Words of Eternal Life

Preaching, Theology

When was the last time someone told you something which you really needed to hear? Maybe something that you didn’t want to hear? Mine was Thursday. I was sitting on the back porch of my good friend Josh, who works out in the eastern part of our county at St. Matthew’s. He painted a picture for me of what life looks like for much of the eastern side of 205, a geographic space which accounts for nearly half of Portland east of the Willamette, but one that has a scant fraction of the services we enjoy, like an adequate number of paved sidewalks or city parks, or enough nearby grocery stores. Why is it like this? What in our city planning has a vested interest in allocating more resources and encouraging more development in our city center but not in our city extremities? How does it benefit our city planning to essentially create a pocket of impoverished cheap labor just a few miles east of our largest concentration of upper class white people? Josh described this as a system which wasn’t broken, but which was doing exactly what it was designed to do, to segregate those who have most from those who have less. I wanted him to stop talking. Thursday is my Friday night, you know. Friday is the one day of the week which I take completely off, and that means that by Thursday night I’m ready to tune out, not be confronted by the systemic economic equality which I’m contributing to in my own city. Because if I kept listening to him, I knew I would have to start caring, and if I started caring, then I’d have just one more thing I’d be responsible for trying to change. Yet I also knew deep down that what he was sharing with me was the kind of stuff that the kingdom of God is made of. As the night wore on, our conversation became more personal. He challenged me on a few things which I know I need to work on. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for having a friend in my life who could speak so directly to me, with such authority and insight, knowing me an my life so well. It felt like God was speaking to me through him. But as soon as I left his house I thought, “ok, how do I start forgetting the fact that we ever had that conversation. Because if I remember it, I’m going to have to change everything.”

When was the last time someone told you something which you really needed to hear? Maybe something that you didn’t want to hear? Maybe it was a friend making an observation about your drinking habits. Maybe it was a colleague who helped you reflect on the fact that your job is making you miserable. Maybe it was a partner who was honest about how your actions were affecting him or her. What was your reaction? Did some part of you shrink back, or want to stop up your ears? When do you decide to stop listening to someone?

Today we come to the end of five weeks of reading through the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel on Sunday morning. By this point, all but twelve have left the conversation. Maybe you can relate. Five weeks is a long time to hear the same talk of eating flesh and drinking blood. You might have wondered some Sundays if you were still at church or had perhaps stumbled upon some zombie remake of the Jesus story. You may have begun plotting out good Sundays to be away on the river or at the mountain based upon the fact that you were pretty sure we were never going to stop reading from this chapter of John. You aren’t alone. In the story, most folks are sick of hearing about it, too. Jesus really knows how to clear out a room. Except in this case it’s not a room, but a synagogue. Can you imagine some country preacher coming in here as a guest and pontificating about eating his flesh and drinking his blood for hours on end? I get eyes from some of you when I go on for more than 12 minutes. They were outraged. They argued with him. They threw up their hands. Then they gave up and walked out. Even some of the core folks. What began as a crowd of 5,000 on a hillside ends up a dirty dozen. “Are you going to leave, too?” Jesus asks them.

I wonder what Peter is thinking. I know what Peter says, but I wonder what he’s thinking. If my teacher had just scared off 4,988 members of our classroom I’d be pretty worried. Maybe this isn’t the right strategy, coach. If the message is so good why aren’t there any takers? Am I one of the crazy ones for still hanging around? But then he looks and asks if we’re leaving too and the heart says that would be impossible. “To whom else could we go? Rhemata zoes aionion echois. You have the words of eternal life.”

Jesus has the words of eternal life. What does that mean? For one, it means life as in vitality as in that life which is most worth living, like when we say a child is lively because we can see her rosy cheeks, or a tune is alive because it makes us want to dance, or a wire is live because it can conduct a charge. It means eternally alive, or life without its constant companion death, or even birth for that matter, life without beginning or without end, stretching backwards and forwards without those usual referents we keep around such as “someday this will end” and “one day it began”, in other words, this life which is this present moment now, unmoored from time and it’s attendants: pride, regret, hope and fear. It means the words of this eternal life, and I’m sorry, but the word John uses here is for the kind of words which must be spoken by a human voice not written on a page, they are words not by virtue of the symbols and letters which construct them but by the voice which speaks them into being. The words of eternal life therefore cannot simply be an inspiring quote I saw on FaceBook, it must be uttered in my presence for the ears of my head to bodily receive. And it means that this speech, this audible bubbling flowing forth without ending or beginning of that which is true life, that is what Jesus has, that is what Jesus is the spring of, and that is what all who share in his body are called to be.  Who wouldn’t want to drink from it? Well, apparently 4,988 people don’t want to drink from it in this particular story. And when I think of the times in my life where I’ve been confronted by the life which is real living, by the life which is this moment now and not some worn down anesthetized entertainment I’ve consumed for the sake of not paying attention to what’s really going on, I get it. I understand why. I’d rather not hear. I’d rather remain comfortable. I’d rather not change. Just as I’m sure the alcoholic might rather remain drunk, the miserable coworker avoid the risk of unemployment and the angry spouse avoid having to be more tender. And all of us, with our ears stopped up, will die that way. Hearing the truth requires change.

When was the last time you had the opportunity to hear? When was the last time someone told you something which you really need to hear? Something which cut to the heart of what is true. When was the last time you spoke so boldly to another? This church is a place where that kind of conversation can happen. It happens when we speak of the grim reality which our environment is currently facing, it happens when we speak of the reality our immigrating brothers and sisters are facing, it happens when we speak to the reality of our addictive behaviors, it happens when we invite our neighbors to sit and eat with us. Jesus speaks of the life which is real, which is now, in us and through us and to us. I think one sign of it’s happening is that tug we feel sometimes to leave. That sense of having reached the limit of what we can let ourselves care about. In those moments when God may be pushing us somewhere that feels impossible to go, what does it look like to say with Peter, “Lord, where else would we go?” Faithful to each other and to the God who has brought us here, we can listen for the difficult truths God has to speak to us through one another. We can drink from the well of it’s unending, vital waters, and be changed for good.

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