Reclaiming Jesus by The Rev. Dr. Donald L. Hamer, Rector
Trinity Episcopal Church, Hartford, CT
August 26, 2018
Pentecost 14, Proper 16B
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
For the past several Sundays, the Gospel has focused on Jesus as the Bread of Life and variations on that theme. As we approach that theme Sunday, I would like to do so through the lens of the Collect for the Day, which asks God’s blessing so that the Church can show forth God’s power to all people.
There are two aspects of today’s Gospel passage that I find particularly fascinating. The first is the growing disaffection of some of Jesus’ followers with His message, and the second is the way that Jesus responds to their challenge to his teaching.
The scene in today’s Gospel passage is from a part of Jesus’ ministry which represents almost a crisis point. Jesus has been wildly popular, travelling about the countryside preaching, teaching, healing, performing miracles, and the world was charmed. But then as he continued his teaching, as the real meaning of what he is saying begins to set in, the crowds that were once charmed find that the full package of what Jesus is teaching is too much to take. Many of the disciples say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Jesus can see that even the original 12 are struggling, and decides to test them. He must have felt pretty dejected when he turned to them and asked, “Do you also wish to go away?” And Peter’s response could not have been very reassuring: “To whom can we go?” It’s as if Peter is saying, “Well, you’re the best we’ve got, so we’ll stick around for now. . .”
But there is something else we see in this passage, and that is the way Jesus reacts to public criticism and reaction. That must have been more than a little intimidating for Jesus, the man, when many of his previously loyal followers turned away from him. He must have internally struggled, at least a little bit, about how to share his message, whether he should hold back on some of the harder truths, perhaps whether he should “change his brand.” And yet, he never – ever – gave into this temptation. Instead, he maintained his commitment to proclaim the truth that He was sent to proclaim to the world, the Good News of the Gospel: love, peace, forgiveness, acceptance, grace, reconciliation for all of God’s creation.
My friends, it is so easy for us to look at those disciples from our arm chairs while we are reading our Bibles and criticize them for what may appear to be a hollow or a shallow faith. But I’d like to suggest to you that before we get down on the apostles, or criticize the ways in which our own contemporaries live out their version of the Gospel, that we take a look at our own lives – as individuals in a democratic society, and as a church in a country which allows freedom of faith – and assess how faithful we ourselves have been to the life and teachings of Jesus.
As Christians in the United States, we might well adopt as our own the famous line of the comic strip character Pogo on the occasion of the first US Earth Day in 1970: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Throughout the history of the church in this country, we can see the ways in which the institutional church has shied away from proclaiming the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and instead has settled for an easier message that people want to hear – that won’t make them turn away and mutter, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” This has actually been a phenomenon throughout the Western world, and the phenomenon has a name: Christendom. “Christendom” – in contrast to Christianity – is the rather unholy alliance between the institutional church and the secular society that leads some politicians today to refer to the United States as a “Christian nation” despite the fact that the United States Constitution specifically says there will be no establishment of an official state religion in this country. In my humble opinion, “Christendom” is the reason why Thanksgiving Day is more known for great football games and overeating than it is spending an hour in church to thank God for the many blessings in our lives. It’s the reason why liturgical Advent is all but ignored and Christians begin preparing for Christmas before Halloween when the displays change on the shelves in the stores. What are essentially religious holidays get hijacked by secular festivities.
It is an age-old problem – we are always, at least in part, creatures of our environment, of our culture, and of the particular traditions with which we have become familiar. We see it in this morning’s lesson from the Book of Joshua, where Joshua is challenging all of the Elders and other leaders of Israel to put away the gods of their ancestors and to serve the Lord. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” he tells them, “but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Just as Joshua’s people needed to decide which God to serve, just as those early disciples of Jesus had to make the decision whether to walk away from Jesus or to embrace the life-giving, life-changing yet hard teachings he taught, so we today in the Christian Church in the United States and throughout the world also are being called to make a choice between the institutional church as it has evolved and as we have known it through the recent decades, or to stand by the teachings of Jesus, in the way He actually lived them and taught them. Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has summoned all Episcopalians to renew that Jesus faith, to reclaim at least some of the passion of Jesus early followers, and to accept the challenges Jesus’ actual teachings make to our comfortable American lives. And he calls our church “The Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.”
