Proper 16(B): To Whom Can We Go?

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By: The Rev. Andrew Hege

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

After several weeks of reading from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, it may be all the more tempting to look toward one of the other appointed readings for sermon inspiration this week.  After all, hasn’t Jesus already said everything that can possibly be said about the bread of life?  Haven’t you? 

Stay with it. Jesus’ discourse in John’s sixth chapter just might have another nugget or two of wisdom.

The scene is familiar by now. Jesus has been about his work of itinerant teaching and healing, feeding and calming, amidst the hills and waters of the Galilee.

In addition to the narrative that we’ve now committed to memory – Jesus is the bread of life, the true bread which gives life to world, the bread that lasts, the bread that will satiate every hunger, the true food that offers eternal life when eaten – Jesus’ disciples re-enter the story at this point, our final week of sojourn here before returning to Mark’s Gospel.

“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

How many times, I wonder, must the disciples have pondered this very question in response to the teachings of Jesus? Who can accept such challenging instruction? Who has the audacity to follow this man and his demanding way of life?

While it is the only time this query is recorded (in this form, at least) in all the Gospel accounts, I like to imagine that it was a familiar conjecture of those who traveled in the inner circle of the itinerant teach from Nazareth. Indeed, his teaching, the invitation to a way of discipleship, is difficult.  

“Does this offend you?”

Jesus offers a wondering question back to his friends. Beneath the question is a much deeper inquiry—does the truth of your humanity, your finitude, come as an affront? Does the truth of God’s boundlessness ache in the face of your own boundedness?

It is a difficult thing to come to terms with one’s own humanity. Jesus is, no doubt, fully aware of this reality. From the time of our birth, we humans are terminal, our mortality ever before us. Thank God, that is not the whole of the story.

“The words that I have spoken to you are truth and life.”

Jesus’ words are truth and life. Perhaps this statement doesn’t bid us much pause as twenty-first century readers of the Gospel; perhaps it should. 

In a world that is fading before our eyes, torn by the excesses of greed that render some full and others famished, Jesus’ words are life. In a world too often willing to settle for ‘alternative facts’ and agreeing to disagree, Jesus’ words are truth.

This is far from a throw away statement. It is a powerful declaration – Jesus words are words of truth and life.

“Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went with him.”

The truth, however, is not always good news to all, particularly when it upsets the very structures and norms that govern the community receiving the good news. The hope of freedom for the oppressed is not necessarily good news to the ears and minds of their oppressors. 

The words of truth and life for all people mean that the power structures of the status quo are going to be transformed, flipped upside down, overturned altogether. It is no surprise, then, that many turned away. 

“Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life?”

John the Gospel writer is a master storyteller; the narrative is always carefully expressed to convey the depth of theological wisdom that lay beneath. This scene is no exception.

The disciples have witnessed the seemingly impossible – thousands fed with but a few loaves of bread and couple of fish, their teacher stepping over the terror of waves and through the fierce winds to walk from the shore to their boat. They have heard the challenging words of discourse – bread that lasts, a manna greater than that which was received by their forebears in the faith, is now before them, readily available. 

Now, the final point, toward which all the tedious discourse has been pointing, is revealed – The Eternal, Incarnate Word offers, to the disciples and to us, the words of eternal life. There is nothing more satisfying to be sought and found.

And, there it is – the greatest miracle of John’s sixth chapter. Greater than the momentous feeding of the hungry masses, greater even than walking across the tumultuous sea, the great miracle proclaimed by the Evangelist is this – Jesus, the Incarnate and Eternal Word, possesses and shares, the words of eternal life. 

To whom else can we go?

The Rev. Andrew J. Hege is the Rector of St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. In his spare time, he is an avid reader, a runner, and a lover of golf. Andrew is married to Amanda and they share their home with their daughter Eleanor, who was born in 2017, and son David, born in 2021.

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