Sermon John 6: 56-69; 14th Sunday after Pentecost – August 26th, 2018

 

‘Light of the World’

Music and words by Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson

I am just a stranger, in a promised land
I am only learning a game with the rules I don’t understand
Going round in circles, I’ve been round before

I am lost in so many ways,
I can walk no more
I can walk no more

I am just a drifter, in an open sea
But no matter how much I try, the tide will not turn for me
Going round in circles, till I reach the shore
I am blown by so many winds
I can take no more
I can take no more

Light of the world, I stand alone
Cause I could not see the light of the world
Show me the fire, in a true believer’s eye

Just a traveller, on an endless flight
But no matter which way I turn, I journey into the night
Going round in circles, till the mountains fall
To believe in so many truths
Makes no sense at all
Makes no sense at all

Light of the world, I stand alone
Cause I could not see the light of the world
Show me the fire, in a true believer’s eye

 

So many ways, so many ways…

 

The song you just heard is, maybe you have guessed it, a pop song from the 80s, ‘Light of the World’ by the Alan Parsons Project.

I was a teenager in the 80s, and I liked the song very much back then, so much in fact that I always sung along with gusto when I played it on my record player (those were the days!) – though I have to say that the lyrics were not that important to me back then. ‘I am just a stranger in a promised land, I am only learning a game with rules I don’t understand’. That may be a little unusual, since we always assume that teenagers are confused and trying to figure out life.  But back then, in the 80s, I was young, I was enthusiastic, and I was unabashedly idealistic. I was very active in my local church, leading Sunday School and participating in a couple of youth groups. Every year I would pester my teachers to sponsor me for the hunger walk. I spent my summers on church trips, in short, my path was clear: I would study theology and become a pastor – and I would change the world by preaching and teaching those words of Christ that are so dear to me: words about justice for all humankind and creation, words about peace and love and forgiveness.

I thought I had found my way, for Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, right? What could ever cause me to lose my way?

But the older I got, the more I realized that the way is not always that easy and straightforward, that I would be taken to totally unexpected places (I would never have dreamed that I would end up some day in the U.S.), that there are many detours in life, dead ends, unexpected roadblocks. I experienced that many don’t share my idealism, and I don’t know how many times I was told to be realistic – because this is not how the world works, and that Christ’s vision of the kingdom of God is but a utopia, something that never will happen here on earth. In short, I quickly became disillusioned.

I also realized that the way I understand Christ and his vision is not necessarily how others understand them; especially after moving to this country, I was shocked to see how much God is used here to justify a certain strict moral code and the exclusion of people. And, yes, there were times when I felt quite insecure about my convictions and my faith; what if they are right and I am wrong? Am I too idealistic, am I too optimistic about Christ’s forgiveness for all?

The older I got and the more I saw my hopes and dreams disappointed, the more I felt alienated, and the more questioning I became, uncertain about the way – the ways – I had taken in life; more than once I was questioning if I am walking in the ways God would have be go.

And in the current climate of this world with all its conflicts and alternative truths and points of view, when we as the human race seem so lost, those lyrics from ‘Light of the world’, which I had learned by heart so many years ago and which were buried somewhere in the back of my brain, just came back with a vengeance and made so much more sense to me than 30+ years ago:

‘I am just a stranger in a promised land, I am only learning a game with rules I don’t understand. Going ‘round in circles I’ve been ‘round before; I am lost in so many ways, I can walk no more, I can walk no more. Just a traveler on an endless flight; but no matter, which way I turn, I journey into the night. Going round in circles till the mountains fall; to believe in so many truths makes no sense at all, makes no sense at all.’

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this song in many ways is like a psalm from the Old Testament, a deep felt prayer expressing fears and doubts – but also hope, for there is also the prayer, ‘Light of the world – show me the fire in a true believer’s eye’.

Life is confusing and often frustrating. That’s what many of the psalm prayers knew already a couple of thousands years ago, and it is still true for our postmodern days. There usually is no easy way, there are no easy solutions.

