“Lord, to whom shall we go?”
These are the words that the disciples use when some of those following Jesus abandon Him because the things he says are too hard. Jesus asks if they too wish to depart, if the ministry on earth will have to continue somewhere else, with perhaps other disciples since the ones who have followed Him thus far have proven themselves a little flaky.
To be honest it is not the world’s most ringing endorsement of the ministry or mission of Jesus Christ. “I suppose we’ll stay here, where else would we go?” is not exactly enthusiastic is it? You get the impression that they are seriously church-shopping and have decided that this Jesus thing is at least close to their house so they might as well stick with it.
They do not inspire me, these disciples.
Even less so those who have departed. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” they plead, the way that children do when they are asked to do something they do not know how to do, something they have never tried before.
They are having their entire world turned upside down and that is not an obvious or easy thing to have happen and if your own comfort is paramount to you, then you might think of it as too hard and throw your hands in the air and give up the whole thing, thinking it a bad use of your time, of your heart and your mind.
If you are just shopping around for something to occupy your time, then sometimes church is difficult, it lays claim to you in ways that the television never will, especially nowadays when we have DVR’s to eliminate any need for us to conform to someone else’s schedule or plans, we can have it all our way and it will be easy as pie.
Masterpiece theater has revived a show that I watched <gulp> forty years ago called Poldark about a British officer who returns from the revolutionary war to his land and the struggles he faces and it was, as you might expect from Masterpiece Theater in the seventies, the very best in British television and we planned our television viewing around where we would be on Friday night so that we could be home to watch Poldark.
But that’s the way you watched TV back then, remember? You had to know when your show was on and you had to be there in front of the tube at that time so you could watch it. Since most of us never got the VCR past the blinking 12:00, 12:00, 12:00 on the display, the promise of recording shows seldom materialized.
As with any of the shows that we watch nowadays, the new series of Poldark can be selected on your cable menu and with the press of a button, all episodes will be recorded to be watched later, whenever you are ready.
It is almost unfathomable that 15 million people gathered around their televisions at approximately the same time across the country to watch this one show. In that same year only 56 million people watched the Super Bowl, wherein, by the way my Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Minnesota Vikings 16-6.
But for Masterpiece Theater, and not when they wanted to watch it, but only when it was on? It just seems incomprehensible to modern ears.
It was hard to accomplish but we had fewer options waaaaaaaay back when. We had only four channels and one of them was PBS which is why Sesame Street was such a big deal, and the Electric Company. The reward in this case was something of actual quality, something challenging and thought provoking. My mother and my Aunt Mary in Pennsylvania used to call each other the next day and talk about the previous night’s show, and this was back before unlimited long distance, when calling on the phone was an investment.
I don’t want to paint a picture of brave and rugged single parent families across the country huddled together for warmth in order to enrich their minds and basking in the rewarding glow of quality television. Poldark was one of the four shows on in its time slot. Chances are we would have been watching one of the other three had we been given the chance. It was just all we had so it really didn’t matter how hard it was, it was just what you did.
It wouldn’t have upset our apple cart one way or the other.
The disciples, on the other hand, are being asked to jettison centuries of wisdom, finely honed instincts about what is proper and what is wrong and to go in an entirely different way. It isn’t Masterpiece Theater or Real Housewives; it’s up is down, black is white, pudding instead of toothpaste, cigarettes are good for you stuff we’re talking about.
Eat me and have eternal life? That’s a scandal, that’s absurd, that teaching is difficult; who can accept it? We’ll go back to what we know, where it is safe.
Like Joshua at Shechem, it all seems to come down to our choice, doesn’t it? Choose the Lord or choose the gods you have served, that your ancestors followed. Do this thing, or do what you have always done, which is to cast about, seeking other gods as the mood strikes you, always looking for your best advantage, which god promises you the best harvest, the most children, the most success.
Joshua and the people all decide to follow the Lord but Jesus is not so lucky. What he was saying to them was just too hard so some turned back and no longer followed Him.
I don’t think it was a thoughtful, deliberate decision, I don’t think that held a seminar and weighed the benefits and risks, some kind of Pascal’s wager with biblical overtones.
I think that they were afraid and so they turned back to what was familiar, what they already knew.
As if being a disciple was just asking too much, as if the word hadn’t altered the way that they perceived the universe, as if they could only see it as a choice between two roads, one they had walked a thousand times and one they knew nothing about.
I know how they feel. I’ve taken the familiar road thousands of times, like driving to work and forgetting to drop Caitlyn off at school, the patterns and directions are ingrained in our heads and to shake ourselves out of them, well, that is difficult, who can accept it?
