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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 08/26/2012

The words are familiar, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  It’s what we say before the gospel is read most weeks of the year and this text today provides the context for those words because, as is the case with most of the liturgy, it’s all in the Bible somewhere.  Now when we make this acclamation each week it’s intended as a confident statement of faith as we stand and welcome Jesus into our gathering with the words of the gospel.  In the biblical context however, that confidence is less clear because we don’t really know what tone in intended.  Is it an expression of bold and confident faith on the part of Peter, or is it kind of a shrugged resignation, “I don’t really know who you are or what you’re talking about Lord, but what choice do I have?  It’s too late to stop now.” 

This conversation between Jesus and the disciples ends the bread of life discourse we’ve heard for the past five weeks and like the rest of the chapter, like much of John’s gospel actually, a lot of it is nice to listen to, quite poetic, but a lot of it is difficult too, vague and not so easy to figure out, downright confusing sometimes.   There is much to be interpreted but one thing that seems quite likely is that similar to many gospel texts, this one may tell us more about what was going on at the time it was written than it tells us about what was going on between Jesus and his disciples. 

The general consensus is that John is the latest of the gospels, not written until the year 90 or so, some 60 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, maybe 20 or 25 years after the other gospels.  In that amount of time a lot had happened among the followers of Jesus, a lot of reflection had taken place.  So, besides recounting and retelling some of the events of Jesus’ life, John’s gospel also represents significant interpretation about Jesus.  It gives us what many had come to believe about him, specifically that he was the bread of life, the Son of the God he called Father, that he was the Holy One of God as Peter says in this text today.  Those are all strong statements of faith and when the early church councils discussed and decided what constituted correct Christian belief, they drew heavily from statements like this from John; that’s why the tradition calls John “the theologian.” 

What the end of this chapter shows though, is that if Jesus was controversial while he was still around, some of the faith statements about him during the post-resurrection years were maybe even more controversial.  The indication we get from this text today is that at the time it was written, again, around the year 90 or so, even some who had been attracted to Jesus and the teachings about him and had followed for awhile were falling away because, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?”  As a result, what we apparently have described in John is a church in decline, people drifting away.  Does that sound familiar?  It’s something that we can certainly relate to and the reason for the decline wasn’t all that different then from what it is now.  For a skeptical world, the teachings about Jesus have always been difficult. 

Yet, some of us continue to say, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life,” but we could ask ourselves the same question we posed for Peter: is it a bold statement of faith on our part, or is it more a statement of resignation, of not knowing what else to do, or maybe it’s different on different days depending on how we feel.  In some ways it doesn’t matter because however we say it, it acknowledges that Jesus is at the center of our version of reality, a sub-version of reality as Walter Brueggemann calls it because faith in the God of the Bible, called YHWH, the Lord in the Old Testament and revealed in Jesus in the New, faith in this God is no longer the dominant version of reality; it is a sub-version. 

We live during a time when to view life without any reference whatsoever to God is perfectly credible, you know that.  You also know that there was a time when that wasn’t the case, belief in God was a given.  But now, to view life with God as the main character is seen by many as in-credible, something belonging to superstition of the past that we modern people should let go of.  We live in a rational world that demands the certainty of scientific proof which, regarding our faith, we can’t offer, so to say, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” or to make any other statement of faith is not as easy as it once was, in fact it can even be a little embarrassing.  It’s one of the reasons that many do turn away because the teaching is difficult, who can accept it?

Yet some of us do accept it.  We continue to say, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” because for us, the many other available alternatives don’t satisfy.  We want more than what a cold, unimaginative, matter of fact world can offer and we find that in the version of the world that Jesus offers.  It doesn’t mean we understand it all; it doesn’t mean we don’t have questions but somehow this character of Jesus draws us, his words, his teachings, the images of him as the bread of life, the good shepherd, living water, they comfort us, they compel us, sometimes they challenge us, but we keep coming back.  Lord, to whom shall we go?  With Jesus at the center, we imagine the world differently and we find that we can’t imagine the world without him at the center. 

In the years I’ve been doing this, in the years I’ve been a pastor, one of things I’ve heard many times from people going through difficult times is, “Pastor, I don’t know how people without faith deal with these things.”  It’s interesting too, because in many cases it’s been said when you could say that prayers haven’t been answered.  Someone has died or healing isn’t happening and doesn’t seem likely, things like that.  But it’s at those times that some people, in confidence or in resignation whatever it is, will say, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” 

For them Jesus is more than a superhero god who is at your beck and call just waiting to fix everything.  Sooner or later that Jesus will let you down because it’s not that simple.  The God of the Bible is not a vending machine where you put your request in, push the button and out comes what you’re looking for.  We think we’d like that, but I’m not so sure.  In any case, that’s not the God or the world we deal with.  Jesus came to this world, not some make believe, fantasy land world where nothing bad ever happens, nobody dies and everything works out just the way you want.  He came to this world and entered its reality, as messy as that can be.  He entered the brokenness and death of this world and by doing that, he changed it.  He brought life and hope to situations that seemed to be without it.

That’s a different version and different vision of life.  It doesn’t deny the reality of this world including the bad things that happen, but it’s a version, a sub-version that doesn’t end there but which always ends in hope.   And it’s hope that doesn’t lie in our ability to fix things, it lies in the resurrected Jesus who embodies new life and hope.  In and through the cross and resurrection, he has created a new reality and when we proclaim, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” it’s that resurrection reality and hope that we hang on to because the other possibilities, the other versions of reality, as seductive as they can be, all end not just in death, but in hopeless death.

“Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  We keep saying it, week after week and saying it is important.  Like I said last week, the words we say form us.  It’s an important reminder of our sub-version of reality, a reminder that another world is possible as we keep saying it and imagining it.  Saying it and imagining it we also enact it.  We are obedient to the words we proclaim, the words of Jesus.  We become people of hospitality, of sharing and giving, compassion and caring, of forgiveness and new opportunities.  It’s a sub-version, but it’s our version; more importantly it’s Jesus’ version, so we keep saying it, we keep living it.

Some will fall away and pursue other realities, they always have, some but not all.  So week after week we’ll still be here, announcing and living the reality revealed in Jesus.  Our numbers may not be huge but they’re enough.  We’ll still be here, because, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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