Scandalous Words of Eternal Life (John 6.59-69): Sermon 8-23-2015

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August 24, 2015 by jmar198013

My sermon for Sunday, August 23rd, 2015 at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA. The readings were Joshua 24.1-2, 14-18; Psalm 34.15-22; Ephesians 6.10-20; and John 6.59-69.


Did you notice our Gospel lesson today began in an awkward place? It picks up with: Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Wait—what things was Jesus saying? The stuff we talked about last week, in John 6.51-58. The reading for this week points us back to last week’s reading. Jesus talking about himself being the bread from heaven for the life of the world. And whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood will live forever. We probably also remember that over the last couple of weeks, we’ve also seen Jesus encountering pushback. Some opposition has come from Judea and are relentlessly heckling Jesus. He’s not really from heaven! We know his parents! How’s he supposed to feed us? All this, of course, comes a day after Jesus has fed 5,000 people off some bread and fish from a kid’s lunchbox. Which makes our reading for today even more confusing. Again, we began with: Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Wait—how did Jesus end up in a synagogue? This is our fifth Sunday in John 6, and it’s the first time anyone’s said anything about a synagogue. After Jesus had fed the crowd, he had crossed Lake Galilee with his disciples and ended up in Capernaum. The crowd slinked on around the lake and met them there. And that’s where the conversation we’ve been following the last four weeks began. And had John not decided to tell us, Oh, by the way: he said all this stuff in the synagogue, we would probably assume that the whole conversation took place on the shore of Lake Galilee. So now we have to reimagine the entire scene. It’s not so much Jesus standing by the shore, surrounded by a needy crowd, harassed by Statler and Waldorf Judeans. It’s more like Jesus walking intentionally toward the synagogue, interacting with this crowd that’s chasing him. And the Judeans sort of begin to sprinkle into the crowd, peppered among the hungry people. Agitating. Getting everyone riled-up. And Jesus is basically replying to the grumbling Judeans over his shoulder. And he arrives at the synagogue in the midst of this ongoing conversation. And that’s where our Gospel lesson picks up today. Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. He’s now in a scary position. In the synagogue—the Jewish town hall—surrounded by a hungry and agitated crowd. With hostile Judeans egging them on. This is tense. It’s dangerous. This is how riots and lynchings start.

And it’s right now that things start to get real for many of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus is no longer safe to travel with. Discipleship is turning out to be a long road of diminishing returns. They know Jesus has the power to feed the hungry masses. They’ve seen him do it. Why is he refusing now? Why does he keep talking about giving his flesh to eat? Maybe those Judeans over there have a point. Maybe Jesus is a fraud. Whatever the case, it’s obvious that he’s in over his head. And they’re not going down with him. So they join with the grumbling Judeans. This message is harsh, they complain. Who can hear it? What they’re saying is: Who can live like this? These are people who have left their homes, their jobs, their entire security net to follow Jesus. Who can live like this? Jesus makes lots of promises. Now he doesn’t seem willing to deliver. They can’t live on promises. They’re certainly not going to live by feeding on his carcass. Who can live like this? Jesus is going to get them all killed, if they don’t die of starvation first. Jesus’ own situation has just gotten more complicated. On top of the hungry, agitated crowd; and the Judean opposition stirring the pot; now Jesus also has to deal with a contingent of disgruntled disciples. Does this offend you?, Jesus asks them. If there ever was a time for Jesus to be diplomatic, to smooth things over, it’s now. Instead, he seems determined to alienate his followers. To poke at the open wound. He asks them: What if you were to see the Son of Man going up where he was before? More evasion from Jesus. Like, literally. If things get too dicey down here, Jesus can always pull the heavenly escape hatch. Catch Elijah’s chariot or climb Jacob’s ladder and go back home. These disciples have to live down here! Who can live like this? This isn’t what they signed up for. John reports: At this, many of his disciples turned away and no longer accompanied him. They were fed up. Have any of you ever been in or near the place these disciples were? Have you ever felt like Jesus let you down? Have you ever been frustrated with Jesus? At the end of your rope of trust? Have you ever felt like following Jesus didn’t make sense anymore? Maybe that’s where some of us are even now. Maybe some of us are afraid to truly bond with Jesus. And you know what? Stuff like this isn’t in the Bible to make fun of you or put you down. It’s there so you can know other people have gone through it, too.

