Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.John 6:68
We Lutherans often sing these very words before hearing the gospel read: “Alleluia. Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia. Alleluia.” When we do, we are singing Simon Peter’s famous response to Jesus at the very end of today’s gospel reading.
We have spent the last five Sundays hearing from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, and now we have come to its dramatic end. Back when we began hearing from this chapter in our worship life together, most of us had not even heard of the Delta Variant of COVID-19. We had our masks tucked away in a drawer somewhere, hoping never to use them again. Back when we began hearing from this chapter, Afghanistan was not in the news, and was probably the least of our concerns. Haiti, too. We came here to worship and to hear the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, and went on our way rejoicing.
The world has changed, again, it seems in these five weeks. Pandemic worries have risen back to the surface of our lives, especially as school starts back. Wars and rumors of war have returned. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Fires. And on and on. It is difficult to make sense of it all, and to find hope in the midst of it.
But here we are. Because, for us, there is simply nowhere else to go. Just like Simon Peter, we have come to believe and know that Jesus is the Holy One of God. We trust that he has the words of eternal life. So we join Simon Peter, and countless generations of Christians, who have faced trials and tribulations beyond even our own, in coming to church, to worship, to pray, to be reminded of the source of our hope, and to receive once again the meal that offers us Jesus.
But before we get to that meal, let’s revisit John Chapter Six one last time, and see what the conclusion of this chapter means for us in the midst of this chaotic and stressful world.
Abide in Me
Today’s passage (John 6:56-69) opens up with Jesus telling his followers to abide in him. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” What does this mean? What does it mean to abide in Jesus? Well, the word can literally mean to remain, to endure, to stand by someone, or to stand fast. Jesus, in other words, wants us to stand fast, to remain in him, to stick with him, come what may.
But he doesn’t just tell us to abide in him. He tells us that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood abide in him. This might refer to Holy Communion, even though he says this long before the institution of the Lord’s Supper. I think that it certainly does refer to Holy Communion. But it also means, I think, that Jesus does not want us to simply abide in the idea of Jesus. It is not the idea of Jesus that saves us. It is his flesh and blood. It is the person of Jesus. He is the hope of the world, in flesh and blood.
There is no other hope. That is what we believe. Nor does there need to be. But we all need constant reminders of this, because it is human nature, at least since the fall, to turn to false hopes, to hopes that we can control. This is a constant theme throughout Scripture – God’s people trusting God for a while, then deciding they need something more concrete. So they put their trust in something – anything – that they can see and grab a hold of. Fruit that promises that when we eat it, we will be like God. A king who promises safety and prosperity. A rival god who is more popular with those around them. Warriors. And on and on.
Abide in me, Jesus says, then and now. Remain in me. Don’t turn to all of these false hopes. The true hope is right here, in flesh and blood. There is no other hope. Nor does there need to be.
This Teaching Is Difficult
This is true, but it can be difficult to believe, to accept, to abide in. It can be hard to remain in this hope and this truth. Which brings us to the part of this gospel reading where many people turn back and no longer follow Jesus. “This teaching is difficult,” they said. “Who can accept it?” Place our hope in this man standing before us? This man whose father and mother we know? We don’t see him overthrowing Rome. We don’t see him sitting on the king’s throne. We don’t see him changing our daily struggles. No, he may be able to offer us a free lunch, but he’s not worth giving our lives to.
It can be difficult to accept all of this, to believe all of this. And in the world today, I think that there is a whole new reason why this is difficult. Back a few generations ago, it simply wasn’t as difficult to believe in Jesus. Everyone you knew most likely believed in Jesus. They might not all be Lutheran, but they all went to church. They were all Christains. It was almost hard not to believe in Jesus.
That is not the case anymore. Many people around us are not Christians. They do not share our beliefs. And this makes it hard to believe that Jesus is the hope of the world, in part because it can make us seem arrogant or judgmental. Who are we to say that Jesus alone can save the world? Does that mean that we think our religion is right and everyone else’s is wrong? That doesn’t seem very nice, but how do we escape it?
