“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 live 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.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “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.””
Prayer – Still-speaking God, sometimes when we hear your words we are offended. It is almost as if you are speaking another language and so we turn our backs and no longer follow. Remind us this day that your words, though hard, though scandalous in our world, are words of life – amen.
In the Preface to her book Amazing Grace, subtitled “A Vocabulary of Faith,” Kathleen Norris tells of an evening when she was making a presentation on this ‘vocabulary of faith’ when a question was addressed to her concerning the real value of these ‘words of faith.’ “I don’t mean to be offensive,” her questioner said, “but I just don’t understand how you can get so much comfort from a religion whose language does so much harm.” Taken aback momentarily, (Ms. Norris understood the question all too well, for she had, herself, been distanced from faith and its vocabulary for many years), she struggled to respond when in a moment of inspiration it came to her that the problem was in the word ‘comfort.’ “I said that I didn’t think it was comfort I was seeking,” Ms. Norris said, “or comfort that I found.”
Perhaps Peter would most assuredly have agreed with her inspired response. Comfort? Sometimes. Often, in fact. But at other times, and in more instances than we generally care to acknowledge – they are terribly discomforting – very uncomfortable – scandalous even. Even the discomfort, however, is always designed to help us to see ourselves as God calls us to be. Aren’t there moments – maybe many – when you and I want to say what ‘many of Jesus’ disciples’ said, ‘This is a hard saying – who can listen to it?’
Once again, it is easier for me to identify with the crowds who misunderstood and questioned Jesus than with Jesus himself. Because what Jesus has been saying, and what we have heard for several weeks is indeed hard to listen to and hard to understand. That Jesus is the bread of life? That he provides the only food which truly nourishes us? That he gives us his own self, even his own flesh and blood, to sustain us on our journey? These are hard words, hard to hear, hard to comprehend, hard to believe – even scandalous for that time and place.
No wonder, then, that many of those following after Jesus now desert him. But at this point we should be careful, as it’s just too early to write off those who give up on Jesus as people too lazy or unfaithful to believe. But note that John calls these folks not simply ‘the crowds,’ as in an earlier passage, but rather ‘disciples.’ The people in our reading this morning who now desert Jesus, are precisely those who had, in fact, believed in Jesus, those who had followed him and had given up much to do so. But now, finally, after all their waiting and watching and wondering and worrying, they have grown tired of following, and they can no longer see clearly what it was about Jesus that attracted them in the first place, so they say, ‘later dude.’
And who can blame them? More to the point, are we really all that different? I mean, who here has not at one time or another wondered whether you have believed in vain? During the dark night, perhaps, watching and praying for a sick child, parent or friend, wondering why he or she is so sick. Or in the early part of the morning, maybe, waking up alone and wondering why your spouse left you. Or in the later part of the afternoon, perhaps, while cooking dinner and thinking about your family – so full of ill-will toward each other – and wondering why things have not turned out the way you hoped and whether they ever will.
At these times, if we’re honest, we must admit that there are so many of them in this life that we lead, we find ourselves looking for God, for some sense that there is a God, and we can have such a hard time seeing God that we are tempted to conclude that the promises we trusted, believed in, were empty and the faith we once had held was misplaced? Or perhaps, we don’t renounce or desert God openly, we just don’t make the extra effort to get to church regularly, or we reduce the amount we’ve been giving, are more reluctant to help others, or simply stop praying until, in the end, we end up just like the disciples and say, ‘later dude.’
It is in this context that we once again hear Jesus’ hard words about him being the source of all that is good and life-giving. He has spoken plainly throughout this chapter of John’s gospel, “I am the bread of life – eat and live. I am the bread come down from heaven and this bread is my own flesh. Believe, eat and receive the gift of eternal life.” What on earth did Jesus say that his followers couldn’t accept? Why did so many of them turn away and stop following him? As a preacher, I know something about saying things that people can’t accept. I have had folks call me on their carpet for saying what for them were hard things. Whenever a preacher gets in the pulpit and tries to do public theology, someone who disagrees is bound to be offended.
But something else seems to be going on here. Jesus had not been talking about public, social issues. He has been talking about himself as the ‘bread of life’ but something about these words sounded dangerous enough, scandalous even, that some of his followers stopped following him. “Does this offend you? Do you also wish to leave? Now is the time to turn around go back to all that is familiar and comfortable.” Some of Jesus’ followers had already decided to depart, that his words were just too hard. Isn’t eternal life good news? Isn’t bread from heaven a blessing? Isn’t the promise of never hungering nor thirsting again a teaching we want to embrace? What on earth could it be?
