“Choose this Day”

August 22, 2021

John 6:56–69 (Old Testament Joshua 24: 1–2, 14–18)

This is the last in a series of five Sundays that draws on John 6 for the Gospel:

· John 6:1–21 — feeding of the 5,000 & Jesus walking on water

· John 6:24–35 — controversy over the bread God gives

· John 6:35,41–51 — controversy over Jesus

· John 6:51–58 — eat my flesh, drink my blood

· John 6:56–69 — Jesus loses many disciples

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.’ He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So, Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’”

*** ***

The past 18 months of pandemic have provided opportunity to learn many lessons about the human family, the human condition and human allegiances. One lesson that seems prominent is the varying notions about the choices that we have or do not have at our fingertips. Throughout much of the past year, we had no choice about entering some churches because they were closed. Children in many schools had no choice but to stay home. But we always had choices about protecting ourselves from heightened risk of infection by adopting basic safety measures. For many people pandemic protocols established by public and private organizations continue to be seen as a conflict between individual rights versus safety and the good of community.

Life is full of choices and decisions. With regard to the measures to promote individual and public safety against a global pandemic, deciding for mask wearing and taking the vaccine are scientifically proven to be the best choices for the greatest number of people. Doing so is a contribution to the common good and people all over the globe. However, the conflict over choice and freedom persists. Some believe we have vast freedom to choose whether to adopt such actions. For others, choosing to comply to both mask wearing and vaccine in order to contribute to public health and the wellbeing of self and others is paramount. Yet others believe we do not really have any choice because someone else more powerful than us chooses for us.

Today’s Gospel along with the accompanying Old Testament reading from Joshua 24 raises the question, “What does it mean to choose God?” Both passages make clear, choice matters. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua tells the Israelites as they present themselves before God at Shechem.

In John, Jesus asks the handful of disciples still with him after teaching of challenging beliefs, “Do you also want to go away?” Many people had taken offense at his teachings and walked away. Jesus had taught some shocking things. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” “Whoever eats me will live because of me.” Here at the end of chapter 6 there is a fork in the road and for everyone it is a time to choose.

Now, before any of my erudite Lutheran readers start to bristle about the concept of people choosing God, let me point out that what is at stake in these decision in both passages is not the identity or eternal security of the choosers. In Joshua, the Israelites are already chosen and beloved of God. They have a long history with God — a history of deliverance from slavery, manna in the desert, and steady direction in the wilderness. Likewise in John, the people who abandon Jesus are not starry-eyed newbies; John makes clear that they are already Christ’s “disciples.” Jesus has fed them, taught them, healed them, and loved them.

No, what is at stake in both stories is whether or not God’s already-beloved-and-rescued children will choose — today, daily, always — to live fully into who they are as children of God. It is a call to hold in tension two amazing and paradoxical truths: one, that God has already chosen us. And two, that we are therefore invited to choose (or not choose) God in return, not once or twice, but over and over again.

What does it mean to choose God? According to Jesus, it means “eating” his very essence, taking the “Word made flesh” (John chapter 1) so deeply into our bodies and souls that we exude the flavor of Christ to the world. It means doing what Jesus did and living as Jesus lived. It means turning the other cheek. It means loving neighbor, even our enemies. It means losing our lives in order to gain them. It means trusting that the first will be last and the last first. It means denying ourselves. It means the cross.

Honestly, at this point in John chapter 6 it is stunning that Jesus had any followers left. The real miracle of the bread and fish story is not that Jesus fed five thousand people with a bagged lunch. It is that even a handful of those people stuck around when he was finished teaching that mere bread is not the source of authentic life. “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (v. 63).

So, to those closest disciples who remain with Jesus that day, He asks, “Do you also want to go away?” Do you find something vulnerable and poignant in the question? I imagine Jesus asks it sadly, but with his characteristic compassion and understanding. He knows full well what he is asking of his followers, and he wants them to know that his love is a freeing love. They are free to walk away.

What have the times in your life looked like when you have thought of walking away … from the church, from Christianity, from Jesus himself? “Do you also want to go away?” Jesus asked. The question has made people uncomfortable for centuries because the answer is sometimes yes. There are times we do not like believing that belief entails some already made for us choices. Forgive. Give. Do not judge. Put yourself last. Love everyone and love always.

The truth is, even the most devout among us have times when we would rather pick an easier, less demanding, less costly version of believing in and living like Jesus. But here’s the deal: that version does not exist. It just plain doesn’t.

Choose this day. “Do you also want to go away?” The disciple Peter hears that question and while often bold and brash he doesn’t shout out “No!” He simply responds with a question of his own, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” It is not an enthusiastic, flattering question. Peter doesn’t “yes” or “no.” He just responds with a question of his own. A searching one. “Lord, what are the alternatives? We are on the way to knowing you, for we already believe in you; To whom else can we go?” (v 69).

What does it mean to choose God? It is a question we must keep asking ourselves because the choice never goes away. Choose this day. And tomorrow. Then all along the way “take and eat” of Him –so as to exude the flavor of Christ to the world while believing the promise of the Chooser who says, “whoever eats me will live because of me” and “the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.