PRAYER OF INVOCATION: God of signs and wonders, who is your equal in heaven or on earth? Walk with us in faithful love, that we may know your ways and walk in the paths of righteousness. Clothe us with the belt of truth and the breastplate of justice, that our words may be true, and our actions may be just. Protect us with the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is your holy word, that we may spread your word of peace. Amen.
It’s good to remember from time to time that Jesus’ teaching did not result in mass conversions. Maybe people in the first century were seeking feel-good sermons rather than sermons that would lead them into true discipleship. Many can’t follow Jesus because his teaching is difficult and many can’t accept it.
Chapter 6 from John’s Gospel begins with more than five thousand people seeking Jesus, and ends with just eleven. Even the eleven do not understand much of Jesus’ teaching until Jesus is raised from the dead. Jesus has fed the multitudes, offered himself as the bread of heaven, invited his followers to feast on his body and blood as the gift of eternal life, and endured misunderstanding and complaint. BY the end of the chapter, a few will remain (abide in him), but most will go away (not abide in him). Jesus is aware that many are grumbling and complaining about his teaching, so he asks directly: Does this offend you?
They probably responded, Yes! First, there’s the strange cannibalistic image: Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. To the first century disciples, this image of eating flesh and drinking blood would have violated all Jewish law concerning clean and unclean. But something else is going on here, and we need to try to understand what Jesus is saying.
I tend to think that when Jesus gets too close for comfort, people fall away. Eating flesh and drinking blood symbolically means more than being like Jesus; it means taking Jesus into oneself so completely that Jesus becomes a larger and larger percentage of who we are. Have you ever tasted cow’s milk or goat’s milk that comes straight from the cow or the goat? Unpasturized? If those dairy cows or nannies have been eating spring onions, you can taste it in their milk. Or if you eat garlic regularly, you will be able to smell it on your skin. Smelling Jesus on your skin. What an image! Most of the would-be disciples cut and run.
Sometimes I feel as if the contemporary church is more interested in keeping the church safe and attractive than it is in forming disciples. Do we fail to form people in the image of Christ by making them consumers of what the church can offer them rather than forming them into disciples? Even traditional churches have turned more and more into the image of seeker churches, which try to be non-offensive by, for example, taking the cross out of the sanctuary. Jesus did not seek to make people comfortable; he sought to bring them salvation.
Our reading from Ephesians talks about the twin rails of words and action. Paul is giving us the radical advice that Christians need for radical change – change that is apparent when we become more and more like Christ. Remember that Paul is talking to people who live in an occupied country. Weapons are developed specifically for defense of vulnerable parts of the body. The Roman armor that Paul is describing is lightweight, utilitarian, and has been tested on thousands of battlefields.
The breastplate was a kind of lightweight chain mail that may have additional iron strips fastened to leather straps. The shield was an elongated oval. The military belt was worn at all times, even when the soldier was not fighting. The helmet offered cheek, ear, and neck protection. The marching sandals were equipped with gripped studs on the soles. This armor was designed to keep the soldier alive so he could go on fighting for the Empire.
But Paul says that these things only give the illusion of protection. The only armor that really protects is the armor of God. Fasten the belt of truth around our waist and put on the breastplate of righteousness. How different it would be if words and actions were transparent – no subtext, no hidden agenda. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. How different our relationships would be if, instead of arming ourselves with self-justification and defensive strategies, we became vulnerable to God and to each other. How different it would be if we stopped talking so much and entered into holy listening.
There’s the story of Desmond Tutu, who was preaching in St. George’s cathedral during the apartheid struggle, after a political rally had been canceled by the South African government. The walls of the cathedral were lined with soldiers and riot police carrying guns, bayonets, and riot shields of clear plastic – to better see the demonstrators and strike them down. Tutu had been speaking of the evils of the apartheid system, about how the rulers and authorities who propped up the system were bound to fail. Pointing a finger at the police, he bellowed: You may be powerful – very powerful – but you are not God. God cannot be mocked. You have already lost.
Then Tutu did a very strange thing. In a moment of extremely high tension, Tutu stepped out from behind the pulpit, flashed his radiant smile, and began to dance. Therefore, since you have already lost, he said, we are inviting you to join the winning side. Some police put down their weapons and joined the dancing, roaring crowds; the rest simply melted away. This is what Paul is talking about. Tutu had on the armor of God. Put on that armor and dance. Join the winning side.
To be a disciple is hard. The good thing is that being part of a body of faith gives us a lot of opportunity to practice. We are thrown together as that body. One of the characteristics that the Mission Study Team has noted in the interviews they have conducted to date is that this is a very diverse congregation; perhaps in ordinary circumstances, many of us would not have much in common, visit with one another, or pray for one another. But that’s not the point. The point is that together, as we study and pray, come to the table, and work for the least of these, as the baby caps, blankets, and quilts so beautifully illustrate today in our sanctuary, we put ourselves wholly in God’s charge. We are invited to take Christ more and more into our very being.
In my reading this week, I came across the story of a church member who had been devout for many years and a faithful church attender, but he began to come to worship less and less. On a cold, winter evening, the pastor knocked on the member’s door and came in to sit by the fire. Of course, the minister wanted to know why this man had stopped coming to church. The parishioner replied that he felt that he was pretty much as well off without church as he was with it. The minister didn’t say a word. He picked up a pair of tongs and reached into the fire to pull out a burning ember. He laid it down by itself on the hearth. Both men sat in silence, as they watched the glowing ember fade into a crusty, black lump. The man turned to his pastor. Say no more. I get the message. I’ll be back in church next Sunday.
We need each other. We need church. When we come to church, we are saying in essence:
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. Do we stay or turn back because Jesus’ teaching is difficult and we cannot accept it? Or do we ingest Christ so much into our daily living that Christ abides in us? Are we willing to join the winning side and dance? Amen.