Isaac Villegas of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship wrote that “We long for new beginnings, a restart, to go back in time to correct our mistakes or dodge the harm someone has done to us. But those former lives are inaccessible to us. All we have is this life now. Here we are in the middle: after the beginning and before the end. … In the church calendar, we’re in the season called ‘ordinary time,’ a long stretch of weeks between Pentecost and Advent. These are the middle months where the scriptures plop us into the middle of stories. And that is where we find Jesus. The incarnation is an act of God in the middle of Israel’s story: not the beginning, not the conclusion, but God-with-us in the middle. This season … has also been taken up into the life of God. … Jesus is the one who has been with us from the beginning, who has witnessed the groaning of all creation, the births and deaths and the life in between-and comes to us now, where we are, in our midlife, with our regrets and unfulfilled dreams, and guides us as we wander into the ordinary goodness of life.” End of quote.
People followed Jesus hoping for a new beginning, for something that would project them out of the middle and then he speaks radical words that suggest eating another human being. “Because of this 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?’” During this season of Pentecost we have been hearing the stories of miracles that Jesus performed and the crowds who followed him, who found him when he evaded them, who forced him to walk across the Sea of Galilee to get away from them. Now we reach a turning point. The crowds had already thinned out, now the disciples choose whether to continue or not. Are they in the middle of something or is it about to end?
Jesus expected his followers to not only care for the needs of the poor and the sick and the hungry but he asked them to also follow a path of spirituality. “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever. … It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Jesus was living as God in the world and setting an example for his disciples. In this passage, John depicts him trying to explain what they must do to bring God’s Kingdom to Earth.
The disciples who remain are in the middle of it all and have adventures ahead of them and Jesus wanted them to be well equipped to take them on. This bread from heaven that provides eternal life is something Jesus’ followers didn’t understand but Peter is willing to have faith that understanding will come later when he says, “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.” Peter was content to be in the middle to not know what the conclusion would be.
The disciples were willing to continue to follow Jesus// to have Jesus in control of their lives. They were willing to take his words and example into their very being and live as he lived. I wonder if we ask ourselves often enough-or even at all-if we ask ourselves if Jesus is too radical for us. What Jesus asks of us might shift our focus to the streets instead of sitting in our pews and going home to Sunday dinner.// Those streets and the people who populate them are challenging.
And, sometimes, I think being in the pews can be challenging. New music, new liturgy, new people-sometimes the old people challenge us. Changing the building, painting the walls, moving the furniture challenges us. Recording services and shifting our thinking about community during a pandemic has certainly been a challenge. And, here, we see fewer people sitting in the pews and it reminds us of the people we have lost to death and poor health. Yet there is still much joy and generosity here. We have been looking outside the doors and considering who is living out there. We are concerned for the poor and the sick and the hungry and trying to do what we can to meet their needs. Maybe Jesus isn’t too radical for us. Maybe we can live full lives right here in the middle.
I was looking at an old sermon from 15 years ago and in it I related something Velma Cozzuto had written. She talked about how as Christians we could either wait until we had died and gone to glory to live out our adventures with Jesus because then we will have all eternity to do so. Or, we could let him have the handlebars on our bicycles and live the adventure now. If Peter had owned a bicycle, that was exactly what he was offering to do. “Lord, to whom can we go?” Peter was willing to turn over control to Jesus and ride along with him. Peter had no more idea than we do how to be Christ in the world. Yet he took Jesus’ words and actions into his heart and did the best he could.
Bicycles bring up a mental image for me: Bicycles are very important to low income and unhoused folks. The old River City encampment seemed to be full of bicycles. Bicycles being repaired, bicycles ridden, bicycles parked and bicycle parts. The poor in Grays Harbor do a lot of walking and bike riding. Some of them have fashioned trailers to pull behind their bikes. Having control of a bike gives one a sense of freedom within this community. Bikes get stolen, borrowed, repainted, and found again. I often hear, “Don’t touch my bike.” I often hear, “You can use my bike.” Having a bicycle puts you right in the middle of the action.
Velma’s adventurous bicycle ride with Christ at the handlebars made me think of the often adventurous lives of those who live without homes. Jesus has been sending us out to the homeless. It isn’t a place I would have thought of going on my own though I have long been concerned for those living without shelter and those living with inadequate shelter. I even served decades ago on a coalition for the homeless of the Eastside in King County. I wonder if anyone on that board ever went out and talked to the people who lived in tents in the woods in Bellevue and Kirkland-I know I didn’t. But I have talked to the homeless in Aberdeen and they are interesting people just as interesting as each of you. They care about people, are cynical about people, think some people are lazy or crazy or useless, and they value giving to one another. And, in many ways, they are more willing to forgive faults and mistakes than we are-hey, maybe they know this Jesus guy, too. In fact, many of them know Jesus quite well. Jesus is how they have maintained their sanity, their dignity, and their ability to love. When you are reduced to nothing over and over, I guess it is easier to follow this radical Jesus and go where he leads.
As you all know, River City has been gone for over 2 years now and there are about 5 people left in Aberdeen’s TASL site who are waiting-in the middle-for what happens next.//
“Because of this many disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” What would cause us to turn away and stop following Jesus? What DOES cause us to turn away and stop following Jesus? Is Jesus too radical for us? Are we willing to eat the bread? Are we willing to accept the life-giving Spirit? Are we willing to follow no matter where we are lead? Are we willing to just be right here in the middle? Are we willing to “…believe and know that [Jesus is] the Holy One of God,” even if we don’t fully understand what that means? Let’s continue to meet here and also nurture one another remotely so we can sustain that relationship with Jesus and with one another but let us not forget that we are right in the middle and there is work to do.