Today’s gospel marks the end of a very long discussion Jesus has with the crowds – who were hungry for something, searching for meaning – about the bread of life – in fact, the last 4 Sundays you heard about Christ, the bread of life.

The crowds are looking for something. And it seems that they are hungry for material things. They want their bellies filled, they want Jesus to continue to perform miracles like that one when he fed them with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish in the wilderness. They want their fill, again and again and again. They can’t understand that ‘man does not live by bread alone’, but that there is more, and that Jesus is offering just that: himself, the bread of life, and with it: grace, forgiveness, love, community. Life to the fullest, life eternal.

However, accepting all this is easier said than done. When Jesus says, repeatedly, that those who follow him and believe in him have to eat his flesh and drink his blood, he is causing discomfort, he is causing a scandal even. Today we are so used to think of bread and wine as the elements that represent the body and blood of Christ – and, as Lutherans, we believe that there is no literal transformation of bread and wine into body and blood, but that Christ has a miraculous way of being present in, under and with the bread and wine – so we don’t freak out when we hear that we are to consume body and blood of Christ – we do it all the time, as we will do it again today.

However, in Jesus’ days, people took it quite literally. They could not understand that Jesus was talking in a spiritual sense: that we have to take him in – there is this beautiful German word, ‘verinnerlichen’, which unfortunately cannot really be translated into English. Christ needs to be ‘verinnerlicht’, we have to absorb Christ, in a sense, so that his essence becomes ours, that his vision, his love, his grace, his justice, his compassion, his longing for community and communion with all becomes part of us and transforms us into loving, gracious, just, compassionate people in communion with God and one another. By absorbing Christ, in serving God and one another with joyful and generous hearts, we experience meaning, fulfillment, life to the fullest. By absorbing Christ, we are on the way – even though it may seem that we are getting nowhere.

But even if those who were following Jesus, looking for their fill, looking for direction, somehow understood this, it was not the right thing for them. For absorbing Christ means submission and transformation of heart and mind. And, as we all know, a change of heart and mind is very difficult – because we have to admit that we were somehow on the wrong path.

So in today’s gospel story, people turn away, disappointed, and continue their search for fulfillment. Even some of Jesus’ disciples turn away, we hear. This is just too hard. On to the next guru, the next philosophy, the next ideology, something that promises life and happiness and material wealth – and hopefully – whatever this new thing is – is not as weird or as demanding and much easier to follow.

As people are turning away from Jesus, one by one, there is only a small group left in the end: Jesus’ inner circle, the twelve. Jesus asks them: don’t you also want to leave and search for something else?

And then Peter speaks the famous words: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Peter and the twelve acknowledge that what Jesus has to offer may be difficult and hard to swallow (quite literally) – but that he is offering something that is worth the commitment and the effort and the challenge. That there is no other leader or philosophy or ideology that could provide an end to the search for fulfillment.

Lord, to whom shall we go?

As I have journeyed through life and continue to do so, finding my way, again and again, I’ve had my doubts, my struggles, my disappointments. I’ve had moments when I thought that Christ and his vision are just too hard to swallow. There have been many times I felt like the lyrics of the song ‘Light of the World’ describe oh so precisely what I am going through. That I am going round in circles, seemingly getting nowhere.

But – but – somehow Christ was always there: to nourish me, to catch me, to gently – or not so gently – get me back on track. And: I’ve come to realize that going round in circles is not necessarily bad – because as I go down the well-trodden paths, I still make an impact. I may not change the world in big ways, like I dreamed when I was young – but I feel I’m on a mission, encountering people who touch my life and whose lives I touch. I’ve also realized that for me, there is no one or nothing else to go to that could offer me the kind of purpose and fulfillment and freedom and life Christ offers – to me, to you, to all.

No matter which ways we go in life, no matter what detours we take, no matter how many wrong turns we take, Christ is there to go to. And I also believe that Christ walks alongside us on all the paths we take in life and will be there in the end to guide us home.

This is one of the things we are reminded of when we gather around the table Christ has prepared for all of us. This is one of the things we remember when Christ offers himself – the true bread of life.

Picture by Miguel Oros on unsplash.com

 

 

This post is also available in: German