August 23, 2015
[Jesus said,] “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.” – John 6:56-69
Lord, to whom can we go?
Just a few hours after our friend Brad took his last breath on Thursday, another friend’s son also breathed his last following a courageous battle with cancer. Atticus was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma when he was 13 months old. He didn’t make it to his second birthday. As I think about Brad and Atticus, the question Peter asks takes on a different meaning than it had for me a week ago.
“Lord, to whom can we go?
You have the words of eternal life. We have come to know and believe that you are the Holy One of God.”
What does this mean for us? How do we come to know and believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God? What is this eternal life that Jesus has been talking about for the past five weeks, as we worked our way through the sixth chapter of John’s gospel? Where else could we find such life?
The passage we just read had to borrow a few verses from last week’s reading, or we would not even know that Jesus is still talking about bread. Specifically, he is talking about himself as the Bread of Life. His own body and blood are food for the world, just as the loaves and fishes were food for the people who are listening to him in today’s reading.
Once again, we hear the offensive language from last week about gnawing on the flesh and blood of Jesus being what gets us to abide in him, and him in us, giving us life through his life source. And this life is not like the life of those who ate manna from heaven as they wandered in the wilderness with Moses. This is life in Christ, a life that starts immediately and never ends. It is life in the eternal now.
Somehow, the scene has shifted as Jesus has been saying these offensive words. The conversation that began back in verse 25, when those who had chased him around the lake finally meet up with him on the beach, has moved into the synagogue of Capernaum. Now Jesus is in a position of authority as he speaks to his followers, and what he has to say is not something they want to hear.
The disciples grumble about the difficulty of this teaching – but it isn’t clear what they find difficult. The word for grumbling, or murmuring or complaining, happens only four times in John, and three of them have been in chapter six. Back in verse 41, the Judeans grumbled among themselves about Jesus’ claim that he came from heaven, and in verse 43 Jesus tells them to stop it. Later on, in chapter 7, the Pharisees will hear that the people are murmuring among themselves that maybe Jesus is the Christ after all, and they will send temple guards to arrest him. But here in verse 61, it’s the disciples who are doing the grumbling. These are the ones who have been following Jesus faithfully up to this point. These are the ones who claim to believe he is from God. But do they really?
Jesus asks if his followers are “scandalized” or offended by his talk about flesh and blood, and then he offers something even more scandalous: the claim that he not only comes from heaven, but that he will also return there. This gets us to the heart of the matter: Jesus offers spirit and life, life that is eternally grounded in a heavenly home. Near the end of John’s gospel, he will tell his closest friends, “In my father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I tell you that I go to prepare a place for you? .., And if I go and prepare a place for you I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (Jn 14:2-3)
Throughout this chapter, we have had little reminders of the Exodus story of Israel. Jesus feeds people in the wilderness with bread and fish, and Moses led Israel through the wilderness as they lived off the manna and quail God sent them. In both stories, the same people who get fed are the ones who complain and grumble.
The issue isn’t really the grumbling, though. It’s the lack of trust in God that the grumbling represents. Jesus says, “among you there are some who do not believe” (v.64). The Greek word pisteuo occurs more than 80 times in John. That’s more than in all of Paul’s letters together (Douglas R. A. Hare, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, 385.). Pisteuo usually gets translated as “believe,” and we might think this means intellectual belief. But its more common meaning is to trust or rely upon someone. The problem is not a cognitive one, but an issue of trust. Pisteuo never occurs in the form of a noun. It is always a verb in John. Faith is not something you have but something you do. Believing is an action, not a thing. Not believing is nothing short of betrayal.
Karoline Lewis writes that betrayal, in John’s gospel, is disbelieving. “The real betrayal is anything and everything that makes you think you aren’t someone Jesus could love.” We betray Jesus when we think that real, abundant life in the eternal now could never be ours. Maybe it’s easy to imagine that God loves the world, but when it comes down to you, personally, you think you aren’t really worthy of God’s love. You can’t imagine how God could love someone like you, and you aren’t sure you want to trust in a relationship that might just be a figment of your own imagination.
“Because at the end of the day, life, real life, life lived, abundant life, is hard to fathom, hard to accept, hard to imagine that it could be yours.” You’re unable to accept that abundant life could be true, you’re reluctant to imagine, to dream, to picture that when God says God loves the world that he actually means you. Maybe that kind of life is for someone else, but not for you. Yet, Jesus says, “That’s not the way it is.” At least, that’s not the way it has to be.
You see, there comes a moment when you must decide. You have to choose between trusting Jesus and betraying him. You have to decide to go all in, or get out. Many of the disciples who had been following Jesus up to this point in the story “turned back and no longer went about with him.” They decided they couldn’t handle being a true disciple of Jesus. They couldn’t trust him to be who he said he was, to give what he promised.
So, many of them left. When the picture of discipleship Jesus painted got too graphic for their tastes, they turned away. When his words upset the comfortable and familiar way they thought things ought to be, they gave up. It was too hard. Not too hard to understand, but too hard for them to accept. They weren’t ready to become “scandalized” by the gospel Jesus was offering them. They couldn’t commit to the cost of discipleship if it meant identifying with scandal in the eyes of the world.
So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”
This is the first time in John’s gospel that he names the closest followers of Jesus as “the Twelve.” These are the ones who have been called out, the ones he invited personally into his ministry. They are the ones who started following him before they knew what they were getting into. As the others leave, Jesus turns to his best friends and gives them an out. If they think the road is going to be too rough, now is the time to bail. Now is the moment when they must choose. Jesus looks around the group as he waits for their decision. He already knows that one of them, Judas, will eventually betray him. He makes eye contact with each of these men, but none of them speak. Except for Peter. And he speaks for all twelve.
“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.”
Why do some turn away from Jesus and others trust him? Some can’t accept the scandal of the gospel, but those who accept it know there is no other way. For some, eating bread that can go stale is the only thing they’ve ever known, and they can’t imagine eating real bread, living bread. Some simply cannot trust God to love them. Some won’t commit to a life that is all consuming, even though it is continually fed by the Holy Spirit. And some just want to avoid being identified with the scandal of the gospel, a scandal that could embarrass or humiliate them in the eyes of the world.
But why settle for bread that is not bread? Bread that will grow stale, and will not satisfy? Why settle for life that is not rich and full of meaning? Why fear humiliation, when Christ himself suffered the ultimate humiliation of death on a cross for our sakes?
Peter knew that he had found the source of all meaning in life. He knew that Jesus was the Holy One of God. He knew that no where else would he ever find the words of eternal life. He had come to believe and know that there was no where else to go, no one else who could take the place of Jesus in his life. He realized that he had no hope, except in giving himself completely to Jesus.
Is this teaching too difficult for you to accept? Does it offend you to hear that Jesus demands all of your trust, all of your obedience, all of your life? Do you also wish to go away? Or will you follow, as part of the community of faithful people in this time and place who stand with Peter and say, “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.”