For a long time now I’ve had it in the back of my mind to preach a sermon called ‘1001 reasons not to go to Church’. But I’ve been reluctant to do it, not because I can’t think of that many reasons but because I can imagine people getting up while I’m preaching and saying, “that’s a good one, I hadn’t thought of that before… I’ll see you later.”… and walking out the door. Maybe I don’t want to do it because I can think of a lot of reasons to walk away from the church and put Jesus on the back burner, it would be a lot easier, but the words of Simon Peter, from the passage we had read today, keep coming to mind “Lord, to whom should we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Leading into Easter we are working our way through peoples encounters with Jesus in John’s gospel and hopefully in the gospel narrative encountering Jesus ourselves today. That is always my prayer as we look at the scriptures and open them up that we may meet with Jesus by the spirit. Last week we noticed a change in John’s gospel, that while he had received public acclaim and acceptance as he had started his ministry, now we see that he was coming into conflict with the religious authorities and powers of his day. In the passage we had read to us today we’ve come to a point in our journey where peoples encounters with Jesus and his teaching have led many even his disciples to turn their back and no longer follow they found it too hard.
Ok let’s put the passage in its context. A couple of weeks ago Margaret Liow looked at the feeding of the five thousand: an amazing miraculous sign of God’s ability to provide food and sustenance for his people. It tells us that at the end of this the people wanted to take Jesus and make him their king and Jesus has to go away to a mountain by himself and pray, it was not God’s plan, Jesus had come to bring the kingdom of God as the synoptic gospels focus on, not to reboot an earthly kingdom.
After this Jesus sends his disciples across the lake and we have the narrative of him walking on the water, the next day, John tells us, when they got to the other side of the lake, the crowds come and seek out Jesus and we have a discourse where Jesus challenges the crowd about why they are following him and begins to tell them the reality behind the miraculous feeding. That Jesus is the bread of life and it is only by feasting on his flesh and drinking his blood that people may find true sustenance that will bring life, abundant and eternal life. RVG Tasker says “he had not come primarily to satisfy peoples material needs but the deep seated, if not always recognised, need for forgiveness without which they could not enjoy eternal life.”
And it’s into the middle of this discourse that we stepped with our reading today. Where Jesus turns and answers the question that his listeners had started arguing about… How can this man give us his flesh to eat? For us looking back from beyond the cross and with this section of John’s gospel so associated with communion, something that many of us find valuable and meaningful it’s hard to understand why what Jesus says here was so hard for people to swallow.
It’s not because they thought of the overtones of cannibalism, Jesus makes it perfectly clear that it is the spirit that gives life the flesh counts for nothing. Nor was it that they found Jesus teaching hard to understand, it wasn’t a misunderstanding, Leon Morris comments “ No doubt they found the discourse mysterious but it was not the parts they didn’t understand that were objecting to it was what they understood.” And it is helpful for us today to look at the things they would have found hard and wrestle with them as well. Because they are the same thing we find hard and the people around us find hard to understand when it comes to encountering Jesus.
The first thing is what we had already mentioned; people were coming to follow Jesus because in the words of Paul Metzger they were looking for a continuous supply of happy meals. “They were looking for more food rather than Jesus: They were not seeking him as an end in himself but as a means to an end.” Of course for Jesus Jewish audience, the miraculous provision of food had deep significance. They looked back to the wilderness and the way God provided manna through Moses, the key issue for the people in Jesus day was roman occupation, and there was a longing and expectation that God would send a deliverer and Israel would again become an independent nation. Even at the beginning of the book of Acts as Jesus is saying his final farewells before the ascension it is the question that somebody asks… “now will you restore Israel”. So there was the expectation that with the provision of bread that here was the new Moses, here was the possibility of that liberation, a utopia on earth. And Jesus tells them that is not the case he points them to a greater truth that while their forebears had eaten the manna in the wilderness that they had died, but he was offering them sustenance that meant that even though they died they would have eternal life, and he would raise them up on that last day. Like with our modern day nutritionists a diet of happy meals will simply lead to death, but a diet of Jesus will lead to life.
