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14th Sunday after Pentecost __John 6:56-69 __ August 26, 2018
As I read today’s reading from the Old Testament book of Joshua I was intrigued and challenged by the question, what does it mean to choose God?
A woman by the name of Debbie Thomas who writes a blog I follow was from time to time, was reflecting on this question and she writes: ‘When I was a little girl, it meant walking down the aisle at the end of Sunday morning worship services, kneeling at the altar in tears, and asking Jesus to forgive my sins and come live in my heart as Lord and Savior.”
According to Ms. Thomas, this was a “choice: she made compulsively”. In fact, on the front page of her NIV Children’s Bible she documented the many times she decided to “get saved”. June 1, 1981, January 5, 1983, Easter Sunday 1988. Apparently some of the dates had been crossed out to signify that salvation didn’t “take” and required a do-over.
I can’t help but wonder if she ever got tired of all that relentless choosing? If she got tired of marching down the aisle Sunday after Sunday, consumed by guilt. Tired of wondering if her confessions were earnest enough to earn God’s favor. Tired of not knowing for sure if she was saved, once and for all. And perhaps more so, tired of feeling like so much depended upon her?
Within our Lutheran tradition we tend not to hear much talk of “choosing” or “deciding”.We tend to not use much decision theology talk. And yet, when the rubber hits the road, we all make choices, we all decide who we are going to follow, who we are going to serve and in whom we are going to place our trust.
I mention this because as both the Old Testament and the Gospel readings make clear, choices still matter. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua tells the Israelites as they present themselves before God at Shechem. Choose this day. Here. Now. And then in John’s Gospel reading, Jesus raises the question, “Do you also want to go away?” as they take offense at his teachings and abandon him.
I suppose we can’t blame the crowds getting bent out of shape, I mean with all of Jesus’ talk of extending forgiveness, caring for the widows, orphans and foreigners in our midst, praying for our enemies, selling our possessions and giving to the poor—these are not popular sentiments—either in Jesu’ day or in our day. And then you have all that talk of drinking his blood and eating his flesh, it does sound a bit creepy. And yet, this is the fork in the road. It is time to choose.In other words, these are passages about real choices. Real choices with real consequences.
What I find fascinating about today’s readings is how what’s at stake in these readings and the decisions and choices involved, is that is not the identity or eternal security of the choosers. Stick with me here…in the reading from Joshua, the Israelites are already chosen and already beloved of God. They have a long history with God—a history of deliverance from slavery, manna in the desert, and steady direction in the wilderness. Likewise, the people who abandoned Jesus are not starry-eyed newbies: John’s Gospel makes clear that they are already Christ’s “disciples.” He has fed them, taught them, healed them, and loved them.
No, what’s at stake is both stories is whether or not God’s already-beloved-and –rescued children will choose—hourly, daily, moment by moment—to life fully into who they already are. The daily “altar call” is a call to hold in tension two amazing and paradoxical truths:
One, that God has already chosen us.
And two, that we are therefore invited to choose (or not choose) God in return, not once or twice, but over and over and over again.
To trade one version of choice for the other is to diminish and distort the Gospel.
Here is another thing I find fascinating, neither Joshua nor Jesus takes pains in these readings to make choosing God easy. If anything, they make it harder. Joshua explains in no uncertain terms the fidelity, obedience, and tenacity a covenant relationship with God requires. “If you’d rather worship the idols of your ancestors, go for it,” he tells his listeners. It’s as if he is saying, “Because the life God calls you to is no joke, He means business.”
Likewise, Jesus doesn’t argue back or make excuses when his followers take offense and deem his teachings “too hard.” No, he never offers them “Christ Lite” or “Jesus for Dummies” instead. No, he lets them wander off with their questions unanswered and the doubts unresolved.
Why? Because he’s not so much user-friendly as he is unflinchingly honest. Yes, this teaching is hard. It’s also glorious, it’s also life-giving, it’s also blessed, but it’s hard.
So, once again, what does it mean to choose God? According to Jesus, it means “eating” his very essence, taking the Incarnation so deeply into our own bodies and souls that we exude the flavor of Christ to the world. It means doing what Jesus did and living as Jesus lived. It means turning the other cheek. It means loving our enemies. It means walking the extra mile. It means losing our lives in order to gain them. It means trusting that the first will be last and the last first. It means seeking God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. It means denying ourselves. It means the cross.
Let me be honest, I find it stunning that Jesus had any followers left after his hillside teaching seminar. Maybe the real miracle of the bread and fish story is not that Jesus fed five thousand people with a shore lunch of fish and bread, but that even a handful of those people stuck around when he was finished teaching! When I encounter Jesus’ question, “Do you also want to go away?” I sense Jesus being very vulnerable with this question. I imagine Jesus asking it sadly, but with his characteristic compassion and understanding. He knows full well what he’s asking of his followers, and he wants them to know that his love is a freeing love. They’re free to walk away.
And as I encounter the question, it makes me uncomfortable because, in the spirit of being vulnerable, the answer is “Yes!” Yes, I do want to go away sometimes. I want to quit. I want to be comfortable. I want to pick an easier, less demanding, less costly version of the Gospel. But here’s the deal: that version doesn’t exist. It just plain doesn’t.
And Peter rightly responds to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Honestly, I am comforted by the fact that even bold and impulsive and brash Peter doesn’t shout a Spirit filled “NO!” to Jesus question. He doesn’t say “yes” or “no”. He just responds, in perhaps classic Jewish fashion, with a question of his own. Not an enthusiastic, flattering question. A searching one. “Lord, what is the alternative? Your teachings are hard, but they have life in them, if you truly are who you say you are, why would we choose death when life is right here, in your words, in your body, in the strange food you are asking us to eat? You are Life itself. To whom else would we go?”
What does it mean to choose God? What has it mean to you in the past, and what does it mean now? It’s a question we must keep asking ourselves, because the choice never goes away. Those this day. And this day. And the day after that. Keep choosing, because God has chosen. He always and already chooses us. Now it’s our turn. Amen