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, states the problem succinctly: For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:10-20 offers us a powerful outline for resisting the forces that would lead us away from Jesus’ fundamental teachings:
Proclaim the Gospel of Truth as Jesus taught.
Strive to live a righteous life.
Be agents of peace and reconciliation in the world.
Have faith in our Lord, believing that God is for us and with us at all times and in all places.
Believe in and value the salvation that Jesus promises.
Let the Holy Spirit guide us and take control over our lives.
Pray in the Spirit at all times.
You know, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.” I’m afraid that over the decades we have lost sight of that role.
We Americans like to pride ourselves on the myth that our Constitution preserves a separation between Church and State – and indeed, it may do that better than any other constitution in the world. But that can’t change the fact that we who have grown up as Christians – particularly if we are white Christians – have become all-too used to a world in which the mechanisms of society have in fact been molded around the major tenets of the Christian faith, and the church and State have developed a symbiotic relationship that would have made Jesus turn over in his grave if he had stayed there long enough. As a lawyer and an Episcopal priest, I have to say that I am appalled that in the United States of the 21st century there are serious claims by various sectors of the Christian church that by granting basic human rights to all people, we are denying rights to Christians. What rights did Jesus ever deny anyone?
My friends, the question we face is this: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? What does our loyalty to Christ, as disciples, require at this moment in our history? Bishop Curry has issued a statement, co-authored with The Rev. Jim Wallis and joined by leaders of many major Christian denominations, laying out some fundamental principles not just to profess when we are within these walls, but to live by in our public lives. In “Reclaiming Jesus,” he writes, “We believe it is time to renew our theology of public discipleship and witness. Applying what “Jesus is Lord” means today is the message we commend as elders to our churches.
“I. WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). That image and likeness confers a divinely decreed dignity, worth, and God-given equality to all of us as children of the one God who is the Creator of all things. . .
“II. WE BELIEVE we are one body. In Christ, there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class (Galatians 3:28). The body of Christ, where those great human divisions are to be overcome, is meant to be an example for the rest of society. . .
“III. WE BELIEVE how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself. (Matthew 25: 31-46) “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” God calls us to protect and seek justice for those who are poor and vulnerable, and our treatment of people who are “oppressed,” “strangers,” “outsiders,” or otherwise considered “marginal” is a test of our relationship to God, who made us all equal in divine dignity and love. . .” My friends, I remind you that almost these exact words are part of the founding principles of this congregation in which we claim membership. The statement continues, “Our proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ is at stake in our solidarity with the most vulnerable. If our gospel is not ‘good news to the poor,’ it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ (Luke 4:18).
“IV. WE BELIEVE that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives. Truth-telling is central to the prophetic biblical tradition, whose vocation includes speaking the Word of God into their societies and speaking the truth to power. A commitment to speaking truth, the ninth commandment of the Decalogue, “You shall not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:16), is foundational to shared trust in society. The search and respect for truth is crucial to anyone who follows Christ. . .
“V. WE BELIEVE that Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not
domination. Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles (the world) lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:25-26). We believe our elected officials are called to public service, not public tyranny, so we must protect the limits, checks, and balances of democracy and encourage humility and civility on the part of elected officials. We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not. The authority of government is instituted by God to order an unredeemed society for the sake of justice and peace, but ultimate authority belongs only to God.
“VI. WE BELIEVE Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples (Matthew 28:18). Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. The most well-known verse in the New Testament starts with “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16).
The statement continues: “The best response to our political, material, cultural, racial, or national idolatries is the First Commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:3). Jesus summarizes the Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, and your mind. This is the first commandment. And the second is like unto it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:38). As to loving our neighbors, we would add ‘no exceptions.’ “
When everyone else was bailing on him, Jesus asked his 12 closest friends, “Do you also wish to go away?” Without really knowing the historical or theological context in which Jesus was teaching, and with no way of knowing what theories or practices theologians and church leaders would come up with over the centuries, Peter, as it turns out, came up with about as good a response to Jesus’ question as anyone has since: “To whom can we go if not you?” We have seen your life, we have heard your teachings, we have seen your miracles. You have the words of everlasting life. Where else would we go?”
And to Peter’s words, I would invite us all to add the response of Joshua: Choose this day whom you will serve. . . As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” AMEN.