“As for me and for my household, we will serve the Lord” says Joshua. He and the people of Israel have reached the end of a long journey, the journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan. They had been in Egypt for 400 years, and they had all but forgotten the land, and the God, of their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
But God hadn’t forgotten them. He sent Moses to speak for them. He sent plagues to persuade Pharaoh to let them go. He sent a strong east wind to part the Red Sea. He sent manna and quails to feed them on their long trek across the wilderness. And finally, after 40 long years they made it to their destination. They crossed the River Jordan under Joshua’s leadership and started to carve out a space for themselves in this new land.
Perhaps they thought it would all be plain sailing from now on. Perhaps they thought the challenges were all over. But Joshua knew that this moment was the most dangerous of all. In the desert, it was manna or nothing, God’s way or no way. They couldn’t have survived without his help. But now they were in the land of milk and honey, with fertile land and abundant crops, and abundant choices too. God had called them out of Egypt to form a new nation, founded on his Ten Commandments, but would they follow his ways or not? They could revert to worshiping the gods of Egypt; these were the gods they were most familiar with, after all. They could assimilate with the tribes who were already living in Canaan, adopting their Gods and customs. In an era when people thought of gods as territorial, just like human chieftains, it made sense to keep the local deities happy. The hardest option would be to stick with this God of Joshua and Moses who had brought them across the desert, and live according to the laws he had given them.
The details of some of those laws can seem very odd and outdated to us, of course – complex food laws or laws rooted in a very different understanding of gender, family relationships and sexuality than we hold now. But the principles that underlie them are still accessible to us. God called on the Israelites to love him and one another, to care for the poor, to lift up the powerless, to welcome the stranger. Some commandments are as counter-cultural now as they were then. “Don’t reap to the edges of your fields,” say the commandments, “so that there is grain for those who have no land. Let them help themselves to it.” (Leviticus 19.9) I can’t imagine that going down too well with today’s food producers – it hardly sounds like efficiency. “Every fifty years return any land you have bought to its original owners. Land isn’t yours to buy or sell or own anyway; it all belongs to God.” (Leviticus 25) Imagine how that would go down with those whose wealth comes from inherited property.
Whatever we think of individual commandments today, the emphasis of the law as a whole was that what we do matters. If each of us lives well, day by day, we will have communities and nations that are good to live in too. We shape our world by the way we live.
So Joshua and the Israelites had choices to make. And each one of them had to make their own decisions. Joshua knew what he was going to do. “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” He was going to stick with the one who had rescued, fed and guided them across the desert, who had kept them alive through their long years of wandering.
In the Gospel reading, Simon Peter is presented with the same sort of choice. The passage we heard is the end of the discussion that followed the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. It was fine when Jesus was handing out free bread and fishes. Then everyone wanted to be his friend. But that was just a meal for a day. What he really wanted was to give people food that would feed them for life, and that meant feeding on him, following him, letting their lives be shaped by him – we are what we eat. Suddenly it all began too sound a bit too much like serious commitment, and the crowds began to evaporate. Jesus looked around at his closest followers. “What about you? Will you go too?” But Peter had already made his choice. “Who else can we go to? You have the words of eternal life.” He didn’t have to follow Jesus, but it clearly made no sense to him not to. Not that it was always going to be easy; Peter doesn’t say that Jesus has the words of eternal happiness. But he knew that Jesus had brought him to life, with a life that he had never found before, a life that somehow shimmered with the glory of God - eternal life.
Eternal life in the Bible isn’t just, or even mainly, about getting into heaven when we die. It is something that starts here and now. It is about quality and depth and meaning and it seems to me that it is something we all long for. It is about discovering that we matter to God, that we aren’t just numbers, cogs in the wheels of the universe, disposable collections of atoms, but people who are unique and beloved and called to love in return. This was what Peter had found in Jesus, and he wasn’t going to give it up just because the crowds have abandoned him. Later on there would be one occasion when he turned away from Christ, when Jesus was arrested and tried. Peter denied even knowing him then. But as soon as he had done it he realised it was the worst mistake of his life, and wept bitterly. And after the resurrection nothing – not even his own suffering and persecution – deflected him from his allegiance to Jesus. Like Joshua, Peter had made his choice.
We live in a society that is full of choices; choices in the supermarkets, choices between schools and hospitals and jobs. In reality, of course, many of those choices are only open to you if you have enough money, but for those who can choose, those multiple options can become as much of a burden as a gift. How do you know you are choosing the right thing? Would that other brand of coffee, that other school or hospital, that other job be better?
If those choices feel tough, it is even harder when it comes to choosing a way of life, a pattern for living. Fewer and fewer people want to tick a box on a census form that identifies them as following a particular faith, but for most the “atheist” box isn’t the option they want either. My experience is that the vast majority of people put themselves in the “spiritual but not religious” category. They are open to the possibility that there are dimensions to life that can’t be grasped entirely by the mind, and they are looking for meaning, but they don’t want to commit themselves to one specific way of exploring what that might mean for them. Perhaps they fear it will cut off other avenues. Perhaps they are afraid of the impact the decision might have on their lives. Perhaps they are afraid that others will just think they are odd.
I can understand those fears. Organised religion has a bad name, and it is partially justified. It has been and can still be used as a tool to oppress and harm. But the fact is that all of us, whether we like it or not, find in the end that we have walked one path through life rather than another whether we chose that path consciously or not. We are guided by these values rather than those. We see the world through this framework rather than that. We travel with these companions rather than those.. As Bob Dylan perceptively sang, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord/ But you're gonna have to serve somebody.”
If we don’t make our choices deliberately, we find in the end that we have made them by default, swept along by the tides of life. Resisting commitment is just as much a choice as choosing it, and when we look back, wondering how on earth we got to where we are, maybe not liking it much, we may wish we’d been paying more attention to those moments when we could have taken an opportunity which has now passed to give ourselves whole-heartedly to something or someone.
Some choices can’t be revisited; we can’t go back and undo the past, but the good news is that however far we’ve come through life, we still have choices to make for the future. Today we will have choices about the way we spend our time or our money, the way we treat those around us, the way we think about ourselves and others, the words we speak – words that build up or tear down. This week we will have decisions to make at work or at home or in our communities which will shape them in small ways or large. Which will be the right ones?
There are no easy answers, but if we are wise we will at least try to make our choices consciously, and one of the keys to choosing well is surely the same for us as it was for Peter. Which of the options before us sounds like “words of eternal life”? Which path leads us towards a life in which we, and others, can find their dignity and true identity as beloved children of God? Which choice takes us beyond ourselves and our own narrow interests to a world in which there is justice for all? These are the paths which Jesus took. May we find and follow them too, so that we can walk in the footsteps of the Holy One of God, and know that eternal life which was so strong, that even the cross couldn’t snuff it out.