So Jesus hears some of his disciples grumbling. They can no longer swallow his teachings. He asks them, Does this—his invitation to gnaw on his flesh and blood to stay alive—does this offend you? Now, it’s easy for we modern Americans to misunderstand the question Jesus is asking. The Greek word often translated as “offend” in our Bible doesn’t mean that you’ve gotten your feelings hurt because someone has been insensitive. These disciples aren’t “offended” because of the R-rated content in Jesus’ “eat my flesh, drink my blood” speech. It’s not about their feelings. It’s about relationship. He sees their trust wavering. Does this offend you? The Greek verb here means “to scandalize.” The noun form means “stumbling block.” Jesus is asking, Are you bumping your shins on this? Is my teaching tripping you up? Have I become an obstacle? Does this offend you? Am I not behaving the way you think I should? Am I not who you thought I would be? Jesus didn’t just say these things to disgruntled disciples in his time. He also tells us: My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them (John 6.56-57). Jesus is inviting us to bond with him. Intimately. Flesh and blood. Body and soul. To welcome him into our lives, and to be welcomed and nourished in his life. He is calling us to accept him as he is. To trust him fully. To be fully bonded to him. Whoever eats me lives because of me, he tells us. Whoever eats this bread will live forever (John 6.57, 58). Eternal life—a life that endures—comes to us through the flesh and blood of Jesus. His full, raw humanity. He wants us to take him into our lives, our flesh, our humanity. John began his Gospel by telling us that: In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God. Every created thing in this universe came into being through this Word. And John makes this stunning and awesome and shocking and scandalous claim that the Word became flesh and made his home among us (John 1.1-14). The creative Word of God made flesh is Jesus. When God said, let there be light (Gen. 1.3), that was Jesus. The light that cut through the chaos and darkness of that first day of creation was Jesus. And now the Word become flesh—the creative Word, the light that shines in the darkness—calls us to take his life into ourselves. Invites us to remain in his life. So that the Word continues to become flesh in us. So that Jesus can shine out of our lives in a dark world. Jesus says to us: The Spirit is the one who gives life, and the flesh doesn’t help at all. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. Again, Jesus is taking us back to creation. At the beginning, the earth was without shape or form—it was chaos—and God’s wind swept over the waters (Gen. 1.2). In both Hebrew and Greek, spirit, wind, and breath are all the same word. Jesus is saying that our fleshly lives are in chaos. God’s Spirit must animate the flesh to make it live. To recreate our lives. The flesh is that part of us that seeks comfort and security. That worries and fusses and grumbles. That squeals and punches and flails and kicks when it is not gratified. Our full humanity—flesh and all—must be recreated. Delivered from chaos. Our life needs to be bonded to the source of life itself. And according to John, that’s Jesus—the creative Word of God become flesh. That’s why Jesus tells us that we have eternal life if we eat his flesh and drink his blood. Lives that are nourished by the source of all life will endure. That’s eternal life. I suspect that the disciples who were offended by Jesus’ words didn’t grasp all that. I don’t actually grasp all that. Anyway, they were looking at Jesus through very practical, flesh-and-blood eyes. When he offered his flesh and blood to them for eternal life, they couldn’t swallow it. They had not yet understood that the man who stood in their midst was in fact the source of all life. So they were scandalized by what he was saying. At this, John tells us, many of his disciples turned away and no longer accompanied him.

