“You alone have the words of eternal life”
As you have probably heard, after 23 wonderful years as your Rector, I have accepted a call to serve as the 10th Rector of Christ Church in Greenwich, Connecticut, which is just a short drive from the Yale Divinity School, where I prepared for the priesthood. I spent 20 years visiting my mother in the picturesque town of Sharon, Connecticut, and I have a great fondness for New England and for Connecticut in particular. But I will always cherish this vibrant, beautiful, historic church full of loving Christians like you, and I trust that our friendships will endure forever.
This has been a hard decision to make, but I believe that it is the right decision for my family and me and also for St. Thomas’. Decisions are a fundamental part of our lives. They lead us in different directions. We cannot take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way. So, we must choose carefully.
You were accepted to several fine colleges, but each was very different, and you can only choose one. You have a decision to make.
You were diagnosed with a serious disease. Aggressive treatment might extend your life but it could also ruin the quality of life that remains. You have a decision to make.
You company has been bought and the new leadership is cutting corners and lacks the moral compass of the former leadership. Do you stay, or do you go? You have a decision to make.
All of us have decisions to make. They are about important things. We face choices between alternatives. At the heart of all our decisions is a decision about the same thing. In our gospel this morning, Jesus reveals to us something important that is at the heart of all of our decisions. It is a decision to choose abundant life and eternal life, whenever and wherever we can.
Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Our gospel story opens with these disturbing words. The image was especially upsetting to his Jewish listeners because pagans ate flesh with blood still in it, but Jews never did.
In all of the other gospels, Jesus calls bread his body. In John’s Gospel, he calls it his flesh. In all of the other gospels, Jesus says that the bread is to be eaten. In John’s Gospel, Jesus uses the word to “chomp” or “gnaw” at his flesh. It’s akin to saying, “Those who chomp my flesh and guzzle my blood will have eternal life.” Hence, you can see why this teaching was so difficult. Barbara Brown Taylor notes, “This imagery is more at home in a butcher shop than in a church.”
Even members of the Early Church were perplexed by these words. Opponents of Christianity called Christians cannibals because of this difficult teaching. Today, we are still startled by these words and may miss Jesus’ admonition to “Abide in me.” Jesus was inviting his disciples to abide in him. He goes on to say that this bread is greater than the bread which the Jews ate – the manna in the wilderness. The Jews ate this bread and still they died. This is different. If they consume the bread that Jesus offers, they will live forever. Jesus uses familiar symbols of water, wine, bread, blood and flesh to teach about the gift of life and eternal life.
In the New Testament there are two Greek words for “life.” Bios is one of them. It means physical or earthly life. John’s Gospel never uses this word for life. Instead John uses the word zoe for life, and he uses it 33 times. Zoe means more than earthly or physical life, more than just existing and getting by.
On the lips of Jesus in John’s Gospel, zoe means life lived in relationship with God, with others, being deeply connected with the world around us and in touch with ourselves in such a way that we discover joy and satisfaction and find what Jesus calls “abundant life.” Eternal life means that we have discovered what life is all about.
Peter says to Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life.” Eternal life does not just signify a length of time or life in heaven. It signifies both of these, but it also deals with the depth and the quality of the life that we are leading right now. Eternal life is a life led in relationship with God, with others, with ourselves and in harmony with the world around us. Eternal life is a life that gives us joy, satisfaction and significance.
As you are I are making decisions we are ultimately deciding between alternatives and trying to determine which alternative will bring more joy, satisfaction and fullness to our lives and to the lives of our families, and hopefully to many other lives as well.
In every decision we are seeking life and eternal life. Jesus tells us that we can discover this rich sense of life here and now if we partake of the bread of life. He means that just as bread gives us energy for physical living, the bread of life gives us energy for things eternal. Jesus says that we have the power to experience eternal life here and now.
In the 14th chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Zoe. Life. Jesus can guide us to the life which has no end, to a life that is joyful and to a life that offers significance and satisfaction, where everything coheres in a meaningful way.
