Jack Benny was known for his penny-pinching and miserly ways. Once while walking home late in the evening he was accosted by a man. The man pulled a gun and pointed it at Benny and said, “Your money or your life!” Shocked, Benny just stood there frozen. Finally, the robber said, “I said, your money or your life!” and then he cocked the gun. But then Benny replied in an irritated way, “Just a minute, I am still thinking about it.” Some decisions are difficult to make.
Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” As I pointed out last week this was and is a difficult saying. In fact it was so difficult that we read today many of Jesus’ disciples turned away and no longer went about with him. It was just too hard, too much to take. We are not talking about his enemies, but his disciples. Jesus had offended their sensibilities and they would not take it anymore. So they left. It may be that when they first began to follow Jesus they were certain of their decision and they had felt committed, but now they just couldn’t understand him; he had crossed the line. It was too much. So they decided to leave.
We have a decision offered in our Old Testament reading as well. Joshua said to all the people, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” The Israelites under Joshua made the decision to commit to following God and that generation was faithful in following God. And in today’s gospel reading Jesus asks his twelve disciples to make a decision, “Do you want to go away too?” Peter’s reply, “To whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” He and the other 11 guys committed to continue to follow Jesus. Why? What was it that made them able to commit to continue to follow? Were they simply better men than the other disciples? What about the ancient Israelites, how were they able to follow God in all his ways when the generations that followed them failed so miserably. Was this group of Israelites like the 12 disciples better than the rest? Perhaps, but I think there was another reason as well.
As always context is really important. When does Peter say these words? It is sometime in the afternoon probably after this long Bread of Life discourse Jesus has had with these people. And when is that? Well, it is the afternoon of the day after Jesus has fed the 5,000. This afternoon is the next day after Jesus came walking on the water to disciples on the stormy waters of Galilee. That had happened in the early morning hours of this same day! And it was in those same early morning hours that Jesus had pulled Peter out of the water, the water upon which Peter had been walking. Less than 15 hours ago right after Jesus had calmed the wind and the waves all the disciples had said along with Peter, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
And what is the context when the Israelites said what they did to Joshua? It was right after they had come into and occupied the Promised Land. Listen again to what the Israelites told Joshua, “it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” They told Joshua, “We know this God. We know that he cares for us and we will be faithful to follow him.” And they did. They were faithful. So what do we learn from these two examples? We see the Israelites committed themselves to following God. The disciples committed to continuing to follow Jesus. What set them apart from the other disciples? What set this generation of Israelites apart from the following generations who gradually fell away from obeying and following God? We see that in both cases these groups of people had had personal experience with God. The disciples also had seen many, many signs and miracles that Jesus had performed. They had just gotten off the boat after seeing Jesus calm the storm and pull Peter out of the water. But they had also lived with him and walked around with him. They sat around the campfires in the evening and talked and listened and learned. There was a personal relationship that had developed and it was from that relationship that Peter said, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Left unsaid perhaps was the words, “We too are struggling with your difficult teachings! We struggle too with your demands, Jesus. We love a lot of what you do and say, but there are somethings that are really hard to swallow. Nonetheless, we are committed to following you because we know you; we believe in you.”
This is where we want to be as well! We want to be able to say along with the Israelites, “We will serve the Lord for He is our God.” We want to say along with the disciples, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” And then we want to be able to commit our lives like they did. But when things get tough, and when things happen we don’t understand, then what? How will our commitment hold up? What keeps someone’s commitment strong? We see strong commitment comes from relationship. Strong commitment to God comes through relationship with God.
But how can this happen? How in the world can one practically have a relationship with God? We believe in God, certainly. We believe in Jesus Christ his Son, absolutely. And we say those words week after week; but, relationship? How can somebody have a relationship with God? After all, we cannot see God. We do not hear God speaking to us in an audible voice either. We cannot taste, nor touch, nor smell God either. God is not perceptible to any one of our five senses. And we are used to developing relationships using our physical senses. The fact is that God is spirit and our senses are physical senses. But God made humanity with a body and a spirit and that is how we and God connect. We connect through our spirits. The next logical question is how in the world do we connect to God through our spirits? It takes some time and practice to develop spiritual sensitivity because we are not used to paying attention to our spirits. God says in His Word to be still and know he is God. We hear God better when are still and we turn off the noise around us. As we talk to God, stop to listen in your spirit. As we read God’s Word stop to listen to Him and he will make the Scriptures come alive. The reason the Bible is so powerful is that it is a spiritual book so it speaks to not only our minds but also to our spirits! God is all around us all the time but we are usually unaware of it so we need to work at sensing God’s presence and you need to find where you sense God. Sometimes people sense God’s presence in the world around us as they see its beauty. Sometimes our spirits feel his presence during Holy Communion, sometimes in our prayers; our spirits feel his presence sometimes as we worship or sometimes when we are alone meditating. Our spirits have to develop the sensitivity to feeling God’s presence because it is through being in God’s presence that we develop our relationship with God. And as we see who Jesus is and understand more his great love for us that we grasp better who God is. It is through spending time in his presence and knowing God better that we are able to have a real relationship with God! And as our relationship grows all those things that are difficult become less difficult.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Do you also want to go away?” Like Jack Benny, it is a difficult decision. It is difficult to really commit to following Jesus, to commit to obeying and serving him. But let us like the 12 disciples develop a relationship with our Lord so that when the tough times come we can say along with Peter, “We will not go anywhere else! You are the one who has the words of life and we have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Amen