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“A Difficult Teaching”
Sermon on John 6:56-71
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
When I was a student, I noticed that some classes required you to study things that could be hard to understand, while some other classes taught things that were hard to hear. Integral calculus was hard to understand, but some of the things I learned in, for example, history class, were hard to hear, because they challenged my view of the world.
“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” the disciples say to Jesus. It is not that the teaching is hard to understand – it is unpalatable and hard to swallow. In John’s Gospel Jesus is always saying seemingly preposterous things about himself: “I am the bread of life.” “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” And so on. As we noted last week, the disciples are being asked to believe that this ordinary-looking man Jesus, their teacher and companion, is the very life and spirit of God.
John Chapter Six ends with Jesus predicting his betrayal by Judas, but all the disciples are implicated. None of them are quite ready to take Jesus of Nazareth on his own terms.
This encounter between Jesus and his twelve disciples marks a turning point, a make-or-break moment for both Jesus and the Twelve. Throughout this long, pivotal chapter of the Gospel there has been a narrowing down of Jesus’s followers. The outer circle of this group, the ones John calls the “crowd,” were the people who ate the bread and fish on the hillside in Galilee; they were in it for what they could get, and wandered away when the food was gone. A smaller group, called “disciples,” were interested in him and followed him around to hear what he had to say, but weren’t necessarily committed to him. They stuck around a bit longer. The smallest group was “the Twelve,” Jesus’s own hand-picked inner circle. It is this inner circle that is now in danger of falling away, deciding perhaps that this whole experiment was fun and interesting while it lasted, but after all, you have to live your life and there are other things demanding attention, other people who don’t talk in such a weird, disturbing way.
That is where things are when Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks his poignant, even tragic question: “Do you also wish to go away?” If the Twelve go, there will be nobody. Jesus is used to being rejected by the religious leaders and Judean officials, but the possibility of being rejected by his own twelve disciples is something new. If they go, whatever happens from now on will be just between him and God, and the religious authorities and Roman officials who will judge and condemn him.
It is worth considering what attracted people to Jesus in the first place. When people looked at him, they saw him as a provider and miracle worker, someone who could change water into wine and produce a satisfying meal for the multitudes out of practically nothing. Or they saw a healer, someone who could bring down a fever even from a distance and cause the lame to walk again. Or they saw a political hero, the promised Messiah who would finally get rid of the Romans. Because of the things he had already done, people had come to have high expectations of him.
But Jesus isn’t talking about any of these things when we meet him in John 6. The point of feeding the 5000 people, he says, was not to show off the kind of miracles he could work and suggest that there would be more where that came from – it was to let people in on who he was, and how he was related to the God who had fed the Israelites manna in the wilderness. They weren’t supposed to focus on the bread, something that satisfies for a while, they were supposed to focus on him.
His teaching is “difficult” because it doesn’t suggest an easy path to comfort or success. It calls for an all-in commitment to him, on his terms. “Eating flesh and drinking blood,” those disturbing words we wrestled with last week, means not just receiving from him, but sharing in his life – all of it.
In all four of the Gospels, Peter is the first one to figure out who Jesus is. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, he boldly announces his discovery – “You are the Messiah” – at which point Jesus announces that he is on his way to suffering and death and Peter is shocked and appalled. That is also a difficult teaching, and the disciples are not ready to accept it – it is dawning on them that following Jesus in the way of suffering is bound to entail some suffering for them too. They are not all in – they like the Messiah part, it’s the stuff that comes with it that turns them off. This is the moment (in the other three Gospels) when they also may wish to go away.
In John’s Gospel, Peter doesn’t identify Jesus as “Messiah,” but declares him to be the one with the words of eternal life. “Eternal” life is not just survival; it is living close to the very heart of the universe.
So what is the problem the twelve disciples are having with Jesus in the Gospel of John? It could be that there is just too much of him – too much God: God too close for comfort, and God too strange to fit into human thought categories. There is an irreducibility to Jesus that makes him hard to accommodate to our frameworks of experience. He confronts us in his particularity. Jesus himself, the person who is God incarnate, refuses to be serviceable, courteous, relevant, or easily explained. He refuses to be co-opted by our agendas. He cannot be bound to a particular culture, ideology, political platform, or value system. He does not present himself as one option among many spiritual paths. He cannot even be bound to the Christian religion, but stands above all religions. He is not our coach or problem-solver, and he is not just a good example for us to follow. He is simply the one with the “words of eternal life.”
Following him means reexamining our expectations of life, redefining what is valuable, and accepting in our own lives a certain measure of renunciation and suffering. It also means discovering what real life can be: living with less fear and more generosity, less worry and more freedom, less pretense and more authenticity.
“Do you also wish to go away?” It is a reasonable question Jesus asks his followers, then and now. In any age, he has never had very many genuine followers. As Gary Hall has said, “Following Jesus has always been a minority enterprise.”[i] Following him means finding blessing where most people see nothing but loss, failure and suffering; standing with people who can’t help us get ahead in the world; putting the needs and interests of others before our own. Is it any wonder so many of us turn away?
Yet the offer to follow him on his high, narrow road is always open to us. In spite of our many failures and betrayals, he still holds out the invitation to us. To whom else can we go? He alone has the words of eternal life.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
August 26, 2018
[i] “Gary R. Hall: Following Jesus will always be a minority enterprise,” Faith & Leadership, Duke University Divinity School, October 6, 2015.