THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI
To Whom Can We Go?
August 26, 2018
“Lord, to whom can we go?”
This question, asked of Jesus by Simon Peter in our reading from the Gospel of John this morning names both the joy and difficulty of following Jesus.
Just before Simon Peter asked it, many disciples, all but the 12, left Jesus’ side. They went away from him because His teachings about bread and new life, his teachings about bread and flesh were “too difficult.”
If we imagine ourselves as one of the 12 in this moment, we would behold a sad scene. So many of those we have followed Jesus with, travelled with, witnessed with, having turned their backs and gone away… And suddenly our community of disciples is much smaller than it was before…
But “To Whom Can We Go?”
The twelve disciples were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, He was the Son of Man, He was of the Father, He was the true Bread from Heaven. Even if His teachings were difficult, even if they required sacrifice and faith, “To Whom Can We Go?”
There is—after all—only one Jesus Christ.
Read in a certain way, “To Whom Can We Go?” can sound like a complaint against Jesus. It sounds like another way of saying:
“Why have you made these teachings and this discipleship so difficult? Why have you separated us from our families? Why have you called us away from the life we knew and into this uncertain place?”
It can be read as a way of saying:
“Jesus, after all this, who else can we possibly turn to?”
And truly, there are times when our faith will cause us to complain. Against God, against Christ, against the church.
“God why have you called me to faith? Why have you asked me to walk such a difficult and narrow path?”
You see, it’s not just that following Jesus is difficult, that discipleship takes not only everything we’ve got but also everything that we will receive by God’s Grace…It’s not just that following Jesus is difficult…it’s that once you’ve made that commitment, once you’ve committed yourself to living as a Christian, there isn’t really anywhere else to go…
To live faithfully in Christ means that you don’t get to just be a Christian on Sunday and then become some kind of other person on Monday.
Living your life as a faithful Christian requires you to see the world as a Christian every day, it requires you to live in prayer, it requires you to face struggles that others will not face or understand, it requires you to live as Christ for others and to see Christ in them…there are no “days off,” there are no “out of bounds” areas, there is nowhere to go from discipleship…except more discipleship.
Believing in a faithful and graceful God means having an eye out for the next gift of grace; the next gift of God…It means being prepared (or as prepared as one can be) for the next time that God intercedes in our lives with another gift of Grace, another dose of faith, another joy, another risk, another challenge, another call…
“To Whom Can We Go?”
Reading this as a sort of complaint is not the same thing as saying that faith is a bad thing or makes us unhappy, only that faith does require sacrifice and that our willingness to sacrifice can ebb and flow over time.
Faith requires a lot of prayer…
Faith requires a lot of patience…
Faith requires a constant turning in our lives to stay pointed toward God alone…
Faith is not always easy
But “To Whom Can We Go?”
As Simon Peter continues, he names not only the struggle but the joy of faith:
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”[a]
It’s not just that faith is difficult, it’s not just that we already have ourselves invested in faith, but also that there is no other like Jesus out there. There is no other savior, there are no other words of eternal life; there is no other who is the Holy One of God.
In the world we currently live in, it can be difficult to understand Simon Peter in this way. After all, the world outside our doors is always happy to show us another God, another idol, another thing to worship should we too decide that the teachings of Jesus are too difficult.
Not only are there alternatives, at least according to our pluralistic and secular world, but there are whole spaces where we can get away from God…
There are whole spaces where God has no jurisdiction, places where we can put our feet up and take the load of discipleship off.
Not so long ago, God was at work in schools, God was at work in Hospitals, God was at work in public buildings and libraries and parks and all sorts of places. Christ and Christ’s church appeared as that inescapable call that Simon Peter described.
Not so anymore. In recent years, we as a society have decided that God doesn’t exist in schools, God doesn’t exist in public places, God doesn’t exist “in the world” but only in the “private lives” of people who choose to practice faith.
In fact, if we listen closely to the faith claims of the world, we find out that most of the world is outside of God’s jurisdiction, that God really only has anything to say or to do in churches on Sunday mornings (so long as we keep it to ourselves).
Christians may still side with Simon Peter that there is “No One” to whom we can go apart from Christ, but even we must admit that in the world we live in there are plenty of places we can go where we won’t be reminded of His Call on our lives.
God’s domain has indeed gotten smaller and smaller over the years. At least in the world we know now.
It would be easier, certainly, if the claims of this world were true; if God were not the God of the whole universe, it would be easier if God were not the God of every nation and every people, it would be easier if God lived in a small space that we could go and visit when it was convenient for us.
But God doesn’t limit Godself for our convenience. God doesn’t “stay out of our space” because we are always in God’s space…
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that no matter how much we learn about the universe, no matter how much we mold the world in our image, no matter how much we use science to idolize humanity, we never quite get to the end of God’s domain. Even when we claim to.
There is a famous story, from the days of the US/Soviet space race in the 1960s…
The story goes that when Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space) first found himself flying above the earth on April 24, 1961, further than anyone had ever been, he remarked:
“I looked and looked but I didn’t see God anywhere.”
This quote, whether it was actually spoken by Gagarin or not, has—of course—been politicized and canonized throughout the years.
One way to read these words, that made sense for the officially atheist USSR to yield publicly, is that a nation that is great enough to send a man into space and to change the definition for what is possible for human beings to do; that such a great nation has no need for faith in God.
These words have also been championed by atheists of any country in a more general way: that a humanity, a global society that has the scientific capacity to send a man into space; that such a humanity has outgrown its need for God. A popular sentiment these days to be sure.
