Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 08/26/2018

After five weeks we come to the end of the Bread of Life discourse and it’s not exactly a happy ending with some of the disciples saying, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” and that followed by, “Because of this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”

As is the case with pretty much any biblical text, while presenting an account of things that had happened many years before, more than likely the text also reflects what was going on in the community at the time it was written. All of the gospels report enthusiastic crowds following Jesus during the years of his ministry, but you know that some had to have drifted away when they found out Jesus wasn’t who they wanted him to be, whether what they wanted was a military/political leader to get rid of the Romans or if they were hoping for a miracle worker always ready to do their bidding.

When John’s gospel was written some 60 or 70 years later, the same kind of thing was no doubt happening in his community; some would persist in the faith, but others, for whatever reasons, would drift away finding other things to do, perhaps other gods to worship because following Jesus didn’t seem to be getting them anywhere. If anything, it was making life more difficult as they ran into persecution by groups who were hostile to those who claimed to be Christians.

Here we are, almost 2000 years later and things haven’t changed a whole lot. I don’t think anyone around here is being persecuted for going to church on Sunday morning; it’s not that. But…those who attend church regularly represent a smaller and smaller percentage of the population. For many, faith in God and religious practice are not reasonable so they’ve rejected it, they’ve drifted away. After all, you can’t prove any religious claims according to any rational, scientific methods, so what’s the point. Such people are not necessarily hostile to God and the church, just indifferent and they do find other ways to spend their Sunday morning.

Most troubling, for me anyway, are those who used to attend church, but who don’t anymore, whatever their reasons might be. “Many turn back and no longer go about with him” is still a pretty common phenomena. We all know people, for most of us we’re related to people for whom that is the case.

And yet…there are those who persist. There are those who join Peter in saying, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” The words are familiar, frequently said as part of the gospel acclamation. I wonder though, with what degree of conviction did Peter make that statement? It’s followed with what seems to be great conviction, “We have come to believe that you are the Holy One of God,” but was Peter just giving what he was pretty sure was the right answer, maybe the way we might sometimes say the words of the creed?

I don’t know, but “Lord, to whom shall we go?” could also be Peter’s way of just kind of shrugging his shoulders and saying, “I don’t understand everything about you. Your teachings are difficult and hard to accept, but…despite all that, I somehow think you are what I’m looking for. I’m not giving up.” From the time of Jesus until now, there have been and always will be those who give up, those who drift away, those who, if they’re looking for meaning in life at all, are pretty sure it’s not going to be found in Jesus or in the life of the church. But there also have been and always will be those of us who, with whatever degree of conviction say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Despite our inability to understand perfectly, we keep coming back.

Speaking of understanding though, last Sunday, having arranged to have Michael and Doug lead worship here, I drove down to Iron Mountain and with my interest in icons and Orthodox theology I worshiped at St. Mary’s Orthodox Church. While the style of worship in an Orthodox church is very different, the basic structure is quite similar to what we do with prayers, readings, a sermon and Holy Communion. (I told the priest, Father Mark, that he gave a good grace filled Lutheran sermon.) In some remarks he made at the end of worship though, and in conversation I had with him afterwards, Fr. Mark mentioned that an Orthodox faith journey focuses more on participation than it does on intellectual understanding or to put in another way, you come to understand, you grow in faith not just by hearing and listening but by physically participating in the liturgy and the life and rituals and sacraments of the church.

I think that as Lutherans and many other denominations as well, we can learn from that. Historically, one of the strengths of the Lutheran tradition has been preaching, hearing the word proclaimed. That’s not a bad thing in fact one hopes that it’s a good thing and it is a good thing until worship is just about the sermon and everything else we do is just kind of window dressing. When that happens, apart from listening to the sermon, the level of participation among those present is lower and the power of the entire liturgy to transform us is lost or diminished. The experience of worship and growing in faith isn’t just about greater intellectual understanding but should involve the participation of our entire being, the use of all of our senses, the use of the feeling and emotional part of our brain as well as the thinking and reasoning part.

The Orthodox make that kind of participation an emphasis, but our liturgy, while different from what they do, at its best and when it’s done well, has the same transformative power if one participates fully in it from the Prelude and Order of Confession and Forgiveness until the Closing Hymn and Dismissal. Those who drift away and, as it were, no longer go about with Jesus, they lose out on the liturgy’s power of transformation. Those who say “I believe in God but I just don’t like church or church is boring” they also miss out on the transformative power of the liturgy. Church is a lot less boring if, after joining Peter and saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” one is then fully present and participating.

The transformation that is available is not a quick fix however, and perhaps indirectly, that too is reflected as we come to the end of the Bread of Life discourse. One of the words that occurs frequently in John is “abide;” it’s part of today’s reading: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” It’s not a word we use a whole lot; Abide With Me is a favorite hymn for some of us; you sometimes might hear it said that you have to abide by the rules but still it’s not a word you hear every day. In John, the word that gets translated as abide pretty much means remain with or stay with. In today’s reading those who abide with Jesus are those who join Peter in saying, “Lord to whom shall we go?”

Abiding though, is a process not a one and done or been there, done that kind of thing. The way the whole Bread of Life discourse is written reflects that process, in fact one could argue that the way the whole gospel of John is written reflects that process. Those of us who preach might whine about five weeks of bread in the middle of the summer and if you were here every Sunday for these five weeks you too might find it a bit much. The way John is written though, you can’t get it all with just a quick reading. He almost forces you go back, to slow down, to consider and reconsider the words and images he uses because abiding takes time; five weeks of the bread of life allows some time.

At the end here though, we remember that the primary goal is not understanding. The goal isn’t to say after five weeks, “OK, now I’ve got it.” The goal is abiding, the goal is being present to and with Jesus. It took me a long time to figure that out about John, that abiding with Jesus is what he is trying to describe. Now instead of being my least favorite gospel it’s probably my favorite, a great resource on the “Lord, to whom shall we go?” journey of discipleship.

Many will turn back and no longer go about with Jesus, but some will persist because, as Peter said to Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life.”

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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