Back in 2007, a violinist stuck a baseball cap on his head and headed to the metro subway station in Washington DC. When he arrived, he took that hat off put it on the ground and threw a few bucks in it so people knew he was looking for some cash. He then took his violin out of its case and, standing there next to a garbage bin, began to play that violin for the men and women passing by in and out of the station. He played his violin for 45 minutes. During that time, 1,097 people passed by him. And those 1,097 people had a decision to make, do you stop and listen to this man standing there playing his instrument, do you throw him a few bucks, or do you just walk away? Well, out of those 1097 people who passed by, 27 gave him money, and only 7 actually stopped and listened to him play for any length of time. And only one of those 1097 people recognized the violinist, only one saw him for who he really was.
You see that violinist standing there by the trash can in a station was Joshua Bell, one of the most famous violinists of all time and he was playing some of the most difficult musical pieces that can be played on his violin, his personal violin by the way, which was a Stratovarius worth 3.5 million dollars. Yet, only one, only one, recognized who he was. Most everyone else passed by without a glance, too busy to listen to the music that he played, too caught up in their own lives to take a moment for someone who normally they would have had to pay hundreds of dollars to hear play in a theater. They didn’t realize that they were listening to greatness. But how could they have known?
Who would have expected a famous violinist to be playing at the entrance to that subway? Who would have thought a man with a baseball cap out looking for money was someone famous? So maybe we can understand why so many of them kept walking. And maybe that helps us understand what happened all those years ago when, not just one or two people walked away, but thousands turned back and no longer followed the very man who could and did offer them life eternal. Maybe we can understand why thousands of followers walked away from Jesus.
Context matters. You know the context in which the people of Israel encountered Jesus, it wasn’t a subway station next to a garbage can, but I tell you what, the world had to reckon with the fact that they were meant to recognize the Savior in a completely different context than they expected and a completely different context than the one in which the Son of God had existed from eternity. The plan was that God was going to send his Son into this world. And so the Son of God who sat in heaven, who held the stars in their places and the planets in their courses, whose breath could rend the hills and his fingers churn the seas. This Son of God was to come in the flesh of humanity and in such a mundane way that had there not been an angel chorus no one would have noticed. The eternal Son of God became something so weak that he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t feed himself, he was helpless.
By the time we come to Jesus now he’s all grown up, but guess what, he still looked an awful lot like you and me. And yet, there were some telltale signs, weren’t there? No, he didn’t play incredibly difficult music that few could play, but he spoke. He spoke the Words of God with such authority that many could only proclaim him a prophet and a man of great wisdom. He didn’t have an expensive flashy violin, but he worked miracles. People fell at his feet and begged for his healing touch. He made blind see, sick well, and dead people live. And you think about it, all the signs were there! John the Baptist prepared the way for him as was foretold. The Words. The miracles – Jesus never hid himself. And for a time, about 2-3 years, he was famous.
Thousands flocked to Jesus. At times, he had to sneak away just to get some down time, but then he preached that sermon. And do you know what the sermon was about? It was about him. In the verses just before our lesson this evening, Jesus explained to his thousands of followers who he was, he was living bread from heaven, and by eating of his flesh and by drinking of his blood, be believing in him, they would have life, life eternal. “I am that promised Son of God” that was his sermon, that was the message. It confused some. It angered others. Most were offended, and almost everyone left. Not one or two families, but thousands of people left because of a single sermon, because Jesus told the people who had watched him do miracle after miracle, who had eaten with him, and talked with him, who he really was, their Savior. He was the way to life eternal.
You know the question that this section of Scripture lays before us is this: Do we ever have the same problem? On August 12, 2019, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, or ELCA, held a churchwide assembly. During that assembly, Zachary Johnson a voting member made a motion on the floor to amend a statement. His amendment was to make clear that Jesus was as he himself said, “the way the truth, and the life.” And that faith in Jesus was the only way to heaven. His amendment was defeated with 97% voting against it. Several of those who spoke against Johnson were offended by his words.
We might not be surprised that this is how many in the world react to Jesus. Satan has done his work well confusing and offending countless who come into contact with their Savior. We might then too not be surprised that thousands walked away from Jesus that day in our lesson. But it doesn’t lessen the pain. If you know someone who has walked away from their Savior, you know just how it much it hurts. And maybe, well maybe, you’re the one who today is confused. Confused as you sit at home, God’s people, God’s church, wondering how he could allow us to be pulled apart, separated in this way. I feel bad for you children watching this, torn from your friends, left to perhaps finish your school year at home. Why is this happening? Maybe it’s more than that though, maybe some of us find parts of God’s Word to be offensive or difficult to accept. And the more we wrestle and try to reason his teachings out the angrier and more offended we get. Until, until we’re left wondering, do I really want to call myself a Christian?
And so it is when Jesus turns to that now much smaller group, just the twelve, and asks them that question, it almost feels as though he’s directing his words to my worried and uncertain soul, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” I wonder what emotion was in his voice as he asked that question. Was there fear? Was there sorrow? I tend to think it was acknowledgment. He knew. He understood how difficult it sometimes can be to simply trust even when our mind tells us to walk away. Perhaps there was some silence as those disciples waited to see what the others would say or who would speak first, but I like to think that Peter acted as Peter so often did and that he responded without hesitation. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Peter gave us the answer to our doubts and our questions that we all need to hear. He gave us the reply that we need to say every time Satan and our flesh try to get us to walk away. Peter gave us a good reason to stay. Where else would we go? No other teaching, no other book, no other religion or science, offers us what Jesus can and has offered to us, himself. What God would love enough to give his own Son for you? And it’s a package deal, with Christ there comes forgiveness and eternal life. And it all comes to us – as Peter said so beautifully – through his words.
If anything is going to persuade you and me that this is true, it’s the words themselves. It is the Word of God, by the power of his Spirit, that works more than intellectual assent. It crushes your sinful heart and it raises you anew. Four or five of his words – “your sins are forgiven” or “Yes, I am coming soon” – can do more for you on this side of life than any human attempt to justify them. By God’s power alone, those last two words of “Jesus died for me” jump the gap between head and heart and creates in us a saving faith, a faith that rests wholly on Christ and Christ alone! And every time we hear his Word, every time we gather even remotely as we are now, Jesus becomes our guest preacher and promises to take us safely through that door marked “death” because he walked through it first, and now he calls us through it with a promise and words of eternal life.
Out of 1000+ people who walked by Joshua Bell in that subway over ten years ago, one stopped, one recognized majesty amidst the mundane, and she enjoyed her own personal concert just for her. She couldn’t walk away. She was listening to greatness. Though so often we might be tempted to walk away from Jesus and embrace a life of sin, and though we may know others who have, by God’s grace and power let us trust, and let us remember why we stay. We are listening to greatness and where else would we go? Only he, only Jesus, has the words of eternal life. Got grant it. Amen.