“I looked and looked but I didn’t see God anywhere.”
To me, Gagarin’s remark is more sad than anything else. It’s sad to think that a man who found himself flying above the earth, getting a glimpse of our home that still very few people have seen with their own eyes…that this man could not see God in the beauty of all that creation.
It’s a sad state that for Gagarin, for us, and for the world that anyone could see the earth from above; see the oceans and the mountains and the deserts all at once; to see the clouds and the forests and the lakes and to come back saying: “God wasn’t up there.”
The wonderful thing about God’s domain is of course that we are always in God’s domain, that just as “To Whom Can We Go?” is true, so is “Where Can We Go?”
Thousands of years before the space age gave us the ability to see for ourselves that God was not limited to one church or one heavenly cloud, King Solomon already knew this to be true…
Our Old Testament reading from the book of 1 Kings this morning begins with Solomon instructing the heads of the tribes of Israel to bring the Ark of the Covenant out of the city of David and to bring it into the Temple that Solomon had built.
To get an understanding of how Holy The Ark of the Covenant was, we Christians would have to imagine a box that contained every conceivable relic of Christ: His robe, His sandals, locks of His hair, a sample of the wine from Canaan, the cup he raised at the Last Supper, the crown of thorns, The true Cross itself (not just the thousands and thousands of pieces that now exist around the world). Such a box would not be Christ Himself but it would hold all of His earthly possessions and evidence.
You see, the Ark of the Covenant was not just a devotional object, it was not just the place where the tablets of the Ten Commandments were stored; it was nearly as good as Godself! It was the living representation of God’s covenant with Israel. Solomon and the rest of ancient Israel didn’t believe that God lived in the ark but the mystery and the importance of the ark gave them the faith to treat it as almost that holy.
If there ever was a specific place, smaller than creation itself, which could be called “God’s domain,” surely the Ark was IT!
But even so…
Solomon knew and Solomon showed that he knew God was greater than the Ark.
As Solomon prayed, he said:
27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!
Solomon demonstrates his true faith that God does not dwell in the Ark nor does God dwell within the Temple, but that God is greater and more mysterious than any of the objects we choose to represent Him.
As Solomon continues, he gives further voice to the reality that God cannot be contained, saying:
when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name 42 —for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, 43 then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.
Again, Solomon shows his wisdom and faith, he says:
God, you are so much greater than this Ark, so much greater than this Temple, you are even greater than the nation Israel.
People will come, foreigners will come, from across the land to worship you and to call on your name.
In such words, Solomon, this faithful King gave voice to Simon Peter’s question, centuries before he asked it:
“To Whom Can We Go?”
To whom can the foreigner go?
To whom can anyone on earth who hears the call of the One True God go?
There is only one God. One God who made the heavens and the earth. One God who lives in this temple but is not limited by it. One God who calls people of every nation to know Him. One God who came in the person of Jesus Christ, that the whole world may know Him.
And this morning, Jesus lays out for us the whole programme:
56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 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.”
If you’ve been following the lectionary readings, you’ll notice that this is the 4th week in a row that Jesus has been speaking with the Jews at the Synagogue at Capernaum…this is the 4th week that He has been trying to convince them of the truth that HE IS the true bread from heaven…
Finally, in this morning’s reading one of his disciples speaks for many in the group of listeners:
“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
Jesus this is difficult.
It is difficult to believe that God has changed the Bread of Heaven from the Manna in the Wilderness to a Man named Jesus of Nazareth.
It is difficult to be believe that God has left his Ark and His Temple in order to dwell in One Man who claims to offer eternal life.
Jesus, it is difficult to believe that you, this same man who calls on us to believe, is about to give up his flesh and his blood for the salvation of all who believe!
I’m sorry Jesus, it’s Just. Too. Difficult.
And so this disciple leaves. He leaves, as do the synagogue leaders, as do almost all of those who were following Jesus to that point. They were pleased to believe in a man who fed 5000 people, they were pleased to believe in a man who walked on water, they were pleased to believe in a man who turned water into wine right in front of them…but they were less pleased to believe in a man who claimed to be one with God Himself. One who asked them to have faith in a God that was right before them.
God is in the Temple, God is in the Ark, God is not here in this room with us.
And so they left. They left the synagogue, they stopped being Jesus’ disciples.
Where did they go? What did they do? Did they just go back to their old lives? Their families? Their jobs? Their commitments?
There’s always a little melancholy at the end of a great journey, but reading this Scripture and imagining a group of people choose to stop following Jesus and go home is downright heartbreaking.
To leave and to try to forget everything they’d seen.
All of the miracles. All of the wonders. All of the transformation.
If these disciples could not see Jesus right in front of them, if they could not recognize the Son of God as he was bringing them new life, how could they possibly see Him anywhere else?
They must have become like Yuri Gagarin, they must have become like the millions around us who do not see the Son of God for who He is, who say things like
“We looked and we looked and we couldn’t see God anywhere…”
“…So he must not be there at all.”
Perhaps the most difficult lesson of this Gospel is that it is possible to fail to see…
Friends, there is difficulty in faith. There is difficulty in following a savior who is present every day and in every place we find ourselves.
There is difficulty in faith and there is a challenge to living in a world that does not see Christ the same way we recognize Him.
It takes a great deal of faith, and prayer, and grace to go on proclaiming the faith that has found us; it takes everything we’ve got and everything that we will receive from God to be go on being faithful.
But “To Whom Can We Go?”