In my previous church, I had a parishioner named Jim Wheat. While in college, Jim suffered from an illness that caused him to go blind. Upon graduating, his father took pity on him and brought him into the family business, thinking that Jim’s future was limited. But Jim surprised everyone. He built up his father’s business, and when his father retired Jim turned that business it into a financial powerhouse. Jim went fox hunting and duck hunting. Nothing held him back.
Each year, Jim hired a recent college graduate to be his driver. I once spoke to his driver, who had just taken Jim duck hunting. “It was so amazing,” said the driver. “I picked up Mr. Wheat at his home, and he gave me very careful directions along the way. Despite being blind, he noted every sign. He said, ‘About two miles further, you will see a rusty green sign and you will need to turn off the main road and onto a gravel road.’ I was so impressed,” said the driver, “but nevertheless we got completely lost.”
Jesus doesn’t get lost for he is the way. He knows the way through our daily life to eternal life. All we have to do is to listen to him, read his word and eat the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation. If we will listen and obey, Jesus will guide us to the abundant life that we seek.
Bear in mind that God rarely gives any of us a clear set of directions. Seldom does God even inform us of the ultimate direction he has in mind for us to go. The way God guides us is like the way that God guided Abraham. God said to Abraham, “Leave your country and your family and your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you.” He didn’t even tell Abraham where he was to go. But day by day, God guided Abraham to where he was going.
That’s how God guides us. That’s why having a continuous relationship with God is so important. If we don’t listen to God day by day we will eventually go astray and not arrive at our destination. But if we listen to God and obey God, we will receive guidance for our daily decisions and discover what Jesus calls “abundant life.” “I came,” said Jesus, “that they might have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)
You and I have a decision to make. We have the same decision to make that the disciples had to make. They were committed to following Jesus. But Jesus got really graphic and said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” The disciples were shocked. They said, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” And many abandoned him. Perhaps they shook their fists and yelled, “Jesus, this time you’ve gone too far.” But the twelve disciples stayed. Then Jesus asked, “Do you also wish to go away?” In that moment, Simon Peter spoke for all of them when he said, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Whenever you and I choose to receive the Eucharist, we choose life. We choose a world where we are no better and no less than any other child of God. We understand that we are no better because of our job, our gender, our race, our religion, our education or our economic status. But we are part of everything that God has created, and all of it is meant to cohere and be a blessing.
We may not always understand the Eucharist. The bread and the wine are a sacred mystery. C.S. Lewis notes,
The command, after all, was Take, eat: not Take, understand. Particularly, I hope
I need not be tormented by the question ‘What is this?’ – this wafer, this sip of
wine. That has a dreadful effect on me. It invites me to take ‘this’ out of its
holy context and regard it as an object among objects, indeed as part of nature.
It is like taking a red coal out of the fire to examine it: it becomes a dead coal.
For 15 years, our family had a wonderful nanny named Teresa. She grew up in a little Italian village called Maida. Teresa became part of our family. She taught me how to speak Italian and our children how to cook. She prepared homemade pasta and sauces, chicken cutlet and pizza. Teresa would talk about store bought bread, pasta and sauces and say, “Why would anyone want to eat these things?” She believed that life was too short to eat anything but good bread and to drink anything but good wine. Why settle for bread that is not bread and life that is not life?
All of us are here because we have committed ourselves to following Jesus, to listening and obeying what he says. We don’t always follow as well as we should. We don’t always listen and obey to the best of our ability. So, I invite all of us to rededicate ourselves this morning to following Jesus. May I lead you in a prayer. Let us pray.
Gracious God, you desire each one of us to discover abundant life, eternal life, and to share it with others. Help us now to seek a life that is rich in relationships with you, with others and with ourselves. Grant each one of us the ability to listen to your voice and to obey your will so that we might discover true joy, deep significance and the rich satisfaction that comes from following you and making decisions that lead to eternal life. Amen.