It easy to follow Jesus when it is about what we can get out of it…When it about my needs, or my wants… Anthropologists talk about rice bowl Christians, when missionaries comes to a culture in undeveloped areas, they bring with them the technology and wealth of the west, which the people there equate with the Christian faith and they can turn to that faith to acquire that stuff. Can I say it even happens in the west today, the idea of the prosperity gospel… come to Jesus obey God and he will richly bless you… materially… he’ll supersize your lot, or even that old evangelists message come to Jesus and everything’s going to be all right. Yes there is what Jim Anderson calls a redemptive lift for people who come to faith, if you change their life style, and priorities it will have a benefit, but Jesus is more about relationship with him in the midst of the ebbs and flows of real life, rather than lifting us to skim along to top, or to skim the cream off the top. It’s not about going through the drive thru and getting the fast food and the plastic toy that comes with it. Don’t get me wrong there are benefits, the presence of God, peace, joy, love but Paul Metzger finishes his comments on this passage by saying “meaningful relationships,” which is what Jesus is after, “are costly and they don’t always taste nice.”
The second thing that people would have found hard follows on from that. Behind a lot of what Jesus says here are references to his death. In v.53 Jesus changes to talk not only about eating his flesh but drinking his blood as well, as Leon Morris comments the blood and flesh separate at the point of death. Then in verse 62 Jesus talks of ascending back to where he had come from and again it is talking of his death and all that takes place after that. In the synoptic gospels it is when Jesus starts talking about his death that we find even his close disciples questioning him and many stop following. They want simply a crust but Jesus offers them the cross and If people stumble at this discourse they will stumble more at the cross.
The resting image we have been using for the service this morning I think encapsulates this very well with the one way sign casting the shadow of the cross. To follow Jesus ultimately is the way of the cross, it is the way to life but that life comes from the cross, Christ laying down his life and in response to the life we receive us laying down our lives as well. We can gorge ourselves on Christianity high on glitter and glamour but low on Cross.
Thirdly, Jesus claim that he is the only way to find life, challenges what the people of his day and ours think. For the Jews their hope and identity as God’s people lay in who they were, they were God’s covenant people, by birth, and here Jesus dismisses that, he says that the flesh means nothing it is only through the work of the spirit of God, in Christ, that people can find life. Jesus exclusive claims about himself, confront their preconceived ideas and religious beliefs. Of course that exclusive claim that Jesus makes still puts people off today, with an increasing pluralistic society with its cultural diversity, we find it an affront for someone to claim they are the only way to find life.
There are some misunderstandings about Jesus claims that make it more offensive for our society that values tolerance. Jesus does not claim to have the exclusive truth. WE need to acknowledge that all religions and philosophies are able to express truth. It does not mean if we have come to put our trust in Jesus that we are right and all others are wrong. In fact Jesus comments here about the fact that no one comes to him except that the father draws him that should not only help us not be surprised that people walk away from following Jesus but also that coming to faith in Christ is not about us it is all about the grace of God, and we can share Jesus claims about himself, but we do so in a way that reflects that grace.
I want mention almost as an aside the idea of election that comes up in this passage. Our reformed tradition is very strong on the idea of the sovereignty of God and the idea of predestination, that God has called and chosen people to follow him, so they will come to him and persevere in the faith. It too is often something that gets people all offended, to think about this kind of choosing goes against our understanding of human autonomy and freedom to choose our own destinies. I just want to make two comments. The first is that it only seems to be with hindsight that we understand the choosing of God, and it always with the sense of God’s grace, not choosing people because they were the best or brightest or could quote the bible verbatim, in fact there is a strong sense that God chooses the poor and the foolish and the weak. The second thing is that many people have made it out to be a major pillar of the faith, trying to use it to understand Jesus death on the cross, and who he died for, the idea of limited atonement but here as in Calvin’s works we see it as a pastoral matter, its pastoral theology, that Jesus knows who will and will not receive him because it is in the nature of God to know that, the Jesus we encounter in John’s gospel always knows what is in people’s hearts. It does not stop him from reaching out to them and loving them, or willingly giving his life for the world.
Ok I want to finish this morning by inviting us to encounter Jesus in this passage.
When we encounter Jesus there are always going to be times when we deal with that Question when we find ourselves saying “Jesus says What?” when what Jesus says challenges us and pushes us to the core, when we find it hard and maybe even offensive: Because the road following Jesus is a costly one. When we focus on who Jesus is and his claims about himself and the claim he has on those who would follow him, like with the people in this discourse, it is no longer possible to follow him unreflectively and without committing ourselves wholeheartedly. When Jesus says What?” it is often hard to swallow because it takes us from the shallow into the deep, it sifts the true from the false. It invites us more and more into relationship with Christ crucified.
The response at that time is one of two. To turn and walk away or to eat joyously, from the living bread that brings life. There are 1001 reasons to walk away from Jesus, but in the end where else can we go “you have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe that you are the Holy one of God”.