A good example of this is found in a book I am currently reading, by a Catholic priest who wrote of his experience walking the camino de santiago in Spain (Kevin Codd, Beyond Even the Stars). He recounts a conversation along the route with some unchurched people who were very curious about what he was doing, and about his faith. After he shares a little of his faith in Jesus, they said to him:
So do you believe Jesus is a greater master than Buddha or Muhammad or other spiritual teachers?
I do. I am a Christian, which means that I believe that though there are other revealers and prophets, he is the most full revealer of God.
So you believe Christianity is better than other religions?
Yes. But “better” in the sense of a fuller picture of God, not in a moral sense.
Do you really believe that Jesus is divine?
So do you believe only Christians can be saved?
No, I believe that lots of people of many traditions can know much of God, and are good and holy people, probably holier than I am, and will certainly be welcomed by God into his eternal embrace; but, yes, I believe that those who know Jesus have the best picture of who God is.
But surely you understand that the belief that Jesus is divine is just a myth, a sort of fable, don’t you?
No, I see Jesus as real, as real as you or me, more real than you or me. Without him I cannot be me, my real me, my truest me.
He recounts this as an uncomfortable conversation, but not an unusual one. These kinds of conversations are taking place among Christians and their friends all the time. That is the world in which we live.
So, it is a challenge, for this and many other reasons, to believe that Jesus is our only hope, that it is to be found nowhere else but in the flesh and blood of the Son of God.
Many Turned Back
Given all of that, it might be good to remember the struggle that those who were literally following Jesus had in believing him, in putting their hope in him. In this gospel reading, for example, after Jesus told those who were following him that whoever eats him will live because of him, “many turned back and no longer went about with him.”
We might be surprised that they found it difficult. After all, they were literally with Jesus in the flesh and blood. God was among them, in the person of Jesus. The Savior of the world was right there, with them. Feeding them, healing them, teaching them. What an amazing opportunity they had! And they willingly gave it up.
We can wonder what we might have done. But, truth be told, don’t we often do the same? We may not have Jesus in the flesh and blood, but we have his words. We have the Bible. We have his invitation to pray. Every time we go without reading his word or conversing with him in prayer, aren’t we doing the same?
It’s never been easy to follow Jesus. It takes faith, and trust, and the willingness to remain with him, even when the going gets tough.
Do You Also Wish to Go Away?
Jesus responded to the people leaving him by turning to his apostles, and asking them, “Do you also wish to go away?”
Jesus is not going to insist that they follow him, that they remain with him. They are given a choice, and in fact, given a choice over and over again. And so are we. We have the choice, to remain with Jesus, or not. Everyone has that choice.
But is it really a choice for us? Don’t we feel the same way that Simon Peter felt? “Lord, to whom shall we go?” We know that there is nowhere else to turn to find hope in this life. We know that Jesus alone has the words of eternal life. He is the Holy One of God. No other. Just as Simon Peter said, and just as countless generations of Christians have said and believed, down through the centuries.
Each and every Sunday, we gather together to remember this, to remember the One who alone has the words of eternal life. In a world that surrounds us with words that often bring anxiety, division, and even despair; words that threaten, intimidate, and cannot always be trusted, we are here to receive the priceless blessing of hearing the words of eternal life. There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole, there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul. This balm has a name, and his name is Jesus. Those who abide in him have hope and life eternal, always.
Shortly, we will come forward to receive Jesus, in the bread and wine of holy communion. We will place our hands out because we have come to believe and know that Jesus is the Holy One of God. We receive this bread from heaven, and eat it, to abide with Jesus. We eat this bread and drink this wine simply because we believe Jesus when he says that those who do this abide in him, and he in them.
And do this with the prayer that Jesus will abide in us, as we abide in him. That he will remain with us, stand fast with us, and help us to never forget that he alone has the words of eternal life. Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the Word of Eternal Life. Thanks be to God. Amen.