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Not Going Anywhere

Proper 16B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Because of the flesh and blood, many disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.  So, Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ (John 6:66-67). It all could have ended right there. It was coming down to brass tax. They’ve reached a fork in the road. The cross looms over this reading from the background, more threat than promise. Following Jesus was becoming a profound risk to life and treasure. At some time or another, or perhaps many times over throughout our lives we’ve faced the same question. What keeps us coming back?

Simon Peter’s words, so often filled with bluster and over-confidence, here sound almost melancholy. They echo through the generations in our liturgy and in our hearts.  “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Peter knows where he belongs and because of that, he wasn’t going anywhere that wasn’t at Jesus’ side.

It’s interesting to me that at this critical moment, Jesus didn’t try to lay down the law. He didn’t hand them a set of rules. He didn’t insist they accept a morality code or systematic theology. He just invites us to follow him.  He pushes his learners to think beyond compliance with authority into a much harder space of morality –to be loved and therefore to become love; to accept grace and strive to be graceful; to receive hate and return mercy; to partake of the flesh and blood and become enfleshed (or incarnate) in the One Life; to live and walk the way of the cross.

How is this possible?  Not by our own power or will but by embracing our savior as one whom we love and in whom we have faith as Peter did. This is what it means to be Christian: that you have looked upon Jesus and seen some glimpse of the creator in whose image you were created.  Such love is a mystery. We can crave it, or we can claim it, but never control it. Yet, who would deny its power to change us or to shape events in the world?

Lutheran pastor and writer, Walter Wangerin, wrote about finding his son with a pile of stolen comic books, not once, but three times. Obviously, his approach to discipline wasn’t working. So, after the third time, he told his son he was going to spank him—not a common practice in the Wangerin household.  Five spanks later, his head hanging in shame, the boy was holding back tears.  The father excused himself, stepped out of the room and sobbed.

Years later the son and his mother were reminiscing about those days.  “After the incident with Dad, I never stole anything again,” he said.  “I’m sure that spanking cured you,” his mother said. “Oh no,” he replied, “it was because when Dad stepped out of the room I could hear him crying.”  (Heidi Husted, The Christian Century, August 2-9, 2000, p. 791)

Love is a more powerful motivator than fear or the threat of violence. We live every moment encircled in God’s love, who like a loving parent broods over us, counsels us and teaches us, and yes—who occasionally cries over us. This is why we’re here and, like Peter, we’re not going anywhere.

From time to time, I do marriage counseling.  One of the things I am sure to say to each couple is I don’t have the power to marry them.  The marriage covenant is built on something far more substantial than anything I say during the course of the wedding.

Marriage isn’t something transacted between the pastor and the couple. It is something that happened between them, hopefully, long before their wedding day. Possibly not at the same moment, probably not at the proposal, perhaps without words, each of them crossed a line within themselves –this person is different, this person I cherish without condition, regardless of the cost, in loyalty to their greater good even at the expense of my own. That is the bedrock upon which new families can be confidently made and through which our lives may find a higher purpose in the vow: I will not leave you.  In marriage, we pledge ourselves to love one person in the complete and unconditional way God loves us all. I don’t have to tell you, how poorly we all manage to do this—but also how bravely, and how well.  We are joined by God in every effort to better love our families and friends.

Love is glorious, and it is also a hard road. When the disciples turned away because his teaching was “too hard,” Jesus didn’t chase after them or make excuses. He never offers them “Christ Lite” or “Jesus for Dummies.” No, he let them wander off with their questions unanswered and their doubts unresolved. Yes, this teaching is hard.  It’s also life-giving, it’s also blessed, but it’s hard.

Jesus wants us to participate in transformation, beginning with ourselves. Who wants that? Such a transformation is too costly. Why can’t Jesus just do the good work in the world while we watch?  The difference is between watching those in love and actually being in love. To follow Jesus is to give yourself over to falling in love.

“Follow Jesus 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” (Debie Thomas, Choose This Day, Journey with Jesus, 8/19/18). It means following the cross because of the promise it offers and looking past the threat. It means we’re not going anywhere that isn’t at Jesus’ side.

In Celtic tradition, pilgrims drew a circle around themselves before embarking on a journey.  While standing still, they used their index finger to draw an imaginary circle around themselves in a clockwise direction while praying.

This way of practicing incarnation was called the caim (or the encircling).  It reminded travelers that God surrounded them wherever they went. A Celtic prayer of encircling attributed to St. Patrick is a beautiful statement of incarnation:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in the mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity.  Amen.

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