by Ellen Sims
Texts: Joshua 24: 15-25 and John 6:56-60
We return one more Sunday to the difficult sixth chapter of John as Jesus relentlessly persists in the outrageous claim that his body is our food and his blood is our drink. Finally we hear the disciples’ reaction: they are confused and offended. In fact, many “turned back and no longer went about with him” (6:66). And even though his core group of twelve remained, they objected to Jesus’s words, saying, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” (6:60).
In my journey from fundamentalism/biblical literalism to Christian progressivism, I sometimes wondered if I could continue calling myself a Jesus follower. So many stories and teachings I once had easily accepted later caused me to wonder, “Who can accept it?” Could I?
Yet neither complete denials of the sacred nor immediate acceptance of a more expansive God set easily with me. “This teaching is difficult,” I thought, as a high school student wondering how the theory of evolution could mesh with the creation story in Genesis. “Who can accept it?” Should I?
Although the old paradigms were sometimes discredited, the new seemed equally unsettling: New images of God? New ways of interpreting scripture? New meanings for “salvation”? Could I continue calling myself a Christian?
Each time I’d reached a new threshold between sincere conviction and sincere doubt, it was as if Jesus lovingly gave me the option of turning back. Just as Jesus’s confused followers heard him say, “Do you also wish to go away?” (6:67), I sometimes felt a voice within asking me if I needed to turn back to a more comfortable stage of faith.
I hope that when Jesus asked the original disciples, “Do you also wish to go away?”, he was not whining about their unfaithfulness or passive-aggressively daring them or shaming them into staying. Maybe his was a sincere question to release those not ready for such a difficult way. “Do you need to turn back?” he might have been asking, as if they’d started up a rugged mountain trail and the superior climber gave his friends the chance to head back down. No shame. No blame. Rather, a gentle realization that Peter and the others might not be able to journey any farther with him.
That was not the spirit in which Joshua prodded the not-completely-committed-to-YHWH Israelites. In today’s Hebrew Bible lection, Joshua gave his followers a stark choice: the foreign gods or the Lord God. Joshua made clear what was the right choice. He made clear there were serious consequences with the Lord God who could beat the pants off every other god.
I have to acknowledge that John’s Jesus, just a few verses beyond our reading, calls Judas a devil who will betray him (6:70). So John is not going easy on the one who betrayed Jesus. But there’s something in Peter’s reply that makes it imaginable that Jesus is sincerely giving them an honest out. When Jesus asks if they’ll leave him, Peter asks, “Lord, to whom can we go?” (6:68). Those words touch me deeply.
I guess you could hear Peter’s reply as half-hearted. “Lord, to whom can we go?” could mean: “Well, what else can we do at this point? Okay, okay. We’ll remain with you.” Or you could hear his reply as if addressed to the spiritual equivalent of a bad boyfriend you just can’t leave. However, you might instead hear Peter’s utter devotion that persists even after tough times. It’s as if he’s saying, “I’ve tried leaving you—or I’ve tried on that idea in my mind—and there’s no one and nothing to take your place.”
I recall times in my life when I’ve come close to leaving Jesus. Often I’ve said, like the disciples, “This teaching is difficult. I can’t accept it.” And the teachings are less difficult than the way of living Jesus calls us to. Sometimes I’ve felt almost as if Jesus pushed back gently, “Well, do you want to leave, too?” But with puppy dog devotion I’ve replied, “Lord, to whom can I go but you?” Because even if it’s just the idea of Jesus, the dream of Jesus, the way of Jesus—well, that idea and dream and way is worthy of my whole life.
You might think the tenderness I feel toward Peter’s reply suggests that my faith journey has been guided entirely by fickle emotions. Not true. If anything, I’ve overly analyzed and intellectualized my Christianity. But at the end of the day, I don’t explain the trajectory of my spiritual life as entirely an intellectual exercise. Peter’s question is raw and real for me because I find the life of Jesus so compelling.
Yes, it’s hard to know much for certain about the life of Jesus. Books we’ve read together and the Saving Jesus DVD series we’re currently discussing in the 9:30 hour call into question many “facts” we used to take for granted about him. Born of a virgin? Killed by the Jews? Presented himself as divine? Many do not think so. But progressives, in attending carefully to good scholarship, are not aiming to destroy anyone’s faith. The Christian scholars, writers, and ministers who developed the Saving Jesus series say they want to “save Jesus” both from the fundamentalism of the religious right and from the indifference of the religious left. That’s the narrow strait through which I’m trying, in faith, to navigate.
