Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 22, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

(1 Kings 8: [1,6,10-11], 22-30,41-43)+Psalm 84+Ephesians 6:10-20+John 6:59-69

I don’t remember much from 7th grade biology. I think that was the year we studied the human body and all its magical capabilities, reproduction and all that fun stuff. That year also included the digestive system and how that all works. I remember enough about that to know that the food we ingest is broken down into tiny parts and the nutrients are delivered where our bodies need them through the circulatory system. This system of organs and glands is quite efficient at absorbing everything we need to keep our bodies nourished. We are – in a very real sense – what we eat.

I’m not sure how much understanding Jesus or his followers had about such things, but the point Jesus is making to them is very similar to this. When we receive and take in this body of Christ, the bread of heaven, this is what we become. Through the sacrament, Christ lives within us in a very real and particular way, and then we are sent into the world carrying this life within us. Maybe this small wafer or bit of bread won’t sustain our bodies physically, but what it does for us spiritually is indescribably powerful.

As we have learned over the past several weeks in the readings from the 6th chapter of John, the people around Jesus were completely confused with all his talk of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (John 6:60). It is difficult, even for us. Yet Jesus is not asking us to understand it; he’s asking us to believe it. And if we can’t fully believe what we don’t understand, maybe we can just live as if we do until we do. Some might call that “fake it ‘til you make it.” I call it following Jesus.

A lot of people would have you understand Christianity as adhering to all the right rules and believing all the right things and embracing everything that the bible says, and then when we can’t do all those things, we think we’ve failed and God doesn’t love us and we’re going to burn in hell, or something like that. This is a narrative that tells you that you have to earn your way into God’s love and forgiveness, and that, my friends, is the first and greatest heresy. You cannot earn what is already yours; you can only receive it. Do I understand it? No, but I receive it over and over again because I stand in need of God’s love and mercy again and again. It’s called being human.

John tells us that there were many among the followers who fell away, who could not accept what Jesus was saying. When Jesus looks around and sees that it is just the disciples who remain, he asks if they, too, are going to leave. This feels like a very human moment, still early in Jesus’s ministry, when it feels like a real possibility that he will be left all alone, that he will fail. And while we all know that eventually the Twelve do fall away and he is left alone, bleeding and suffering on a cross, here in Capernaum, Peter speaks up for all of them.

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (6:60)

Peter doesn’t speak some affirmation of belief or issue a memorandum of understanding as it pertains to the Body of Christ in the first part and the Blood of Christ in the second part.

No, Peter has experienced Jesus and the reign of God that he brings, and he throws everything on the table. You’re the one. Where else would we turn?

These are the words of someone for whom there are no options or alternatives, no safety net, no bright future.

Much like the people of Afghanistan and Haiti, there is a note of desperation in Peter’s voice: if you aren’t the one, then we are lost. If you can’t help us, what are we to do? Where are we to go?

I’ve often bristled at the militaristic imagery in this reading from Ephesians where we are told to put on the whole armor of God (6:10-20), taking up a sword and a helmet and a shield. But I think that in some places around the world, what people need is a God who is going to protect them, that will be a warrior on their behalf. Afghan and Haitian Christians would probably like to know that someone is looking out for them.

But this armor is not the kind used in war. It’s armor that includes faith and truth and righteousness along with the word of God. If we are armed with these things, we can withstand whatever the world throws at us. That might not mean we will never be physically harmed. The world doesn’t work that way, and we certainly know that grievous physical harm is happening to the people of Haiti and Afghanistan and other places in the world. But Jesus tells us that it isn’t the body that concerns him so much as it is the spirit that gives us life.

I don’t think this means he doesn’t care what happens to us. I don’t believe that at all. But if we are so concerned with ourselves and our own protection, we are not going to be willing to risk it all for the reign of God that Jesus proclaims. The promise of eternal life is not just something that happens after we die – it is here and now, living fully in a life that is self-giving and self-sacrificing for the love of God and neighbor.           

These are hard teachings. But my question is the same as Peter’s: to whom would we go? Shall we trust in our own devices? In the powers and principalities of the world? No. Jesus has the words of eternal life. Take and eat and live into that promise.

ASEPSermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 22, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas