The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jos 24:1-2a, 14-18; Ps 34:15-22
Eph 6:10-20; Jn 6:56-69
Choose you this day whom you will serve. (Josh 24:15)
Today’s reading from Joshua is one of my all-time favorites; it’s one of the great scenes in Scripture. It takes place at the very end of Israel’s wanderings. You all remember the story: they had been slaves in Egypt; they had wandered forty years in the wilderness until they could learn to trust the Lord; God raised up Joshua to lead them over the Jordan into the Promised Land. And now, at the end of Joshua’s life, after the Hebrews had conquered the land; after they had been settled in their homes and fields and vineyards for many years; after they had enjoyed many years of rest Joshua convenes them one last time and offers them a challenge: “Choose you this day which god you will serve.” And after all the benefits the people had received from God, they cry out, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord!”
But what does it mean to choose to serve the Lord?
First, it means we make a choice. Following Jesus is not a passive experience; it is a commitment. A wise priest I knew liked to say, “Going to church is a decision you make once, not a choice you make each Sunday.” He was speaking, of course, of fidelity: of what we mean when we make a promise to be in relationship with one another. Not a casual relationship, like you might have with the server at your favorite coffee shop or bistro. A real relationship, like you might have with a spouse, a parent, or a child — if you’re lucky. A relationship in which you are there for each other, the kind of relationship in which, if one person fails another, it really hurts.
That’s the kind of relationship we enter into when we are baptized, and it’s the kind of relationship Joshua is asking the Hebrew people to consider when he invites them to renew the Covenant with God. “Covenant” is a word we do not use everyday, and some of the ways we have used it are broken indeed, but the covenant God made with the Hebrew people was a binding relationship of fidelity, much like a marriage. God actually entered into a series of covenants with humankind: the first with Adam; the second with Noah, signed with a rainbow; the third with Abraham; the fourth with Moses and all the Hebrew people; the fifth with King David; the last, if you wish to count it that way, with all humankind through Jesus Christ.
In each covenant, God promised to be faithful to humankind, that even when we were not faithful to God, God would not walk away from us. God might punish us by allowing them to live in the broken world of our choosing. God might even send us into exile for a time. But always, when we cry to God and seek to be faithful again, God will hear us.
That’s the kind of faithful love we step into when we are baptized: not love which is unconditional in the sense that God doesn’t care whether we mature and grow, but love which is unconditional in the sense that God will help us mature and grow, come what may. God meets us where we are, nurtures us, seeking not children who remain infants, but children who grow into Christian maturity. Way back in Genesis, at the time of Creation, Scripture records that “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’” The theologians of the Orthodox Church noted those two words, image and likeness, and made them a hinge of our life in faith. They teach that every human being is made in the image of God, meaning that every person is seeded with divine potential. But it is our task, over the course of our lives, to grow into the likeness of God, to develop that capacity until we can embody God’s love.
And so the life of faith takes a dual commitment: there is the commitment we make once and for all at our baptism, the commitment to live in relationship with Christ, to accept him and his teachings as the way God speaks love into our lives. It means that Jesus is the center of our lives, that everything else will be subordinate to his demands on us. The second commitment we make every day: choose you this day which God you shall serve. The god of money? The god of power? The god of prestige or of good reputation? The god of kindness? The god of ego? Each choice we make shapes who we become, and our habits shape our souls.
“Habit” feels like a dull word: it suggests the things that we do mindlessly, without thinking about them. And yet, no less a teacher than Aristotle wrote that “virtue is not an act, but a habit.” When I get out of bed in the morning, I kiss my dogs, put on the kettle for tea, and then begin my prayers. I don’t have to consider those things: they just happen. Prayer happens, whether I am eager to pray or not, whether I am focused and clear or whether my mind is jumping around like a rabbit, because it is part of what I do. It is in practicing what is good that we become rooted in it, until it is there for us in our time of need.
Today’s gospel reading bring us Jesus at a time of need, perhaps at the nadir of his ministry. Jesus has been traveling and performing miracles; he has taught and healed and fed and attracted a large following, and today, they all walk out on him. And Jesus stands there in the ashes of his work and he turns to his disciples, the ones he picked for himself and created for this and called by name, and he asks them, “Do you — also — wish to go away?” (John 6:67) It’s a moment of appalling vulnerability, one little boy reaching out to another and begging not to be left in the dark. “Do you also wish to go away?” And they don’t say, “No.” They don’t say, “We want to stay. We really want to stay.” Instead they ask, “Where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”(John 6:68) They stay because they see no other choice that is true, that is real, that gives life. They have been rooted in Christ so deeply that they can remain with him when it is difficult.
