life through his words because he had indeed come from God:
He introduced this with a pointer to his home in heaven:
He could bring them the words of life and the Spirit of God because he had indeed come from God and was going to God: the Son of Man ascending to where he was before. This is what Jesus had spoken of in his conversation with Nicodemus, and the apostle Paul wrote of in his letter to the Ephesians:
The point is this: that as people went about with Jesus they were confronted with the question of who he was, where he had come from, and what authority he had to teach and act as he did. Either he was a shocking and offensive blasphemer claiming the power and authority of God which no mortal could have, or he really was the holy one of God.
Sooner or later people who go about with Jesus have to answer this question. A point is reached where you simply cannot go any further on the journey if you only accept him as a good and wise teacher like any of the other great teachers of humanity, religious or otherwise. He will not let you go on with that limited human view. It will make sense for you only when you are ignorant enough not to be tested by the unique claims that Jesus makes. As you journey with him you will be tested and challenged to make a choice, and a commitment to him alone, or depart, perhaps sadly.
The point of testing when he spoke of the bread of life in the way that we receive him in the Eucharist was a parting of the ways, for it was then possible to go on only if you believed he had come from God and was God , who alone could share his life in the flesh in such a way as to give you eternal life. You must decide whether you can trust him, otherwise it is terribly shocking.
At first sight the saying about seeing the Son of Man ascending to where he was before does not seem to follow from Does this offend you? The offense was the talk about eating flesh and drinking blood. What has the Son of Man, that is Jesus himself, ascending, to do with that? The answer is that it would be grounds for offence if he did not in fact have the right in his nature, as the bread which had come down from heaven, to share the eternal life of God with us through his own life. As I have explained before, to the Hebrews, the life was in the blood. To share his blood was to share his life, and to share his Spirit. It is the Spirit that gives life. So it is spiritual communion he is speaking of, which was to be his gift to his disciples through his earthly life in the flesh. If he was indeed the word of God made flesh, then he could return to be with God and pour out his Spirit on all flesh as the prophet Joel had promised and his followers came to experience on the Day of Pentecost after his body had been broken on the cross and he had been raised up, and had ascended to where had been before.
Those who had been "going about with Jesus", if they were to go further on the journey, had to face the question of whether they really believed in him as the Son of God, as one who shared uniquely the life and being of God. But it was too great a challenge for many of them:
It was then that he put the question directly to the twelve, and it is very significant that John refers to those remaining as "the twelve", for that was very unusual in his writing. It focussed attention on what it meant to be an apostle.
But they had already decided. They had seen enough to know that they wanted to go on with the journey, in the words with which we began;
What is your answer? I invite you all to renew your vows to the Lord, or to make a commitment for the first time. May God give us the grace to answer truthfully and well. How do you answer the question, To whom can we go?
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