Well, it is finally over and the circus has left our state for now. Ads on television will go back to drug companies and carpet stores, and our phones will have way fewer messages on them when we get home. As I watch campaign proceedings it is no surprise to me that none of the people who would really make good presidents are interested in running. The media is trying to dig up any possible scandal or misstatements from the past. The opponents are trying to make you look like an idiot and twisting your ideas and words around into gross misrepresentations of your positions. And the crowds blow hither and yon by the winds of momentum and are captivated by unkeepable promises. And we all keep watching, I guess for the same reason people go to hockey games to see fights and car races to see spectacular wrecks.
I confess that I am drawn to observing those candidates for whom the time comes to acknowledge that it’s just not going to happen and they drop out of the race. Regardless of my opinion of them as candidates, I can empathize with them. They have taken a huge risk by offering themselves as candidates and putting a bullseye on their chest. They have known the highs of crowds cheering them on and the lows of the crowds going away to support others. Now they come to the humbling point of having to say publicly that they were not successful. Some do it with humility and gratitude for the opportunity; others do it resentfully, casting blame at those who kept them from succeeding. How they do it and what they say at this time tells you a great deal about their character and true values.
The last couple of Sundays we have looked at stories in which Jesus was asked questions. In the first, Jesus was at a big banquet at the home of Matthew the tax collector and disciples of John the Baptist asked him why he was out partying while they and the Pharisees were fasting and living more austere lifestyles. In the second, John the Baptist sent messengers from prison to ask Jesus the loaded question, “Are you really the one we are expecting, or should we keep looking for another.” The agenda of Jesus was not matching up with John’s expectations of the Messiah, or the expectations of many others.
Today we come to a poignant moment in the life and ministry of Jesus. None of the commentaries I have read focus on this as much as I do, so I guess that fits where my eye goes during campaigns. John tells us that many of the disciples turned back and no longer followed Jesus. In fact, the defections were so numerous that Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked them, “Do you also wish to go away?” That’s a pretty bleak moment, and perhaps the future of the Jesus movement hinges on the answer to that question. What could possibly have happened to bring things to this state of affairs?
There have been plenty of stories in the Gospels in which people have gone away for one reason or another. Scribes and Pharisees choose not to follow Jesus and regularly pop up to oppose and test him. Occasionally Jesus invites someone to follow him and they give him an excuse like, “Yes, I’ll follow, but first let me go and bury my mother and father” – only who knows when that will be? There is the story of a rich young man who came to Jesus wanting to know how to be saved. Jesus told him to obey the commandments, and the man said he had done this from his childhood. Jesus was moved by the young man and said, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor, then come and follow me.” The young man left sadly, but he left. Today’s story is different. People who have cast their lot with Jesus and have been following him decide to go home.
This is an especially surprising turn of events given how this chapter begins in John’s Gospel. Chapter 6 begins with the feeding of the five thousand. The people in amazement say to each other, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world!” Jesus perceives that the people are so excited they are about to make him king by force, and slips away from the crowd stealthily. So Jesus goes from the masses wanting to make him their king to his own disciples deserting him within the course of one chapter. It has to do with his rejection of their understanding of what the Messiah should be, and with his explanation about what the Messiah is and what the feeding of the five thousand means.
Chapter six is a critical chapter in John’s Gospel, which is emphasized by those who put together the lectionary in that during the summer of Year B this chapter is used for five consecutive Sundays. It begins, as I said, with the feeding of the five thousand. Following that the crowd proclaims him a prophet, and Jesus disappears from them because he can tell they are about to make him king.
The crowd is not deterred and continues to pursue Jesus until they find him again. Jesus chides these people for just following him for free food, and urges them to be more interested in the food that endures to eternal life. They want to know how to get that food and Jesus tells them “to believe in the one God has sent.” Then they have the gall to ask him what miracle he will do to convince them to believe. They remind Jesus that during the Exodus the manna from heaven was provided every day, not just once.
Jesus surprises them again by saying, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” The Jews – and by this I’m sure John refers to the leaders of the synagogue where Jesus was speaking in Capernaum – began grumbling: “Isn’t this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose mother and father we know? How can he claim to come down from heaven?”
Jesus responded, “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a person may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If one eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Jesus is shifting from talking about bread and manna and the feeding of the five thousand to the new thing God is doing through him. He speaks in sacramental and metaphorical language about giving his life for the life of the world. His words foreshadow the words of institution from the last supper. “This is my body, which is broken for you. Eat it in remembrance of me. This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Drink ye all of it.”
We have heard it all so much that it sounds natural, but the folks there were not prepared for this. They began to argue among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” I fully understand their befuddlement. Then Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
You can see how those who knew Jesus as Joseph and Mary’s boy from down the street might have been thinking that some psychological testing was in order for Jesus. Really, talking about people eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Sounds like some kind of cannibalistic religion.
And it was not just the curious or the opponents who had that reaction, but many who had cast their lot with Jesus. John writes, “On hearing Jesus’ words, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’”
So this is the sequence of events and conversations which led to the departure of a number of people who had been disciples of Jesus. They don’t leave because he has asked them to do some ridiculously difficult thing – like obeying the 10 commandments and Old Testament law code flawlessly, or going and selling everything they have and giving it away, or going to slay a dragon or 10,000 Philistines. What he asks them to do is to believe in him and to let their lives be totally and intimately intertwined in his, needing no sustenance other than what he offers.
The people were ready for a great sign – sending daily manna from heaven to eat, becoming king and raising an army and driving out the Romans. Jesus says that he is the sign, he is the bread of life, and the way he will offer that life is by giving his life. People are attracted to strength and power and authority, and the unwillingness of Jesus to embrace that path led many to vote with their feet and go home.
After the crowd is gone and Jesus sees the variety of looks he is getting from the twelve, he asks them, “Do you also wish to go away?” I suspect that as John wrote his Gospel the church was experiencing a lot of defections in the face of persecution and powerlessness and poverty. It is still a great temptation today for Christians to want to use Jesus to gain power and authority and to make life better for ourselves without cost.
Peter’s answer to the question Jesus asked the disciples was almost childlike: “Lord, to whom can we go?” We can leave you, but where does that leave us? Where is a better option? You are our best hope. We may not have understood anything about what just happened here, but we do know you, and “we have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” It’s about trust. It is about letting go of our agendas and letting our lives be swept up into the life of Jesus.
After his conversion, Paul came to understand the power of this intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. He had worked hard to control the agenda, but he found that all his successes and accomplishments, which were many, were no better than trash to be piled at the landfill compared with the surpassing joy of knowing Jesus Christ his Savior and being found “in him.” He talks about losing himself in Christ, being so bound up in the life of Jesus that the lines are not clear.
He writes to the Galatians in words which I think come closest to summarizing, from a disciple’s perspective, the relationship Jesus talks about in John 6. He writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; and I myself no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it? It is a scandalous understanding of what it means to be a human being and a Christian. Will we stick around, or will we leave?
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
February 28, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church