How to Answer Peter's Question

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 21
August 22, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Some followers of Jesus began walking away from him in response to something he said that they found difficult and confusing. But Peter said he and others of the Twelve would stay because they knew Jesus is the Holy One of God. Followers of Jesus today are challenged to follow Peter's example and commit themselves fully to Christ.

We often hear these days about the need to speak truth to power. But what we find in the passage from the Gospel of John that we read today is the flipside of that. It is power, namely Jesus, speaking truth to the needy, the hungry, the lost, the tentative.

What the 12 disciples and other followers of Jesus are reacting to in this story is something Jesus had just said, which is that he is the bread of heaven and that whoever eats this bread will live forever or, in a more literal translation of the Greek word aiona , will live "to the age."1

Whether "to the age" means until the end of a person's life or forever and ever, it seems to contain the idea, as some scholars say, that it "does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age (aiṓn) it relates to. Thus, believers live in ' eternal (aionios) life ' right now , experiencing this quality of God's life now as a present possession. "2

The idea that we can experience eternal life now is in harmony with a similar idea found in 1 Timothy 6:19. There, the Greek words ontōs and zōēs, though sometimes mistranslated as "eternal life," really mean "what is truly life," as the Contemporary English Bible translates it, or "the life that really is life," as the New Revised Standard Version has it.

And that idea is in full accord with what Jesus said at the very start of his ministry, which is that "the kingdom of heaven has come near."3

If this is all Greek to you, think of it this way: As disciples of Jesus Christ, we can participate this very day in the revolution of love and grace he began here on Earth. How? By living according to kingdom values. The other option is to be so focused on heaven that we're no earthly good.

None of this means heaven isn't worth thinking about, dreaming about, longing for. But as Christians, we believe what our Lord and Savior Jesus taught us, which is that our creator God loves us unconditionally, so we need not fret endlessly about our destiny. The question then becomes what we do with the gift of our life.

What can he possibly mean?

Many of the followers of Jesus in this story in John's gospel are confused, even baffled by his sharp words. They complain to Jesus that he's asking them to believe and do a hard thing - which is to think of Jesus as a necessary part of their diet, to consume him, to receive life by being so deeply attached to his life that it's as if they are digesting him so that he can be metabolized as acts of kindness, water for the thirsty, food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless and love for the unloved.

Some of these hesitant followers, who obviously didn't understand metaphorical language, just gave up and walked away. And calling it metaphorical language does not mean it's not true. Rather, it means recognizing that all language is metaphorical because all words point beyond themselves to some person, place, thing or idea. And religious language by its very nature is perhaps the most metaphorical of all because it is trying to say something about the eternal God. It was no surprise at all to Jesus that people missed his point. He understood fickle humanity and grasped how difficult it can be to wrestle with ideas about the divine and about who God calls us to be and what God calls us to do.

Sometimes when we can't figure out what Jesus is trying to tell us we simply turn to humor because it's easier and more fun. So let's see if that works in this case. Here's a joke for you about eternal life: God said to Sarah, "Come forth and I shall grant you eternal life." But Sarah came fifth and got a toaster instead.

Okay. You're right. That didn't help us much. So back to the gospel story.

As Jesus watches some followers walking away, shaking their heads, he turns to his 12 disciples and says, "Do you also wish to go away?"

In response, Peter asks a question: "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

This is Peter's confession of faith. It comes before he denies even knowing Jesus when Jesus was arrested, and it comes before he declares his love for - and loyalty to - Jesus three times in the last chapter of the gospel of John after Jesus has been resurrected. Like us, Peter embodies the troubling words in the hymn "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" in that he is "prone to leave the God I love."

We, too, must answer Peter's question

But Peter's question is key for us even today: "Lord, to whom can we go?"

There are many possible answers to that question, but it's important for us to know that every one of those answers ultimately will disappoint us and leave us hungry for the bread of life.

We can turn to political leaders, to sports heroes, to media celebrities, to people with two or three doctorate degrees. And such people can teach us important things, can offer helpful guidance sometimes, can even be models for us in various ways. But none of them is divine. None is God incarnate. None is the bread of heaven. None of them, finally, is home.

Now, it is true that any person to whom we turn as a substitute for Jesus is, no matter how flawed, a precious child of God. And it's our difficult duty as Christians to recognize that each person - even the worst criminal we can imagine - bears the image of God.

And yet only Jesus can offer us the bread of life. Each time we participate in Holy Communion, the Eucharist, we are reminded of that reality.

Back in the fourth century, a Syrian theologian named Ephraim made a compelling argument that Christians receive knowledge of God not through the Bible alone but also through liturgy and ritual in which God is apprehended through the senses rather than through the intellect. Ephraim wrote that in the Eucharist, Christ's body "was newly mingled with our bodies and his pure blood was poured into our veins, and his voice into our ears, and his brightness into our eyes. All of this has now been mixed with all of us by his compassion."4

Engaging body, mind and spirit

We need not get into a debate about whether the bread and wine of Communion are the literal body and blood of Christ. Instead, we can simply affirm that in the Eucharist we engage in a right-brain activity, sensing something about God through taste, touch, sight and fragrance rather than a left-brain activity in which we wrestle with questions in a logical, orderly, even dogmatic way. It's like the difference between hearing a live orchestra play a symphony and reading the musical notes on a page.

The eternal God in Christ wants to engage not just our minds but our whole being. So Jesus feeds us himself, the bread of life. He asks, in response, not just some formal affirmation of belief through a creed. Rather, he asks that we commit our whole selves to God.

And what does submission to God look like? Well, it means many things, including understanding our own theological roots in Judaism. But primarily it means taking Jesus seriously when he asks us to love one another in the way that he showed us how to love. Love one another, Jesus told his followers, as I have loved you.5 That means feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, weeping with the bereaved, celebrating with the joyful, sharing the gospel and recognizing that every single human being - regardless of creed or color - is our brother or sister.

"Lord," Peter asked, "to whom can we go?"

It's not a trick question. Rather, it's an invitation to get introduced to Jesus Christ if you haven't already met him. And for those of us who already have pledged allegiance to Christ, it's a reminder of our commitment to take seriously Jesus' command that we love one another. Love, of course, means always having the best interests of others at heart, but it also means loving ourselves. To whom can we go? Peter got it right. To Christ Jesus. Jesus has the words of eternal life and is the Holy One of God.


  3. Mark 1:15.
  4. The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts , by Karen Armstrong; Bodley Head Press, 2019; page 216.
  5. John 13:34.