But what did Jesus say that drove so many away? What were these words of life? I don’t believe that the Jews really thought Jesus was urging them to commit cannibalism. I don’t believe they were really offended because they thought he was ranking himself with Moses or comparing himself to manna. I believe that he spoke a truth they did not want to hear: love costs. Life lived well is about being consumed: consumed by our spouses, consumed by our work, consumed by our children, by our joys, by the crazy stuff that happens and derails our plans and turns our lives upside-down and takes everything we’ve got to give and then — only then — shows us its blessing. We take everything we are and offer it to everything that comes our way, and the thing we hold back is the thing that cheats us. Jesus said it more elegantly in other places: “The measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matt 7:2) “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, …Give to everyone who begs from you.” (Luke 6:27-28, 30) “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake …will find it.” (Mark 8:35) These are the choices we make when we choose to follow Jesus.
My friends, there are plenty of other gods, tame gods: gods who say other things. When the Hebrews had crossed the Red Sea and were wandering in the wilderness, crying out for the food they used to eat in Egypt, for the melons, the cucumbers, the garlic, they were hankering after a different god, a less true one. (Num 11:15) They wanted a god who would promise them abundance and let them pretend the price hadn’t been slavery. They wanted, in short, an idol.
Idols are easy; they let you offer sacrifice on your own terms. When you need something, you go to Baal or to Astarte or to Mithras and you offer up your goat or your raisin-cake; when you don’t want anything, they leave you alone, — because they don’t exist. They offer us an illusory world in which sacrifice is optional, in which good things can be had without real cost, or else for costs that we determine, prices that we are willing to pay. They let us pretend that we can live life on our own terms, and not on terms set by our parents, our neighbors, our loved ones, our God.
Jesus did not set his own terms; when he spoke to the crowds about flesh and blood and eternal life, he knew his betrayer was among the listeners. He knew that the price of his love would be everything he had to give, the price of his love for us. He had already made that choice, long before, when he chose to come and pitch his tent among us. The poet R.S. Thomas imagines it this way:
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, A river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said. (“The Coming”)
Let me go there.
When Joshua challenged the people, “Choose you this day which God you shall serve,” (Josh 24:15, 17) he was offering them the choice between the gods who peddle pretty lies and the one who offers the harsh wine of freedom, the gods who sell cheap delusions or the one who tells you the truth and gives you the strength and courage to live it. The gods who pretend you can keep your life, or the one who shows you how to give it away for love before it is taken from you.
While I was living in Alabama, my mentor died, and, like all deaths that count, this one dredged up all the others that also cost, all the grief that will never quite go away. And I sat in the office of a wise priest and said I felt like my life was a quilt that I was sewing except that the pieces kept going away, and I knew that I couldn’t replace them. The only thing I could do was learn somehow to make a quilt in which the missing pieces were part of the pattern, in which they wouldn’t destroy the beauty, but reveal it even in its tatters.
That’s what Jesus was saying to that crowd: that loss and grief are so closely woven into this life that without them you cannot see the depth of love and beauty which keep you alive. You will know the ones who love you, not by their pristine beauty, but by the scars on their flesh left by the pieces of themselves that they have given you. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53) Unless you are willing to see that the cost of your life is the love others give you, you cannot honor their sacrifice or know their love. You will have closed your eyes to eternity, when it is shining all around you.
Choose you this day, says Joshua, and we do. We choose each day which gods we serve, the gods who give us their life or the ones who feed on ours. After the resurrection, Jesus comes among the disciples with his tattered flesh and offers them fish and asks, “Do you love me?” And when they say, “Yes,” he says “Feed my sheep.” He is not talking about fish. He means they should feed them with his love and ours until they are as worn and tattered and glorious as he is.
We stand today where they stood, at a time of great difficulty, looking at the love which will be required to live it well, and Jesus asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” while the predator gods sing songs that are so very alluring. And so we come here and put on the armor of Christ, the armor that does not keep us whole, but that prepares us to give ourselves away and to receive the gifts of others. Truthfulness, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, the Word of God, prayer. For this choice, this struggle is not with something external, not angels or demons or flesh or blood. This struggle lies within ourselves; it weighs the very thoughts and intentions of our hearts. (Heb 4:12)
But it is the real thing: life in this world, and eternal life to come. There is no other God who trusts us with all the truth of this life. There is no other God who gives himself into our lives, who strengthens us with his very flesh. He has the words of eternal life; he is the Word of Life. Taste him, and live.