An offer of love, trust and friendship
Stephen Adam, 23 August 2015
Joshua 24: 1–2a, 14–18; John 6: 56–69
Have you ever experienced your past catching up with you, or some youthful incident suddenly resurfacing? This happened to me just a couple of weeks ago when, out of the blue, a letter I had written almost 50 years ago was returned to me.
A Gloucestershire schoolmaster had been one of those inspiring teachers any young student is fortunate to encounter – someone who had raised my academic aspirations high and taken a continuing interest in my life and career. I had some significant news to impart and I wanted Eric to be among the first to know. I have the letter here, written on best-quality, college-embossed stationery; I wrote of how in my first year at university I had decided to become a Christian and follow Jesus Christ.
Eric, a dyed-in-the-wool Baptist, rejoiced and filed the letter carefully. It was discovered by his widow in the mountain of papers in his study and she returned it to me, judging that it had marked an important step in my life. Rereading it after all those years, to be honest I rather winced. It was not just the gaucheness, the rather arrogant certainties of a young man who now has life ‘sorted’, but also, with the benefit of hindsight, I knew that the early enthusiasm of that letter had faded as the going got harder.
My subsequent faith journey has had plenty of ups and downs, with doubts and uncertainties and times of dryness – and I expect that’s true of many of us.
Our readings this morning speak into this sort of situation, for they invite us to explore big themes: loyalty, commitment and faithfulness. We don’t often hear the book of Joshua in our services, perhaps because it’s full of images of war and bloodthirsty battles and hard verses that we struggle to get our heads around – images that are quite alien to our Christian understanding.
But it’s an important turning-point in the Old Testament narrative, marking the transition of the Israelites from landless warriors to the landed people of Israel. Joshua reminds them of God’s faithfulness in bringing them safely through their wilderness wanderings after the Exodus, and challenges them, ‘Choose this day whom you will serve’.
You can picture the scene, the people outdoing each other to proclaim loudly their pledge of undying obedience now they’re safely in this land flowing with milk and honey. But, as we know from how the story unfolds, their obedience repeatedly proves slipshod and compromised.
How often do we make pledges or vows that we fail to live up to? Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, has commented on how ‘Israel, to a degree unique in history, produced a literature of almost uninterrupted self-criticism’, for the Hebrew Bible – our Old Testament – chronicles just what a fractious and wayward people they became, repeatedly turning away from God.
It becomes the task of the prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and others – to remind them of their vocation amid all sorts of seductive alternatives, and to point them back to reimagine life with reference to the God they had promised to obey to the exclusion of all other idols.
Does God weep over this impenitence? Hosea puts it like this: ‘What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early’ (6: 4). Yet even though his chosen people repeatedly prove faithless, God never gives up on them. The Hebrew Bible affirms how God has entered into a bond of love and trust with his people, a covenant that cannot be broken.
Covenant is a key word in the Hebrew Bible, where it occurs more than 250 times. No one put it more simply than the prophet Hosea, in words that Jews say to this day every weekday morning at the start of their prayers: ‘I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice, love and compassion. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord.’ Covenant is what allows us to face the future without fear, because we are not alone. The purest line of covenant says, ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me’.
This is the same God whose nature is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. And if we turn to our gospel reading this morning, we find that Joshua’s challenge to his people, ‘Choose this day whom you will serve’, is put in a slightly different way by Jesus to his disciples: ‘Do you also wish to go away?’
The crowd had been wowed by the physical provision Jesus had made – remember the feeding of the 5,000 at the beginning of the chapter – but this is no longer some picnic by the lakeside. Instead Jesus talks to them about a far bigger picture, about himself, about his own flesh as their spiritual food. Following me won’t be easy, Jesus is saying, but it’s only by complete identification with me as the living bread that it becomes possible for you to share in the real, eternal life I can offer.
Those following Jesus find this hard. It’s not that Jesus’ talking is too abstract and difficult to understand; rather that this way of thinking sounds far too costly and uncomfortable, too hard to accept. It’s all too challenging, turning their worldview upside down.
It’s not that Jesus’ talking is too abstract and difficult to understand; rather that this way of thinking sounds far too costly and uncomfortable.
And so Jesus’ invitation meets a range of responses: complaint, disbelief, rejection and, of course, ultimately betrayal. We read that ‘many of his disciples turned back’. That was their choice.
Jesus gives Peter the choice of staying with him or of joining the others in full flight to a safer, easier life. Peter responds with the immortal words – perhaps also our words? – ‘Lord, to whom shall we go?’
Note that Peter doesn’t offer any fully worked-out theology as a reason, or make some mental cost-benefit analysis. No, it’s a simple act of faith and commitment as Jesus wonders whether his last few friends will also leave him.
Peter is at the beginning of a journey of faith, which would only reach its true fullness through the experience of the cross and resurrection; and so too our faith is always an initial one, and like Peter we have a long journey ahead of us.
We warm to Peter, rash and impetuous as he is. But his initial naïve enthusiasm will be followed by all too human weaknesses, culminating in his fearful denial that he had ever set eyes on Jesus. The cock crows; Peter weeps. He knows all too well bitterness and humiliation, and how his love fails when put to the test. But Jesus doesn’t give up on him despite his fragility. In a beautiful passage at the end of John’s gospel, in the bright morning light beside the lake, he encounters the risen Christ who accepts him just as he is, despite the limited love of which he has been capable.
In a sense our two readings remind us of what we have known ever since we first became Christians, that God puts us on the spot and invites us to choose whether we will believe in him, whether we will put our faith and trust in him, whether we will serve him or not.
And we say ‘yes’ not necessarily because we think we have all the answers, but because in a very deep sense God is already holding us in the palm of his hand and has brought us to where we are; and we recognise in Jesus what is true and attractive, what is of eternal worth that no one and nothing else can give us.
For sure, our way will never be easy; our relationship will never be free of the sinful mistrust and self-importance that this side of death belong to our human state. But what we will discover, God willing, is that Jesus invites us ever deeper into a relationship not of obedience but of friendship; a relationship of covenant love that nothing can break. Amen.