Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
Well, we’ve finally made it.
This is our fifth and last week in the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John, the chapter in which Jesus explains what he means when he says that he is the bread of life.
On the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he fed five thousand men and more women and children with five loaves and two fish, one of the most famous miracles in the Bible. The crowd was hungry, and Jesus provided them food. The people are naturally impressed, and the following morning, they attempt to “guess” where Jesus will be next and meet him near Capernaum, on the other side of the sea. They are looking for Jesus—they are looking to be fed, to have their hunger filled.
They are hungry, and looking to be filled, and Jesus tells that there is bread that will fill them, and not just to fill their bellies. For just as God provided bread for the Israelites when they were starving in the desert, so too will God provide them with bread from heaven, bread to fill their spirits and souls. The Judeans ask, “Sir, give us this bread always,” and Jesus responds, “I am the bread of life.”
For the past five weeks now, we’ve heard Jesus explain what he means by that. He stresses over and over again how, like manna in the desert, he has come down from heaven to fill the hunger of the people, a hunger for life that they can’t fill themselves no matter how hard they try—he, Jesus of Nazareth, is the source of life and sustenance. He argues with them when they dispute that someone they knew, someone as ordinary as a construction worker, could be an agent of God; he insists that God the Father is known through him. He tells them, in the most gruesome ways possible, that, since he is the bread from heaven, people must eat his flesh, gnaw on it, chew on it, and drink his blood, if they want their hunger filled. This is the only way—they have to, they have to eat his body and drink his blood.
I don’t blame the disciples who, after hearing this teaching of Jesus, turned around and walked away. Yes, you heard that right. It wasn’t people in the crowd who heard Jesus’s crazy words and walked away. It was some of his own disciples.
These were people who had followed him, ministered with him, and learned at his feet. These were people who’d given up everything to follow their rabbi, who loved him and, up until that point, would’ve done anything for him. And yet, when they hear these strong words from Jesus, they reach a point where they simply can’t reconcile his teachings with the way they understand life. Jesus has gone too far, and they have to make a choice.
I don’t imagine it was an easy choice. They weren’t changing radio stations or political parties. They were at a crossroads, and in front of them lay two paths: continue to follow Jesus, and change everything they know about life; or leave Jesus behind, trying to find a sensible life of their own, lives that they left behind when they were called by Jesus to follow him. Whatever their reasons, they were trying to do what they thought was best, and I’d hesitate before condemning them for their choice.
Today, this morning, I again ask you to consider where you are in the story. My guess is that, more often than not not, we are closer to the group of disciples who leave than the disciples who stay. Jesus’s teachings are not easy, and they were never meant to be.
The disciples who left balked at Jesus’s words about eating his flesh and blood, words that have since been sterilized and cleansed and made acceptable to us today. But how many of us struggle with Jesus’s words that married couple’s shouldn’t get divorced? How do we react when we are told that, instead of hating them, we are to actually and genuinely love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us, trying, literally, to kill us? How do we handle the reality that we as a church are complicit in the systemic racism in this country, in this church, racism that we are much more comfortable being blind to? How do we respect the Biblical commands to treat the foreigner and alien like a member of the community deserving of respect, hospitality, and justice?
How do we answer the call to at least understand human sexuality and gender identity while honoring the bound conscience of our neighbor? How do we deal with the idolatry of money, the military, power and authority that constantly pulls us away from the worship of God alone? And what would happen if, like in other countries around the world, professing faith in Jesus Christ was a death sentence for us?
No, I don’t blame the disciples who left for doing so because, I’m afraid, we probably have lines that we simply won’t cross, teachings of Christ that we simply won’t accept. For the disciples, that line was Jesus promoting cannibalism. For each of us, I’m sure the line is different.
On the other hand, I’m not really sure what to do with the disciples who stayed. The natural inclination is to separate the disciples into these two neat categories: the ones who left didn’t have enough faith, and the ones who stayed, did. Done, nice and simple. But I don’t think so.
Among those who stayed are the Twelve, the most important disciples. In that group alone you have Judas Iscariot, who betrays Jesus to the temple authorities, which ultimately leads to Jesus’s death. You have James and John, the “sons of thunder” as they were named, who are so concerned with the power they think Jesus will bring them that they argue over who gets to be the greatest and ask Jesus to rain fire down on a town that offended them. You have Matthew, the tax collector and swindler, and Simon the Zealot, a violent, bloody revolutionary terrorist. And you have Simon Peter, the dunce of the group who never understands anything and denies even knowing Jesus during Jesus’s trial.
Looking at these two groups of disciples, those who left and those who stayed, I cannot in good conscience claim that one had more or less faith than the other, or that one understood better than the other, or that one was willing to go the extra mile when the other wasn’t. Both were looking for the same thing: they were looking for answers to their greatest questions. They were looking for something that said God was still alive and active in the world. They were looking for relief and liberation from oppression. The only difference is where they look. One group looked to Jesus. And the other didn’t. That’s really it.
When faith wavered, when Jesus’s words were too much, his teachings too strange, his ideas too difficult, everyone was shocked and overwhelmed. Neither group of disciples, those who left or those who stayed, really understood what Jesus was talking about. They were in the same boat. The only difference was where they looked after. One decided to stick out their confusion with Jesus, and the other didn’t. And that was the entire point that Jesus was trying to make.
When I look at the disciples in today’s Gospel reading, I see a group of people who, just like us, are looking for something greater. They are looking for God everywhere they can think to look. They are desperate to have their hunger filled. But they are also people who have their doubts, who aren’t sure whether God is truly listening, who aren’t sure whether this life has anything left for them. They are a people who were challenged by the atrocities they saw around them, who were dismayed by the injustices set upon them, and who were distraught at God’s response, or lack thereof.
They were looking for someone to save them. And there he was! Right in front of them, saying, “Here I am!” ‘Here, I AM’. God incarnate, God-With-Us, Jesus the Christ comes to those who are looking for life, who are looking for God.
I am impressed not only that Jesus comes to both the disciples who eventually turn away and those who stay, but I’m also impressed that those who stayed didn’t have it all figured out. They questioned, they doubted, they didn’t get it. Yet their response to Jesus’s question, “Why are you still here?” says it all: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the word of eternal life.” They doubt, they fear, they don’t understand, but Jesus comes to them anyway.
I have heard it said that the church is full of hypocrites and liars. And that’s exactly true. We gather as a community of faith, bringing our tough questions, our doubts, our fears, our anxieties. We are not perfect people by any stretch of the imagination, and we seriously wonder if God didn’t make some cruel mistake in calling us to be disciples. What does the church have to offer that the rest of the broken, messed up world doesn’t?
We know where to look. Or at least, we try to look.
This is why we gather every Sunday. We are looking for Jesus, we are looking for God. When two or three are gathered in his name, Jesus said, there he is. He promised to be with us until the very end of days. God promised to be present in the words and water of Baptism, in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Every time Christians gather, we see Christ in each other.
It doesn’t mean we have it all figured out–by no means. Neither did the disciples who stayed when Jesus presented them with impossible teachings. But we come anyway. Jesus comes anyway.
So bring your doubts. Bring your fears and anxieties. Bring your brokenness, your struggles, your questions, your uncertainties, and yes, your faith. Jesus comes to, saying, “Here I am. Here, I AM.”
Featured Image: “Communion Service in Prism” by Ian Britton is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.