I want to point out something in this Gospel passage: people complain about Jesus. These crowds are following around this iterant preacher, who stops periodically and teaches them, and they don’t like what he is saying. One could stop and wonder why anyone wants to get into the business of being a Jesus follower, of proclaiming the gospel – clergy, lay leaders, missionaries – why do we bother at all? If people are complaining about Jesus himself, then there is really no chance that the rest of us are not going to take some heat too.
I think this has perhaps more to say to us than we may first realize. Let’s just start with the premise that accepting the teachings of Jesus is hard. It’s not just hard for the folks that decided they would complain about Jesus and leave. It is just plain hard. Because being Christian is in our cultural fabric, and expectation, and here we are at a church, it isn’t socially popular or normative to talk about how difficult it is. Following the Way of Jesus is in fact a hard row to hoe at this time in history and this place in the world.
Why is it important that we acknowledge this difficulty? First, I think it gives us space. We need a little breathing room. What we know is that when we don’t live up to the teachings, that there is grace. God’s grace is boundless, as boundless as God’s desire to be in relationship. That’s what it means when Jesus says his yoke is easy and burden is light – the same Jesus who knows it is hard, who calls us to take up our cross and follow. But there is this abundance of grace. When we stay studying scripture, listening to what God maybe is saying to us, wrestling with what is hard, we can instead find forgiveness and grace as well as strength in which to live out our Christian life with authenticity and our own grace.
Recognizing that the teachings are hard, then and now, also gives space to others. It is a common refrain in a shrinking church that we need to get more people in the pews. This concept of others includes those people who used to come to our church, and now don’t, and also the amorphous person who will just wander onto Vashon Island and wander into our church and behold us—-the enlightened, spiritually searching, but not scary Christians that we are, and they will want to join us. They will bring their checkbooks, and give generously, and all will be right with the world. And our friends who used to come, they will return; this may also include our relatives, our children, who came to church when they were little and now don’t. And so, both our church and the broader church in time will be filled with all those we love.
But things are shifting in our culture. Church attendance is shifting, maybe even the notion of church itself is shifting. So, I think we need to give not just ourselves, but all the others too, let’s give everybody a break. As much as the yoke is light, still following the way of Jesus is hard. The actual practice is light, the life that comes from it, but the will to follow, to move onto that road, is not easy. We aren’t better than the others we wish were with us. Because we come to church, we may just be more in the wrestling phase, as we try to stay in relationship with God, because the way of Jesus is a narrow road.
If we are to stay in relationship with God, what is required of us? The answer to this question can be myriad, but at least from today’s readings, at least three things are required.
The first thing is to recognize with Peter that Jesus is the Holy One of God, who has the words of eternal life. There is no place further to seek. Just like Peter, other than God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—there is no other answer to the question as “to whom can we go.” As in the Gospel of Mark, we are charged with going out into the world to make disciples. There is nothing else that makes an ounce of difference.
How do we take care of ourselves in order to do this? There is something to the Ephesians reading around putting on the armor of God. I probably don’t need to say that this is a metaphor that we can pretty easily translate to our own day and age. What would caring for yourself (putting on armor) and others look like, so that you are not entrapped in the daily ills that can bring you into a mire of a soul-diminishing existence? It sounds God-awful, and it is meant to be. If your existence is without God, without thought of God, that just might be God-awful. But existence that is life-giving and meaningful, this is one for which we put on the armor of God. So, the armor of light, the armor God in this age might consist of avoiding the political wars, participating in creation care, honoring, and loving our neighbor, and truly caring for the neighbor and what happens, not just throwing money at a problem. (Don’t get me wrong, money helps, but relationships with money help more, because it involves seeing the divine in the other, seeing Christ in the other.).
Although now made into plaques or embroidered on towels, this way of being in the world is the very essence of the quote, “but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Serving the Lord, is being drawn into a way of being. It is the hardest thing to do when the world around us seems hell-bent on going another way; but it is the easiest thing to do when we find the LIFE that comes with that service. May we resolve to do the hard thing of trusting God; trust too that grace will help us do it; and rejoice in the grace upon grace that we find in the embrace of his Love. Where else…to whom else…could we go?
Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18 Psalm 34:15-22 Ephesians 6:10-20 John 6:56-69