By Poulson C. Reed
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our gospel reading today continues our lectionary’s deep dive into John 6, a chapter we have been exploring for the past five weeks. This morning we find Jesus still trying to explain how he is the bread of life and cup of salvation, with even his closest followers struggling to comprehend.
Despite all that they have seen him do, his disciples cannot accept that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood, and that, if they do so, he will abide in them, causing them to live forever. Later, they will understand more fully, but at this point Jesus’ teaching seems bizarre, far-fetched, and rather gruesome.
“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” they ask. And by the passage’s end, we are told that not just some but many of his disciples turned back and no longer went along with him.
Even Jesus’ innermost circle, the 12, seem reluctant to go along. “Do you also wish to go away?” Jesus asks them. “Lord, to whom can we go?” Simon Peter says. “You have the words of eternal life.”
Paired with this gospel story of the disciples struggling to understand and follow Jesus, we have a famous passage from the last chapter of the book of Joshua.
Joshua gathers the Israelites, and reminds them of all that God has done for them (most of which is cut out of our passage for today).
And then, nearing his death, he challenges them to make a choice: follow the one God, who has loved and cared for them in every generation going back to Abraham. Or choose that very day to follow other gods.
“As for me and my household,” Joshua says, “we will serve the Lord.”
As usual, how relevant these ancient stories are to our contemporary world, if we think about them!
For in our lives as people of faith, we are constantly offered a similar choice: will we follow God, or not?
But, we may say, I don’t worship other gods, like some of the Israelite followers of Joshua. But do we?
To worship is defined as “to honor or respect something as a god.” How often do we worship wealth, or status, an addiction, privilege or power? We honor and respect as gods people we admire, or those we think can help us.
Everyone idolizes something or someone, but quite often it is not exclusively the living God, who has loved and cared for humanity since the dawn of time.
And so, today, Joshua’s words ring in our ears: choose this day whom you will serve.
How does evil work in our hearts? So often it is through complacency.
Very few of us wake up one day and say: today I’m going to cheat someone in my business, or I’m going to be unfaithful to my spouse, or today I’m going to be rude to the barista at the coffee shop or to an employee below me on the org chart, to make myself feel important.
Emotionally healthy, basically good people rarely make a conscious choice to do evil. No, the devil tempts us gradually through our complacency.
We make a hundred small, selfish decisions. Faced with the choice to follow God and God’s ways, which we know will be harder than our status quo, we procrastinate, we put it off.
The young Saint Augustine, who liked to have a good time and wasn’t sure he really wanted to live as a devout Christian, famously prayed to God: “Lord, make me chaste. But not yet!”
You may remember the moment in the gospels when Jesus calls a man to follow him, and the man says, yes I will, but first let me bury my father. “Let the dead bury their own dead. Come, follow me,” says Jesus.
Jesus had no patience for those who wanted to delay coming with him, or those who were lukewarm in their faith. Jesus offered those he called as disciples a choice, right then and there. Follow me, now, or don’t. There’s nothing in between.
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes that “the road to Hell is a gradual one: the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
In other words, when we choose to delay following God in Jesus Christ, we drift, ever so gradually, and before we know it, we are truly lost. The road to hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions.
Choose this day whom you will serve. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
But how do we do this? Once we have decided to follow God, to bite the bullet and not delay any further, what does that look like?
We Episcopalians are not the altar call kind of church! So don’t worry, I’m not going to invite those who feel moved by the Spirit to come up and make a testimony!
But we do surely make a choice. And it culminates in baptism, one of the two sacraments that Jesus himself taught us to practice. Baptism is to make the choice whom we will serve, whom we will follow.
Every time we baptize someone new into the life of Christ in the Church, we all are reminded of what we ourselves have promised. And what we promise is a radical choice: to turn away from sin and death and follow Jesus Christ as our Lord, with God’s help.
I was talking with someone once about baptism. I’m waiting to be baptized, they said, until I’ve got my life together. My advice was, if we all waited to be baptized until we had our life together, no one would ever be baptized! We get baptized, and God helps us get our life together.
And so, if you are cruising along with a passive faith, a one day a week or once a month Christian, seeking the comfort but not the challenge of spirituality, living for yourself and not others, with all kinds of idols that you worship that are not God, this first reading today from Joshua may be God’s way of speaking to you.
Choose this day whom you will serve.
But, we may say, don’t we who are baptized make a choice for God, but then slip back into our old ways all the time? Yes, of course, just as the Israelites who promised to follow Joshua in serving the Lord quickly fell away, and did so over and over again.
And that, my friends, is the good news of Jesus Christ. God realized that humanity would be caught in an endless loop: choosing to follow God, then falling away, then following God, then falling, forever.
That is the story of the whole Old Testament: God’s enduring and constant love and forgiveness for fickle human beings, who are amazing one moment and awful the next, worshiping God now with all their hearts, and the next day idols of their own devising.
So in the fullness of time God sent his son, Jesus, and Jesus gave us baptism, in order to choose God.
And then Jesus gave us the Eucharist, Holy Communion, to sustain us when we grow weak, fill us when we are empty of hope, and unite us to Christ when we can’t do it on our own.
It is in this weekly pattern of the Eucharist, sharing the Body and Blood of Christ, that we are forgiven, again and again, and strengthened to go out into this crazy world, bringing Good News to others.
This sacrament isn’t magic. It is an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace that is our abiding with Jesus, and he with us.
Is choosing to follow and serve God hard? You bet it is. To love God and our neighbor every day as much as we love ourselves, to live out our baptismal promises, is difficult.
But in our Holy Communion, Jesus fills us with his strength, for this life and the life to come. We can do it, with his help, because his yoke is easy and his burden is light, because he is doing most of the work.
That is such Good News. He is such wonderful, incredible, joyful Good News.
If we choose to follow Jesus on his path, we may wander from time to time, but we will never get lost. And we may feel empty from time to time, but we will always be fed.
And not only we ourselves, but all those who we invite to come along. Amen.
The Rt. Rev. Poulson C. Reed is Bishop of Oklahoma.