To Whom Can We Go?
Take a moment to think about your faith journey. If you want to, take a pen or one of the pencils in the pew racks and sketch it out roughly on your bulletin or one of the inserts. It’s a common metaphor to think about our faith lives as a journey. Where have there been twists and turns on your faith journey? Places where your faith and life took a turn that you never could have predicted. Where have there been uphill climbs when you seemed to be struggling with the sun in your face and downhill runs with the wind at your back? Where have there been crossroads where you had to make a choice? Do you go left or right? Do you forge ahead or turn back? Are there times in your life that you look back on and have come to understand that you were at a crossroads then? Even if you didn’t recognize it at the time?
For many of Jesus’ disciples in today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ words present a crossroads.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
For those of us who are regularly fed on the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation that is offered at the Lord’s Table, it might be hard to understand why Jesus’ disciples felt challenged by this teaching. But many of them seem to have heard it quite literally. “This teaching is difficult;” they said, “who can accept it?” So Jesus goes on to explain that he is speaking in spiritual terms: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.”
Like so many of us on our own faith journeys, Jesus’ disciples are at a crossroads. Do they go left or right? Do they forge ahead with Jesus and try to understand and live by this hard teaching? Or do they turn back, perhaps to follow another teacher, perhaps to follow no one at all, but make their way alone through the twists and turns, the hills and valleys, the forks and crossroads of life?
There always have been and there always will be crossroads in the lives of the people of God. From Eve, who chose to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, to Moses who said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up,” to Joshua who said to the Israelites as they entered the promised land, “Choose this day whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” When the Israelites are still on the borders of the promised land, Moses puts the choice ahead of them as a choice between life and death:
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God . . ., by loving . . . God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, . . . then you shall live . . ., and the Lord your God will bless you . . . . But if your heart turns away and you . . . bow down to other gods and serve them, . . . you shall perish . . . . I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)
I wonder if the disciples who turned back at Jesus’ words knew that Jesus was setting before them life and death? I think it can sometimes be hard for us to see—when we are in the thick of struggles or conflict or crisis—that we are at a crossroads and that the choices we make in the struggle can lead to fuller, more hopeful abundant life on the one hand or diminishment, cynicism, and bowing to the power of death on the other. Peter seems to have grasped that, because when Jesus asks the twelve if they too want to turn back, he replies, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” While other disciples turn back because they cannot understand the choice that Jesus sets before them, Peter sees that Jesus is offering his disciples life, a refuge, a sanctuary from the death-dealing forces of the world.
December 25, 1995, was a day that I never in a million years would have seen as a crossroads in my own life. But it turned out to be a very significant one. Chris and I were loading up the car with the presents and the food and the luggage that always resulted from our overnight stay at Mama and Daddy’s house for Christmas. On that day in ‘95, my brother, Bob, was there too. His marriage was ending and he was staying with Mama and Daddy. Our children, Stefan and Rachel, were 7 and 4. I was holding the door open for them with my hip while my arms were loaded down with bags. Bob was out in the shop, and I had a choice to make: Do I put everything down, let the door slam shut, go hug his neck, then pick everything up again? I stayed at the door, kept the bags in my arms, and yelled out, “Bye, Bob!” “Bye!” he yelled back.
That was the last time I ever saw him alive. He died in a car crash three days later.
That moment of internal debate, a split second, I remember still and will always remember. I still feel the bags in my arms. I still feel the pressure of the storm door against my hip. I still see the heads of my children bobbing past me as they filed out the door. I still see Chris loading up the car in the driveway. My own voice still rings in my ears, “Bye, Bob!” But I don’t have that last feel of Bob’s arms around me. I don’t have that memory of standing on tiptoes to reach around his neck. I don’t have that last look at his sweet, round face.
What I do have are memories of standing stunned at the sliding glass door, drinking coffee—which was about all I was capable of doing for months. I remember going back to work after the life-changing phone call, after the anxious drive to my parents’ house, after the funeral, and not being able to do my work, not being able to concentrate on the words on the computer screen. I remember bursting into tears for months afterwards. . . . And . . . I remember sitting in the office of my pastor, Tom Spence, telling him how much I felt like a target, how angry I was at God for taking my brother away from us, what an outrage it was to have his young life torn away.
Tom told me two things that helped to redirect my heart and thoughts from diminishment, cynicism, and the power of death toward a fuller, more hopeful abundant life. “Death is all around us,” Tom said, “the next time you go to the cemetery to visit Bob’s grave, notice how many tents are set up over fresh graves. Death happens every day.” The other thing he said was, “Read Romans 8:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. . . . Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:18, 35-39)
What Tom gave me that day was refuge in the words of eternal life offered in Scripture. In those months of grief and outrage and anger that followed my brother’s violent death, Tom offered me the words of life that lifted me up from despair and cynicism and death to hope and trust and life. On that Christmas afternoon, as I stood at the crossroads of my parents’ front door, I did not know that I would soon need a refuge from death, but I was so glad when Tom offered it to me in the words of Romans 8. Think back on your own faith journey. When were you offered refuge in the church or the community of faith or the words of God? Who was it that extended that refuge to you? How did you find the courage to reach out for life when death seemed to close in all around you?
I wonder how many people there are out there who need the kind of refuge that Christ’s words of eternal life offer? How many people need our help—just as I needed Tom’s help—to turn from despair, cynicism, and death to hope, trust, and life? Who needs a refuge from loneliness? A place of acceptance and love? A chance for the warmth of a friendly handshake or a welcoming smile? I think that there are many people out there who need that refuge, and need us to extend it.
“God is our refuge and strength,” the psalmist sings, “a very present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; 3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. 4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. 5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.”
Those of us who have taken refuge in the words of eternal life that Christ offers can also offer that refuge to others who need shelter from the powers of death in this world. And there are lots of ways that we can and do offer refuge: when we cook breakfast for the homeless of Durham, or set out food for those close by who do not have the courage or the means to access help from other quarters. When we welcome the children of this community and prepare them for school. I suspect that there are many more people who need that kind of refuge, and while I don’t yet know who they are or where they are, I do know that Jesus asks us—just as he asked his disciples—“ Do you also wish to go away?” or will you stay and offer the bread of life and the cup of salvation to those among us who hunger and thirst for the love of God? Christ sets before us today life and death, blessings and curses. Let us choose life, so that we and our descendants and others in our community who teeter on the brink despair, cynicism, and death may live in hope and trust.
Fir it is in the hope of eternal life that we raise our voices in praise of God, who never lies and who promised us life before the ages began! Amen.