Good morning! Welcome to St. John’s. If you are visiting, I bid you special welcome. Please let us know who you are and join us at Coffee Hour.
If this is your first visit, it may be your lucky day. When I came here for the first time 6 years ago next week, it was one of the luckiest days of my long life.
Recently, my spiritual director asked: “What do you think your growing edge is?” Well, that stumped me. “Growing edge” is a term for annual performance reviews at work. And I’m retiring! So I asked her, “what do you mean: my growing edge as a spouse?” She said “your growing edge as a human being.” After a brief pause I replied, “Trusting God.”
Trust. That’s what I want to talk about today. And it is what today’s gospel text is all about. It’s the final part in John chapter 6, which we’ve been reading this month. The chapter began with Jesus’ feeding the 5,000. The crowds have followed Jesus as he zigzagged across the Sea of Galilee. They were drawn by the miracles—healing, feeding, whatever this magician rabbi might offer up.
For their troubles, they got a long, graphic, puzzling sermon about Jesus being the bread of life. Even for folks like us who celebrate communion every week, the idea of drinking blood and eating flesh is hard to hear. (Could be worse: the Greek words are better translated ‘gnawing’ and ‘guzzling’!) For people at that time, it was bizarre and shocking.
The four gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death–each to a different community with its own particular issues. They all were written against the backdrop of Roman persecution and in the midst of controversies about beliefs and practices. Like calling bread and wine “body and blood,” for example. No wonder that early Christians were accused of being cannibals.
Apparently John’s community was particularly hostile to the Eucharist. So, here, Jesus insists on it. Just a few verses earlier he says categorically, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” That exclusivity rankles even today; and like the disciples who fell away I say “this teaching is difficult.” Then I recall the context. The Johannine community was small, embattled, struggling for legitimacy, for life. You were with them or you were not.
This episode encapsulates the struggle that Jesus’ early followers faced. When their friends and family rejected them, some turned away from Jesus. Jesus let them go; he accepted their choice. The faith needed people who were fully committed, who were willing to sacrifice many things–including, if necessary, their own lives.
It still does.
Following Jesus has always been a choice, a decision. The original disciples knew Jesus as a man, a teacher, a spiritual leader, a healer. Their choice was existential—based on their experience of that relationship.
How do we make the choice?
For me the choice was and is, existential, too—based on my experiences. I suspect the same is true of most people.
Our experiences will vary widely. Mine began with a classic conversion—the instantaneous experience in my body and spirit of God’s total love, forgiveness, and acceptance. I’m afraid that’s what it took. Like St. Paul I was stubborn, and riding hard in the wrong direction: I had to be knocked off of my horse. In the years since, my experience of God keeps on growing and expanding. If I pay attention now, it’s everywhere: in community, in worship, in work, in play, in sharing stories of faith with you, and in all kinds of encounters in daily life.
We trust what we know from our own experience. And I trust in all of that.
Jesus explicitly invites his disciples to trust in God and in him. The Greek word pisteuo–here translated “believe”–is most commonly translated “trust”. “Trust” came into the English language in the Middle Ages from the Old Norse word treysta: it means “to rely on, make strong and safe.”
I feel “trust” in the deep core of my body, the gut. Belief, on the other hand, is in the mind, where it is properly open to question, to doubt, to rethinking. For the longest time I said I couldn’t come back to the Episcopal church because I didn’t “believe” in the Virgin Birth. I now know: on the one hand that no words can express the infinite mystery of God; and, on the other, that with God many, many things defy reason and science. How many times have you heard of cures for which doctors admit there is no “scientific explanation”?
That’s enough for me.
Trust takes time. Trust builds on trust; it deepens with experience.
Six years ago, you welcomed me warmly and I felt at home right away. But it took time for me to trust myself as your Rector, and for you to trust me. God blessed us in the trust we share and God nurtured it. Because of that, together we kept faith and we have done good work, including some things that we didn’t think we could do.
Trust is reciprocal. It’s touching to read that Jesus trusted his closest disciples enough to ask them whether they, too, wanted to go way. Peter replied, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to trust and to know that you are the holy one of God.”
We grow in trust and faith over time. My years with you have deepened my trust in God and in myself, my own living faith.
When I went to seminary 20 years ago, I could not have said with Peter: “I have come to trust and to know that Jesus is the Holy one of God”. Now I can.
Earlier this month, when Heidi preached and Craig presided, I decided to sit with you all in the pews and revel in the worship. I was transported by the hymn “I Am the Bread of Life,” whose words come from this very gospel. I wept as we sang together “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world.” Thank you, Heidi and Chad. Thank you all for that.
* * *
On certain kinds of occasions—like weddings and ordinations—the preacher delivers a charge. I reckon that a retirement sermon is like that. So prepare yourselves. I’m going to trot out my favorite hobby horse and ride her into the sunset. It’s my variation of a formula attributed to various sages and spiritual leaders that you’ve probably heard: “Show up. Pay attention. Tell the truth. Don’t be attached to the outcome.”
Of course, telling the truth is good. But faith involves more. Faith involves being engaged, playing your part as God calls you to. That may be telling the truth, or it may be listening in silence, or praying, or acting in some life-giving way. Pay attention and you’ll see what part you have to play, AND let others play theirs, too.
“Don’t be attached to the outcome” is a way of saying “let go”—even “let go, let God”. That’s good, but we can do better there, too.
So here’s my charge to myself and to you all as we go on through our days. “Show up. Pay attention. Play your part. Trust God with the outcome.” Please repeat after me: Show up. Pay attention. Play your part. Trust God with the outcome.
All will be well, dear ones. Thank you for giving me the most joyful, fulfilling, and meaningful work of my life.
May God continue to bless you. And may God continue to bless the world through you.
Until we meet again, know you are loved.