Proper 16 (21) (August 26, 2018)
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 8:(1,6,10-11), 22-30, 41-43
Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go?”
Peter’s reply to Jesus is the Gospel acclamation of our liturgy: Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We sing these words every Sunday and I cannot imagine singing something else. (Although the Service of Word and Prayer uses words the Emmaus disciples spoke when they realized it was Jesus who had been with them).1
Jesus speaks these words at a turning point in the Gospel of John. Many of those who had followed him are turning away from him. It is a first moment of abandonment and I wonder whether Jesus’ question here is a probing question: Knowing that he would die alone and that his friends would abandon him, did he wonder whether this was the moment?
I think we can imagine the disappointment of Jesus. Any of us who have had a friend leave them over differences would know the sting. Likewise, churches that split over matters important to their community, would know the pain, for it is not only that we may decide to leave others, but we may feel that others have long left us, even if not in body.
What is noteworthy here is that Jesus sends no one away. The fact that people leave him and that he gives even his closest friends permission to do the same, indicates that the communion Jesus values is not defined by agreement but by love. And love is difficult. Yet it is love that makes understanding possible, and if not understanding then to be together in God’s presence.
I grew up in the church. This is one of the stories I have known for a long time. As usual, Peter speaks for the Twelve. He sounds as bold as on the night of Jesus’s betrayal, ‘even if all should leave you, I will not,’ or when he ventured out on the lake after he had solicited Jesus’ invitation to do so, or when he clumsily cut off the soldier’s ear at Jesus’ arrest.
Peter is strident in his support of Jesus. That’s the Peter we know.
And yet we also know that sometimes when someone is as full-mouthed as Peter is, it is only to cover their own anxiety and uncertainty. The more fervently I say something, the more likely I am to believe it myself, or so we tell ourselves. I know this can be true for me. I think that it is true for Peter as well.
If it is true that Peter was not as confident as he sounded, then it may be that Peter meant what he said literally. “We’ve got no one else to go to, nothing else lined up, Lord. We’re not sure where this is going either but we believe – against all odds – that you have the words of eternal life.
In that case, Peter’s confession was not a bold proclamation but an admission that he and the Eleven had no plan B. Jesus was it.
Each Sunday I sing the Gospel Acclamation from the bottom of my heart and with full conviction, and yet I don’t know that I don’t have a plan B. We live in a world where we are always told to have a plan B, and maybe a plan C, to plan for the future and leave nothing up to chance. For some that leads to great anxiety, thinking that their pension plan will never hold.
And so we plan our lives in such a way that puts us in control of our lives, our careers, and our health (or at least the medical profession). I am not advocating for irresponsibility and abandon, but we are so used to being in control that it is hard to let go.
Many years ago a good friend went back to the Maritimes to see his dying father. When Tony returned from the visit, I asked him how it went. He said, “Well, I am not my dad’s pastor, I am his son, so it’s hard to speak to him as a pastor. Dad said it was hard losing control. I said, Dad, that’s what our whole life in Christ is about, we practice it every day.”
I don’t know how we practice this, what exercises we have devised to learn this, except to be in community with a Lord we don’t always understand and to be in community with people who try to follow Jesus as we do, who are sinners like us, and sometimes drive us crazy. We practice letting go by forgiving those who have sinned against us, even ourselves, and by doing good unto those who do us harm.
But I believe that Tony was right. What he said did not only give meaning to his father’s dying but was a paraphrase of John the Baptist’s confession about Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease.”
It is one of the reasons why stewardship is good. Stewardship is not only about the money we give to worthy causes but also about freeing ourselves from assuming we are in charge of our own lives.
The New Testament is filled with confessions by people like us about who Jesus is. Lord, King, Son of David, Α and Ω, Master. These are titles that ascribe Jesus full authority over the cosmos and grant Jesus authority over our lives.
They are the confession of the alcoholic that she has reached the end of the road.
Peter had reached the end of the road, he did not know how to go forward, except with Jesus.
We live in a time of many addictions to substances, ideologies, and consumer goods.
Peter and the disciples did not have perfect faith but they no longer knew how to live except with Jesus.
Their abandon to a life with Jesus mirrors the life Jesus lived for us, a life of abandon giving himself to the Father. It anticipates the words of Jesus in John 14, “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
What a gift.
1“Our hearts were burning within us while he opened to us the scriptures.”