As the now ex-disciples walk away, Jesus looks at the Twelve who remain. And he asks them, Do you also want to leave? I find it interesting that he asks them that. After all, in our Gospel reading today, John tells us that Jesus knew from the beginning who wouldn’t believe and the one who would betray him. So shouldn’t Jesus have said, Yes, I knew all of you would stick with me—except you, Judas; you need to get out of here before you get me killed? I suspect John’s point was that Jesus wasn’t caught off-guard by the mass backsliding of his disciples. He had enough insight into the lives of his followers to know who would stick around and who wouldn’t. Jesus confronts his remaining band of Twelve: Do you also want to leave? I think he posed this question so they could take full ownership of their decision to remain with him. Actually, I’m sort of hearing an echo of our Old Testament reading for today. Joshua also presented the people of Israel with the choice of staying or leaving. So now, revere the LORD. Serve him honestly and faithfully . . . But if it seems wrong in your opinion to serve the LORD, then choose today whom you will serve. Choose the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But my family and I will serve the LORD (Josh. 24.14-15). The disciples who walked away from Jesus that day, whether they recognized it or not, were going back home to serve other gods. Gods of comfortable religion, creature comforts, acceptance by peers, stability. I suspect Jesus wanted the Twelve who remained with him to see what was at stake. To take ownership of their decision, and the consequences that came with it. I think Jesus wants us to do that, too. To know that walking with him means we can no longer serve the idols of our time. Success. Material security. Self-sufficiency. Human political and economic ideologies. Even family values often becomes an idol. Knowing what’s at stake, Jesus asks us, too: Do you also want to leave? Following Jesus may well make us dysfunctional in the world. It’s like the great Southern Gothic author Flannery O’Connor wrote: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

So Jesus asks his disciples, Do you also want to leave? If you’ve read the Gospels, you’ve probably noticed that Peter was usually the designated spokesman for the Twelve. When no one else knew what to say, Peter would say something. Even if it was the wrong thing to say. This time, I think Peter got it right. This may be his best moment in all four Gospels. Lord, where would we go? he asks. You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are God’s holy one. If you follow the Twelve throughout all the Gospels, you learn that there is much they don’t know. And there are many times their belief wears thin. But even though they don’t understand; even though Jesus’ words are often hard; even though traveling with Jesus often puts them in danger; they believe and know that Jesus has been set apart by God. That God has given Jesus the particular task of spreading the word about eternal life. It is perfectly okay with God if the only reason you’re still sticking around is that you don’t know where else to go. If the only thing you do know is that God has done and will continue to do works that endure through Jesus. The ancient theologian Anselm of Canterbury called that “faith seeking understanding.” If that’s where you’re at today, it’s probably exactly where God wants you to be. Church—I am often there myself. But now a word of caution. Peter tells Jesus, You have the words of eternal life. I think that’s easy to say when Jesus is telling us: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matt. 5.4). Or, Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest (Matt. 11.28). Those are words we like. Those are words that affirm our struggles, and comfort us. It’s easy to hear those words and tell Jesus, You have the words of eternal life. But I don’t think it’s as easy when Jesus says stuff like: if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away (Matt. 5.28). Or, Love your enemies and pray for those who harass you (Matt. 5.44). Or, Sell your possessions and give to those in need (Luke 12.33). We hear those words, and we might be tempted to say: This message is harsh. Who can hear it? Maybe those words offend us. Maybe they scandalize us. So we find all kinds of ways to explain them away. To soften that harsh message. Here’s the thing though, church. When Jesus tells us to eat him and drink him, that means to accept him fully. Jesus isn’t a buffet where we get to choose what we will take and eat. It may be that Jesus’ warning to that leering man that it’s better to yank out his eye is a word of eternal life. Because sexual exploitation will not endure in the life to come. When Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who want to kill us, that’s a word of eternal life. Because hatred and violence and war will not be a part of the life to come. When Jesus tells us to liquidate our surplus and use it to feed and clothe and house the poor, that’s a word of eternal life. Greed will not endure in the life to come. People having too much while other people go hungry will not be a part of eternal life. And that’s been Jesus’ point all along: Eternal life begins here. Now. In the choices we make and the ways we live right now. The words of Jesus are always inviting us, challenging us, empowering us to live lives that will endure forever. Lives that even death cannot overcome. I think Peter was at least beginning to put all that together when he said, Where would we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life. And if that’s all you can say this morning about why you’re still here—why you’re still sticking with Jesus after the grumbling Judeans and disgruntled ex-disciples have said their piece—that’s perfectly okay. More than okay. It’s a wonderful starting-place.


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