Come Holy Spirit, and enkindle in the hearts of your faithful, the fire of your Love. Amen.
We have now spent five consecutive Sundays in this sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, and, as you may remember, the chapter opens with “a large crowd”[i] witnessing Jesus’ healing of the sick. This crowd follows him around the Sea of Galilee, and, when suppertime approaches, Jesus takes the meager five loaves and two fish his company have, gives thanks, and everyone eats as much as they want. After this feeding miracle, the people want to make Jesus a king, so he hides in the mountain by himself, commending his disciples to cross the Sea in a boat without him. However, when a strong wind begins to blow and frightens them, Jesus walks on the water to his friends, and, together, they reach the other shore.
The crowds then awake and realize that Jesus and his disciples have crossed the sea without them, and so they follow, still seeking to crown Jesus. When they reach him, however, he chastises them, saying in effect, “You want to make me king only because I fed you bread and fish … Do not work for the bread that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life …”[ii]
Following his several reiterations of this bread-of-life metaphor, we reach the end of the chapter. As Jesus concludes his soliloquy in this morning’s appointment, his audience now comprises, in concentric circles of intimacy: the small group we know by name and to whom John refers as “the twelve;” the larger cohort John identifies as “the disciples;” and then, even larger still, the spectators to the show, those who John more generically calls “the crowds” – again, from the center, out: the twelve … the disciples … the crowds.
Now hear this concluding exchange, keeping in mind those different groups and their differing relationships with Jesus:
When many of [Jesus’] disciples heard [what he taught the crowds], they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’
But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you?’ … Because of this[,] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.
So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’[iii]
Jesus identifies the disciples – his friends who have personally and intimately witnessed both the feeding of the five thousand and his walking on the water – as the grousers. Despite the miracles, they declare Jesus’ teaching too difficult, and they allow the magnetism of the crowd outside of them to pull at their priorities, to overpower Jesus’ invitation to move closer to the center, toward the very heart of God. They abandon their friend, and their desertion stings, so much so that Jesus asks the twelve, those he sets apart before all others: “Do you also wish to go away?” Will you, too, choose the world instead?
Simon Peter answers Jesus, “Lord, to whom can we go?” … to whom can we go?[iv]
Let us set ourselves in this moment of the story and ask one another, “To whom do we go?” That is, the twelve who stay with Jesus affirm the work and word of their teacher by their presence: as they have been blessed by their time with him, they then respond by offering Jesus their blessing by staying at his side. And that’s how it works, right? We bless by our associations, and we express our values with our presence, our participation, and our patronage.
In an early scene of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, the protagonist, Binx Bolling, returns to his home, only to find himself in the thick of an existential crisis, as a newcomer to his own life. In an attempt to answer that nagging question, “Who am I?” he surveys his domestic environs the way a stranger would, studying its details to discern what kind of person might live there. Entering his bedroom, he notices a collection of accumulated pocket detritus – receipts, coins, paperclips, buttons – and like a television investigator, he takes a pen from his pocket and roots around the pile, studying each wisp of lent as evidence, as a possible clue to his own identity.
In the spirit of Binx, I invite you to join me in a spiritual exercise, and, to do so, I invite you first to take a deep breath and to get comfortable. I invite you to clear your mind, and, if helpful, to close your eyes as I invite you to imagine returning to your home, not as you customarily would, but as a stranger looking to discover who lives at your address. Holding a housekey, walk with me to your stoop, through all its familiar sights and sounds and smells.
Unlock the door and pressing its lever or twisting its knob, open the door and walk inside. What do you hear? Does a dog’s excited whimper greet you? A cat’s meow? A toddler’s cry? …
Pause and look around … to your left … to your right … on the far wall before you: what do you see: mirrors? Art? Photographs? What kind of art? Who smiles back at you in the photos? Or do they smile? … Are there bookshelves? What kind of books do you see?
Taking slow steps further inside, what catches your attention: the furniture? A rug? A wine glass left on the coffee table? What knick-knacks do you notice? …
Now imagine that a credit card statement and a pocket calendar have been left open on the kitchen counter. You pull a pair of gloves from your pocket and, fitting them on your hands, you lift these documents, holding each one to the light to study their colors, their textures, before reviewing its charges and appointments: What do you read? Yoga studios? Sushi restaurants? Doctor’s offices? Starbucks? Spec’s? What do you not read? That is, what is conspicuously missing in the statement? On the calendar?
Now, setting the these back on the counter, I invite you to take another deep breath and to come back to the Parish Life Center and hear Binx asking, “Who am I?” Hear, too, Simon Peter ask, To whom would we go?
The disciples allow the momentum and magnetism of the larger, less-committed crowd to define their experience with Jesus. By their association, they bless the deserters and the complainers. Though Jesus offers them eternal life, they cozy to the larger group and bless cynicism, instead.
We, too, give our blessing without thinking: to the first program Netflix tells us we want to see; to the demands at work that we can’t seem to winnow; to others’ expectations of ourselves and our families. Life is so busy that curating the “meaning” of everything we do or buy is too exhausting. World-weary, we go with the flow, blessing what our immediate momentums and magnetisms bless, regardless of what we might, more thoughtfully, choose or hope.
The simple exercise of “visiting myself” helps me to recognize these influences in my life, those forces I do not initiate, but to which I allow myself to become subject. From my expense records to my time logs, an objective study of my commitments challenges me to reconcile the points of disconnection between my values and my actions. However, solving Binx Bolling’s existential dilemma by redecorating every detail of my house will likely subject me to more, not less of these pressures. Rather, Simon Peter’s rhetorical question points us to a healthier solution. That is, considering more carefully “to whom we go” promises to deliver greater consistency between our ideals and our actions.
While I suspect all of us could – righteously – voice the dangers of peer-pressure, the communities we claim (and who claim us) can also have a positive influence on our life. My grandfather intended as much when he would share with me, “Morgan, you won’t soar with the eagles as long as you run with the turkeys.” He might have added, “And, if you do fly with the eagles, you might be surprised by how high you can soar.”
After church today, we will process from here in the PLC, downstairs to our annual “Ministry Festival,” this year in the Parking Garage (and some good news to woo you if you’re not yet convinced that you should attend: the other service will likely take longer than ours, so we will have first dibs on the P-Terry’s food truck!). At the Ministry Festival, you will discover just short of a gajillion opportunities for you to become more involved in the life of this community, to choose your “crowd” and select your “magnetism.” As, together, we seek continuity between our convictions and our calendars, I invite you to offer yourself to one ministry that gives voice to your hopes for yourself and for the world. Whether that means committing to Mobile Loaves & Fishes or to the Monday evening Men’s Bible & Brew, start with one and see where it goes, how high you might soar.
Finally, in selecting our momentums and offering ourselves to a community in this way, I encourage you to claim the power of your blessing. That is, trust that not only will you be formed by these associations, the ministries to which you offer yourself will be shaped by the gifts and graces that you – and no one else – can offer. In this way, may we join Simon Peter and profess, “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.”[v]
Let it be so, in the name of the one who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.