August 26, 2018 The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

1 Kings 8:22–30, 41–43, Psalm 84, Ephesians 6:10–20, John 6:56–69

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+ 

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

I love movies; you’ve probably figured that out by now. I love to quote movies, much to the chagrin of some of my friends. More than anything else, perhaps, I love to reference scenes that are relevant to lived reality, for like any art form, I believe movies can give us deeper insight into life. When I read Bible stories, I often imagine them as though I were watching a movie, or more to the point, as though I were the screen writer, creating the dialog and imagining the screen shots and emotions in a scene.

In struggling with today’s Gospel reading, which is the apex of five weeks of reading through the great 6th chapter of John, often thought to be the Gospel writer’s account of the institution of the Eucharist, I was struck by what seemed to be a moment of truth for Jesus’ disciples. Throughout the chapter, Jesus used language and concepts that bordered on offensive to many who were listening to him. He said he was the Bread of life, the living bread that came down from heaven. He spoke of his flesh being food indeed and his blood being drink indeed. He told them that if they eat of his flesh and drink of his blood, they would abide in Jesus and have eternal life. Finally, after hearing enough, some of the disciples who were listening to him murmured, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Difficult indeed, for a literal hearing of Jesus would suggest that he was endorsing a sort of cannibalism—much in the way some tribes throughout the world believe that by ingesting the flesh and blood of another human being, or merely animals, for that matter, one literally takes the strength of that which is eaten into them. This literal hearing of Jesus’ teaching is often called the Capernaistic understanding of the Eucharist, named after the place where Jesus taught—the synagogue in Capernaum. Because these disciples of Jesus who were offended could not get beyond their literalism, they “turned back and no longer went about with him.” It seems Jesus was not much of a master of church growth theories.

In my mind, as in a movie, I see these disciples visibly upset, even angry, shaking their heads, looking disdainfully at Jesus, perhaps even leaving him with a few choice words. I see the synagogue empty out, leaving just a handful of disciples, perhaps staring at Jesus, looking shell-shocked. I see Jesus, looking slowly about the room at them, absorbed in stunned silence, until he finally speaks: “Do you also wish to go away?” More silence. And then, in a thin voice from the midst of this dazed band of believers, Peter speaks. It is his confession of faith in the Gospel of John, but I don’t imagine it to be a strong confession; rather, these are words of resignation—a moment of truth in which, for as fantastical as Jesus’ claims are, there really is no alternative: “Lord, to whom can we go?” Peter asks. “You have the words of eternal life.” Nods of resigned agreement all around. Then Peter adds the basis for why they have chosen to stay, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

As I said, I do not imagine Peter’s confession of faith to be strong and boisterous. Rather, it is tentative assent—a creeping realization that for as difficult as Jesus’ teachings have been, they were in the presence of the Holy: the Word that was in the beginning with God; the Word made flesh; the Son of Man who descended among them and who would ascend back to God. And along with this creeping realization came another: the life into which they are called by Jesus would be just as difficult to live as it was to hear these words of Jesus. The life to which they are called is counter-cultural, after all; it stands in stark contrast to the values of the world. Again, in my movie’s-eye mind, I see flashbacks coming to the minds of the disciples—flashbacks of the signs the disciples had witnessed that underscored the counter-cultural nature of life with this man. Jesus turning water to wine in demonstration that life in him brings a quality and abundance beyond anything the world can give, yet which on the surface of it does not compare with the gifts of the world; Jesus talking with a Samaritan woman, a foreign woman, to show that the abundance he offers does not end at cultural or religious boundaries and that all people are precious in the sight of God, claims that run directly counter to both secular and religious establishments that have worked hard to keep others out. And the dazed disciples would yet see Jesus healing a blind man and using the occasion to teach about the danger and blindness of religion that is wed to power and dead tradition (does that sound familiar?); and finally, they would witness Jesus raising a man from the dead to show that even death, the last great enemy of the creation, has no power over him or those who believe in him, despite appearances to the contrary. As these experiences come back into their memory, or are lived out as they leave that synagogue with Jesus, I imagine that Peter’s confession becomes more resolute, but still serves to underscore the difficult nature of following the Holy One of God. It is a moment of truth, a turning point, a realization that there is no other way, despite the difficult path that lay ahead. “Lord, to whom can we go,” is their confession. “You have the words of eternal life”—words that declare, “I am the Bread of life,” and, “The flesh that I give is for the life of the world,” and, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

Moving forward as a church at this particular moment in a twenty-first century context also requires a moment of truth—a moment when we come into the full realization of what it means to follow Jesus; a moment when we realize, with Peter and the Twelve, “Lord, to whom can we go?” For centuries, Western Christians, like the disciples that followed Jesus before his teaching on the Bread of Life, have basked in the glow of being in the presence of One who stood at the center of attention, and have received the gifts and privileges that came from following this One. But now the ride is coming to an end and we, like the Twelve, are being overcome with the creeping reality of what it truly means to follow Jesus. We are coming to understand that the Church is not here to provide for our needs only—to baptize, and marry, and bury us in the proper times, or to entertain us or promise us things in exchange for our loyalty and fidelity. Rather, we are called to minister, all of us, in the name of Jesus beyond the walls of this community of faith. It is precisely here that comes the creeping realization that the Church does not exist to minister to us, but rather that we, the Church, the Body of Christ are to be given for the life of the world. And it is precisely here that we are called to pledge allegiance—pledge our entire lives—to Jesus who speaks challengingly about what it will mean to follow him. In fact, the Church does not exist primarily for us at all except to train and equip us to walk in the way of Jesus in the world so that, through our witness in word and deed, others may be led to say, with Peter and with us, “Lord, to whom can we go; you have the words of eternal life.”

But to witness in such a way, we must rethink where our loyalties lay: with Jesus and the Gospel he preaches, the only source of eternal and abiding life, or with the gods of the world and the “gospels” they preach, gospels that may bring short-term satisfaction but in the end will prove to be shallow and the source of a thousand kinds of death for millions. It is precisely here that some will say, “This teaching is too difficult; who can accept it?” and they will “turn back and no longer [go] about with [Jesus].” Some who call themselves disciples, and indeed have been up until now, will find the life-giving Gospel of Jesus to be too much to bear, and like those disciples of old, they will turn away—they will leave the community of disciples and set out on their own, searching for abundant life they will never find, chasing after gods that cannot satisfy or bring them eternal and abundant life. Indeed, some may even plot, as the religious leaders plotted in Jesus’ day, to suppress the life-giving Gospel so they no longer have to listen to Jesus’ offensive words or be challenged by Jesus’ offensive way, such is the power of the Word and worldly opposition to it.

Regardless, what truly matters is that the world is invited to partake of the Bread of life so that it might have eternal, that is, abundant life in God; and that we are called to reach out beyond ourselves and our concerns and beliefs and ideologies into the world to issue the invitation to eat and drink of Jesus so that the world might abide in him. That’s what matters, and it is my hope that all will stay engaged—perhaps offended, shell-shocked, and dazed at first by the enormity of what it means to follow Jesus—but ready to boldly declare with Peter and the Twelve, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Amen.

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