Sunday, August 23, 2009

Take off your shoes, cross a rocky ledge

Here is my sermon for today, taken from John 6: 56-59:

A few years ago, I went on a fishing trip with some buddies to Idaho. We spent a week exploring the streams and lakes around McCall, Idaho. We caught a lot of fish, and some of us – like me – started to get a little overconfident.

One afternoon, we worked our way downstream along the Payette River, which winds through a wooded canyon and into a rocky gorge. Somehow I ended up on the north side of the gorge when everyone else was on the south side of the gorge.

I became stuck at the base of a cliff on a rocky ledge.

I really did not want to hike back upstream, but I could not see how I was going to get past the cliff and downstream – and the sun was beginning to set.

My boots were slippery from mud and river gunk, and I did not trust my footing to climb across the rocky ledge. I briefly thought of jumping into the raging river below, but that was definitely a stupid idea.

Then I looked across the gorge to the other side, where a member of our fishing party was standing on another rocky ledge with a big cigar in his mouth. He was not just anyone in our party, but Joe Hennessy, who at 80-years-old, was our most experienced angler.

Joe told me take off my shoes, and walk across the ledge barefoot. “Trust me,” he shouted. “You won’t fall.”

I did as he told me. I climbed across the ledge, barefoot, my boots slung over my shoulder, and I reached the safety of a big meadow on the other side. I believed him, though it seemed nuts at the time.

Belief is a tricky thing, and it is word that is deceptively difficult to define.

Outwardly, the meaning in English is plain enough. Belief: to give assent to an idea, or as my Webster’s dictionary puts it, “to take as true” a particular proposition.
But the word “belief” in the New Testament has layers of meaning. And in the Gospel of John, where we encounter belief today, the word appears no less than 96 times, more than anywhere else in the Bible. You might say that an overarching theme of the Gospel of John is an exploration of the nature and meaning of belief.

In the original Greek of the gospel, the word for believe is pees-tou. My Greek-English lexicon has a page-and-a-half of definitions, all in small print. There are another five pages of definitions of words that are derivatives of pees-tou.

That should be caution enough about making a hasty interpretation.

One meaning of believe is to accept an idea as correct, for example, we can say we “believe” that the earth orbits the sun because we have enough data to reasonably make that conclusion.
Another layer of meaning requires a nuance that comes in the Greek. In the Gospel of John, the word pees-tou is frequently followed by the word eis, or “into,” so it comes out as “believe into.” The word “believe” is no longer about correct data but about a true relationship, or entering into a true belief, as when Jesus says “believe into me.”

Today we encounter a third layer of meaning “to believe.” Believe now becomes about trust, as in “can you trust in the truth of something you don’t yet see or understand?”

That question, and this meaning of “believe” as trust, laces throughout the passage we hear today, a passage that sounds almost the same as last week’s but is not.

To refresh your memory, last week Jesus talked about how his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood. He is not talking about cannibalism, but about having an experience of the holy in the bread and wine of our Eucharist.

Today Jesus is moving us beyond the Eucharist and onto the difficult ground of belief that is trust in a relationship with him. Jesus declares that salvation is not for a single special group, but for all of humanity – and he asks his listeners to believe him even though they don’t yet see it or understand it.

Jesus uses the word “believe” to invite us to encounter him as the Christ, meaning the “anointed one,” or “holy one,” who will break himself on the Cross so that others might live. He invites into this encounter with him so that we can experience not only our own brokenness, but also the healing that will bring us into the fullness of life.

Jesus asks us: Can we trust him enough to act in the knowledge that God promises us salvation?

Not all are willing to go there, as the Gospel of John points out. Some who have followed Jesus this far will fall away.

They were a bit shaky on the topic of sharing a meal, and now they’ve had enough. Jesus is not conforming to their religious expectations, whatever those expectations may be. That is one of the realities of this spiritual journey we are upon, that not everyone comes to the table at the same time or in the same way.

Yet Jesus continues to invite everyone to the table and closer into the circle, and he is recasting the meaning of being in the circle. All are special; all are welcome into the circle. Yet not everyone welcomes the idea of sharing the circle with others.

As people fall away, Jesus sounds as if he wonders if anyone will stick with him, and so he turns to Peter – “Do you wish to go away?”

No, Peter replies, I am here and we have nowhere else to go. Peter tells Jesus he believes him, trusts him, and he will go with him.

And here is where I find hope in Peter’s answer: Peter all but admits he doesn’t understand where he is going or what exactly Jesus is getting at. But, in effect, Peter says, I will take off my shoes and go barefoot wherever it is we are to go, even out on a rocky ledge.

Peter doesn’t know, he can’t know, the full meaning of his belief, or where he will end up, or when he will get there, but he trusts enough to go anyway.

For now, it is enough for Peter to say to Jesus: “You are the holy one of God – you are the holy one.” And then Peter takes off his shoes, walks ahead, listening, seeing, experiencing the Holy One. And so can we.

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