Christ or Nothing: A Personal Reflection

This is the text of a sermon preached by James Snyder on August 26, 2012, at First Lutheran Church in Winthrop, Minnesota. Jim is someone we consider a friend to saint benedict’s table, and is the author of a series of Lenten reflections that we published a few years back under the title, Toward What We Can Scarcely Imagine and Scarcely Refuse: A Book for Lent. And Jim did want us to let you know that the title for this sermon comes from comes from an essay by David Bentley Hart.

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“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”(John 6:68)

I cannot remember when I committed myself to Christ. But I can remember when I realized Christ was committed to me (and to all humanity). Committing myself to Christ was a glacially incremental process, not something I suddenly woke to and decided upon. But the occasion when I realized Christ was committed to me hit with the sudden impact of a car crash. This new awareness was not a breathtaking epiphany. It was disturbing, unwelcome, threatening. It was not in my game plan. He’s committed to ME? Why me? And for what purpose? O Lord, do I really want to know?

No, I did not. I did not want to know. Yet I knew this much: It meant I would be wrestling with God no matter what I did.  For the rest of my life. I was trapped.

How did this happen? Some Sunday school teacher was responsible! Or some pastor, maybe my parents. No matter. Somebody instilled this notion that Christ was committed to me with a love that would never let me go, and for some as yet undefined purpose.

I was in college and I had my own idea about what to do with my life: I wanted to open up a Philosophy and Bait Shop up north somewhere.  But now here comes Christ, beckoning me to use my life and my education in a way that would serve His purpose. But what was that? I didn’t know. All I knew was that the story of his life and love would not leave me alone. But I don’t think it leaves anyone alone. Anyone who’s heard this word of Christ’s forgiveness, his undying commitment to us, and his teaching about how to live and love as he did, is haunted by it in some way.

We are all haunted by it, and it shows. The evidence here is that we are so adept at devising reasonable self-serving exceptions to it, or disregarding his life and teachings altogether. We may have only a faint sense of what this commitment implies, but we know enough to know how to avoid letting it claim us.  We know how to insulate our heart from its life-changing power. We know it well enough to know how to excuse ourselves from heeding even his simplest call to love our neighbor as ourselves.

We even manage to invert, in good conscience, the implications of God’s question to Cain:

“Cain, where is your brother Abel?”

“What, am I my brother’s keeper.”

Today, usurping the role of God, the response of many would be, No, you are not really your brother’s keeper. That was then. This is now. ‘Every man for himself.’  Beholden to nobody, and responsible for nobody. We have gone to ingenious lengths to neutralize the teachings and example of Christ from the horizon of consideration. This tells me that we are nevertheless haunted by Christ, or we wouldn’t have developed such a well-fortified defense against Him.

“What would Christ have us become—whatever we want? What would Christ have us do for our neighbor—only what we feel like? What would Christ have us do with our money and leisure time—just amuse ourselves?” To such questions the general response seems to be: “Well, those are good questions, of course… but we can look at them later, after we’ve taken care of more important concerns.”

I recall being haunted by Christ long before I knew what “commitment” meant. He was always lurking in the shadows, never clear and distinct, always tailing me, or moving ahead of me… never quite beside me, never quite present as a companion, as in ‘O Master, Let Me Walk With You’, but more like a phantom who let me know he was never going to let me rest. Other voices were clamoring around me throughout those years: “YOU must choose. YOU must decide.  YOU must commit yourself to a personal relationship with Christ.” As if it were a matter I could deliberate about and then make an informed decision, like choosing the right insurance policy or deciding to floss my teeth on a regular basis.

Is that how it works? Really? It’s up to me? And I can do it? I myself can make that decision? That choice? That commitment? Well, maybe for a while, maybe for some people, maybe after an inspiring church retreat. You feel pretty good after you’ve committed your whole life to Christ, don’t you? Although your friends might find you a little odd.

Sometimes that aura of religious bliss can take you through a lifetime.  This is a wonderful testimony—though not a testimony to OUR fortitude, or our capacity for faithful commitment, but to GOD’s power to sustain it.

