Sermon August 26, 2012

Sermon

“What Are We Working For?  Back to Earth, Back to Work After the Leap of Faith”

 

August 26, 2012

The Reverend Dr. Joanne M. Swenson

 

John 6:56-59

56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This 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.” 59He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

60When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But 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.65And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” 66Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

       

Ryan Hall is an Olympic marathoner.  His most fierce competitor is a Kenyan, Wesley Korir.  As marathoners, their opportunities to race are limited because the sport is so grueling and injuries common.  So, on those rare occasions when they get to face off against each other, Korir’s and Hall’s rivalry is magnified.  But, listen to this New York Times account of a moment that occurred, as Hall and Korir raced each other:

“During the 2011 Chicago Marathon, (Ryan) Hall began singing, ‘Praise to the Lord.’ ‘Freestyling,’ he called it.  (And) (Wesley) Korir joined in. ‘Come, Lord Jesus, come,’ the two runners sang as they ran. ‘Come Holy Spirit, come.’ ”[i]

How can these men work at the peak of competitiveness, yet hold that work so loosely that they can sing together?  How do they manage to be focused on the goal – to win the race – but also focused higher, on God?

How do they work for the Bread of Earth – the finish line and the fame – and the Bread of Heaven – their faith in Jesus Christ?   How do they work for both?  That’s the question we’ll answer today.

The question of work is raised by John Six, the question we’ve considered these past weeks: What inspires the work of our lives – our jobs and activities and relationships? We’re driven to this question because, in John Six, Jesus challenges us: what are we working for – the bread of Heaven, or the bread of Earth?

So, let’s continue to read in John Six now, picking up at verse 56. (Scripture Reading follows: John 6:56-69)
During these sermons we’ve been turning to the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, who said that there are basically three types of people.  Kierkegaard has helped us think more deeply about John Six, where we find three sets of characters that align strikingly with Kierkegaard’s three types of people.

On August 5th, we looked at the first type, the pleasure seeker.  The pleasure seeker, in John Six, is the crowd.  They’re following Jesus because they want more of that free bread, more of that excitement they found in the feeding of the Five Thousand.  They’re pleasure-seekers.   When we catch ourselves chasing after the next, new thing, and becoming bored, irritated and wanting to bail on our “old thing” – our relationships, our jobs, our activities – perhaps we, too, are the pleasure seeker.

Then, on August 19, we looked at the second type, the “ethical person.”  This person is driven to improve the world, to make it more just and ethical.  We need the ethical person – community life would fall apart if someone wasn’t urging us to do the right thing.  In John Six this type is represented by the Jews, the ethical authorities for their community.

But, these ethical leaders can’t understand Jesus, because Jesus wants to give his life, for those do not deserve it.  That’s impossible for the ethical person to understand. God doesn’t reward the undeserving.  God punishes, not pardons.  God blindly executes the ethical law, and God is impersonal – that’s how the ethicist sees God.  So Jesus, the personal face of God, is incomprehensible.

In short, the pleasure seeker finds pleasure perishes, and the ethical person finds the personal God perishes.

So, today finds us at an impasse.  What should motivate our work, what should drive our activity and relationships?  If not for pleasure, then what?  If not for the sake of doing good, being ethical, what else is there?

What other options are there for the work of our lives?

We’re at an impasse.  And so are the disciples in John Six.  With these disciples we take our place, and protest, “Jesus, this is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”  What else is there?

The Bible says that many of the disciples, at this point, turned away: verse 66, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”

And so Jesus says to the remaining disciples, in verse 67,“Do you want to leave, too?”

Do you want to leave, too?  The decision is ours: we can leave, leave and go back to what we know.  Go back, and suppress our awareness that it’s only leading to frustration, to futility, to emptiness.

Here is what Kierkegaard said about this moment:

“. . .don’t be fooled. It may well be that. . .others will marvel at you (and the great decisions you’ve made in your life). (But) all the same, you(‘ll) miss the one thing that is needful. You may be honored in this life, remembered by monuments set up in your name but God will say to you: “You unhappy person. Why did you not choose the better path? Confess your weakness and face it.”

Perhaps just in this weakness God will meet you and come to your aid. This much is certain: the greatest thing each person can do is to give himself to God utterly and unconditionally –weaknesses, fears, and all.”[ii]

That’s Kierkegaard:  Give ourselves to God, “weakness, fears and all!”  If that’s what we’re supposed to give God, then I’ve got a lot for that collection plate.  And you?

Isn’t  it fitting that the disciple who is perhaps the weakest of the twelve, the most fearful of them all – Peter, the disciple who denies Jesus – that he is the one who is able to give himself utterly to God.

That’s what Peter does in today’s text.  Peter chooses to follow Jesus, and commit to Jesus as God:

68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

“Lord, to whom shall we go?”  Nothing else gives life.  No one else is Holy.

