by Fred & Gloria Strickert
Sermon for new YAGM installation:
“Where else would we go?”
It was only a short time ago – last January-- when we were reading the Gospel story about the call of the disciples—Peter and John in particular--to leave their boats, their fishing nets, and their families, to follow Jesus and dedicate themselves to lives of commitment and service. And then things happened so fast, it was a whirlwind of activity going here and there trying to keep up with this Jesus of Nazareth walking from one village to the next and proclaiming the kingdom of God. And all that led to a hillside near the Sea of Galilee and an afternoon lunch of loaves and fish with crowds beyond numbering—John says there were about 5,000 present and adding women and children that could mean 10, 15, 20,000 or more. It’s good to get caught up in the crowds and to feel comfortable, to feel secure, especially when the menu lists foremost the bread of life.
For five Sundays we’ve been reading Gospel lessons from John 6 with Jesus expounding upon the meaning of this bread come down from heaven. Yet slowly, slowly, the crowds dissipate. Many return to their homes and daily routine, others trickle off a bit bored and looking for excitement, and others yet are starting to criticize Jesus’ words and find offense. So by the end of John chapter 6, it appears that we’re back to the starting lineup. And Peter says it well, “We signed on for the long haul. Where else would we go? Lord, you have the words of eternal life.” ( John 6:68)
I think of those of you who have arrived here in Jerusalem most recently, especially new volunteers who have dedicated yourselves to a year of service. I’m guessing it seems like just yesterday when you heard the call and responded with applications and letters, which you followed with a hustle and bustle of activity preparing yourself, and then, at least in the case of the ELCA- Young Adults in Global Mission who joined together with dozens of others heading to other parts of the world, together in a long discernment weekend, and then the week of orientation where perhaps you could be swallowed up in the crowd and all its group enthusiasm. And then the goodbyes, the long ride to the airport, the flight, and eventually the realization that only a few of you were left, and then in a quiet moment late at night a feeling of being all alone, and thoughts of “What am I doing here?” or "Am I really up for this?" or “What next?” And having just arrived two days ago, your eyes are still blurry, maybe confused, maybe uncertain, maybe even a little teart. But down deep, your inner self is echoing those words of Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life?”
That blurry vision appears in one of my favorite paintings, Eugene Burnand’s "Peter and John running to the tomb on the morning of the resurrection," from the Orsay Museum in Paris. This unique depiction reflects this same blurry vision, while these two disciples found themselves left all alone, now seemingly without Jesus clearly present. Mary Magdalene had just awakened them—which explains their bad hair day--with the news of the empty tomb, and with this same question in mind, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” they take off running to the tomb with Mary following in the distance. Running to the tomb, not knowing, full of doubts, yet believing that even after Good Friday Jesus has the words of eternal life.
Thus the disciples with looks of hopeful consternation, their urgent, purposeful race moves them past a well-centered frame to nearly run off canvas to the left, for that is where the light of the rising sun is taking them. The focal point is off canvas, out of sight, still beyond recognition, beyond perception, beyond comprehension and understanding—yet totally in realm of faith and hope.
How appropriate this is for our context here at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, often described as just a stone’s throw from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, The Anastasis. In my whimsy and wonder, I’d like to imagine this scene of Peter and John somewhere nearby, perhaps right in the vicinity of where we sit at this moment here in the St. John's Chapel, perhaps right under our feet, perhaps out in the street, where tourists run by every day, having been separated from their groups, and trying to catch up, where pilgrims race ahead, not wanting to miss that site or experience that will forever add meaning to their faith walk back home.
At the same time, I think how appropriate this image is for a community made up in large part by individuals on “temporary assignment,” short-term and long-term calls, and how sometimes it seems like we are racing/ running through our sojourn here. We hit the ground running and when the day comes to leave, it seems like we had just arrived, running through our months and years here.
Yet it is significant that the artist has not chosen the Luke 24 text where it is only Simon Peter who races out to the tomb. In John 20 it is the Beloved Disciple and Peter who run to the tomb together. And to take a little artistic liberty, we might imagine Mary Magdalene in guise of the long distance jogger, off canvas to the right, having already completed her pre-dawn walk to the tomb, and having run back to tell the disciples, and now following breathless at a distance. The point is that this trek to the tomb emphasizes community. Peter is not alone. Mary is not alone. The Beloved Disciple is not alone. They are together in community—just as we are in this congregation.
And how interesting in the way the artist portrays a contrast in the characters! As is almost always the case, the beloved disciple is depicted clean shaven and youthful, the youngest of the disciples, while Peter, the leader is further along in years, middle-aged, with a hint of grey, and out of breath. And their clothes: The Beloved Disciple in white—yes the idealism of youth, yes even the innocence of youth. And Peter, dressed in drab earth-tones. The two disciples contrast and yes they complement one another—just as our young volunteers and our older professionals bring various gifts to the table in this amazing community.
Notice the hands. Peter holding his chest with his right hand, “I think I’m about to have a heart-attack” and with the left about to make a gesture to interject a word of wisdom to John. But the Beloved Disciple runs with hands clasped prayerfully as if he already sees something that Peter’s blurry eyes cannot.
What happens next? John 20 reports that the Beloved Disciple, took off sprinting to the tomb and arrived first, yet out of respect and deference to his elder, waited outside bending to observe as best he could the grave wrappings. Then impetuous Peter rushed in to inspect things from a different perspective—now the face cloth folded to the side—and to pause in reflection with the wisdom of age. But it all didn’t come together until the Beloved Disciple also entered, observed and believed. Different gifts. Different perspectives, different backgrounds, different ages, but all coming together with a single confession: The Lord is Risen. He has the words of eternal life!
And here at Redeemer, perhaps what we offer best in community is an opportunity to pause periodically in that daily walk of accompaniment with the people of this place--that walk that is so often a sprint--to pause to reflect on the meaning of why we are here, why we seem to be running through this place, why we feel a sense of calling to follow in the footsteps of Peter and the Beloved Disciple, why we endure until the end.
With Peter & John, and also with Mary, we pause to gaze into the empty tomb, and with Mary to rest outside and hear the voice of the risen Jesus calling us, comforting and challenging at the same time—in word and sacrament we gather. Healed and strengthened. Yes, and then we run back to tell the others, to listen to their stories, to laugh with them, and sometimes to cry, to live in accompaniment whether walking or running alongside, to serve others, to be agents of healing to a tired and broken world. In community, we are reminded again and again, “Lord, You have the words of eternal life.”
Where else would we go?
by Fred & Gloria Strickert