Has anyone here ever flown on a plane? If you have, raise your hand. You know, I figure that there are two kinds of people on airplanes – those who like to talk to the stranger they are sitting next to and those who don’t. You know, you either sit down to the person next to you and you are immediately curious about who they are and where they are going, or else you avoid eye contact at all costs and look at the ridiculous things to buy in SkyMall Magazine. Among pastors, there is sort of a running joke about that time on a plane when someone asks you what you do. Most of the pastors I know either create an alias for themselves, saying that they sell paper, or they just try to keep the conversation focused on the other person. Because they know that if they say they are a pastor, they can be almost certain that they will spend the next 3.5 hours either listening to someone’s life story and problems, or they will spent the entire time defending they faith to someone who just wants to poke holes in it. But there are a few pastors who jump at the opportunity to talk about church, faith, and religion with a stranger on a plane. Rollie Martinson is one of them.
Rollie is the academic dean and a professor at Luther Seminary. He tells a story about a time when he was on a plane. During the meal, he and the man next to him exchanged greetings and politely introduced themselves. But then, after a few minutes into the conversation, Rollie, who is never shy and always direct, turns to the man and says, “So…do you go to church?” The man responds, “You know, funny you should ask. We have all of our lives, but we just quit.” The man goes on to tell Rollie how six weeks earlier, his family had returned home from church and they sat down together and asked, “What happened this morning? What did we do? Did it matter? Did it have any impact on our life?” And they discovered, as they listened to one another, that very little of significance happened. They learned that church really wasn’t engaging them and the experiences they face in real life. They realized that the church speaks in a language they don’t understand and it just doesn’t seem to make any difference. And in light of all the other things going that they felt did impact their life, they wondered why they continued to go to church. So they quit.
How do you respond to that? Does the church still have significance in your life or do you get where this man is coming from? Does the church speak a language you feel you can understand, or not so much? I mean we use phrases to talk about Jesus like, “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being of the Father.” We talk about resurrection from the dead and power through death, the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, loving your enemies, and atonement. Some days, it seems like the things we say within these four walls feels about as clear as mud.
A similar thing is going on in the gospel story for today. Jesus is speaking a language that the people around him don’t quite understand. Now watch how they respond.
This is the last week of five in which we hear about Jesus as the bread of life. Jesus is still preaching to that crowd of 5000 that he fed with a couple of loaves and fish. But the meal Jesus offers them doesn’t come from the fields or the sea, but from his very own body. Jesus says to them that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will abide in him and he will abide in them. And that whoever does this will live forever. The crowd, who are now referred to as disciples, say to themselves, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it.” But the English translation – “difficult,” doesn’t quite get at what the Greek word there really means. The word really means “hard”, as in solid and dense, something that would leave a bruise if it hit you in the arm. So what the crowd is saying is that this teaching is like banging your head against a brick wall. It’s hard. You can’t quite break through it. You can’t understand it. This is craziness, they are saying. This is insane. This doesn’t make any sense. But does Jesus slow down? Make it softer? Does he explain any of it? No. Jesus ramps the sermon up a bit, saying, “Well, if that offends you, what if you see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. But among you, there are some who don’t believe.” I mean, does anyone understand what Jesus is talking about? They certainly don’t. And so they leave. The crowd of 5000 disciples leaves. Just like the family of the man on the plane. You know, when things start to lose their meaning or you don’t really feel like you understand, it is pretty tempting to just leave, isn’t it? It just goes to show that…Jesus wasn’t really all that good at church growth. I mean, he went from a congregation of thousands to one of about a dozen in just a matter of moments.
But did you notice what Jesus does when the people leave? Nothing. He doesn’t do anything. Why? Why not just try to make it easier to understand? Why doesn’t Jesus give the people what they want? Isn’t that what most churches would do if put in a similar situation? If people are leaving a church in droves, the church would try to spice up the worship with a guitar and drum set. It would try to make the sermons more interactive with a screen and cool videos. But Jesus…just lets them leave, without a word.
And, I don’t know about you, but there is something about it that speaks volumes of love to me. To be given the freedom to walk away. To be given a choice. To be told, “You can stay or you can leave. It’s up to you. I won’t force you either way.” Seems like a lot of love.
But then we get one of the saddest lines in all of Scripture…Jesus looks at the twelve disciples remaining, and he says, “Do you wish to go away too?” Anyone who has ever been abandoned by their friends or their colleagues, anyone who has suddenly found themselves isolated and alone, knows the depths of Jesus’ heart and fear in this very moment. “Do you wish to go away too,” he asks his friends
And Peter has this beautiful line, a line that we sing every Sunday, “Alleluia, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia, Alleluia.” To whom can we go, Peter says. The twelve disciples stand their ground; they aren’t going anywhere. But you know, this line from Peter, it sounds like a confident statement of faith. But there is part of me that hears in it exhaustion as well. These disciples have left everything behind, their families and jobs and friends. And now that the crowd has left…where else are they to go? Might as well, keep following Jesus.
Which makes me wonder, why are you here? Why do you keep following Jesus? What have you come to church looking for?
I read a story this week, where a Presbyterian pastor in Philadelphia spoke about a newcomer to church, who had attended a new member class but was reluctant to join. He’d been a Unitarian. He’d read authors Dan Brown, Bart Ehrman and Sam Harris. He wasn’t sure if he was a skeptic, a seeker or an agnostic, but he was pretty sure he was not a Presbyterian. And so he asked a lot of questions – mostly about the creeds, other religions, the relationship between faith and science and what it means to believe in Jesus. He smiled and listened politely when the pastor tried to answer his question, but it just wasn’t doing it. Finally, the man said, “Thanks. I appreciate your time, but I just don’t think (church) is for me.” So they shook hands and parted ways. He, like, Jesus, gave him the freedom to leave.
The next Sunday, the pastor, in the middle of the service, watched as this very same man slipped into a pew at the back. He sang some hymns. He didn’t say the creeds. When it was time for communion, the man shuffled his way forward alongside everyone else. The pastor was tempted to ask him then and there what had changed, but instead, he simply said, “The body of Christ, given for you,” and placed it into the man’s hand. Then after the service, the pastor said, “Hey, I didn’t expect to be seeing you again.” The man simply smiled and shrugged. It was as if he was saying, “Where else am I to go?”
Oh yeah, and the man from the plane earlier. Rollie asked him to talk to his pastor before quitting the church. The man told his pastor everything and the pastor said, “I would like to interview you for one of my sermons.” So the man shared his story of wanting to quit the church during the interview with the congregation and afterwards, 13 people came up to him and expressed that they felt exactly the same way. And now…that man has partnered with the pastor to start a group within the church that gets together to share real stories from their lives as a way to think about and engage their own faith life. It became something that matter for him and his life and now that man and his family have returned to church.
I don’t know why you are here today. But I do know this whole faith thing isn’t easy. At times, it can be exhausting. Especially when suicides seem to be around every corner, when crops are withered and wasted by drought, when people are still looking for jobs and just trying to get through year okay.
But where else can we go? Where else can we at least join to together in the struggle and mystery of this life? And that’s just it. It is something we do together. Notice that Peter didn’t say, “Lord to whom can I go?” No, he said, “Lord, to whom can we go.” This life of faith is not something we do on our own. We go together. It is something we share together. In relationship. And when it is shared, we make up the body of Christ.
And so in times of uncertainty and when there is the temptation to leave, may we, like the disciples, also come to know that Jesus, the bread of life, the one who abides within you and those next to you is the Holy One of God. The one with the words to eternal life. To whom else can we go?
Sing again with me, “Alleluia, Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia, Alleluia.” AMEN