s133g00 Somerton Park Sunday 21 27/8/2000
"to whom can we go?" John 6:68
There are lots of places to which we might go to hear "the words of eternal life". I can thoroughly recommend anyone taking units in the Diocesan course "A Big Enough Faith". I am sure that here one will indeed find words of grace and truth. Several weeks ago now, Loren Mead from the Alban Institute in Washington in the United States visited South Australia, and he spoke to gatherings of lay people at the Adelaide College of Divinity, as well as to the two-day clergy conference at Tanunda. I can personally testify to the value of his words. So often when one goes to a conference one comes away feeling guilty for not having done things correctly - whereas I came away from this Clergy Conference - thoroughly affirmed in the things I have tried to do and say. I am positive that the lay people who attended the ACD sessions would have been similarly blessed.
Some time before the lay conference I was asked by a diocesan type person to "tap people on the shoulder" to attend the lay conference - unfortunately this has become a fairly regular occurrence and I sometimes wonder if some people consider that my main job as a priest is to get you, the congregation to support this or that function. Certainly the information was put on the notice board for anyone to attend. Anyone who did attend would have been thoroughly blessed. But with this, as with everything else, it is your choice to attend or to not attend as you believe you are lead.
Of course there are quite a number here afflicted with the usual winter ills and indeed some have more serious ailments at this time. The members of this congregation are getting older, with consequent lessening ability to attend such functions. The younger members of the congregation are rightly focussed on family concerns. To expect me to make judgements as to who "can" go is inappropriate.
In both the reading from the Old Testament from Joshua and from our gospel reading from John, one senses a divine indifference to people's rather more important and fundamental choice of which god to serve. Joshua readily affirms that some may be unwilling to serve the Lord, and bids them choose. They can choose to serve the gods of their ancestors before Abraham left Mesopotamia to go to the land the Lord would give to him and to his descendants. Or they could choose to serve the gods of the people amongst whom they were dwelling - the Amorites. And it is interesting that these are both safe choices. Who could criticise the gods of their ancestors? - even the fifth of the ten commandments bids us honour our parents - so there is some justification for serving their gods. And the Amorites - there is some justification for loving our neighbour as ourselves. Joshua declares his own choice in life and invites others to follow that choice, but he does not demand obedience, on what is a fairly fundamental question in life.
And Jesus invites even his twelve closest associates to leave, and of course, at the crucial time, at his crucifixion and death, Jesus was, by his own choice and design, alone - save for the women looking from a distance.
So it may come as a shock to realise that we are given a real choice, that the salvation of the world is not dependent on our choices in life, that the kingdom does not depend on us.
Simon Peter realised, albeit perhaps dimly like us, that Jesus was the only person who accepts us as we really are. There was no point turning to the established religious authorities for whom the likes of Peter and the other disciples were amongst the other ordinary people whose offerings were accepted out of necessity to keep the institutional wheels turning.
Jesus is the only person who accepts us as we are. Often I think Jesus accepts us more than we do ourselves, as we berate ourselves for our lack of faith and the inadvertent hurts we have caused another. This is the only reality that attracts and holds us - and we flee from it only at our own peril.
Jesus invites us not to look elsewhere, but to look within ourselves and to love the person for whom he died and was raised to life, and to love the other person for whom Jesus also died and was raised to life.
Here the saying is sure, familiarity breeds contempt, and if there is any person with whom we are familiar, it is our own selves. It is only Jesus who loves us and all, and so gives us grace to love ourselves and others.
But it is our choice, to be happy with ourselves and others, as Jesus invites us to be; or to remain with our contempt for ourselves and ultimately for everyone else. It is our choice to be free, or to allow ourselves to be enslaved to all and sundry who, despising themselves, get their status despising and trying to enslave others.
A computer example - many people are scared of viruses on the internet, and it is true that they can wreak a whole lot of damage. Yet for every real virus - there are ten more hoaxes put about by people who find delight in making others fearful.
For the living God not only loves us, but God also respects us enough to give us a real choice, unsullied by sticks or carrots, by potential threats or potential rewards. It is only the living God who gives us the choice, and of course our allegiance to God is made real because of this.
I find it interesting that the armour of God described in Ephesians is all about protecting us: "the breastplate of righteousness", "the shield of faith", and "the helmet of salvation" are all about acknowledging that we are all precious and our faith protects us from those who would demand our allegiance.
Given the choice Joshua put before them the people tell him what the Lord had done for them - they knew it was "the LORD our God who brought (them) from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in (their) sight." They knew, they didn't need to be told, that it was God who "protected (them) along all the way that (they) went, and among all the peoples through whom (they) passed". (Joshua 24:17).
So I would say that if God loves me, God loves everyone. Nothing stands in my way and nothing stands in anyone else's way, to God.
The Church's proclamation is that God has already acted, in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, for you and for me and for all people. When we look at ourselves and at others through the eyes of this Jesus, then we are looking at ourselves and others in the true light. It is then that we are able and enabled to relate appropriately to ourselves and to each other.
And I wonder if it is not partly true that the religious authorities crucified Jesus because he showed up their lack of charity as they demanded obedience from others, whereas he gave people the option. Jesus took away their power.
For Jesus is prepared to wait until we perceive that a real choice is indeed offered to us. Until we perceive the reality of that choice, that God will think nothing less of us if we fail to choose because we feel pressured to do so, the extent of God's love for us is not apparent.
And as I think along these lines, I have suddenly realised why I so very infrequently talk about heaven. The difficulty about talking about heaven and eternal life, is that it can become the ultimate stick to beat those who do not believe in "my" terms into submission. Real choice is denied others, and so real love.
But perhaps I will end with a small "carrot" - in the words of Simon Peter - to whom can we go? Where else is choice offered, to one and to all? Where else do we find such love - for you and for me and for all people? I too would wonder why anyone would wish to go away. Believe in ourselves as God believes in us!
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