King’s Acre, 16 September 2001
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
“To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Little did I think, when I looked up this evening’s readings on Monday, how much I would be living with this text this week. When something dreadful happens, and events don’t come much more dreadful than this week, then it’s very difficult to know how to react. A minister, speaking on “Thought for the Day” on Friday morning, said that she had had trouble praying all week, that the cloud of smoke and dust hanging over Manhattan seemed to veil the face of God from her. I know, I think, what she means.
When dreadful things happen – and they don’t come much more dreadful than they did on Tuesday – then our first instinct is so often to ask “Why?” Why did God let this happen? Where is God in all this suffering and devastation? Why?
It is about sticking-points. When Peter said, “To whom can we go?”, Jesus had asked whether the disciples, too, were going to desert him as a great many people had just done. This was because he had brought them to a place where their faith came smack up against a sticking-point. A place where they had to stop just saying they were following Jesus, and actually do something about it.
We are so accustomed to reading Jesus’ words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood that they mean very little to us. Our mental image is of Holy Communion, of bread and wine. But it was very different for his first hearers – they would have had no idea that he would take the Jewish Friday-night ritual and lift it and transform it into something very different, yet essentially the same. For them, when he said, “You must eat of my flesh and drink of my blood,” what they thought was cannibalism.
And, of course, that was seriously offensive to them, as it would be to us. Perhaps even more offensive than it would be to us, since we have no taboo against eating blood. But the Jews, like the Muslims, do have a terrific taboo against it, believing that the “life is in the blood” – I’ll come back to that in a minute – and so to them it is probably not only unheard-of to drink blood, but rather sick-making, too. Whereas other cultures - the Masai, certainly, drink blood as a matter of routine. And even we have our black puddings, although I think we’d blench at being offered a nice warm glass of fresh blood.
And, of course, there are things that we wouldn’t normally think of as food that other cultures eat routinely - think of the Chinese and their dogs and snakes, for instance. Or even the French with their snails, which are actually delicious if you like garlic butter! And I know that many West Indians follow the example of the Jews and Muslims and eat no pork, and probably feel rather sick at the thought, just as I expect Hindus do about eating beef.
I expect you remember that Jack Rosenthal play, “The Evacuees”, where the two Jewish children are presented with “delicious sausages” for their supper and expected to eat them. And although they’ve been told and told that as it is a national emergency, they may eat food that is normally forbidden, they simply can’t bring themselves to try. The taboo against eating pork runs so deep, for them, that they simply can’t overcome it.
And Jesus’ followers certainly felt most uncomfortable at his words. To start with, they simply couldn’t understand what he was on about: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Visions, there, of Jesus cutting great chunks out of his arms, I shouldn’t wonder. Or of people cutting up a dead body and preparing to eat it - in some cultures, that would be considered quite normal, and the correct way of honouring the dead, but not for the Jews, any more than for us.
And when Jesus said that whoever eats of this bread will live forever, they said, “This is too difficult. We can’t cope with this.”
And Jesus’ response isn’t to make it easier, to dumb it down, but in fact he makes it harder: “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.”
And with that, a lot of them did leave. This, for them, was the crunch. They couldn’t accept it. The thought of eating human flesh and drinking human blood was too repellent, and they couldn’t face discovering what Jesus actually meant, or how he proposed to implement this. So they left.
And Jesus, probably rather upset, says to Peter and the others “Are you going to abandon me, too?” You can imagine he is panicking inside, wondering if he’s got it all wrong, afraid that he has totally blown it, spoken too soon, totally misinterpreted what he believed God was saying.
But Peter reassures Jesus: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” For Peter, there was no other option. It was Jesus or nobody.
Jesus or nobody. And that is the option that I think we, too, have been facing this past week. We came up against the unthinkable, against thousands of innocent human beings killed by people who even gave up their own life for the task, and we don’t know where to turn. There is, I think, no comfort when things like this happen, only the knowledge that God does care, God is there in the middle of things, God is in it with us.
We were talking at the rink the other day, about those poor folk who chose to jump out of the window to certain death, rather than face death by burning or in the collapsing buildings. And wondering what we should have done, if it had been us. And about the wonderful people on the jet that crashed in Pennsylvania who wrestled with the hijackers at the cost of their own lives, so that the plane should crash somewhere harmless. Or those who calmly telephoned their loved ones from the top of the skyscrapers, to say that they doubted they would get out alive, but they wished to say goodbye, and that they loved their families.
I don’t know, what would we have done? The thing is, we don’t know. I am reminded of Corrie ten Boom’s analogy of the train ticket - the ticket that was only bought and given to her just before she got on the train. She was told not to worry about how her faith would hold up, because as and when the time came that it would be needed, God would give her what she needed. As, indeed, she saw only a few months later when a rather hypochondriac aunt was told that she was severely ill and likely not to live very long. The aunt, instead of panicking, was able to take the news calmly and to set her affairs in order.
For Corrie herself, and her sister Betsey, they needed all the faith they could get when imprisoned in concentration camps and, later on, when they were released, she needed God’s help in order to forgive her captors, and make her own peace with the Nazis.
And the same goes for us. Had we been in the impossible situation that those poor people in the World Trade Centre, or in the aeroplanes, found themselves in, I’m sure we would have been given the faith to cope. Indeed, we have seen on our television screens one family that has been given just such a faith, where the father, obviously grieving for the presumed loss of his daughter, reminded us that this life is not all there is, and that if his daughter has, as they suspect, died in the tragedy, she will be with Jesus somewhere else.
When we need it, we are given it. Sometimes it’s easy to forget where God is in all this - we see a world that disaster has struck, and cannot see the hand of God anywhere. But God is there, there in the business centre of New York, here with us. It may not be easy for us to see him right now, but I am sure that those whose faith suddenly became a real matter of life or death were given the faith and courage to meet it calmly.
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter’s words, in a week like this one, have never been truer. For when all is dark, all is murky, all is gloomy, and there seems no hope anywhere, there is only one place to turn. To Jesus.