The Jesus movement was not just a personal healing movement. It wasn’t about our personal salvation, even though many would say it was. The Jesus movement was, and is, about social and cosmic implications. What Jesus was and is up to tells us something about the beating heart of the universe. The kind of love and justice and compassion we see both in and around Jesus shows us the final truths about God and us. Signing on to follow Jesus means committing oneself to heal and bless and change not only myself abut the world?
What’s so difficult and hard to accept? Is Jesus just too good to be true? Is that what’s difficult and nearly impossible to accept? Or does the challenge come from a place not of wonder at the gift but suspicion of the giver? Or have you called out upon the name of Jesus to help, to save, to deliver and all you heard was silence? Has there been a time when you prayed so hard you could barely breathe and . . . nothing? Where was Jesus when the car crashed through your life; where was Jesus when there wasn’t any food in refrigerator; where was Jesus when you helplessly watched your best friend die all too young? Words of eternal life, of sustenance may very well fall on deaf ears when life has been more than we can handle. Do you also wish to turn away?
Sometimes I do want to turn away. In fact, many times I do because grace is hard to stomach when it is extended to those I want to get the judging damnation I think is coming to them. Not only that, but eating this bread from heaven means that I am what I eat, that I abide in this Jesus, that I suddenly become like all those Jesus freaks and take on the cosmic powers of the present darkness, that I offer heavenly grace-filled bread indiscriminately and eat with anyone and everyone – and there are just some folks I’d rather not sit and eat with.
I was recently reading a paper that lists upcoming events and features articles on local happenings in the city, and the question posed on the next to last page was this, “How does your faith get you through difficult times?” The answers ranged from “I have no religious faith whatsoever, and never have. This helps me get through the difficult times because I don’t expect the celestial cavalry to suddenly come and rescue me. Instead, I depend on my own wits and experience” to “Whenever I need to find a being greater than myself, more valuable to the world than myself, all I need to do is look at nature.” And then this, “Christ Jesus has been the great answer to everything in my life in the last 30 years. He is totally real, and he’s 100 percent love. It’s easy – just invite him. No risk and no downside, I promise!”
While I get and even on many levels understand the first two responses, it is the third, the one about Jesus that troubles me the most. “It’s easy.” AND, “No risk and no downside.” REALLY??? Somehow this believer missed the offensive, scandalous, take-up-your-cross, lose-your-life part of following Christ Jesus. Jesus sounds like the latest gadget being offered on late night television infomercials, not the Messiah who came to serve and teach us about God. One might as well look at the mountains and trees or rely on one’s wits if the One we follow requires nothing of us but our invitation. So much for God doing the calling, teaching, and choosing.
Following Jesus entails some risk. It means signing on to some values that push deeply against the culture. It involves a willingness to stand with people who can do nothing for you. It asks that you find your fulfillment not on your own but in mutuality and communion with others. There is, in fact, a cost of discipleship. In a self-serving culture, many around you will be confused and offended by what you stand for. They won’t get a life-centered around love and justice and not around – it is all about me. That is why for many ‘followers,’ it is far easier to worship this Jesus than it is too follow his path.
Following Jesus’ path has so much more to it than risk. Life lived in solidarity with the poor, the sick, the oppressed is neither unrelievedly grim nor entirely self-denying. There is suffering and pain, for sure, and there is joy and freedom to stand with those whom the Beatitudes Jesus called ‘blessed.’ The folks who gave up following Jesus did so because his words of life were hard, or because they didn’t need him. The ones who stayed knew themselves to have something more in common with the strugglers and sufferers that they did with those who have appeared to have it made. They knew their need of God.
Jesus says to all people – I am the bread of life. Some people think they don’t need bread while others know they can’t live without him. Our need for God and Jesus is for some a hard teaching and difficult to accept. But for others it’s the words of eternal life. I will go to my grave mystified that some people don’t seem to need the Divine while others can’t seem to live otherwise. I need some hard words even though they are uncomfortable. Mark Twain once said, “Most people are bothered by the passages in scriptures which they cannot understand; but as for me, I always notice that the passages that trouble me the most are the ones I understand.” Following Jesus requires us to follow his path, difficult and offensive as it may be. Does that offend you? Perhaps it should – amen.