Fr. John Allison
August 22, 2021
Christ Church, Hudson
“Because of this,” because of Jesus’ difficult teaching, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘do you also wish to go away?’”
Do you also wish to go away? It’s been five weeks since we began Jesus’ teaching on the bread of life, and we’ve reached what could be thought of as the climax of this sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. As we've heard from the disciples this week and in the preceding verses, this teaching is hard. First, there was grumbling and doubt because Jesus’ followers reacted to his proclamation that he came down from heaven and they said, how can this be? We know his mother and his father. Then there were those who shuddered, whose piety was offended at Jesus’ references to eating his flesh and drinking his blood: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” And for us, even here today, the language of eating flesh and drinking blood is hard, too graphic perhaps, especially if we try to understand it in the way that the first century hearers of Jesus would have heard his words.
And yet, here we are. Do you also wish to go away? This question of Jesus to the twelve apostles is a question for us as well. And it’s not just a question that lands once and for all on this thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, at the end of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, but one that is forever before us disciples of Jesus. His teachings are hard. But, even more pertinent, I think, is the very human tendency to turn away, to turn back to our old ways, to forget who Jesus is, to forget where he calls us. I have preached before of how repentance is a continual process, of how our need to turn back to God is not something that happens once and for all but, rather, a lifelong reorientation and as I hear Jesus’ question to the apostles, I hear him speaking to me. Do you also wish to go away?
Few of you here have heard the rather long story of my discernment to the priesthood, and I won’t tell the long version of it here today but it happened over a period of almost a dozen years—far longer than the standard process. I started off the usual manner and went through all the diocesan committees and went away to seminary but then about midway through that first year I began to have doubts, not doubts about God but about where God was calling me. At least that’s how I spoke of it then. Now, hearing this lesson I think I might say the teaching was too hard. I was too self-interested. I turned back. I remember talking with my spiritual director during that time, explaining, rationalizing what I was doing—or not doing. He listened carefully, nodding often. He had been a priest for fifty years and I wanted him to affirm my choice, to give me some assurance that leaving the process was the right thing. But he didn’t do that. But he didn’t he try to change my mind either.
Instead, he sent me away with a poem, a rather long poem: “The Hound of Heaven.” Written in the late nineteenth century and full of archaic language it imagines God’s pursuit of the human soul as a great hound who pursues a rabbit. It perhaps sounds a bit strange—at least I thought so. The analogy is meant to convey the understanding that God pursues us, ever vigilant, ever determined to claim us in spite of our efforts to run away. We seek to hide ourselves, but God’s divine grace overtakes us and, in the end, we cannot help but surrender to God’s love. We cannot help but surrender to God’s will for us. As I said, it’s a rather long poem and I won’t quote much of it here but only its end: “I am he whom Thou seekest. Thou drawest love from thee who drawest Me.”
God beckons us. God comes to us. God loves us so much he sends his son, Jesus. So great is God’s desire to reconcile us to God’s self that God won’t stop until we give up our willful ways and rest in God’s love.
This was a hard lesson for me—sometimes is still a hard lesson for me. The poem didn’t help much, at least not for several years. This image of the hound pursuing the rabbit was tucked away in the background of my awareness but it went largely unnoticed. I continued on in my own way of living my faith as I saw fit and during those years that meant mostly attending a Quaker meeting on Sundays and reading random bits of scripture. Then, on the first Sunday of Advent, about three years later, I found myself at an Episcopal Church. I say found myself there, because, after all that time, I felt drawn in a way that I couldn’t explain. It was a beautiful church; the music was lovely; the people were friendly. All was fine and I remember noting that but also thinking that wasn’t enough. Why am I here, I asked myself.
It wasn’t until I stepped to the Communion rail that I understood. It was’t until I received the Body and Blood of Christ, that knew why I was there. I knew so deeply that I felt it in my whole body.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” The chase was over. I had been caught. “I am he whom Thou seekest. Thou drawest love from thee who drawest me.”
Do you wish to go away? Peter answers for us all. “Lord, to whom can we go?” We, all of us, sometimes turn away. We seek to hide ourselves, to go our own way, to exert our own will. But, in the end, when we tire, or when our eyes open, we can do nothing but say, yes. That’s God’s will for us.
When we step to the rail, when we reach out our hand and receive Christ’s body and blood we are filled. The 13th century German priest and mystic Meister Eckhart said, “The bodily food we take is changed into us, but the spiritual food we receive changes us into itself.” Come forward and be changed. Receive the body and blood of Christ and be taken into God’s love, made one with God. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” That’s God’s will for us and it’s right here, right now.
There are many times in our lives when we turn away from God’s love, when we seek to follow our own ego rather than discern God’s will for us. Much of the time, we are unaware of this turning away, until we notice we are quite far from any sense of God’s peace. We attempt to fill ourselves with the bread that perishes and think that the stuff of this world is enough. But a yearning hunger remains. St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” To allow ourselves to rest in God, to make space in your heart for Christ to abide is to return home. Jesus says that it is the spirit that gives life and that the flesh is useless. Another way to translate the Greek is that the spirit animates our flesh, brings our flesh to true life. That’s what happened in the Incarnation and it’s what’s happens when we come to this rail and receive Holy Communion. In just a bit, when Mother Kathleen says, the gifts of God for the people of God, it’s an invitation to be part of Christ’s divine body, to be the Incarnation of Christ, the Incarnation of God’s love in the world. Are you ready for that? Are you ready to come forward and be changed?