It is easier to visit members of the congregation than it is to go out and meet our neighbors and so I, being accustomed to the one and a little fearful about the other, will often take the road more travelled by, the safe path and leave the other for another day.
Sometimes that day comes, sometimes it stays away and the road becomes more and more travelled, harder to avoid.
Harder, that is, when you lift up Joshua and use him as a lamp to light your way. Harder, that is, when you exalt the decision to follow Christ as if you had made it yourself, having weighted the options and done a cost/benefit analysis and determined that Jesus was the way. Harder that is, when it is all about you and not at all about Christ.
When the people tell Joshua the reasons that they will follow the Lord it is a litany of the things that God has done for them, delivered them out of the house of slavery and done great signs in their presence and drove the Amorites out of the land before them so they could live in peace.
God had done great things for them, and so they owed God their loyalty so they opted to follow the Lord, like Joshua.
It is all about them, what God has meant to them and what God has done for them and who God is to them. I wonder how long it will be before “for all the things God has done” becomes “what has God done for us lately?”
When you are shopping for your God, when you are looking for the best deal you are probably not really listening to the word, are you? I overheard some of the parents on Caitlyn’s soccer team discussing their various churches and, and I did not know this, some of them have, over the course of the past few years, shared some staff, specifically their “worship teams” but not really shared them, apparently they move from one church to the next as either the wind of the spirit (we hope it’s the spirit) blows them.
And the conversation, and it lasted almost an hour, had all to do with which team they really loved and which team sang the best and where which tem was leading worship these days and for an hour the only question was “which one do I like best” or “we stopped going after they left” or “how are things where you go?”
I swear to you not once in an hour was the word Jesus mentioned, nor Christ, nor bible, nor any of the things we commonly associate with faith.
And these are good, nice, people. I like them. I like their kids. I like sharing the sidelines with them. They consider themselves Christians and they would likely say, if you asked them, that as for them, they will serve the Lord.
I just wonder if they are taking up the whole armor of God or just the parts the fit well, that seem familiar, that suit them.
And I do not wonder this idly. I am not sitting on some ivory tower of righteous theology, even though, in point of fact, Lutherans do teach a theology that has been chewed over and thought out and examined and unpacked and repacked and taken apart down to the frame and reassembled again and again and we actually do think we have a good handle on it, we do think that it presents God in the whole with as few distractions as possible.
But still the armor chafes from time to time.
It is supposed to. Nothing evolves except under pressure, nothing changes unless you give it a reason and if the scriptures challenge us, if they call into question long-treasured beliefs, or patterns we have been following for generations, maybe that is on purpose, maybe faith is meant to not just bless those who take up the whole armor of God but instead to require it, to keep you on the path, to hold you fast to the truth.
Because the belt of truth will not make you true, it will simply help you know your iniquity and turn to the Lord.
The Breastplate of righteousness will not make you righteous, but it will protect your heart from the fear and desperation that stalks the land and give you peace because it is Christ’s righteousness and not yours.
The shoes on your feet are simply that which makes you ready. If it be Bible Study, or worship, or reading the scriptures or serving the congregation on the council, whatever it is, it is the foundation upon which your ministry will be built.
The shield of faith is a most precious gift. It is sturdy and strong, it will quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one, but it will only cover your front, reminding you that we are not called as individuals, but as a community, each covering the others.
The helmet of salvation is the face of Christ, all disciples wear it so that it is His face and not our own that we show to the world.
The sword is the word.
None of that is about us. It is all meant for us but as checks to our arrogance, as reminders of what this is about. It is occasionally heavy, when we are barraged by those flaming arrows that cry to us, “Look over here! Buy this! Sell this! We have the cure for everything!” so long as we turn away from the difficult teaching that life lies within the surrender, lies within the body and blood, the water and the word of God and not in the our ability to choose, our free will.
So long as we turn away, setting down the heavy shield of faith, taking off the helmet of salvation and smiling for the camera, so long as we set down the sword, sharp and dangerous to the world of sin; so long as we leave behind the belt of the truth and adopt the theology of “whatever works.”
But the disciples who stayed with Jesus also knew what really mattered. “You have the words of eternal life.”
The word of Jesus is life. It does not bring life, It does not deliver life. The word of Christ, the name of Jesus is the life of the world, not economics, not science, not theology, not religious life.
The words of eternal life are the whole armor of God, true, righteous, sharp.
In wearing them we not only surrender to the truth, but we also bring that truth into the world. It chose us, and blessed us without cost. Lord to whom shall we go indeed, there is nowhere else to turn and if you have to surrender to something, surrender to that, even though this teaching is hard.