Sermon for Proper 16, Year B
August 22, 2021
Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18 Psalm 34:15-22 Ephesians 6:10-20 John 6:56-69
For the past three Sunday’s our gospel reading has been of Jesus telling his disciples he is the bread of life – and they have been having trouble understanding what he is teaching them. So much so, that in today’s lesson many of them turn back and no longer follow him. Jesus asks the twelve apostles, “Do you also wish to go away?”
Sometimes I can identify with the disciples who turn away. So many of the biblical stories are difficult and hard to understand and make me want to turn away from what they seem to teach us – especially some of the stories in the Old Testament. They present an image of God that I don’t understand, don’t like, and don’t believe. Here, however, the people say, “this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Try as he might to explain it to the people, they turn away and no longer follow him.
Jesus explains that, “It is the spirit that gives life,” going so far as to say “the flesh is useless.” He says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Then he addresses the people that do not believe, saying, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” I confess I too have trouble with this. I have no problem acknowledging that it is the spirit that gives meaning to life. Yet, I don’t understand what Jesus means when he says our belief in him as the Messiah is granted by God the Father?
Peter speaks first when Jesus asks, “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.” The first part of his response, “to whom can we go?” seems to say he, too, is struggling a bit with what Jesus is teaching. Yet, as he continues it becomes clear that his faith in Christ is not based on his understanding of everything Jesus teaches, but his belief, and what he knows about Jesus comes from having been his follower.
The disciples that turn away were, more than likely, people who had not followed him for long. They probably knew more about him from the stories they had been told than what they had personally witnessed. All we have to do is read posts on Facebook to know that what they had heard about Jesus was taunted by the teller’s opinion of what they had heard.
What Peter says, though, is what is important, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Whatever doubts and confusion we might experience in reading the scriptures are not as important as what we have come to understand by following the way of love that Jesus teaches. Parents know that our example teaches more than our words – and Jesus teaches us to love, he teaches us that love is expressed in many ways and is the fruit of the spirit. It is in the spirit that we find true meaning in our lives.
In the Episcopal Church we sometimes speak of the “mystery of faith,” as a way of acknowledging that there is more to God that we imagine – and for me this passage is one that includes some of what I can understand and some of what I cannot. What is important is that I acknowledge this and continue to follow Jesus.
In our other readings, we hear of the importance of our faith. In Joshua, the people of Israel are gathered and asked to put away the false gods their ancestors served in Egypt and fully commit to serving the Lord who led them out of slavery. The people respond:
“Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 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. He protected us along all 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 lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
People serve many false gods, such as the god of power, the god of wealth, and the god of pleasure. In the gospel, the people are given a choice and many turn away from Jesus who is the God of true life.
In Ephesians, Paul tells us to “be strong in the Lord, in the strength of his power.” He uses the analogy of putting on armor to withstand the temptations of evil, and then calls upon us to “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.” And he urges us to “keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.”
The disciples who turned back, turned back because they failed to persevere and they failed to see the big picture. They focused on what they could not understand rather than all they could know in their hearts from what Jesus had revealed to us in his ministry. God’s love for us is immeasurable and meaning is not found in the flesh but in the spirit. This is not to say that the flesh is evil. God’s love may be found in the flesh, but what gives our lives meaning is found in the spirit.
Thus, our scriptures today speak of faith and its importance, of God’s love and of the life Jesus offers. Accepting the mysteries, accepting on faith God’s love, enables us to experience the true life found in the spirit.
Let us pray.
God and Father of all, we give you thanks for sending you son to us to offer us the bread of life. Fill us with your spirit that our lives might have meaning. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.