Texts: Joshua 24:1-2a; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
The start of the school year is just around the corner. I can’t help but think of many teachers who prompted, prodded, and led me along the pathway of learning. Many of them are only a dim memory but a few really stand out.
There was Miss Pace in the third grade who astounded us all with her insistence that there’s no such word as “can’t”. In the seventh grade it was Ms. Raible who changed her name to Ms. Rainbow and believed that everyone can do art. In the eleventh grade it was Mr. Rabin who invented the first advanced placement class in our high school and succeeded preparing us to pass the AP Biology test and get college credit.
Different teachers inspire different students. Some teachers are formally educated or trained, others acquire their expertise in other ways. We all need a variety of teachers to help us along the path of learning. The best outcome of all teaching is to inspire us to become life-long learners.
Jesus was an amazing teacher. Those twelve original students, plus a handful of family supporters, eventually grew into a worldwide following of millions including us. The things that Jesus taught are still remembered, debated, and taken to heart in life-altering ways.
Still, John’s gospel says that while Jesus was teaching at the Capernaum synagogue, he went too far with his bread of life curriculum. The sixth chapter is all about that extended teaching beginning in the multiplication of bread and fish by the sea. It progressed through a series of encounters with people of impeccable religious credentials challenging Jesus to defend his teachings.
Giving people food to eat was never a problem. It was fine to invoke time-honored stories of God’s miraculous provision of food and drink. The sacrifice of certain foods to God, and the sacred nature of blood as the bearer of divine life were perfectly acceptable to people.
But when Jesus talked about himself as bread to be eaten and his blood as something to drink, it all became too real. This was scandalous talk. And not just for a few of Jesus’s usual opponents. Many of Jesus’s committed followers decided to leave the community, and one of the twelve went on to betray him.
John’s point seems to be that accepting Jesus’s teachings and following him was no easy thing even when Jesus was alive and at the height of his ministry and mission. Presumably John’s own late-first-century community was seeing people lose faith in Jesus for various reasons, to their dismay and pain. It still happens today.
So did Jesus fail as a teacher? Is his teaching too much to ask people to believe? Or was it all part of God’s plan? John’s gospel suggests another perspective. That listening to God is something for which we must be ready. Sometimes we cannot take in what God is saying because we are not ready, or we are not willing, or circumstances prevent us from hearing.
Jesus frequently ended a teaching by saying, let the one who has ears to hear, listen. In this gospel Jesus says, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Many of the most deeply committed people of faith, from St. Augustine to C. S. Lewis acknowledged that they came slowly to the joy of listening to and hearing God.
And make no mistake. Jesus was not an easy teacher to follow. He asked people with money and power to share them, and in some circumstances to give them up entirely. He said that while it’s good to know what God has done before, it’s no guarantee that God won’t do something new and different.
Jesus honored people that no one else cared about. He redefined categories of what is good and right. He said sin is painfully real and evil is a devastating problem. Jesus said that where there is spirit, there is always life enduring. Bodies however are limited and do not endure. So a dead spirit is cause for much greater sorrow than the death of the body.
Therefore Ephesians is right in counseling people of faith to source power from God rather than from our own capacities. Jesus accomplished everything he needed to do with holy truth, with the proclamation of good news, peace, faith, integrity, God’s word, and with prayer of course. That remarkably powerful gift of intercession and advocacy that Paul found so effective.
Jesus asked Peter, “Do you also wish to go away?” and the disciple answered faithfully, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” By this Peter meant that Jesus taught in a way that was truly life-giving. He believed that Jesus was God’s own teaching come down from heaven. It was the ultimate compliment.
That didn’t keep Judas from betraying Jesus of course. And Peter soon denied Jesus three times. Because we all have choices, don’t we? Though sometimes we are not even aware that we are choosing between various options.
Today’s lesson from Joshua is the record of a covenant-renewal ceremony in ancient Israel. This happened many times in the course of Israel’s history as a necessary discipline of faith. Joshua invited the people to re-commit themselves to God, who guided Abraham and Sarah as they left Ur of Chaldea. The God of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, who led Israel out of captivity in Egypt.
Joshua said they could also choose the god of the land where they were living, the Amorite god. There are always other gods from which we may choose. So many attractive and convenient things that attract our devotion along with our time, energy, and money. But whichever god we chose, to that god we give our devotion, and service.
We remember and re-commit ourselves to God in Jesus Christ as we remember and renew our baptismal promises. We do it as we serve others in the name of Jesus.
Jesus welcomed everyone to learn from him. His teaching isn’t a ticket to heaven, but a living invitation to an endless party with a questionable guest list (we’re on it, after all!) Jesus didn’t leave us the bible as our guide to life - that was the Holy Spirit’s gift. Jesus left us the cross and resurrection. And we’ll be learning what they have to teach us, for the rest of our lives.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.