Joshua 24 and John 6:60-69
There is a 20 th century colloquialism that is the common thread in both the Old Testament passage from Joshua and the Gospel of John that we read this morning. Joshua and Jesus could have said quite plainly: it is put up or shut up time. Here is the context for both: Moses has died, but not before successfully leading the Hebrews out of Egypt and the wilderness of Sinai into the so-called land of milk and honey. God has passed the mantle to Joshua and it is his job to infiltrate the land of Canaan, the land that had been promised by God long before in a covenant with Abraham. The Israelites are faced with a choice: they can follow this God who has been with them from the beginning or choose to follow the pagan gods in the land of their new home. Joshua gives them an ultimatum. They vow to worship the God of Israel. But he s not buying it. Joshua doesn’t accept their glib response and challenges them, reiterating that they will suffer dire consequences for any slip-up. For the Lord is a jealous god, he will not compete for their attention and devotion.
For the past few Sundays we have heard Jesus explain to the disciples that he is the bread of life he is God s gift of sustenance for all time and eternity. In exchange for the gift of his life Jesus tells the disciples that unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood they will have no share with him. This is why they scratch their heads and question, This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? Most of the theology that affirms Jesus divinity goes right over their heads. They turn their backs on him and leave. Jesus then asks the twelve, Do you also wish to go away? In other words, Are you buyin what I am sellin? Because, if you are, this would be the time to say so.
What I think is true for most of us is that we have not been asked or have not been forced to pledge our allegiance on the spot like Joshua and Jesus demanded of their followers. I m sure that people have asked you if you believe in God, and you have responded, positively, but I doubt you were ever questioned before an ecclesiastical authority figure demanding an allegiance. Typically, one s belief in God, one s belief in Jesus as Christians, is inherited from one s family. One is simply born that way, or for others it may have been a life-long process of small steps and God-moments. A woman said in Bible study the other night, I have believed in God since I could think.
One of the reasons why I became an Episcopalian was because I was allowed to journey with God on a level that I could understand and accept and grow into. At no time were absolutes crammed down my throat. As a little girl growing up in an unchurched family in the Bible belt of West Texas I was told about Jesus and I did pray to him as the gentler alternative to God, who I associated with my grumpy and strict grandmother. While I believed in Jesus as any child would (without the benefit of Sunday School) I never really felt like he was my personal Lord and Savior. It has been only recently that I have truly felt Christ as my silent partner. Before my ministry at St. James s my prayer life and the intimate connection I had with God was more Trinitarian. I addressed my prayers to God the one-in-three God. But now, in these last few years, I honestly and authentically feel Christ in my mind, my heart, and my soul. There is real love and relationship. I am getting to know Jesus the Christ more and more, and I say this as an ordained priest. This intimacy is something that could not have been forced or faked. Now, this is not to say that when I made the decision to go to seminary or before that I did not believe in Jesus Christ I most certainly did. And there have always been absolutes for me: Jesus is the child of God, he died for my sins; he was resurrected from the grave; and he sent the Holy Spirit to sustain us until the end time.
I guess what I am saying is that my relationship to God is always in process sometimes it is intensely connected and sometimes it is lazy and disconnected. But I know God is a jealous God zealous for my love and attention. Christ is not a God who takes a vacation from my life; it is the other way around. What s more, a life of faith, a life with Christ, can be frustrating and lonely, a most difficult spiritual terrain when we quest for answers that remain elusive. A life of faith is far from a perfect life. But it can be a redemptive life.
I read a profile of an English woman in TheNew York Times back on May 6th. What captured my attention was the fact that she, Julie Nicholson, was an Anglican priest who tragically lost her 24-year-old daughter to terrorism a year ago July in the London Subway bombings. The article describes how she was confronted with an event that shook her world to its foundations. As a consequence she found she could no longer reconcile her priestly functions with her refusal to forgive the killers. She said and I quote, I think forgiveness is cheap grace. Easy forgiveness may simply hide the causes of conflict and pain. We have to be careful that we are not continually putting layer after layer on a deep and festering wound. End quote.
The article goes on to describe her journey between faith and rage and her decision to resign as a parish priest though she is still working in the church. On her decision to leave her parish post, she said, I did not feel there was any integrity in standing in front of a group of people week by week leading them through words of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness when I felt so distanced from those things myself.
The reporter asked her the obvious question, Where was God at the moment the suicide bomber blew himself up in the subway car in which your daughter was riding? She responded by saying that she never believed in a God so omnipotent as to control all events. She went on to explain, There was a moment when I thought, where is faith? Is that helping me in this moment? For a number of months it was more a hindrance than a help. But I have never ceased to believe in the possibility of the existence of God, and I have never ceased to be a priest. End quote.
I think of Peter s response to Jesus when I think of this woman. Jesus asked the remaining twelve, Do you wish to go away? Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom can we go? His answer is the same as saying, I m in pain. I don t understand half of what is going on or why, but what is my alternative? There is a glimmer of what I perceive as truth in you and in me so I am going to stick it out with you.
As a result of the bombing it was impossible for Ms. Nicholson to see or hold her daughter. To come to terms with the absence of her body she began praying and meditating on the Pieta the vision of Mary cradling the broken Jesus after his crucifixion. It was only then that the emotional and spiritual healing process began. I don t judge this priest, this mother, for renouncing her ministry; for not being able to declare her conviction in the midst of crisis; or as some might claim for failing at her faith. I am not going to give up on her. You probably would not either. My belief tells me that a God full of grace and mercy is not going to give up on her either. Faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive.
When we say “God is redeeming the world in Christ,” we are not saying that there is no pain, no loss, no wrong, no brokenness, no sin in the world to grieve. When we say “God is redeeming the world in Christ,” we are saying that God’s power is such that all of that pain, loss, sin and brokenness in the world is being incorporated into one larger story, into a deeper and broader context in which our lives and the world we share together is defined by redemption. Where there is suffering and pain there is also peace and joy and our hope rests on the belief that the world will always tilt toward goodness. Redemption is about making whole; it is about hope, reconciliation, resurrection, bringing new life. Redemption and doubt are not mutually exclusive either.
I liken this notion to Senator Barack Obama s tagline ‘The Audacity of Hope’. When Jesus asked the disciples, Do you wish to go away? and Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom can we go? He is saying in other words, What other hope do we have? I will hold on to the audacity of hope in God for the rest of my days and I will do all in my power to make sure that you do too.