In this confession, Peter is Kierkegaard’s “religious person.”  And now we come to our third character in John Six, and Kierkegaard’s third type of person.  Peter is the third type, the religious person.  Peter takes the Leap of Faith.

What happens in this Leap of Faith?  Do we keep on soaring, up to Heaven, and never return to earth and its work?  Do we give up our jobs and relationships and activities, as trivial and earthly and perishing?

No.  No.  The Leap of Faith takes us up to God, but then God sends us back down.  Back down, but different.

This is what Kierkegaard said about this person:

“. . .(the religious person) in the evening. . . smokes his pipe; seeing him, one would swear it was the butcher across the way, (walking home). . . On the way (home), (the religious person) thinks that his wife surely will have a special hot meal for him when he (gets there) –for example, roast lamb. . . with vegetables. .  .It so happens that he does not have four shillings to his name, and yet he firmly believes that his wife has this delectable meal waiting for him. . . .(But) his wife does not have it–curiously enough, he is just the same.”

The religious person looks like you and me, going home, thinking about supper.  He or she has pleasures and causes, like the pleasure seeker or the ethical person.  But there is a difference:  These are held lightly, they are not the primary thing, for ones’ primary thing, now, is God.   His wife does not have his special hot meal for him – curiously enough, he is just the same.  When pleasures disappoint, we are not frustrated.  When causes fail, we are not defeated.   We are just the same, for our primary pleasure and our greatest cause is always fulfilled in God.   “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry.”

So, the religious person looks like you and me, but there is now a difference.  Let’s go back to that Olympic athlete Ryan Hall.  He and other Olympians were featured in that Times article about faith and sports.  Joe Bottom, who won a gold and silver medal in swimming and attends (Ryan Hall’s church), said this:  ‘It’s fulfilling, even exhilarating, to feel God’s pleasure in our willingness to pursue. . . the dreams He puts in our hearts and the purposes He built into us.”[iii]

Did you hear those words?  “Fulfilling,” “exhilarating,” even the word, “pleasure”!

Pleasure, for the religious person, is still there, but now it is re-ordered, re-centered on God.

And ethics?  What about being ethical, for the religious person?  Ryan Hall has used his winnings to finance running programs for poor kids and homeless adults.  He’s trying to do good, to be ethical, but with this difference:  he’s motivated by faith in a personal God.  His ethical energy comes from knowing Jesus Christ.  That changes how one does good.  For instance, doing good with an adversary, with a competitor!  Hall and his chief competitor Wesley Korir have collaborated on the building of a hospital in Kenya.[iv]

That’s an ethical cause, transformed by faith.

There is a peace, even easiness to our pleasures and our causes because we don’t need them to be satisfied.  We are satisfied, instead, by the Bread of Heaven.  We don’t need the peaks of pleasure; we don’t need to win the cause. They’re held now with a distinguishing lightness.

Kierkegaard compares the Leap of Faith to the leap of a ballet dancer, who lunges boldly into the air, and then, just as she’s about to meets the ground again, there’s a tell-tale hesitation, an almost-imperceptible wavering:

This is what he said:

“Most people live completely absorbed in worldly joys and sorrows; they are benchwarmers who do not take part in the dance. The (religious, however) are ballet dancers and have elevation. They make the upward movement and come down again. . .and . . .every time they come down, they are unable to assume the posture immediately, they waver for a moment. . .  Even the most skillful of these . . .cannot hide this wavering. One does not need to see them in the air; one needs only to see them the instant they. . . have touched the earth–and then one recognizes them.”[v]

The religious person has this two-part movement.  A bold leap up and descent with this wavering landing, lightened by a sense of detachment, a new and holy detachment.

Peter is like that, too.  He boldly leaps toward Christ – “You are the one” – and then, he comes back down, and you can hear his detachment from the world: “Lord, to whom shall we go?  Nothing else gives life. No one else is holy.”

That’s the Leap of Faith. That’s Kierkegaard’s third type.  That’s Peter.  Can that be us?

Remember this one thing:  After the Leap, we descend and land on the ground whence we came.  Back to our families, back to our jobs, back to the work of our lives.  And here, on that ground, God will work, because now we are working for God.  Those who take the leap of faith are different and God uses that difference to do his work. To do his work, through us. Like the runner Ryan Hall.

So, we’ve come to the end of August, the end of John Six, and Kierkegaard’s final type.  We’ve looked at the pleasure-seeker, the ethically-driven, and now, today, the religious.   The religious person takes the Leap of Faith:  we leap, and come back down.  Back to our pleasures, back to our causes, but now, with this difference.  The Bread of Heaven feeds us.

I want that difference in my life.  Lord, to whom shall I go? For what else can I work? You are the Holy One of God.

        Amen.

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