Today is the last Sunday of a whole month full of bread. We’ve finally reached the end of the sixth chapter of John, yay! I mean, it’s good stuff, all of this teaching from Jesus about the bread of life, but these are kind of tricky texts to preach on. I have to admit that I resonate a little bit with the people in our gospel reading for today – the ones who whine to Jesus that his teaching is too difficult. This passage starts in the same place we left off last week: Jesus is once again telling people that they need to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Even if you can get past all the cannibalistic images that this brings up, it’s still painfully clear that truly being a Jesus follower is something demanding and all-consuming – no pun intended.
It’s hardly surprising then that so many people fall away from Jesus in this story. They had come for the free bread, but once Jesus starts talking about being the true bread from heaven, they freak out and go home.
Once the crowd has dispersed, only twelve people are left standing in front of Jesus. Twelve! Jesus looks at them and says, “I suppose you’re all just going to run away, too.” But Simon Peter speaks up for the group and says, “Lord, to whom can we go? Where else are we going to find what we are looking for? You can buy bread literally anywhere, but only you have the words of eternal life. Only you are the Holy One of God!”
This bold declaration that Peter makes is kind of an echo of our first reading for today. In this reading, Joshua is addressing the people of Israel just as they are about to take possession of the promised land. He says to them one of the best known verses of scripture: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Both Peter and Joshua declare their faithfulness to God and dedicate themselves to serving God alone. But while Peter and the other disciples are just getting started on their journey with Jesus, Joshua and the ancient Israelites are finally coming to the end of a journey.
The people of Israel wandered forty long years in the desert after escaping from slavery in Egypt. They had lost their leader, Moses, and an entire generation of the people had died waiting for the hope of reaching the promised land. God raised up Joshua as a new leader for the people, and together, they finally made it to Canaan. And so Joshua calls all the people and their leaders together to celebrate! They have seen the promise of God fulfilled right before their very eyes. The God who promised to be with them, to give them life, to give them a home, has delivered on that promise. And so the people gather in praise and thanksgiving to remember all the great things that God has done for them. And as Joshua declares his own devotion to God, he calls the entire people of Israel to do the same, to publicly renew their faith in their faithful, promise-keeping God.
Everyone in our readings for today seems to be going on some kind of journey. And we can read the journey our own community is on in the context of these readings. Like the Israelites, it feels like we are coming to the end of one long journey. And like Jesus’ disciples, we are preparing to begin another.
At least, I know that’s certainly how I feel this week. On Thursday, I will finally be ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, the end of the long journey of candidacy. And my heart rejoices with the Israelites finally entering the promised land. Granted, it’s only been six years since I started this journey, not forty, but it still hasn’t been easy. It took a lot of faith to move myself and my household – by which I mean my cat – to Chicago, and then to New Mexico, and finally here. And it was hard sometimes to trust that God really has been calling me to this ministry and that someday I really would be a pastor. And so to be here at St. John’s, called to be your pastor, to be on the verge of finally being ordained, it really feels to me like the fulfilment of a divine promise. It feels like I’m coming home to the promised land.
Of course I can’t speak for all of you, but from what I’ve heard in conversation, it sounds like the feeling is at least somewhat mutual. I know that this community has been waiting a long time for a new leader to start moving things forward. And I know you have experienced the disappointment and frustration of people giving up on this community and leaving. So I hope that this moment feels like a new way forward for you, too. I hope that you feel in this moment like God has kept a divine promise.
This is a time for celebration. It’s worth taking the time to offer up our praise and thanksgiving to God for all the ways that God has been with us along the way. And it can be easy to skip over thanksgiving or rush through it – I know I’m often guilty of this. It’s easy to rush onto the next thing that we want, to get caught up in all the problems in our lives and in the world that we want God to fix. But it’s times like these that give us hope. In times of celebration and gratitude like this, we remember that God really does provide. We have seen God’s promises kept. We know that God makes promises of life and keeps them, however long it may take. Thank God for that! Literally!
Our faith is rooted in gratitude and trust toward God. This is what strengthens us for the journey. Because even as we give thanks that our time of wandering in the wilderness is ending, another journey is just beginning. We don’t get to stop here with just one promise fulfilled. We keep moving forward, carrying with us the hope of God’s faithfulness.
And so we are like the Israelites in our first reading, embarking on a new journey in Canaan. And, like the Israelites, we are invited to devote ourselves anew to God. This time of celebration is also a time of renewal. Joshua calls us with the rest of his community to serve God and to put aside the other gods we may serve. These gods may be idols like money or social status or political party, or they may be attitudes like self-centeredness, prejudice, nationalism, and apathy. We are called to put these things aside to recognize that God alone gives life. God alone sustains us, and only God is truly worthy of our devotion.
This is at the heart of our gospel lesson. It’s what makes it such a difficult teaching. Accepting that God alone is what most truly feeds us and putting our ultimate trust in God is really hard to do. It can make us seem crazy in this world – following a God-man who invites us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. I mean, know that there are people in my life who think I’m nuts for devoting my life to this. And I know there are people who see the church as just a social club or a place for comforting rituals that always tell them exactly what they want to hear, instead of a place of transformation and resurrection and new life with God.
Maybe by this world’s standards we are crazy. But we know these things to be trustworthy and true. We know that God is faithful and keeps God’s promises. We know that God will give us strength for the journey. And we know that we who come here hungering for truth and life will be fed by the one who has the words of eternal life, the Holy One of God.
So let us celebrate and give thanks to God, and prepare ourselves with joy for the next stage of the journey. Amen.