Over the course of my adult life, I have become a big fan of world soccer. Like a lot of things, I can become a little fanatical and obsessive about it. The team I support most passionately is an English side called Chelsea, which is a West London team. It’s a loyalty that is out of character for me. I tend to route for the underdog in sports, and Chelsea is like the New York Yankees of English soccer. They are a perennial powerhouse, loaded with the best players in the world, and backed up by loads of capital from the team’s owner.
I became a Chelsea fan before I knew any of this when I attended an exhibition game they were playing in Massachusetts. I had never seen a real European team play before, and Foxboro stadium wasn’t far from where we lived, so I bought the cheapest ticket I could find and went to the game. When I arrived, I found myself sitting in the midst of the really hard core Chelsea fans who had travelled from England to watch even such an unimportant match as this. I had so much fun with sitting with that group of people, that it hooked me on the team for life. Like a lot of sports fans, I don’t so much feel like I chose my team, as my team chose me. It wasn’t a rational decision I made, it was just something I caught.
I’ve come to understand that faith works that way, too. If you’ve ever thought that the Christian faith seems irrational, and hard to believe, then our gospel lesson today reminds you that you aren’t alone, and in fact are part of an ancient tradition that goes back to Jesus’ first disciples. If you’ve been keeping score over the past few weeks, you’ll know that this is the fourth week in a row that Jesus has said basically the same thing in our gospel lesson. For nearly all of chapter six in John’s gospel, he has gone on and on about himself as the bread of life, and how to eat his flesh and drink his blood is the key to eternal life. His disciples today react with one of the most obvious statements in all of scripture by saying: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” It’s so difficult in fact, that many disciples turned away and left.
The Greek word that’s translated as “difficult” more directly means “scandalous.” The disciples who left didn’t just find Jesus’ teachings hard to understand, they found them scandalous and offensive. And what was scandalous was not just the gross factor of Jesus talking about eating his body and blood, but rather suggesting that God would take on the ordinary form of a Jewish peasant from the backwaters of nowhere. The fact that God would do that is scandalous, hard to understand or accept.
One of the central claims of the whole Christian faith, is that we meet God primarily in the ordinary, in the mundane, and in other people. And if you know much about other people, or spend much time around other people, you’ll understand why someone might be scandalized by that. Because other people can be hard to deal with: they get angry, the disappoint us, they don’t come through, they refuse to forgive, they hurt us. They have annoying habits.
But at the same time, if you really stop and think about it, most of the ways we’ve really known the love of a God who refuses to let us go have involved those same, ordinary, disappointing people. We know God’s love is real in the arthritic hand we’ve been reaching out to hold for more years than we can count; in the exasperating child that brings us to our breaking point during the day, and who brings us to tears of unspeakable gratitude as we watch her sleep at night; in the friend who has known us for decades and keeps us connected to who we once were; in the sponsor who got us through the first agonizing weeks of recovery; in the grandparent who gave us strength and wisdom and stability in the midst of chaos. Over and over and over, our most intense moments of knowing God’s love involve the same people who make us crazy.
So the Christian faith is not about believing better with our brains, it’s about committing more deeply to our relationships. Belief is not a lightning bolt that zaps out all our doubts, it’s a process that gradually unfolds as we struggle to love one another like Jesus.
I didn’t choose my commitment to Chelsea. I caught it from being connected to other fans. We arrive at a life-changing faith in Jesus the same way: by committing to spending time with Jesus in the Eucharist, in one another, and in serving the world around us.
We are just getting ready to start year two of an ambitious strategic plan to continue to be a beacon of hope and light to our neighborhood, our city, and our world. You’ll be hearing a lot more about where we are and where we’re going in the coming weeks and months. We’re taking big steps that will require big faith. In our own lives, we all face challenges, and uncertainties. But through our practice together here week by week, we are learn more and more how to rely on God’s provision, how to trust God’s strength, and how to feast on God’s abundant, and unlimited love. A love that turns brokenness into healing, that turns enmity into peace, darkness into life, death into life. Amen.