Thousands have agreed that it would be easier for them to forget about religion and Christianity. They have left the Church and they have turned their back on Christ.
And perhaps they have lived simpler and happier lives as a result. I do not know.
But when I feel tempted to leave, I hear Jesus ask the same question that he asked his disciples in today’s Gospel, “Do you also wish to go away?”
Do you also wish to go away?
And then Peter says the words that I have so often said to Christ when I feel like leaving: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
The words of Christ, like the words of the Old Testament, have been horribly misconstrued to justify hate and violence and oppression. But we have also come to believe that the words of Christ, and the words of the Old Testament are the words of eternal life.
Franciscan Theologian Richard Rohr says, “The scriptures are the best book in the world, and maybe also the worst. They are the worst when they are used for bullying and self-satisfaction, and the best when used for healing of the world and transformation of the self. Obviously God intended the second.”
So how do we experience the Scriptures as words of eternal life rather than words of hate and violence and death?
I believe Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus offers some illumination.
Paul exhorts the Christians in Ephesus to put on the whole armor of God. But this is not armor to be used for violence; rather, this is armor that protects us from all the evil that coerces us to interpret Scripture as words of hate and violence.
Paul says, “Take up the whole armor of God” because if you venture to bear the sword alone without the helmet or the breastplate or the shield or the shoes, you are bound to get hurt and you are likely to fall, perhaps even on your own sword!
“Take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able…to stand firm”
What is the armor of God?
That armor of God is truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation.
Taking up the whole armor of God involves learning how to be honest, compassionate, confident, trusting and trustworthy. The Scriptures can help us develop these qualities, but before we start using Scripture to justify our actions, we need to already have a certain level of maturity in these areas.
This is why Paul saves the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, for last.
Don’t take up the Sword of the Spirit until you are already clothed in truth, righteousness, peace, faith and salvation. These qualities will protect you and others from the very dangerous Sword, which is the Word of God.
And if the Word of God is leading you and others away from truth, righteousness, peace, faith and salvation; then perhaps it is time to put your sword in your sheath for a season while you concentrate on the rest of your armor.
And the best way to clothe ourselves in truth, righteousness, peace, faith and salvation? Prayer.
“Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.”
As we pray, the Holy Spirit clothes us with her qualities, which help make known to us “the mystery of the gospel” and then give us the boldness to proclaim it.
Solomon proved his wisdom when he said, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” Likewise, words by themselves cannot contain God and when we think they do, we are little children playing with deadly swords. But when the Holy Spirit arms us and guides us in our prayer we can bear the Sword of the Spirit and transform lives.
As we pray, the Holy Spirit opens our hearts and minds to see the deeper meaning in Christ’s words. We learn that Christ is not actually telling his disciples to become cannibals and eat him. Rather, he is attempting to describe a radical intimacy that really cannot be described with simple language. Christ comes up against the limits of language and pushes against her walls with outrageous hyperbole and metaphor so that what appears to be opacity is really poetry pointing to an overwhelming divine love. The Holy Spirit guides us through the poetic words of Christ and towards the love-saturated encounter with God.
“You have the words of eternal life.”
And the Holy Spirit guides us through the words of the Old Testament as well, allowing us to look into their deeper meaning. Christ described one type of bread, which our ancestors ate and they died. But there is another bread, which leads to eternal life. Likewise, there are ways to read Scripture, which might seem to satisfy for a while but eventually lead to death. But when the Holy Spirit guides us through Scripture, equipped with truth, righteousness, peace, faith and salvation, then we begin to feed on the words of eternal life.
And the Holy Spirit empowers us to share these words of eternal life and speak truth to power and stand up against those who abuse Scripture and work towards righteousness, peace, and salvation.