August 24, 2009

Sermon for Proper 16, Year B

Knowing that the crowd was grumbling against him, Jesus turned and said, "Oh really? You're offended by what I have to say? Just wait. Just wait until this time next year when you see me, the Son of Man, being lifted high above the earth, on a cross, having been whipped and beaten and marched naked through the streets. The Spirit is what gives life. Human effort accomplishes nothing. I'm telling you the stuff of the Spirit, life giving stuff, real stuff. And yet. And yet there are still many among you who do not believe, who can not, who will not trust me when I say that the Kingdom of God is near."

With those words, as John tells it, Jesus cut his following in the Synagogue at Capernaum from some five thousand plus to twelve. Sure, over the next 12 months some will return. Some, like Nicodemus, will see that the Spirit does indeed give life that is eternal, that is so much better than this life, new life that can begin right now. But the damage is done in this moment. A year from now that group of twelve will dwindle to one, as the disciple whom Jesus loved will be the only brave soul standing next to Mary at the foot of Jesus' cross.

Thousands walked away because Jesus' teaching was hard to accept. But the life he called his disciples to was about to get down-right dangerous. You can't call yourself the bread of life, the very life and mind of God that came down to earth and think you'll survive. You just can't talk that way, especially when the powers that be have the corner on that market. Set yourself up as the Son of God over and above Caesar, the Roman Son of God, and see where it gets you. Nailed to a cross, thats where.

Two thousand years later, the pendulum has swung away from danger, but listen to the rhetoric of Christians these days and you'll soon see that the offense remains. If our five week journey through the sixth chapter of John's Gospel has taught us anything, I believe it has proved to us that Jesus is an equal opportunity offender. We began with the story of the feeding of the 5000 where Jesus fed indiscriminately. He fed everybody on that grassy hillside, not matter if they bought into his message or not, no matter if they repented from their sinfulness or not, no matter if they deserved it or not. This kind of behavior tends to offend us because we want Jesus to set boundaries. We want clear lines around whose in and whose out. When he hands out bread and fish to everybody, without question, we get offended. Jesus, I did it the right way, feed me, not them.

The very next day, after Jesus has stolen away from the crowd before being crowned king, after Jesus has walked across the Sea of Galilee, after the exuberant crowd has chased him down at the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus offends us again by claiming that it is only by the invitation of the Father that people will come to know him. "The flesh is useless," Jesus says, "no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father." But what about me, the self-actualized human being? Surely I can do the right works or say the right things or give the right gift and get myself into this eternal life thing. I don't need anyone to tell me how to live my life, how to spend my money, how to treat my neighbors. Thank you, but no, I've got it handled.

Jesus offends everyone, even to this day because he doesn't fit into the box we've created for him. Some of us want Jesus to let us in and keep those that are different out. But he feeds everyone. Others want the door to be wide open so everyone can come, any which way, to eternal life. But Jesus says, nope, you gotta come by way of the Father.

The Father invites us all into relationship with him. His love for us is so abundant that he's done everything in his power to call us back into his fold. But he won't force it on us. He lays the offer at our feet, but we've got to pick it up, make sense of it, and accept it. "All of us have been chosen by Jesus, and we are with him by his choice, not ours. Yet belief and unbelief both remain realities [be it in the synagogue at Capernaum or the Nave of St. Paul's in Foley]. So it is, and so it has been from the beginning. Jesus has chosen us, but we are free - free to be with him or leave him. Jesus will never cast out any who come to him. But neither will he cajole, persuade, or bribe anyone to remain. His company will therefore always include those who do not believe and who will in the end betray. To believe, therefore, is to have been brought to the place were one knows that one has to rely completely on Jesus, and on Jesus alone." (paraphrase of Newbigin, The Light Has Come, 90).

In just a few minutes we will stand up and together recite the Nicene Creed. We do so, I hope, with the thought in our mind that we are doing what Jesus called us to do, to believe. We begin each section by saying so, "We believe in one God... We believe in one Lord... We believe in the Holy Spirit..." But, what is the motivation. Does our belief mean the modernist "I hereby agree to the literal-factual truth of the following statements"? Or does our belief mean the ancient "I give my heart to, I commit my loyalty to I trust in"?

The challenge that I think we receive from Jesus this morning is not whether or not we can sign a statement of faith that says, "yes, I believe in the literal truth of all these facts," but rather, Jesus is asking us for our hearts, for our commitment, for our trust. That's what was so hard for the crowd in Capernaum. Jesus wanted everything from them, and they weren't prepared to give it. Are you prepared to give Jesus everything? Does your belief in him mean that you rely solely on his provision? Or have you held something back? Would you rather just accept some propositions about Jesus instead of placing your whole life in his hands?

Belief is not a once and done thing, but a complete lifestyle renovation. For me, it means that every morning, and several times throughout the day (or several hundred times throughout the day), I have to reaffirm that I choose Jesus. Not money. Not pride.. Not my own self-interests. Jesus. By the grace of God, I choose Jesus.

Jesus turned the twelve and said, "Now's your chance. You can get out now, if that's what you'd like." Peter, on behalf of the group, and I hope on behalf of us responds, "where else would we go? We trust your promise of life eternal. We pledge our allegiance to you, the Holy one of God. We're all in."

Does Peter speak for you this morning? Have you pledged your allegiance to the Kingdom of God today? Have you made your personal commitment to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? If not, that's OK, because you're about to get yet another chance to stand and say, "Yes Lord, I believe."

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