The Rev'd Deacon Armando Ghinaglia
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 26, 2018
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”
Today as we commission our new Saint Hilda’s House interns and welcome back new and returning students, I urge you all: please don’t read too much into this! You just got here!
But in all seriousness, we are thrilled to have you all here, to worship together in this place, and to share in the work that God has given us to do in this city and beyond.
Going back to our gospel reading for today, I want to draw our attention to that short exchange between Jesus and Saint Peter at the end, because I think it illustrates for us the way that thinking about eternal life bears on the way that we move through our lives, here and now.
Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Peter must not have been a stranger to the way that the world bombards us with countless messages about how to live forever—or at least look like we will. Go to the gym and eat organic, and you’ll find happiness and health. Do these 10 things and avoid these 12 things, and you’ll find love and friendship. Study this subject and pursue that career, and you’ll find comfort and meaning.
But what the world offers us is often fleeting. A relationship we expect to last falls to pieces. A hope we dream of for years is dashed by tragedy. Minds and bodies we take for granted fail us, and someday, we will all die.
Peter claims he has found something more than this. He has found lasting happiness and health, love and meaning, in the words of Christ. Peter has found the words, not just of life, but of life everlasting.
What are these words of eternal life? These words that are lamps to our feet and lights to our path? Words that are sweet to our taste, sweeter than honey to our mouth?
What are these words that run swiftly from pole to pole? That strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees? That revive our weary souls and delight our fearful hearts?
In the mid-1930s, Pastor Paul Schneider spent years protesting against the violence and immorality of the Nazi regime. He was arrested and interrogated several times for his preaching but continued, despite his friends’ protests, arguing that his job was to prepare others for eternal life. In 1937, Schneider began working to excommunicate active Nazi party members from his church, which earned him two months in jail and a stern warning to leave the area and not return, or else. After his release, Schneider spent two months with his wife and family before coming back to his congregation in October 1937. Some parishioners who welcomed him at their home told him they feared for his life and urged him to flee. Schneider recited Jesus’ words later in the gospel of John: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The next month, Schneider was arrested by police and sent to the newly-opened Buchenwald concentration camp.
At Buchenwald, Schneider worked to uplift his fellow prisoners’ spirits. From early on, Schneider was given the chance to return to his family as long as he agreed not to return to his congregation. He refused and instead worked the grueling 16-hour days with others, fasting every Friday and giving his rations to those hungrier than him. Moreover, Schneider persisted in his disobedience to the rulers and authorities, refusing to offer the Hitler salute, arguing that one “may only receive Heil—salvation—from the Lord and not from a mere mortal.” In April 1938, several months after his arrest, Schneider refused to remove his hat in honor of Hitler’s birthday and to salute the swastika flag, saying “I cannot salute this symbol for thugs.” As a result, he was whipped publicly and moved to solitary confinement. Schneider’s cell overlooked the location where prisoners were assembled by guards every morning. Using this to his advantage, Schneider climbed up to his window daily at roll call and denounced the mistreatment and murder of inmates while encouraging all who could hear to believe in Christ. SS guards repeatedly tortured Schneider for preaching the gospel and denouncing summary executions at the camp.
On Easter morning 1939, a few months prior to his execution by lethal injection, Schneider, ailing and emaciated, climbed up to his window as thousands of prisoners assembled below. Schneider managed to cry out to them before being silenced by the guards: “Brothers and sisters, listen to me. This is Pastor Schneider. In this place, we are tortured and killed. Thus speaks the Lord: ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life!’”
Paul Schneider was asked time and again, “Do you also wish to go away?”
And all he had to do to avoid his fate was say “yes,” and leave.
Instead, Schneider answered in his last sermon as a free man,
“[Christ is] the living God and his word … alone nourishes the soul for eternal life.”
Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”
All the disciples had to do to avoid their fates was say “yes,” and leave.
Instead, Peter answered Jesus:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
What are these words that convince Peter and others to stay when the multitudes have left?
What are these words so powerful that they convinced Peter and Schneider and others to follow Jesus to his death, and theirs, to bear insult and injury, to stand courageously against violence and terror, and still to declare with Saint Paul that they would gladly “boast in [their] sufferings” and “rejoice in the Lord always”?
What are these words of eternal life?
Hear them from the lips of Christ himself:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life.” And “this is eternal life, that [we] may know … the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom [he has] sent.”
Here is lasting health and happiness, meaning and love, peace that surpasses all understanding. We gather in this place to remember Christ crucified and risen because the God who raised Christ from the dead is faithful, and he will give life to our mortal bodies also if we believe in Christ and follow him. Nothing, then—nothing—not rejection or failure, not earthly powers or human rulers, not illness, not even death itself—can take this life away from us.
Jesus asks us, as he asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”
He does not ask us this to make us feel guilty or to express his disappointment. He asks us this to make us consider whether there is something about him, something about what he says, something about who he claims to be, that makes us pause.
If we end up answering like Peter, “Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,” then great. May we hold fast to that confession and live it out in our own lives.
But if we aren’t so sure… If we don’t really know what to make of Jesus or of God… If we don’t really know what to make of churches that so often struggle to live in accordance with the commandments of God, of Christians who fall short of the calling to which they have been called…
Let us consider Jesus’ words an invitation for us to come back, to read the Scriptures, to hear the Gospel, at least a few more times, until we can hear Christ speak for himself.
Let us consider Jesus’ words an invitation for us to seek out a community of faithful Christians who seek to model their lives according to his precepts.
For if we listen attentively, we might just find it possible to embrace a love that restores us to right relationship within ourselves and with others, a love that sets aside what we hold most dear so that others may live, a love that emboldens us to withstand the evil around us, and having done everything, to stand firm.
All of this is possible if we put our trust in God and believe that, in Jesus Christ, there is the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the body. All of this is possible if we take Christ at his word and follow his footsteps where they may lead, even unto death, because death is not the final word. This is the fullest happiness and health, love and meaning, peace and comfort, that we may ever know.
As Paul Schneider wrote shortly before he died:
“If we lose our lives here, Christ will safeguard them in life everlasting. He will empower us to behold his glory both here and there: for through our suffering here, we find our way to glory, through the cross to the throne. We will believe, according to his word. We will trust his promises, and we will give him our thanks with joy.”