Like Joshua, I am asking those of you who look to me for spiritual guidance to face into the challenge of deconstructing your faith (saying good-by to the old gods) and then reconstructing your faith (embracing a bigger God). “Choose!” Joshua ordered his flock. “Recognize you have a choice,” I suggest to you.
But you may not be ready for that. Some are comfortable living with a theological hodgepodge. This piece you might hang onto from childhood faith. That piece you might reject. Or some will choose to do the deconstructing of their religious worldview without sticking around for the reconstructing. Others will have good reason not to ask too many questions now: you are dealing with awful news and just take on another challenge and change. Take care of you. Now may not be the time for you to venture into new theological territory. Still others will simply feel deep down that your religious world view is indeed working for you. I get that. Unlike some paths, progressive Christianity will never tell you that it’s the only path. But I have found it ultimately a liberating and loving path.
Some of you have already started a questioning and expanding faith journey. Others are beginning to ask new questions. You might be perceiving insufficiencies, contradictions, or dissonances in Christianity. If you’ve worn your religion like a shirt with a Christian brand label for self-identity or like “the armor of God” for protection, it might now seem threadbare or a little too tight. You might simply have a hunch that there is more, much more. So you might be ready to move into new spiritual terrain in the company of good friends.
Let me share three points in my own journey when I discarded pieces of my Christian worldview without discarding my faith.
In my first semester at Samford University, a Southern Baptist college, my professors demonstrated that intellectual development needn’t stifle—might even support—spiritual growth. I soon understood that wrestling with authentic questions was a spiritual discipline and duty, and that realization felt liberating. I understood through a world history class that the Old Testament story of the flood was based on a more ancient Babylonian myth, and I came to recognize other mythology within scripture. I took biology classes that presumed the theory of evolution. I took English classes that taught me to critique texts and notice life’s complexities. And so I began to read differently and read the Bible differently. I might have chunked the Bible and my religion altogether. But the example of Jesus remained compelling for me. So I prayed, “Lord, to whom can I go but you?”
Years later as a young married couple George and I began attending a wonderfully aberrant Baptist church in Nashville. These folks were not like Baptists we had known. They were activists in the community—protesting war, championing the rights of the poor, opposing the death penalty—and they did so because of, not in spite of, their Christianity. They were ordaining women as ministers and were absolutely religious about gender-inclusive language in worship. As parents of a baby daughter, George and I were grateful our child would grow up hearing God imaged in both male and female terms—and in non-anthropomorphic ways. Georgia would not hear in her church, even indirectly, that women were less than men. And she would not hear her church condemn homosexuality. Instead, our daughter watched respectful Christians struggle prayerfully with the issue of homosexuality and, just as Georgia was graduating from high school, she proudly participated in a church vote to call as our associate pastor an extraordinary woman—who happens to be lesbian.
But these ideas that are so important to me now seemed shocking at first. I said, though not in these exact words, “This teaching is difficult. I can’t accept it.” I might have ditched church altogether in confusion. But I was experiencing liberation of mind and spirit that felt right for me and our daughter. So I prayed again, “Lord, to whom can I go but to you?”
As our daughter left for college, I left teaching to attend seminary. In the process, I revisited traditional doctrines in systematic ways–often to see them from new angles. After being ordained by the American Baptist Churches in anticipation of serving as a pastor, I realized that the entire Christian landscape was rapidly changing. Churches were closing their doors, denominations were hemorrhaging members and money, and the old models of how to do church were becoming obsolete. To make matters more complicated, my husband was taking a new job in my hometown of Mobile—where I would have NO chance of being called to a liberal Baptist church. I was going to have to create a ministry setting for myself—a progressive church in a conservative context. Was there more than a handful of progressives in Mobile, I wondered? “This is difficult. I can’t accept it,” I said. But once again I followed that protest to God with a sigh: “Lord, to whom can I go but you?”
And to this day every new book I read and every challenging situation I work through has the potential to affect my understanding of how to follow in the way of Jesus. You see, I don’t really know the historical Jesus. Nor do you. Not really. What I think I know is the spiritual path that Jesus represents. And I know faith is an unending journey. But what I do know of Jesus offers me a beacon toward God, a path of compassion and peace that has the potential to make this world right. I ask once again, with longing, with trust: “Lord, to whom can I go but you?”
The words of this old spiritual express my heart:
I heard my mother say, I heard my mother say, I heard my mother say:
Give me Jesus.
Give me Jesus. Give me Jesus.
You may have all this world.
Give me Jesus.