Sermon: “Lord, To Whom Can We Go?” (August 23, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Lord, To Whom Can We Go?” (John 6:66-69)
August 23, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today’s gospel passage from John’s account of the gospel is the final section surrounding Jesus’ miracle of the feeding of the multitude and his subsequent discourse about being the Bread of Life. Jesus’s teaching had proven to be too much for some of his followers, and as John writes, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”

Jesus then asks the twelve disciples, “Do you also wish to go away?” As he often did, Peter spoke up first, “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” (John 6:66-69).

“Do you also wish to go away?” Jesus’ question to the Twelve is a question with which most Christians wrestle at some point in their life. For many Christians there are seasons in life when they may be tempted to follow the example of those who “turned back and no longer went with Jesus.” Even for those who “have come to believe and know” that Jesus is the Holy One of God, are not immune.

Some turn back because of intellectual questions or doubts that seem to dwarf their once vibrant faith. I can think of some friends from back in the day who were “on fire” Christians who later burned out on their faith and dismissed it as a youthful spiritual phase of some kind. In the song “Losing My Religion” Michael Stipe of the Athens, Georgia-based alternative rock band R.E.M. puts it this way:

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
(from their 1991 album Out of Time).

Some turn back because of suffering loss, loss that causes them to lose their religion, as Bruce Springsteen sings in a live version of his acclaimed song “Darkness on the Edge of Town”:

Some folks are born into a good life
Others get it any way they know how
Me, well I lost my faith when I lost my wife
Those things don’t seem to matter much to me now
Tonight I’ll be on that hill, ‘cause I can’t stop
I’ll be on that hill with everything I got
Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost
I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town
(from his 1993 live album In Concert/MTV Unplugged).

Some turn back because they become disillusioned by the church. The history of the church is replete with inspiring events and saints and the establishment of countless churches, schools, hospitals and other ministries with innumerable contributions to the poor and suffering, as well as art and culture. But the history of the church also includes the dark underbelly of episodes like the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the linking of Christianity with colonialism, and the complicity of the church with various forms of oppression. For some the rampant schism in the church is just too much. If you don’t like your current denomination, start a new one, right?

Still others turn back because of how they have been personally treated in the church. About a dozen years ago I was at a clergy retreat with a friend of mine who was an incredibly gifted priest—prayerful, compassionate, kind, hilariously funny—but in a conversation he told me he was leaving the ministry. He had been serving at a particular parish for ten years, and he told me, “I’m just churched out. I can’t handle mean church people anymore.” He turned back to his career in education, and the church lost a wonderful priest.

Some turn back because of the effects of sin, past or present. In his classic modernist novel Ulysses, James Joyce writes about the recurring nature of this:

There are sins or (let us call them as the world calls them) evil memories which are hidden away by man in the darkest places of the heart but they abide there and wait. He may suffer their memory to grow dim, let them be as though they had not been and all but persuade himself that they were not or at least were otherwise. Yet a chance word will call them forth suddenly and they will rise up to confront him in the most various circumstances, a vision or a dream, or while timbrel and harp soothe his senses or amid the cool silver tranquility of the evening or at the feast at midnight when he is now filled with wine. Not to insult over him will the vision come as over one that lies under her wrath, not for vengeance to cut off from the living but shrouded in the piteous vesture of the past, silent, remote, reproachful (Modern Library version, 421).

How about you? Have you considered turning back from following Jesus because of doubt or loss or disillusionment or sin? Do you ever feel churched out?

“Do you also wish to go away?” In today’s passage Jesus’ question is answered by another question, as Peter replies, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

The moving 2014 film Unbroken recounts the true story of Louis Zamperini, who was shot down on a mission in World War II and spent 45 days at sea dealing with relentless thirst, dehydration, hunger, and the occasional shark attack before being captured by the Japanese and held in a POW camp overseen by a sadistic officer named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, known as the Bird. He was eventually set free at the end of World War II, but for several years afterwards he suffered severe post-traumatic stress, accompanied by heavy drinking and recurring dreams about his desire to exact revenge on his captors.

In 1949, at the insistence of his born-again wife, Cynthia, Louis attended a Billy Graham crusade. In an interview just a couple years before he died, Zamperini shared about what happened to him that night:

Billy’s preaching away and finally at the end of his sermon he said something like, ‘When people come to the end of their rope and there’s nowhere else to turn, they turn to God, no matter who they are.’ Well, that’s what happened on the raft…and I came home alive…and I thought about that, you know, he brought me home alive and here I am turning my back on him, so when I got back to the main aisle I turned to the right and went back to the prayer room and there I made a confession of my faith in Christ. And then a miracle took place. I’m on my knees, I’d only been on my knees a few seconds, made my decision, and I knew in my heart and mind and soul that I was through drinking, I was through carousing around, and I knew I forgave all my guards including sergeant Mutsuhiro Watanabe, and I couldn’t believe what was happening. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RplIfPcCGkw).

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter’s words became Louis Zamperini’s words.

But on the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested Peter turned back, as did the other disciples; and Peter emphatically denied Jesus. And the next day Jesus found himself on that hill, Calvary, because he couldn’t stop. On that hill Jesus was there on time, and he paid the cost for all the “evil memories which are hidden away” in the darkest places of our hearts. But Peter was nowhere to be found.

But Jesus never turned backed from Peter, and later in John’s account of the gospel the Risen Jesus meets Peter on a beach, cooks him breakfast, and completely forgives him and restores him (John 21:1-19)—and Peter, like Louis Zamperini at the Billy Graham crusade, couldn’t believe what was happening.

And if for whatever reason you have considered turning back from following Jesus, remember the good news of the gospel: Jesus has never turned back from you. Scripture assures us that with God there is “no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17, King James Version). You see, there is something infinitely greater than your doubts, infinitely greater than your loss (and some of have suffered great loss), infinitely greater than your disillusionment with the church—and yes, infinitely greater than your sin…the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ expressed definitively on the cross.

In other words, losing your religion may not be such a bad thing, because Jesus did not come to give you a religion, but to give you life, eternal life.

One more illustration…on the 1986 album Reconciled by The Call there is a song called “I Still Believe (Great Design),” an anthem about belief in the midst of doubt, loss, disillusionment, sin, all of it. I invite to consider these lyrics in the context of your life:

Flat on my back out at sea
Hoping these waves don’t cover me
I’m turned and tossed upon the waves
When the darkness comes I feel the grave

But I still believe, I still believe
Through the cold and through the heat
Through the rain and through the tears
Through the crowds and through the cheers
Oh, I still believe

I’ll march this road, I’ll climb this hill
Upon on my knees if I have to
I’ll take my place upon this stage
I’ll wait ‘til the end of time
For you like everybody else…

I still believe, I still believe
Through the shame and through the grief
Through the heartache, through the tears
Through the waiting, through the years

For people like us in places like this
We need all the hope that we can get
Oh, I still believe

“Lord, to whom can we go?” I suspect you know the answer to that question.

Even if you have been tempted to turn back from Jesus, Jesus has never turned back from you, so today may the Holy Spirit enable you to still believe.

Amen.