Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
26 August 2012
St. John United Church of Christ
St. Clair, MO
“A Difficult Teacher”
Based on St. John 6: 56-69
By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell
For the past five weeks we have followed Jesus throughout chapter 6 of St. John’s gospel. We began by hearing the story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes for the crowd of over 5,000. Though there were only a few loaves and a few fish, somehow it was enough for all present. As the disciples went away after this sign, Jesus walked on the water to meet them in their boat. The following week the crowd who had been fed returned to Jesus looking for more bread when he proclaimed to them that he was the bread of life that would never run out. He continues explaining being bread of life in the next portion. Finally, last week, amidst people arguing over how he could say such things, Jesus ramps up his rhetoric and says that one must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life.
But today the rubber meets the road. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, eventually the bread that Jesus shared would not be enough for those following him. Some of them would turn away and no longer be his disciples. A distinction needs to be made here – these are not his primary disciples who leave, the twelve who would become apostles, but others who had been following him. In any case, Jesus says to the crowd, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will lives because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” Last week I addressed how surprising Jesus’ language, and how it discomforts us. So it is no wonder then that some in the crowd say, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” If those of us who are Christians struggle with this teaching, of course it is difficult for those hearing it for the first time. But Jesus doesn’t back down, he doesn’t dial down his language – he doesn’t simplify. He says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” Even people who saw Jesus in the flesh had trouble believing. They did not have faith. Remember these are some of the same people who ate the bread and fish Jesus multiplied for their bodily nourishment. But for some of them that wasn’t enough, and they failed to grasp the spiritual nourishment that Jesus offers. Today we marvel at that miracle. Some might wonder how it is possible that they could not believe after such an event. Many people ask for a sign from God, and here was one. But they failed to see that the bread and fish pointed to something much bigger. And after they had their fill, Jesus’ teaching got more and more complicated, and ultimately they couldn’t swallow it. And so we read that “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” They turned back and went to their former lives. It’s kind of surprising isn’t it? That Jesus’ group of disciples gets smaller, not larger. That seems counter-intuitive. In an age of booming mega-churches it goes against the grain of our thinking, especially when the largest church in Missouri has 10,000 members. More does not necessarily mean more faithful, especially when in Jesus’ case when his crowd was larger, not everyone believed.
Reformed theologian Scott Hoeze writes, “It’s sad to see people abandoning Jesus as John 6 concludes. But do you think that precisely such a winnowing out of the crowd was Jesus’ intention all along? Do you think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing in being so provocative in his language about eating and drinking his own flesh and blood? Surely he was not ignorant of the fact that people would find this gross and offensive. When in verse 61 Jesus asks, “Does this offend you?” you have the feeling that he knew full well that it was offensive, at least to those who were not being granted the gift of faith by the Holy Spirit and at the Father’s behest.”
When Jesus was told that his teaching was difficult, he didn’t backpedal. He doesn’t go running after those who leave. He lets them go on their way and focuses on the twelve who remain. Jesus in his wisdom, while he might have still been perturbed that some weren’t getting it, knew that the teaching was difficult. Instead of dialing down, Jesus cranks it up. It’s as if he’s creating a pressure cooker atmosphere, putting on the heat to see who will commit. I really do think that Jesus was using this difficult teaching to force a decision. He wants the crowd to know that it’s about more than a free lunch of some bread and fish miraculously multiplied. He wants them to see that it’s not always going to be easy – that they are going to have to accept some difficult things. Following Jesus isn’t about getting your needs met, it’s about the Kingdom of God come near, making the first last and the last first. It takes commitment and dedication, which ultimately the entire crowd was not ready to make.
Father Rick Morley, an Episcopal priest says,
“Jesus didn’t launch these rhetorical bombshells so that they’d fizzle with time. No, I think it’s clear that Jesus was stirring the pot on purpose. He wanted to say things that challenged people, even to the point of having to decide that they’d have to leave. One thing is clear here: Jesus isn’t about people-pleasing. He’s not about glad-handing, and smoothing out the wrinkles so that everyone can go away happy, and come again happy. But…following Jesus means…sometimes you need to say the hard thing. Sometimes there is no win-win situation where everyone goes home happy. Sometimes people get mad, and they leave, and they never come back. And, all because you said something like, “No, this is God’s Church, and all of God’s Children are welcome here.” Or, “No, their love is a gift of God, and it will be celebrated in God’s Church.” Or, “Eat my flesh and drink my blood, for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”
After the others turn away, Jesus asks the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” I’m no Jesus, but boy can I relate to that. But listen to Peter’s response, “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.” That statement alone is enough justification to refer to its speaker as St. Peter. Lord, to whom can we go. These twelve had made their commitment. They had left their old lives behind and had no plans to return. They received the Good News from Jesus, they knew the words he spoke transcended their current reality. Like the rest, they didn’t fully understand the message and would often stumble, but unlike the others, had put their faith and trust in Jesus. They were there not merely for some bread or fish, but the very presence of God. To whom can they go? They know of no one else who can so embody God’s promise. They assent to his teaching, even when it is difficult because he has the words of eternal life.
Jesus gives us the same challenge that he gave to the twelve and to those who left him. Can we take the difficult teaching along with the loaves and fishes, and along the way see that they point beyond ourselves, beyond our comfort to a God in charge of it all? Are we willing to withstand the trials that come with following Jesus? The path of discipleship isn’t always easy. In our United Church of Christ statement of faith we say that we accept the “cost and joy of discipleship.” We commit to going the journey with Jesus. We commit to leaving old lives behind, and finding a new, transformed life with Christ. There will be times when life with Jesus might feel like you’ve been put in a pressure cooker. There will be times when we might want to say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But remember, whatever the risks, whatever the obstacles – it is in Jesus that we hear the words of eternal life. He is the Holy One of God. In Christ we are changed, transformed and given new life. The twelve that remained, they could be thick-headed, slow on the uptake. They were common fishermen and tax collectors. They were simple village people. And yet we still tell their stories today, we still remember their faithfulness. Those who left? Who knows who they are? Really, it’s not whose name we still know, but the faithfulness even in times of trial. The point is that the disciples stayed, because in Jesus they saw the Holy One of God.
They weren’t perfect, and sometimes they failed. Sometimes they made themselves scarce. But when push came to shove, when the rubber met the road, loaves and fishes mattered little compared to the bread of life that Jesus offered. May we say with them, “To whom can we go? You have the words of life.”
+To God be the Glory. Amen.