Sermon – August 23, 2015 – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

John 6:56-69

“Lord, to whom shall we go.”
One of my friends grew up in a church but stopped attending once she reached her teens—a common phenomenon that I suppose many of us could relate to.  She continued to live her life sans religion well into her young adult years until one day she found herself driving by a church with an uncontrollable urge to go inside and pray.  At that time in her life she was feeling pretty low. Her life was messy.  She was in an abusive relationship that she wasn’t sure how to get out of, struggling with anxiety and depression, had recently lost a family member and didn’t where she could go to escape.  Something inside her drew her into the random church she happened to be driving by.  She stumbled into the dark sanctuary, fell onto her knees and prayed, “Lord, to whom shall I go.”
There is a study that was recently published on religion and happiness.  The results of the study suggested that being a part of a faith community leads to sustained happiness more than participating in any other social organization.  At it’s conclusion the study seemed to suggest that while happiness can to be found in participating in any social group it is often short lived, leading to a sense of futility and lack of meaning.
I found this study to be curious because so often our most meaningful experiences in church community happen when we are not happy.  Often times we are lead back through the church doors when we are feeling at our most vulnerable, downtrodden, and weak—when our lives seem just a bit too messy and we find ourselves on our knees asking “Lord, to whom shall we go?”  Our lives are not a linear projection towards happiness so why would church community be the same?
Instead, I wonder if what we long for when we walk through those church doors is not to experience eternal happiness but to experience a place where we will be eternally embraced; A place where relationship with God and with others is enduring; a space we can return to again and again where we are met by God amidst a life that is often unsatisfying.
“Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”
This is Peter’s plea to Jesus but if you remember the past five weeks of gospel readings, it’s taken him a lot to get to this place.   I envision this proclamation of Peter to be almost like a deep plea within a sigh of desperation— Lord… to whom shall we go?!  Yet, Peter’s desperate plea is also a statement of belief.  In the midst of Peter’s deep sigh he makes a bold statement about who Jesus is…”You have the words of eternal life.”  It’s as if he is saying, “Lord, I’m tired and I can’t do this on my own anymore….I need you.”  And it’s in Peter’s expression of need that his belief is found.  Peter doesn’t come to believe because he has it all figured out or because this path of following Jesus is leading him to eternal happiness.  No, Peter’s belief is coexistant with questioning, exhaustion, maybe even doubt.
At this point, Peter and his fellow disciples have been following Jesus for sometime now and I can’t help but wonder if they were collectively considering whether all of this following of Jesus was perhaps a bit futile.  The gospel story for today authentically reveals the very real struggles and self-questioning that many of the first followers of Jesus experienced.  There comes a point in the story where some of the disciples cannot follow any longer.  Some of these followers wanted to believe, some had tried to believe…perhaps some were simply tired of going through the motions of belief and some simply couldn’t believe any longer.
The gospel story tells us that Jesus’ teaching had gotten a little too difficult and many turned back and no longer wanted to follow him.  Jesus’ teaching was not meeting their expectations—perhaps following Jesus was getting a bit too messy.  After all, Jesus’ teachings these past few weeks had gotten a bit weird with all of this talk about eating, and flesh, and blood—very bodily things—and if there is anything we humans like to deny the most it’s probably our messy, bodily selves.  I imagine this teaching would be particularly difficult for a 1st century single, religious male whose life revolved around cleansing, purity, and ritualizing the body in order to be acceptable in God’s eyes.  Again and again Jesus says “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them, they will have eternal life” and I can’t help but picture some of these followers saying, “alright, Jesus, this teaching is not what I was expecting—it’s a bit too much for me… I’m out!”  In this worldview based on ritual purity and the cleanliness of one’s soul, indeed, messy was offensive.
There is human truth in these disciples’ offense.  Messy is uncomfortable.  It takes a lot of courage to confront the parts of our lives that do not fit into nice, neat packages.  Messy is vulnerable.  It takes courage to walk around in human flesh with just a thin layer of derma to protect the very parts of ourselves that give life.  It doesn’t make sense that the creator of the universe would want to get involved with this.  But love, after all, doesn’t often make sense.
In Jesus, God chooses to take on the messy parts of ourselves, feels life in human skin, and embraces us.  This all too real, raw, down to the bone embodied God is about relationship.  Jesus says whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in them.  The very word, abide, insinuates a level of acceptance.  In the Greek: an enduring and intimately personal communion.  To abide is to take on the very messy parts of another, to meet them where they are, and to never leave.  This is what Jesus’ offers his followers.  In this holy communion our lives are intimately entwined with that of the divine and there is a part of the divine within each of us that will never leave.
There will be times when our lives are at their very messiest and we might feel like we are out of places to go.  There will be times when we all stumble into church on our knees pleading, “Lord, to whom shall we go.”  There are times when just walking into church is the greatest statement of belief that we can make.  Even when we show up in our full messy selves, we are met by the full presence of Christ.  Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  You have the words of eternal life.  These words will cut to your soul, radiate deep into your bones but they will also sustain you, allow you to put one foot in front of another, for just one more day.
And so we come to church not to pretend that messy lives don’t exist or to take away our messiness, but to be loved and embraced in spite of it.   It is here that our fleshiness is met by the fleshiness of Christ, sometimes in the form of bread and wine, other times in the form of our neighbor who embraces us and asks simply, “how are you doing?”  Here, we take, and eat, and laugh, and cry, and hug, sigh, and plea, and are sustained for just one more day.  Where else would we go?