But when such commitment only runs the lifespan of a typical exercise program or a 28-day rehab, then you can be pretty sure that the whole show rests on something other than the power of God. No, then the whole project rests on YOUR shoulders…and it takes a LOT of work to be the one who keeps deciding, keeps choosing, keeps committing oneself to Christ. It takes the kind of strength that would confound Olympic athletes and arouse the suspicions of the Banned Substance Committee.

During my formative years I got some very mixed and confusing messages, from various sources. But I’m thankful that my church and pastors were quite firm in their proclamation that GOD has chosen, God has decided—first and foremost—that Christ made the first move and the final move: To us. In the manger, on the Cross, in Baptism, at the Table, and in the face of the stranger who crosses our path. Even more encouraging was the assurance that the rest was not up to us either—but to Christ, who is ever present with his grace, and walking with us even when he seems absent, which may be most of the time. But that kind of awareness comes slowly. I didn’t get it all at once, and in truth I’m still getting it—or rather, it’s still ‘getting’ me.

I don’t remember any precise point when the Spirit dramatically entered my life and changed me utterly. I never had one of those experiences, although I know they have happened to others in profound and genuine ways.

It didn’t work that way for me. It worked in another way. I think if there was ever a crystal clear moment when the Spirit hit me in the solar plexus, it happened when I first finally HEARD—in my heart rather than my head—the very text for today, from John 6.

“No one can come to me unless granted by the Father.” (You mean it’s not all up to me?) And then when Jesus asked the disciples if they were so offended by this talk about his flesh and blood being real food and drink, that they too wished to go away—it was our dear, benighted friend Peter who said: “But Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!”

I think that might have been the moment. Because in that gospel reading all life, all time, all thought stopped… and I faced what seemed like a brick wall, with no way out, no way around or over, no way back—with no alternative except for Christ. Where could I go? To whom else could I go? Who else had the words of eternal life? Who else offered such a way to love and live…? Oh, I shopped around the religious department store looking for more reasonable, less scandalous bargains. But in the end, it was either Christ or nobody. It was either Christ or Nothingness—nothing except a life without final purpose, without meaning, without a foundation, without hope—except for the futile hope of endless amusement, distractions, and earthly substitutes to fill in that bottomless void.

Christ or Nothing: That’s the alternative.  That’s what relentlessly haunts us, no matter how well we conceal it from our awareness.  No matter how ingeniously we fill that Nothing with ‘real meaning’, and keep filling it and filling it and filling it—in some hidden recess of our soul, we know that it’s a put-up job of our own devising. Whence cometh the anxiety, the restless searching, the misdirected ‘life goals’, the fear of any kind of commitment, the hope for mere personal survival, that has defined this age.

Perhaps I speak only for myself here, although I don’t think I am: If there is not Christ, then there is Nothing, and I simply cannot bear that thought.  And equally unbearable would be all the futile diversions we substitute for Christ. Vanity of vanities, ultimately powerless and meaningless. Because without Christ our very existence rests upon Nothing. We just exist for a while, and then we don’t. And for what purpose? Whither do we go? Four blocks west to the city cemetery and the headstone bearing our name and no further?

But: If Christ has the words of eternal life, if Christ IS the Word of eternal life, and if Christ IS present, as he said he would be… whether lurking behind us in the shadows, going ahead of us, furtively nudging us, even walking with us… then this Word of eternal life permeates and radiates ALL of existence.  Then this Word hallows the world God created, and gives it a meaning and purpose and direction it could never have without him. From the flowers we tend, to the feasts we share; from the daily tasks we perform to keep our house in order, to befriending the neighbor, all our neighbors, who bear the very face of Christ Himself.

Yesterday someone was commended in death to her heart’s desire; and on that same day, two people consummated their heart’s desire in marriage: Both by the grace of God.

All who eat my body and drink my blood abide in me, and I abide in them.[Jn 6]

Remember I am with you until the end of the age.[Mt 28]

What could we say without those words of eternal life? Without the hope of Christ, without the promise of Christ, without the undying commitment of Christ to us, and without the presence of Christ to hallow those two occasions: what, then, could those two occasions have possibly meant? What could their significance be founded upon? What would their sacred purpose have been?

I don’t need to answer that for you now, do I? No, your presence here today tells me you already know.

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia.

James Snyder



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