When I was growing up, I was among a group of fiercely loyal friends. I was the latecomer to the group, joining them in the seventh grade, so usually the outsider, but three of the founders of the group had known each other and been together since kindergarten. This fierce loyalty would be put the test, one day in Jr. High during lunch when a teacher would wrongly accuse us of throwing rocks into the big chilling tower for school HVAC, a serious accusation with serious consequences: destruction of school property, endangering others as the rocks would have been kicked back up flying towards other unsuspecting children enjoying their lunch break. Extra attention had been garnered when a few weeks prior somebody threw a large enough rock to disable to the system. Granted, that if our little group had actually been doing such a thing, we would deserve and expect punishment. But the truth is, we had not. Yes, we were standing nearby, but if any rocks where thrown, it was not by us. I maintain my innocence to this very day and yes even from this pulpit. Yet, two teachers grabbed the four of us by the shirt collars and dragged us to the principal’s office, completely oblivious to the charges against us. Once we arrived, the teachers told us they saw us throwing rocks into the AC system and asked, what did we have to say for ourselves. Shocked silence was all we could muster. Perhaps because we were in the weird position of having to call a teacher a liar in order to maintain our innocence, it was a horrible catch-22. But the silence only encouraged the teachers, as they took our tacit response as a sign of our guilt. They then wanted to get to the bottom of it, and each of us was taken into the principal’s office one by one where were interrogated. As each one entered the office, there was a moment of panicked eye contact between the gang, which said something like, “just tell the truth, maintain your innocence.” I suppose the fear was that the punishment was inevitable for the said crime and one of us may, in order to forgo punishment, throw the others under the bus. Each was brought out, after the interrogation to sit silently as the next was taken in. Fittingly, I was left to last. The looks I received on my promenade into the interrogation room, were ones of doubt, sure that I would somehow succumb to pressure since I was the newest to the group. They feared that I would tell the principal it wasn’t me, and then cast blame on them to avoid punishment. But, unbeknownst to my friends, I had my ace up my sleeve, I knew the principal, he went to my church, so when I was asked by the principal what I had to say for myself, I could say, Mr. Wade, you know me, I was in your Sunday school class, you know I wouldn’t do this. I am not sure what or who the teachers saw, but this is not true, maybe not an outright lie, but maybe a misunderstanding. To this day, I don’t know what I would have done if I had not known the principal, would I have said it was them, not me, just to get out of detention, or academic suspension. There is nothing like a Jr. High school moral quandary. I wonder if this is too often how we picture an accounting of our faith to look like: A trip to the principal’s office.
Today’s gospel reading is the last in a long series from John’s Bread of Life discourse that we’ve been hearing for over a month. It is a long passage that ends in disciple’s misunderstanding, and I guess in order to have it end on a nice verse with the disciples’ affirmation of Jesus as the “Holy One of God,” they leave off the last two verses that have Jesus predicting Judas’ betrayal. While I appreciate the lectionary framer’s desire to make things just a bit easier for us preachers, I wonder if they do us a disservice. The disciples’ stated certainty that he is the Holy One of God, together with the certainty of betrayal, is perhaps the crux of discipleship.
I suppose if I am honest, I must admit in my day to day life, I pick and choose my expression of faith in Christ. I pick and choose when to express my confidence and when to express my uncertainty. In a way, I pick and choose my loyalties, and more often than not, I fear I choose in my own self-interest. I appear confident when I am amongst others who express their confidence, and I express my doubts among the doubtful. Honestly, I am still that Jr. High Kid in the principal’s office ready to forgo the truth, so that I can avoid punishment or make friends. We assume that discipleship must be expressed in a way that proves our innocence. Like we’ve been dragged into the principal’s office and asked, what do you have to say for yourself.
But what if, instead, there is an in-between space, a space that opens us to new possibilities. Perhaps it is this space that John’s gospel holds up, a space that allows both confidence and questions, without insisting on all or nothing, a space that opens the possibility for dialogue. I wonder if this is where the real work of discipleship begins.[i] I don’t think discipleship is about saying the right things or even doing the right things, but about remaining in relationship with God and one another. If we look at the range of responses to Jesus’ offering of himself as true food, just within the verses we heard today we have complaining, disbelief, rejection, strident faith, and betrayal. That seems like a relatively full accounting of responses to the Christian proclamation. If you don’t believe me, imagine for a moment bringing Jesus up your next dinner party. I suspect most of these responses will be accounted for in one form or another. There will be the burned out Christian who has given up, the skeptic, the person who likes Jesus but can’t say much for the church. Perhaps rather than the faithful having to convince those in disbelief, or the complainers having to be silenced, or the betrayers having to be punished, we can open a place where this can all simply be heard. Maybe this is what abiding in Christ looks like.
Today, following the 10:30 services we will have our ministry festival. It is perhaps a partial inventory of ways to abide in Christ here at Good Shepherd. Whatever the activity, whether singing in the choir, or joining a bible study, or a guild, I hope that each of these is a place where we can hold the full range of responses to Jesus, listen to one another, and truly hear our stories. Even as someone painfully expresses their doubts, or their strident faith, or their anger, or their disappointment that we can walk with one another and abide in that space. Our Christian discipleship should never feel like a trip to the principal’s office, we should never be asked, what do you have to say for yourself, because if I am honest, depending on the day, and sometimes even on the same day, I am a complainer, a disbeliever, a rejecter, a devotee, and a betrayer. But here’s the good news and my hope, even if we do get dragged to the principal’s office, we will know the principal and the principal will know us.
[i] While John’s Gospel seems to revel in exclusivist ideals, there is high value placed on relationship. In part perhaps, this is due to the theological reflection of a community that suffered multiple schisms over varying claims about Jesus. While those that departed are often disparaged in John’s account, those who placed relationship over doctrinal difference were, even when “difficult,” held in high regard. See:
Lee, Dorthy Ann, “John.” Petersen, David L., and Beverly Roberts. Gaventa. The New Interpreters One-Volume Commentary on the Bible. Abingdon Press, 2010.