Sermon, 8/22/21: Words, Again!

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13 Pentecost

Psalm 84; I Kings 8:1, 6, 10–11, 22–20, 41–43; Ephesians 6:10–20; John 6:56–69

The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. John 6:63b

Just recently a young man, a graduate of my alma mater, spoke about the power of words.  Admittedly, that is to be expected of a recent college graduate.  However, for him to speak of words carries a significant weight.  Born in Bosnia after a devastating genocidal war and immigrating to the United State, he plans eventually to become a foreign service officer.  However, he is undertaking a planned detour towards that goal.  Presently, he serves in the national program “Teach for American” in Washington, D.C, where he teaches third grade.  

He comments, “Third grade is pivotal year when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn…. I can think of no better way to start my career in public service than being a force for good for these children. This is my way of paying forward all that I have received from my teachers, my professor and everyone at the College.” (Washington: The Magazine of Washington University in St. Louis, August 2021, p.33)   

Is it possible to apply that young man’s observation to us, as people of faith?  When do we transition from learning to read, to reading to learn?  At what point, if ever, do we mature in our faith, in our belief in a Creator God?

All around us are words, whether signed, written, or spoken.  From the beginning to the end of the Bible, words play a key role.  God speaks the heavens and the earth into existence: “God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light…”  The prophets prefaced their oracles by saying, “This is the word of the Lord.”  And no less than the writer of the Gospel of John begins his narrative with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” 

Looking beyond Holy Writ, we know from experience that words are powerful. Words can create, and they can destroy.  When a couple stands in the presence of God and family and friends and pledges to love each other and be faithful, their words summon a new world into being.  Just as surely, a whole world is destroyed when one in that couple says to the other, “I am leaving.”

Words can take on a life of their own.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”  When Mr. Jefferson wrote those words, which you recognize from our Declaration of Independence, “all men” was defined as “all free, white, male property owners above a certain age.”  However, his word accomplished more than he intended or could have imagined.  They served not only to sever the ties of the colonies with England, eventually they brought freedom to and set this country on the arduous and painful road towards equality for enslaved Africans and unrecognized women, as well.  Having learned to read, through our reading, we have brought and continue to bring new meanings to those words.

I shudder, then, when I encounter someone who tells me “not once has my faith in God been shaken.”  Or in a moment of hubris: “I know the word of God.”  I ask myself, surely that person has not taken a serious look at the words which Jesus of Nazareth spoke to the crowds and which are recorded for us in Holy Writ.  Even Jesus of Nazareth whom we call the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, had his moments of doubt, or at least the men who recorded our gospels teaches us that he did.

The word that Jesus laid before the larger circle of disciples did not leave unchallenged his closest circle, the Twelve, after many others in the larger discipleship had left because, in their words, “This is a hard saying: who can accept it?” (John 6.60) Namely, they could not accept the word that had been placed before them.  These are not casual observers, but people who had been very serious about Jesus.  Jesus had taught them, performed miracles in front of their eyes.  Still, they turned back.  For us as people of faith, this is both a warning and an assurance.

The warning is that just because we follow Jesus today, does not mean that our faith will not be challenged, this afternoon, tomorrow.  We will falter and doubt.  Challenge and doubt come with the territory of faith.  Jesus came into their world, and into our world, to turn things 180 degrees and to ground them firmly in God’s way.  The disciples, who turned back on that day so long ago, could not quite believe that Jesus was the one sent from God.  That word demanded too much of them. 

To our own standing as followers of the Christ, it is perhaps wise to recall, at least as John has written, that the Twelve, the core group, had also their doubts, such that Jesus’ question to the twelve was “Will you also go away?” (John 6.67).  Jesus’ words were just as new and difficult for them, but they stayed.  And Peter, normally the impetuous one, tells us by what he does not say, when, together with the Twelve, he was queried by Jesus.  No blustering, macho-macho man’s response do we hear from Peter.  “Oh, no problem, J.C.—we understand it all.  We’re staying because we have it all figured out.”  In fact, as later events would prove, they did not have it figured out. 

One can almost hear Peter take a deep breath.  Everyone else is going away. And we know from other gospel accounts, that Peter does later deny all affiliation with Jesus.  In today’s gospel, he simply describes the corner he is 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.” (John 6. 68-69)

Peter’s confession is made without bravado.  Who knows what went through Peter’s mind on that day in Capernaum.  Sufficient for us is that he stayed.  Sufficient is that he had doubts.  Sufficient is that he later denied Jesus.  For, this reassures us in our moments of doubt.  Peter’s confession is a mustard seed sort of faith.  Yet, it is a faith that does not swallow anything whole or believe everything taught in the name of Christ.   Peter had learned to read, i.e. to listen simply to Christ’s word, but he had set out on his journey of reading to learn, i.e. to grasping the meaning of words.

Some of us struggle with our faith; we wonder if it makes sense.  We get irritated with the Church because it is too tedious, too old-fashioned, too boring, too liberal, too secular, too anything other than what we want it to be, for our own comfort zone.  But, my sisters and brothers, that irritating word is all that we have received. 

In teaching his disciples (and us, by extension, to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” Jesus changed the relationship between humankind and God from one of estrangement to one of reconciliation.  Jesus’ words in the

Sermon on the Mount radically challenged the belief that life is about gaining, getting, and keeping.  In the face of his own death, Jesus demonstrated that real power is not in the hands of those who sit in judgment on the innocent and condemn them to death, but in the hands of those who can summon the power to forgive.  Jesus teaches us that meaningful life is found not in material security, but in risking everything for the sake of the gospel: “Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it….” (Mk 8.35)  That is a harsh saying. 

Peter showed wisdom in knowing that the answer to his inner longing for fulfillment was not in himself.   Like Peter and those remaining 11 disciples, we have options, too. 

Just as the twelve stayed that day and were led by Jesus to a whole new way of looking at and living life, we, despite our doubts in God and perhaps even whither our Church may lead us, are assured that, if we stay with Jesus and do not overlay his message of love and acceptance with our own requirements, his word gains in significance.  And as we develop our skills in reading, with the Bible as our witness, we know, as Christians, that blind faith is not expected of us.  We know that we can call out to God and can argue with God.  This is really good news, our assurance in Christ in the face of doubt and confusion.  To whom shall we go? 

With Peter we can say, “Christ, I don’t understand you; I don’t even like you sometimes, maybe even most of the time, but you have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”  Is this but another way of transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn, namely, to be open to untold possibilities and ways of answering the call of God?  Amen