Called to a Covenant Relationship with God: 14th Sunday after Pentecost
by The Reverend Jeffrey C. Johnson
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
1 Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.
14 “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” 16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 17 for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 18 and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” 66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
At last Wednesday’s Bible study, I was issued a challenge. To speak about the three readings you just heard. So, I will make attempt, but I can’t guarantee this sermon’s success.
So to serve logic and a chronology, the first lesson is from Joshua. Quickly, Joshua was Moses’ assistant that accompanied him from slavery into Egypt to the Promised Land, Canaan. If you remember, God did not allow Moses into the promised land Moses dies before he enters. Joshua takes over at this point. He is the leader of the Hebrews, all Twelve tribes. He’s also the guy that later fights the battle of Jericho where the walls come a tumbling down.
The Hebrews are still a nomadic nation. They are about to go to establish a nation where other tribal peoples already occupy. And that’s a part of the promise of God to them going all the way back to Abraham.
Joshua, in short, draws a line in the sand here in this narrative. He recounts to everyone what God did for them to release them from slavery into freedom and to a land that is theirs.
But Joshua draws a distinct boundary. Not a condemnation. But a boundary. If you’re gonna be one of us, you will worship the one invisible God, Yahweh. You can go back to your river gods…the gods of the Egyptians or the gods you may have picked up on the way, BUT for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. No bad feelings, but if you’re Hebrew, this is what it means. In essence, Joshua says, let your yes’s be yes and your no’s be no’s. Jesus later says that in the Sermon on the Mount. But this is what it means to be called the Hebrew community.
Flash ahead…Ephesians. We’ve spent a lot of the summer in Paul’s correspondence to that city in Greece, Ephesus. Paul is closing this letter up to the Christians in Ephesus and notably, Paul is writing to them from prison in Rome.
Paul fears and acknowledges the great challenge of being a minority Christian in a hostile land. Once again, being a part of the Christian community rather than the local gods of the Ephesus. Paul always speaks illustratively and powerfully and here in this closing, he urges these Christians and we Christians to gird our loins, to take on the armor of salvation and protection. Throughout the centuries, I’m sure this passage has been taken too literally and urged on such events as the Crusades to even modern day holy wars. The trickiness lies in that Paul is speaking to a community of Christians…not just ONE Christian. We as a Christian community are out in the world encountering that is evil and unjust. We are called to usher in the Kingdom of God, we are called constantly to be at prayer, and we are to pray for each other.
Finally, our gospel lesson. Our gospel has in it what is known as a “hard teaching.” The hard teaching is something that we 21st century Christians take for granted. The disciples being Jewish are repulsed and very wary of Jesus’ statement, “56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” (John 6). The disciples found it hard in that it was in direct opposition of the Leviticus code and the eating of flesh and blood, certainly that of a human being. Sadly, for the disciples, metaphor is lost on them. They hear it literally. And we too should not hear it as a literal biological language, but the language of relationship. Jesus, too here, like Joshua, draws a line in the sand.
If you are to abide in me you have to feed upon me. For then, I will abide in you. A completely organic and reciprocal relationship. In Lutheran language, we call this the “Happy Exchange,” and for you Latin scholars, “communicatio idiomatum.”
I’ll attempt to put this simply: Jesus and the soul exchange the great happiness in being both divine and human. It speaks to Jesus’ divine and human nature and Jesus residing in us. Or as I like to say, THE SWEET SWAP. And what better place than in communion does the sweet swap happen? It is a place of great joy and fulfillment. After all, we abide in Jesus and he abides in us. I cannot imagine a more intimate relationship with God.
So, if we want to be like Jesus, if we want a relationship with Jesus, we are called to be at this meal.
Today’s lessons are jointly about what it means to be in covenant relationship with God staring with the ancient Hebrews, to Jesus’ time on earth, and even what it means to be a community of Christians in a hostile worldly community.
Today we also baptize Ripley Elizabeth Whittemore. She is being called to abide in this community and we in her. Her family will make promises to the God of the Hebrews, the God of Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, and Rebecca, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. These promises are not only that they give her a name, but that they will bring in her up in a Christian community, educate her in a Christian community as to what it means to be Christian, and finally, and when the time comes, have her prepared to receive communion, where Jesus abides in her.
It’s a big leap. It’s more than a naming ceremony. It’s a commitment from not only family and sponsors, but from this community and hopefully, the community that she is brought up in.
I feel that I have just scratched the surface of these lessons. But if there is a takeaway today, it’s about our relationship to God not as individuals, but our relationship to God in community. Joshua and the Hebrews, being fashioned by Paul and those Ephesian Christians, are forming community and finally, probably one of the greatest behaviors and rites of all of Christianity: Holy Communion, the Sweet Swap with Jesus.
I invite all of us to renew our relationship today with Jesus, to put on the armor of faith, the sword of truth, and the helmet of salvation. For both you and your household to serve the Lord, and finally, to abide in Jesus as he truly abides in you. AMEN.